(Credit: Microsoft)

Gaming on a mobile phone has its challenges, and one of the biggest ones is delivering a high-fidelity experience on a device that's designed for conservative battery consumption. It's not a platform optimized for photo-realistic 3D worlds -- and a touch screen often doesn't provide the input options necessary to navigate smoothly through such an environment.

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Because of these limitations, most gamers do their "real" gaming with a console, PC, or dedicated portable hybrid like the Nintendo Switch. However, Microsoft is looking to change the rules with xCloud, a new platform to stream games to your phone or tablet, instead of running the game on the device itself.

Corporate VP Kareem Choudhry says in the announcement, "We'll begin public trials in 2019 so we can learn and scale with different volumes and locations." Additionally, "Developers of the more than 3,000 games available on Xbox One today, and those building the thousands that are coming in the future, will be able to deploy and dramatically scale access to their games across all devices on Project xCloud with no additional work."

With this kind of technology, you essentially play a game that's running on a server somewhere else, and you receive a video stream of it on your gaming device. As you might imagine, the physical distance causes delayed input response, and the video stream will be compressed for efficiency, so you lose some visual detail.

On the other hand, this system can let you play games that would otherwise be incompatible or too demanding -- and it requires a fraction of the storage space. In a world where high-profile console game releases are reportedly topping 100GB, skipping the installation step may be necessary to make a game fit on your phone or tablet.

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(Credit: Microsoft)

How promising is Microsoft xCloud?

Choudhry says that xCloud is targeting a stream rate of 10Mbps. For reference, Netflix streams 1080p content at 5 to 8Mbps, which it says uses "up to 3GB per hour." So unless you have an unlimited data plan for your phone, or you're streaming over Wi-Fi, xCloud may not be the best option for you, as it sounds like it will need a relatively large pipe, even with the optimizations.

The blog post includes a global map (reproduced here) that identifies 54 locations around the world where the company's Azure servers will be streaming from. Since distance causes a signal delay, having an Azure server near you may make your input feel more responsive. Most of the servers are clustered in the United States, western Europe, and east Asia.

We also noted several servers located in Australia, which has historically gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to online gaming.

As for player interaction with the games, Choudhry says that you will be able to use a Bluetooth gamepad, but the team is also working on "a new, game-specific touch input overlay that provides maximum response in a minimal footprint for players who choose to play without a controller."

Judging by the screenshot provided in the blog post, this is not just the console gamepad buttons copied over to your phone's screen. Instead, there appear to be custom actions; for example, you may have a "fire weapon" button whose icon literally looks like a weapon, or a run button that depicts a person running. If that is the "game-specific" element, then we can expect these icons to be customized for each game.

With xCloud is still several months off, it'll be interesting to see how it fares against Google's recently announced Project Stream, which sounds like a direct competitor.

The takeaways

  • On the heels of Google unveiling Project Stream, Microsoft is talking up the similar xCloud game streaming platform. With this content delivery system, the game runs on a remote server that sends a video feed to your phone or tablet.
  • Microsoft is targeting a 10Mbps stream, which will consume several gigabytes per hour. So you will need a Wi-Fi connection or an unlimited data plan to avoid mobile overage fees.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.