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What is Xbox Cloud Gaming and how does it work?

Xbox Cloud Gaming is Microsoft’s aptly named cloud gaming service, and lets anybody with a decent internet connection stream games remotely to their laptop, web browser, phone, tablet, or anywhere else they can install the app.

So how does it work? Ordinarily, when you download and play a game on your Xbox, all of the game’s code and graphics processing happens on the console in your living room. With Xbox Cloud Gaming you don’t need the console.

Instead, all of that complex processing is handled online at one of Microsoft’s server farms, and the resulting video feed is streamed to your device over the internet. You’re essentially playing games on a shared Xbox Series X hundreds of thousands away, rather than one in the same room. Think of it as watching a live Twitch stream, but you’re able to control what’s happening on screen.

This does, however, have some downsides. Your controller inputs take a fraction of a second to be sent to the server, and the video stream takes fractions of a second to arrive back on your device, so cloud gaming can feel less responsive in fast-paced games. As internet speeds improve this delay becomes less and less noticeable, though anyone with a slower internet connection will see reduced performance and drop-outs.

To help mitigate this, the game’s resolution might be dynamically dialed down and compressed to take up less bandwidth, so you sometimes get less visual fidelity than when playing a game you’ve downloaded.

There are big benefits to cloud gaming too. The most obvious is that you can play the latest Xbox Series X games without owning the console. You can even stream them to your iPhone or Android device, so long as you have a compatible Bluetooth controller.

How does cloud gaming work on Xbox?

If you’re an existing Xbox owner, there are still advantages to streaming versus downloading. Because Xbox Cloud Gaming games are running remotely on a very powerful server, you can jump straight into any game without waiting around for a download to finish. Loading times are reduced, and you can join your friends in multiplayer gaming sessions as easily as pressing play on a Netflix movie.

‘Forza Horizon 5’, available on Xbox Cloud Gaming

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‘Forza Horizon 5’, available on Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Microsoft)

Microsoft hasn’t said outright that Xbox Cloud Gaming is here to replace traditional gaming console, but the company is laying the groundwork to expand its audience way beyond just those players who own an Xbox. Thanks in large part to Microsoft’s success in rolling out Azure datacentres in countries all around the world, the company is way ahead of rival Sony in bringing cloud gaming to anyone with a screen and an internet connection.

Xbox Cloud Gaming is part of Microsoft’s new “Xbox Everywhere” initiative, which if successful could eventually make the physical Xbox console redundant. Just as Netflix and Spotify conspired with widespread broadband adoption to kill off Blu-Ray players and personal music collections, cloud gaming could turn the Xbox from a product to a service.

How to use Xbox Cloud Gaming

The number of devices that support Xbox Cloud Gaming is growing quickly, but however you decide to play you’ll first need to subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (£10.99 per month, Xbox.com). New members get their first month for £1, and you’re free to cancel whenever you please.

As of last week however, there’s one Xbox Cloud Gaming title you don’t need to pay for. Fortnite was recently added as a free-to-play game, with even more free games said to be arriving in the coming months. That means you don’t need to pay for Xbox Live Gold or Xbox Game Pass Ultimate member to play Fortnite on Xbox Cloud Gaming, but you do need to create a free Microsoft account. Once signed up, you can browse and play games on the Xbox Cloud Gaming homepage.

‘Fortnite’, available for free on Xbox Cloud Gaming

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‘Fortnite’, available for free on Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Epic Games)

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate gives you access to a rolling library of more than 100 games, including Xbox Game Studios games on the day of release, indie games, third-party games and classic titles from as far back as the original Xbox. Not all of these games are available on Xbox Cloud Gaming, but most are.

Microsoft is also working on an Xbox streaming app for smart TVs, and an Amazon Fire TV stick style dongle that will allow any TV with an HDMI port to stream Xbox games instantly over Xbox Cloud Gaming.

Does Xbox Cloud Gaming work on iPhone?

Yes it does. Apple didn’t initially support the Xbox Cloud Gaming app on iOS, citing App Store rules around how paid content and in-game purchases work. Microsoft managed to sidestep the issue by building Xbox Cloud Gaming into a web browser. Rather than download an app, iPhone users can simply navigate to Xbox.com/play in the Safari browser to launch Xbox Cloud Gaming as usual.

Interestingly, this new setup means iPhone users can play Fortnite again for the first time since Epic Games removed the game from the App Store, following a high-profile row with Apple over the platform’s cut of profits.

‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’, available for free on Xbox Cloud Gaming

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‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’, available for free on Xbox Cloud Gaming

(Microsoft)

There are games that can be played using touch controls, Fortnite is one, but for a more comfortable and console-like experience you’ll want to use a phone clip to attach your iPhone to a compatible Bluetooth controller, such as the official Xbox wireless controller (£54.99, Bt.com) or even the PlayStation’s DualShock 4 wireless controller (£49.99, Currys.co.uk).

Is Xbox Cloud Gaming free?

Xbox Cloud Gaming isn’t free, with one major exception. Microsoft has partnered with Epic Games to bring Fortnite to the Xbox Cloud Gaming service for anyone with a free Microsoft account. This means you can open up a new browser tab right now and be playing within minutes.

To play games that aren’t Fortnite, you’ll need an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription (£10.99 per month, Xbox.com). The company has also suggested that it plans to bring more free games to Xbox Cloud Gaming in the coming months.

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