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Xbox Cloud Gaming for iOS and web — hands-on impressions of the beta

Xbox Cloud Gaming
(Image credit: Laptop mag)

The Xbox Cloud Gaming beta has arrived on iOS devices at just the right time. In the U.K., non-essential retail, like clothing stores, have been allowed to reopen. Translation: I need to find ways to entertain myself for a few hours while my partner vanishes in a sea of sale rails.

The journey to bring the same Xbox game streaming that Android users have enjoyed for a while to iPhone has been a turbulent one.  It started with Apple blocking Microsoft’s original plan to launch a dedicated cloud gaming app and placing hurdles in front of the company, such as the need to approve every individual title on Game Pass before publishing. This culminated in this browser-based beta release to get around the whole app store issue altogether.

And since receiving my beta invite, I’ve been busy playing on my iPhone using the Backbone One controller, iPad and my MacBook Pro via a Google Chrome browser, across both Wi-Fi and 5G. How does it fare? Let’s find out.

Disclaimer: this is just a beta

This is a first look at what is strictly a beta of Xbox Cloud Gaming. Do not take this as a review or formal evaluation, as Microsoft is clear in saying this is not representative of the final version. 

It is a chance for the team to gather critical feedback, test the service, and issue improvements. Take any latency issues or bugs I speak about with a pinch of salt, as Microsoft could iron them out before the beta is released to the public.

How it works

Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

First thing’s first, get Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. You aren’t eligible for Cloud Gaming without it. And to everyone who has been flooding my DMs since this went live, the beta is invite-only. If you didn’t get one, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.

On iOS, you need to use the Safari browser and save it as a web app for the best experience. Don’t do what I did and try to launch it on a third-party browser on your iPhone. It just doesn’t work.

For browser-based gaming on Windows or Mac, this is a simpler process. Connect your Xbox controller via Bluetooth or USB, open xbox.com/play in Chrome, Safari or Microsoft Edge and you’re good to go. There is no keyboard and mouse support (sorry FPS purists), but the ease of getting into the games is virtually identical to the Android app.

Xbox Cloud Gaming for iOS: first impressions

Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Let me paint a picture of the first time I tried Xbox Cloud Gaming on my iPhone. It was a sunny evening at the local pub, and I just ordered my first pint since October of last year. While waiting, I decided to pull out my phone and play a spot of Forza Horizon 4 (yes, I’m that weirdo who plays video games in pubs).

It didn’t quite hit me until a couple of races later that I was playing this game entirely over the cloud, and had managed to completely miss the staff member who popped a pint on my table. All of those pangs of jealousy seeing Android users play on Project xCloud were completely warranted. 

This is a bonkers experience. About 75% of the time, there is no latency, the frame rate doesn’t hiccup, and it legitimately feels like you’re playing an Xbox on your phone. It’s fast to set up, controls are responsive, and the audio doesn’t face an ever-so-slight delay like on other services.

Stream quality is limited to 720p and the games don’t look their absolute best, which is expected given the xCloud servers use Xbox One S hardware at the moment. But plans have been in place for a while to upgrade their servers to Series X hardware this year, so expect the visuals to get a dramatic upgrade once the public release comes around.

Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Image credit: Laptop Gaming)

But on a small phone screen, this drop in fidelity isn’t very noticeable. The only place you’ll feel the downgrade to One S is with some of the long loading times.  Speaking of a smaller display, this raised an interesting problem for me — not with the service itself, but with the games. You see, they’re developed with big-screen TVs in mind and shrinking them down to a 6-inch panel on my iPhone 12 caused some difficulties. 

From your ammo count in Halo, to the dialogue options in Tell Me Why, on-screen instructions and UI elements are either a struggle to see or downright illegible. This is not the best for accessibility and something Microsoft may want to work with developers to improve.

Beyond that, the stability of the experience is relative to your connection speed. On my local 5G network (average 35Mbps down and 5Mbps up), it was fine most of the time. Occasional hiccups included latency, frame drops, unregistered button presses (mostly when I press down on analogue sticks), a couple of crashes, and moments where the game would freeze temporarily for a few seconds. For a beta on a ropey cell phone network, that is impressive.

As you would expect, things get better when on Wi-Fi. My home network (average 150Mbps down and 40Mbps up) crushed it with very minimal bugs. Those moments where it faltered were similar to what I saw on 5G, but far more infrequent. For roughly 95% of my playtime, I experienced no issues.

Xbox Cloud Gaming for web: first impressions

Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Image credit: Laptop mag)

Of course, on a bigger screen like my M1 MacBook Pro, it’s a better experience. Those UI elements are far more legible. And while phone gaming controllers are great, they won’t beat the ergonomic comfort of a traditional console gaming pad.

As far as the technical details go, there’s not much difference at all. You get the same 720p resolution from the same Xbox One S-armed xCloud servers with the same rare bugs I saw when playing on my iPhone via Wi-Fi.

Oh, and if you’re listening Microsoft, It would be amazing to get keyboard-and-mouse support when playing on a browser across genres like FPS and RTS games.

Bottom Line

Put simply, if you’re an iOS user, gaming is about to take another huge step forward thanks to Xbox Cloud Gaming.

Don’t get me wrong, Apple Arcade is great. But this is a whole different level of gaming power — a living room experiences on the go, right on your phone. I’m still struggling to comprehend the fact I can play GTA V or Forza Horizon 4 wherever I am — within or away from a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Obviously, there are issues to iron out. It’s a beta after all and I have no doubt Microsoft is working hard to address the latency issues and occasional gameplay stalling hiccups I came across. 

But in its current state, this is a big move that gamers with iPhones should be getting really excited about. In fact, it begs a simple question: how long is gaming hardware really going to be relevant? 

I know so many columnists over the years have predicted the end of consoles to get clicks (remember when they all freaked out over Ouya? That was awkward…), but this warrants a serious conversation, as Microsoft’s mission is abundantly clear: give you the ability to play Xbox from wherever you are.

Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

If this is the way we’re going, the onus is now on developers to make their games more screen-agnostic. That radar on GTA V or button prompt instructions on Doom Eternal are easy to see when playing on a big screen, but it can get very difficult to read them on a phone display. Some sort of responsive design will be warmly welcomed.

But, as these small kinks are straightened out, my partner can enjoy all the retail therapy she wants. In fact, go all out! I’ll be just fine with an Xbox in my pocket.