A first look at Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming on the iPhone

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Microsoft has begun inviting Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers to test its Xbox Cloud Gaming (xCloud) service on iPhones and iPads today. The service works through web browsers, allowing it to run on PCs and Macs on Edge, Chrome, or Safari as well. We managed to check out this beta early on and see how Xbox Cloud Gaming works on an iPhone or iPad.

The web interface for xCloud (yes, we’ll continue to call it xCloud) is really easy to use. It can be scaled across devices such as the iPhone, iPad, or even a large monitor connected to a PC to provide quick access to games. Microsoft has even added a search interface, something strangely missing from the rival service Google Stadia.

You don’t need to install any apps or extensions; it works natively in Chrome, Safari or Edge. All you need is a compatible USB or Bluetooth controller. Some games even work with Xbox Touch Controls, so there’s no need for a controller if you like to tap the screen to play. I was able to quickly launch games with an Xbox Elite 2 controller paired with an iPhone 11 Pro.

Once you start a game, you have to wait quite a long time for it to actually load. Like xCloud on Android, the backend servers for Microsoft’s Xbox game streaming are actually Xbox One S consoles. This older Xbox hardware isn’t powered by a modern CPU or SSD, so game loading will be affected. However, Microsoft plans to upgrade xCloud servers to Xbox Series X hardware this year.

Xbox game streaming from Microsoft on an iPhone.

I’ve only been playing xCloud over the internet for a few hours, so it’s hard to rate the experience, but I’ve certainly run into a lot of connectivity issues, both wirelessly and wired to my desktop PC. Microsoft says it’s working on a routing issue with this beta, but it’s worth pointing out that this is a testing service, and it’s only just launched, so hiccups like this are to be expected.

Once the connection is established, it is very similar to xCloud on Android. It feels like I’m playing on an Xbox in the cloud, and there’s a dashboard that gives me access to friends, party chats, achievements, and game invites. All of this is powered by Xbox Game Pass, so there are over 100 games available – and even some original Xbox and Xbox 360 titles available for streaming.

You can search and easily launch Xbox games in a browser.

Xbox Touch Controls can be used for certain games.

Microsoft hasn’t said when the company plans to roll this out more widely, but given the early connectivity issues, there is clearly some work to be done until the web version is available to everyone. Still, it’s impressive how well this scales on multiple devices and the ability to stream Xbox games to almost any device with a Chromium or Safari browser.

I have also tried this xCloud browser version in the new Edge app for Xbox consoles, but it is not fully supported yet. Both the service and the browser are currently in early beta, so full support may come at a later date. Regardless, I imagine xCloud will arrive on Xbox consoles due to the ability to quickly stream a game while you wait for it to download in the background. That’s really where xCloud makes sense on a console that can already play Xbox games.

This browser-based version of xCloud also opens the service to many more possibilities. Xbox chief Phil Spencer has previously hinted at TV streaming sticks for xCloud, and Microsoft has already committed to bringing the service to Facebook Gaming at some point. It’s easy to imagine Xbox Game Streaming apps for smart TVs, along with the ability to access the service from web browsers to ensure almost any device can access an Xbox Game Pass subscription. That’s clearly Microsoft’s goal here, and this beta feels like just the beginning.