Xbox’s new cloud gaming for consoles is a smooth ride—especially on the Series X
We tried Xbox's cloud gaming with some Xbox consoles and were thrilled with the results.
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Xbox officially started testing its cloud gaming platform on its Series X, Series S, and One consoles last month. The company has yet to announce when the feature will be available to all Xbox gamers, but we got a chance to try it out as part of Xbox’s Insider (Alpha Ring) program. From our brief time with the new feature, it already seems like a solid integration. There are a few known issues, but overall playing games in the cloud via an Xbox console feels almost exactly like playing from the console itself.
Games are smooth, responsive, and loading times are noticeably faster when compared to firing up games installed locally on the Xbox One S—which is great news if you’re still waiting to snag an Xbox Series X console. If you’re new to cloud gaming or wondering if getting an Xbox Game Pass is worth it for you, here’s what you need to know.
What is cloud gaming?
If you haven’t yet experienced cloud gaming, it’s similar to streaming a movie over the internet. When you turn on your TV or boot up your computer to watch a movie on Netflix, you’re accessing Netflix’s servers where the movie is stored, and the service sends all the information to your device. The same thing happens with cloud gaming.
But cloud gaming is more complicated because not only are you receiving a video feed of the game over the internet, but the remote servers also have to process every button press or space bar tap and then transmit that data back to you so you can see your character move. It’s a constant back-and-forth of data transfer and the latency needs to be low enough for the game to look and feel like you’re playing it directly from a gaming console (or PC).
For that to happen, you need a good internet connection of at least 25Mbps download speed reliably (or even more for 4K resolution). Cloud gaming also uses a lot of data, sometimes as much as 15-20GB per hour, depending on the game and, again, resolution settings. This shouldn’t be an issue if your ISP doesn’t have data caps, but most ISPs do, so be mindful of how much data you are using. Even if you have a 1TB plan your data can go fast if you’re gaming in the cloud for hours every day.
If your internet checks all of those boxes and you’re curious about giving Xbox cloud gaming a try, you can do so now with an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription (which at the time of this writing is only $1.00 for the first month). Xbox cloud gaming is compatible with Windows PC via Edge or Chrome, iOS devices via Safari, and Android phones via the Xbox Game Pass app. But, somewhat counterintuitively, if you want to game directly from your Xbox console, you'll need to wait a bit longer for the public rollout.
Why play in the cloud when I have an Xbox?
Xbox has already had a successful rollout of its gaming service on PC and mobile devices. But if you've already got a console, there are still some good reasons to consider heading to the cloud.
Whether you have an Xbox One S or a new Xbox Series X, your storage space is going to fill up quickly if you play big-budget games like Red Dead Redemption 2. You can buy an external hard drive or a 1TB expansion card if you have a Series X, but that will eventually fill up, too. Having those kinds of games available in the cloud means you won’t have to delete games off your storage drive (like I did during my testing process and accidentally deleted all of my progress in Call of the Sea. Whoops).
Yes, you need an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription to get access to those games in the cloud, but there are numerous benefits to spending the $15 monthly fee. Examples include access to free games and subscriber-only discounts, as well as the ability to play games on several different types of devices. Playing games in the cloud also means your saved games stay in the cloud, so you'll be able to start playing a game on your console and pick it up later on your phone.
You can even share your Game Pass subscription with a friend or family member as long as they're signed into the same console as you. Playstation’s cloud gaming platform, PS Now, allows you to do the same, but the subscription is separate from PS Plus. PS Plus grants subscribers access to free and discounted games, but unlike Game Pass, PS Plus and PS Now are separate subscriptions. You’d be paying $20 a month instead of Xbox's $15.
Impressively low latency
There’s always going to be added latency when playing in the cloud—that’s the case with any cloud gaming platform. Your button mashes have farther to travel to the cloud servers and back than on a console directly. How long that takes depends on a few factors, including how many “stops” your data takes to and from the nearest server, as well as your internet speed.
I was able to test Xbox’s cloud gaming latency in an ideal environment: I live in the Los Angeles area, I've got 5GHz Wi-Fi connection and over 200Mbps of bandwidth. Still, I was impressed with the results. Playing Control in the cloud from my Xbox One S felt like it was running from my console directly most of the time.
I should note, however, that users who are geographically further away from an Xbox cloud server, have bandwidth speeds under 25Mbps, or are connected over 2.4GHz Wi-Fi might have more trouble maintaining a smooth connection. (Xbox says you should have at least a 10Mbps connection over 5.0GHz Wi-Fi, but in our experience with cloud gaming platforms, that slow of a connection isn’t enough for heavy-hitters like Control.)
To measure latency, I filmed myself at 240 frames per second pressing the jump button on my controller while also filming my character jumping on screen. Then I loaded that footage into Adobe Rush and counted the number of frames between my pressing the button and my character reacting on screen and did some math to get the latency in milliseconds.
When playing Control directly on the Xbox One S the average latency was 33ms, while playing it in the cloud averaged 58ms of latency. That’s a small enough difference to be insignificant for most applications and users. If you’re a more attuned player, the camera pan might feel a tad slower in the cloud than on the console, but it should have no effect on your ability to play the game to the standard you want.
Another point to note is that my Xbox One S latency results were in upscaled 4K UHD. That means I wasn't playing these games in true 4K resolution. My TCL 50UP120 (2016) supports native 4K resolution with a maximum 120Hz refresh rate, but it doesn't support 4K 10-bit at 60Hz for games—which means my only option is 4K upscaling with my Xbox One S. However, I discovered that my local set-up produced less input lag than our A/V Editor, Lee Neikirk, experienced on his console directly.
Lee tested Control with his Xbox Series X and a Samsung QN55QN90A TV in native 4K resolution. With HDR turned off, his setup produced 105ms of latency locally on the Xbox. But in the cloud, his setup had 46ms of latency because Xbox upscales the resolution. Upscaling the resolution in the cloud not only helped transfer data faster, but it meant less input lag and smoother gameplay for the end-user. The asterisk here is that the graphics still looked better while playing directly on the console in "real" 4K. Still, while there are a lot of factors at play here, and results may vary, it's certainly a vote of confidence for Xbox's new service when it comes to latency.
Regardless of whether you have an Xbox One S or a shiny new Xbox Series X, you're going to get near-identical results playing the same game in the cloud. (Xbox is reportedly adding upscaling to the Series X, however.)
Just for fun, I decided to pit Banjo Kazooie in the cloud against Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64, and the latency was similarly low: Banjo Kazooie over Xbox cloud gaming averaged 58ms, while it averaged 38ms on the N64. Again, 20ms or so difference is essentially not going to matter to the natural eye. So in the case of this classic and beloved platformer, playing Banjo Kazooie in the cloud feels just like playing it on a local console—even one that’s 25 years old!
Low latency helps keep the gameplay in the cloud smooth, but rubberbanding (when the camera whips around suddenly on its own), pixelation, and other kinds of video lag not related to latency can ruin the experience. That's why a good internet connection is a must.
From first-person shooters to classic platformers and racing games, every game I played via Xbox’s cloud performed near-flawlessly when it comes to latency. I did see some minor video lag in the form of pixelation from time to time, but nothing that affected my ability to control my character or see where I was going on screen. Compared to other cloud gaming platforms like Nvidia GeForce Now, Google Stadia, and Amazon Luna, Xbox’s cloud is near the top of the pack here.
Stadia and Luna, which connect users to their cloud with a dongle rather than a full-blown console, have more lag issues in my experience. Xbox cloud gaming is more on-par with GeForce Now—and it’s only in Beta testing at the moment, which is all the more impressive.
It's worth noting that Xbox cloud gaming doesn’t have the same customizable bandwidth and resolution controls, but again it’s only in Beta. It would be nice to have the ability to adjust for poor network conditions. GeForce Now has this feature, allowing you to exchange latency for some pixelation if your bandwidth gets low, so you can keep playing through it. Like Xbox's service, Luna and Stadia do not have this feature, so if you have poor network conditions, your game will lag a lot.
Where’s the ray tracing?
One major advantage of owning a new Xbox Series X is its ray-tracing capabilities, which can enhance compatible games with more lifelike lighting effects. However, unlike GeForce Now, there seems to be no option to enable ray tracing in the Xbox cloud at this time. (The ray tracing settings were missing from Control.)
Again, Xbox is still in the early stages of testing, so this could be something it enables down the road. But if Xbox allows its cloud users to play compatible games with ray tracing turned on, that would bring it one step closer to competing with Nvidia GeForce Now.
Good things are coming
Xbox cloud gaming on an Xbox console has been a smooth experience so far. There have been some minor bumps, but those are expected for a product still in development. Xbox is also developing a dedicated streaming stick so anyone can play its games in the cloud without purchasing an Xbox. I'll be eager to see how that comes out.
It’s too early to tell if Xbox’s cloud gaming experience will be better via an Xbox or a dedicated streaming stick, but it will be nice to have a streaming stick option if you don't want to commit to buying an Xbox. I can tell you that it's smooth as butter on my PC and phone already. (If Xbox brought cloud gaming to macOS, that would be even better.)
The only thing that will hold Xbox back when it comes to cloud gaming on its consoles is if it doesn’t provide major games available on both Xbox directly and in the cloud on release day.
At the moment, Xbox has over 100 PC games in the cloud and over 300 console games in the cloud—but what’s available to Alpha Ring Insiders at the moment is a total of 283 games. That’s no small number, and the types of games available already create a great collection. (If you’re a Fable fan like me, you’ll be happy to know all the Fable games are available.)
That number will likely grow by the time cloud gaming on the Xbox console is available to everyone. Based on what we experienced with Xbox cloud gaming over an Xbox console, the company has only refined what it started with PC and mobile devices and we look forward to seeing how it grows from here.