Hands on: Xbox Cloud Gaming for the web brings Xbox gaming to your browser

Hands on: Xbox Cloud Gaming for the web brings Xbox gaming to your browser

If you’ve just about giving up on finding a GPU to build yourself a gaming PC, take heart: We’ve tried Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming for the web, and it’s not half bad.

Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming is available this week in a limited beta for both the web as well as the Apple iPhone and iPad. (Xbox cloud access on the latter platforms has been hamstrung by Apple’s Draconian control of its App Store.) In any event, both Windows PCs and Macs now have access to playing Xbox games on Microsoft’s cloud via the web.

There are two key ways in which Xbox cloud gaming is superior. First, you don’t actually need a physical Xbox, especially one of the new Xbox Series S or X PCs that are difficult, if not impossible to find. Second, you don’t need to download and install any games, saving you time (and possibly money, if your Internet plan is limited by bandwidth or a data cap).

xbox cloud gaming main menu Mark Hachman / IDG

The Xbox cloud gaming main menu.

Previously, there were only two way to play Xbox cloud games: on an Android tablet or phone, and on a Chromebook. The latter offered the most PC-like experience, with a keyboard and the ability to connect either a tethered or wireless Xbox controller. Now, however, users can go to the Xbox cloud gaming site, log in, and start playing. You’ll need to apply for a beta invitation to do so, before the site opens up to more general gameplay later this year. You’ll also need to be subscribed to Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

How well Xbox cloud gaming works on the web

Microsoft’s cloud gaming differs from its other offering, remote play, in that you’re essentially playing on a remote Xbox (reportedly an Xbox Series S) somewhere in Microsoft’s cloud. That’s important, given that Microsoft also offers a Game Pass for PC subscription. The difference is that Xbox cloud gaming offers games that are formatted for the Xbox running on the cloud; Microsoft does not yet offer the option of running PC-formatted games on remote servers. Games are also far easier to play and navigate on a large PC monitor or laptop display, as many games simply don’t use large enough fonts to make them easily playable on a phone.

xbox cloud gaming forza horizon 4 retry Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft has encouraged beta testers to use its own Surface hardware while playing the Xbox cloud gaming beta, but I found I really didn’t have to. It ran fine on an HP Envy 14—which, to be fair, includes a discrete GPU. On the other hand, the service didn’t need a discrete GPU, as it ran everything in the cloud. I hooked up an older Xbox One controller via Bluetooth, and started launching games.

Microsoft begins the Xbox cloud experience with a menu of available games, noting many are actually touch-enabled. (That aspect didn’t seem to work, even on a touch-enabled laptop.) Click one and you’ll see a launch screen, during which Microsoft sets up your game. Some actions require you to click your mouse, while others ask you to use your controller; you’ll get the hang of it. On my PC and broadband connection (about 200 megabits downstream to my home, during a day when remote schooling was going on), setting up the game in the cloud took about five to seven seconds.

xbox cloud gaming desperados 3 Mark Hachman / IDG

This type of game is ideal for cloud gaming: slow-paced and not graphically demanding.

The first game I tried was probably one of the lighter ones, technically: Desperados III, an isometric third-person puzzle-esque game where you’re tasked with moving characters around a battlefield of sorts and pulling off various maneuvers. Much of the game is spent waiting and planning, so frame rates aren’t important. Don’t plan too long, though, as Xbox Cloud Gaming will disconnect the game for inactivity after a minute or two.

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