Microsoft’s Project xCloud Preview Beta hands-on impressions: A promising future

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Microsoft has recently rolled out the Project xCloud Preview Beta, which allows users to stream Xbox One games to their smartphones. I went hands-on with it to see what the future holds.

In just a few days, Google will launch Stadia, its cloud-based video game streaming service. Sony already has a several year head-start with its Playstation Now program, essentially a video game “Netflix” that allows users to stream from Sony’s back library of current and past Playstation titles. Microsoft is also looking to capitalize on the video game streaming trend with its own Project xCloud. However, unlike the Playstation Now program, Project xCloud allows for game streaming through Android and Apple smartphones as well as through a PC or console. Required to play is a Xbox One controller with bluetooth capability, as well as having a Xbox Insider account (click here for instructions on how to sign up for the Xbox Insider program). The most important service to have is, of course, a strong internet connection.

I signed up for the Project xCloud beta a few weeks ago because the idea that I can play a current-generation console game on my smartphone sounded too good to be true. However, I am overall pleased to say that the service actually works well, though I did notice several issues during my gameplay sessions.

There are currently four games available to play on the xCloud beta: Sea of ThievesGears of War 5Halo 5: Guardians, and Killer Instinct (2013). I tested out all four games using an older Wi-Fi router, a modern Wi-Fi router, and my smartphone’s 4G LTE service (through AT&T). I wanted to see how the games performed utilizing different network connections. My Android smartphone is the 2019 Samsung Galaxy S10 model. I was not able to find any device compatibility lists for Project xCloud, but it’s possible that Microsoft will put out a list once a full launch date is set (likely in 2020).

A strong internet connection is highly recommended for playing any games on Project xCloud. I was able to run all four games through an older Wi-Fi router, but the frame rates became very choppy. These issues were usually most noticeable during actual gameplay. However, Halo 5: Guardians was still playable and responsive, unlike the other three games using the older Wi-Fi router.

I then used my smartphone’s AT&T 4G LTE network, an option I don’t recommend unless you have an unlimited data plan. A cellular network connection can quickly lead to data overages, which on a limited data plan can sometimes be very expensive. On the other hand, it was impressive how much better the gameplay was on 4G compared to the older Wi-Fi router. The frame rates for all four games still actively displayed dips in quality, but the performance was smoother.

Finally, I tested out my main Wi-Fi router, which isn’t necessarily a high-end router but rather one that’s included with my cable package (also through AT&T). The games ran smoother than the 4G network, but they still had performance issues. For example, while playing Halo 5: Guardians, I noticed that every so often the screen soft “dissolves” into itself. It’s not disruptive enough to impact the gameplay itself, but the refresh rate does need improvement. Overall, I found it incredible that all four games were playable on my smartphone despite the different network connections, but better refresh rates are necessary to bring the gameplay performances up to “console quality.”

Another aspect that I tested was the controller latency using my Xbox One S controller (which has bluetooth capability). Regardless of the network connection, the control buttons have a slight delay. Games like Halo 5: Guardians and Gears 5 still played well, but in games like Killer Instinct where precise input is more important, the experience feels “off” from how a fighting game usually plays. Pulling off combos in Killer Instinct isn’t too difficult when playing on the Xbox One itself. Unfortunately, it’s more frustrating than fun playing Killer Instinct on a smartphone. Combos seemed to happen randomly, and I usually had more luck mashing buttons like a five-year-old hopped up on Halloween candy. The controller’s latency needs some improvement before the service launches, especially if Microsoft wants to compete with Stadia’s unique controller (per Google, the Stadia controller is able to directly connect to Google’s data centers, which should allow for more precision-perfect controls by reducing latency).

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Project xCloud looks like a very promising alternative for console gamers, but I don’t expect it to replace console gaming. A game like Sea of Thieves doesn’t translate well to a smartphone, as my overall experience with that game was terrible. I could hardly read the small texts, the controls were not responsive enough, and the audio sounds low even at full volume. These issues put into perspective that Microsoft still has ways to go before rolling out Project xCloud to everyone. Imagine trying to play a text-oriented RPG on a tiny screen: it really strains the eyes, which for me causes headaches.

Next. Project xCloud demo shows Forza Horizon 4 running on a phone. dark

All that being said, I have very high hopes for Project xCloud. Microsoft has created some impressive technology here. It’s not quite ready, but if Microsoft can address the controller latency issues and implement better refresh rates, Project xCloud can go from being an amazing gimmick to becoming the gold standard for cloud-based game streaming.