Hands-On with Xbox Cloud Gaming for Windows, iPhone, and iPad

Posted on April 26, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Games, Project xCloud, Xbox with 7 Comments

Over the weekend, Microsoft allowed me into the preview for Xbox Game Gaming, formerly called Project xCloud, for Windows, iPhone, and iPad. And it’s a bit rough at this early stage.

As you may know, Xbox Cloud Gaming has been on a bit of a slow boil since its first public on Android way back in October 2019. Microsoft originally meant to bring the service—which is now a perk of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate—to Android, iOS (iPhone), and iPadOS (iPad), but the versions of Apple’s devices were limited to just a single game in preview because of that firm’s anticompetitive business practices. After letting the more limited iOS/iPadOS preview expire, Microsoft finally just gave up on releasing a native app on iPhone and iPad and launched Xbox Cloud Gaming only on Android in late 2020.

Since then, we learned that Microsoft would bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to Apple’s devices via a web app, bypassing Apple’s artificial App Store limitations. But, of course, the bigger issue here in the Windows community was why Microsoft didn’t have a Windows client available at launch last year. It seemed like an odd omission.

And it still does, really, especially when you consider that screenshots Xbox Cloud Gaming on Windows leaked over a year ago. But at least we’re making some headway now. Last week, the software giant announced that it would finally open up this service to users on Windows, iPhone, and iPad in a limited beta. Somewhat unexpectedly, all three clients are web-based. So not just iPhone and iPad, but also Windows.

According to Microsoft, Xbox Cloud Gaming will work in Apple Safari (on Apple’s devices), Google Chrome, or Microsoft Edge via a new landing page at xbox.com/play. The limited beta is invite-only for now, but it will expand over time. And you’ll pretty much need an Xbox Wireless Controller (connected via Bluetooth, an Xbox dongle (on PC only), or via a USB cable to play, though some games support on-screen touch controls too.

I didn’t receive my invitation for the limited beta until the weekend, and I was visiting friends and family in Boston, so I decided that my first tests of the service—via my iPad Air/Safari and an HP Spectre x360 14/Microsoft Edge—would focus solely on a few games with touch controls. And then I would test with a controller when I got home; we drove home on Sunday.

I’m excited for Xbox Cloud Gaming and am convinced, in many ways, that this is the future of gaming. But right now, the service is in a rough place, at least via the web client. And especially with touch controls, which are borderline useless, even for slow-moving games. I tested both Tell Me Why and The Walking Dead (the original Telltale series), specifically because they’re slow-moving, narrative-driven interactive stories. In both cases, the on-screen controls worked fine if all I needed to do was mash an X, Y, A, or B button. But when some precision was needed—to select an on-screen item, perhaps—it became quickly obvious that this system doesn’t work at all.

It’s a bit hard to explain the issue, which is not related to latency or connection speed, or any of the other problems one might expect of game streaming. Instead, it’s more of a sensitivity/accuracy issue, where I found myself over-shooting the object in alternate directions repeatedly as I tried to select it. In a game like The Walking Dead, that meant that I was frustratingly killed by a zombie repeatedly, as well. It’s one of the easiest sequences in the entire game, normally.

Once I got back home, I tried the Windows web client on my desktop PC and was reminded of an issue I had experienced on the laptop, but not the iPad: When I signed in with my custom (and now grandfathered-in) Outlook.com domain on Windows, Edge told me that I hadn’t yet been invited to play. But when I signed out and used the original (and literally 20-year-old) Hotmail.com account that sits behind that custom domain, it signed me in correctly. Weird.

Anyway, the point here was to see whether a controller improved the experience, so I picked up at that same point in The Walking Dead and I got that zombie on the first try. Excellent. (I connected via USB for the best possible connection.)

With that success out of the way, I figured it would be worth testing a more action-oriented title, and here I had the perfect test: Doom Eternal, which I’d previously played on Google Stadia as well. But I couldn’t get past the “Loading profile…” screen for some reason, so I tried Gears 5 instead. I had previously tested this game using Xbox Cloud Gaming with Android, but found the phone display to be prohibitively small when used with this console shooter.

On my PC, of course, the game looks great. The issue is performance, and in a variety of ways. Games take a long time to load on Xbox Cloud Gaming, which is an issue with all of the services I’ve tried so far. And so do individual levels. But dropped immediately into a Gears 5 action sequence—it synced my progress from previous play across consoles and Xbox Cloud Gaming on Android—I immediately hit all kinds of problems, from slow movement, inaccurate aiming, general lag, and even sound cutouts. It wasn’t completely unplayable. But it wasn’t great.

I need to do a lot more testing than this, but my initial take is that Xbox Cloud Gaming lags, ahem, a bit behind Google Stadia and Amazon Luna overall: Even with a controller, it’s not rock-solid, at least not yet. But I feel like it can get there, and of course the enormous game catalog and cross-platform capabilities are what really puts this service over the top, or will.

More soon.

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Comments (7)

7 responses to “Hands-On with Xbox Cloud Gaming for Windows, iPhone, and iPad”

  1. Avatar

    woelfel

    Paul,

    They are aware of the alias issue for your login problems and are working on it. The loading issue is because of the Xbox One S blades that are currently being utilized, when they start rolling out the XSX later this year (or maybe early next year, I haven't heard anything recently) you will get more of the performance similar to Stadia and Luna.

  2. Avatar

    wunderbar

    game performance is going to be an issue until Microsoft gets the Cloud Gaming hardware upgraded to Xbox Series class specs. right now It's running off of Xbox One S hardware, including slow hard drives which makes load times seem like an eternity compared to the new consoles. And the games look like they look on the One S, which is ok, but nowhere near as good as the Xbox Series of console.


    I've been playing quite a bit of MLB The Show 21 on my phone while watchin TV out of convenience, but it is far from the ideal platform.


    I can see myself using this a lot once the hardware upgrade in the datacenters is done, but until then, it won't be something I spend a ton of time with.

  3. Avatar

    bluvg

    That image for the article reminds me of Silent Death Online. How I miss that game!

  4. Avatar

    mefree

    I am in the beta and tried playing Control this weekend using a USB Xbox controller. Oddly it told me I didn't have a compatible controller before the game started, but it let me proceed anyhow and it worked just fine. That said, the latency and sound cut out issues made it an unideal experience. I say "unideal" because it did work, it was playable, but I ended up picking up Control in my theater on my One X instead after a while as I got into the game. Also, just for clarity, I have fiber to the home, full duplex gigabit internet with very low latency and was using a gigabit hard wired connection, so I know the latency issue isn't on my end and was using the browser based app on my Windows 10 PC with an i7, 32GB of RAM and an RTX 2060.

  5. Avatar

    christianwilson

    I have not had a great experience with Xbox Cloud Gaming, but I am optimistic that Microsoft is going to get this right.


    My positive experiences with Amazon Luna and more so Google Stadia have me planning on a cloud gaming future. Xbox Cloud Gaming has a long way to go to get to a point where I would feel comfortable leaving a dedicated Xbox console behind, but despite how rough the experience is right now, this is Microsoft's race to lose. They have the library, they have the brand identity, and unlike Google and Amazon, they can offer streaming as a compliment to their console business, improving it bit by bit over time, until cloud gaming matures to the point where Xbox Cloud Gaming can stand on its own.

  6. Avatar

    smoothbond

    oddly enough i've played more with touch than with a controller. I've completed 3 levels of Minecraft Dungeons on my iPhone using touch and it felt like i was playing a game that was natively made for touch.

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