Yesterday, my wife wanted to play some Kingdom Hearts. I was in the mood for Titanfall. We only have one TV. So I pulled out a Surface 3 tablet, plugged in an Xbox One controller, and started streaming the game from my Xbox to my portable PC. It’s a new Windows 10 feature.
How well did it work? Keep on reading.
What Do You Mean, Streaming?
Some background: I’ve been writing about streaming games for a few years now. It’s not a new idea. OnLive and Gaikai were two companies that streamed games from remote servers to your PC, before they became part of Sony. Sony’s PlayStation 4 can stream games to a PlayStation Vita handheld or a Sony Xperia phone, or loads of other Android devices with this hack. Nvidia’s Shield handheld, tablet, and set-top box have been streaming games from Windows PCs for some time. And Steam has a feature that lets you stream games from one computer to another, which you can watch me use here.
Bloodborne streamed from a Sony PlayStation 4 to an Nvidia Shield handheld.
What these all have in common (except OnLive and Gaikai) is that they use your home network to send compressed video frames to your screen, kinda like a YouTube video. Except you’re controlling it remotely, too. So you need to have a pretty damn good home network (either high-quality Wi-Fi, or physical ethernet cables) to make sure it works well without lag or nasty visual artefacts. (And you need to be inside your house, unless you’ve got an amazing internet connection and some fancy VPN.)
I’ve got a pretty awesome, expensive 802.11ac wifi router, so you should take my results with a pinch of salt. But I’m finding that when Xbox streaming works, it works pretty well.
Setup is pretty damn simple, except that like so much else in Windows 10, the Xbox app is still buggy as heck. What should happen, and what does happen most of the time, is you launch the built-in Xbox app on your Windows 10 computer, select the second icon from the bottom (the one that looks like a little Xbox with a Wi-Fi signal above it), and your Xbox should automatically pop up if it’s on the same network.
You might have to turn on the Xbox manually first, but once the two machines have successfully detected one another, you can even turn the Xbox on and off remotely.
Then, you just hit that Stream button to start streaming.
What sometimes happens, though, is the Xbox app won’t see your Xbox, or won’t think it can stream from your Xbox, or won’t be able to sign you into the Xbox Live network (you don’t need to pay for Xbox Live Gold, but you do need to sign in), or will just spontaneously crash to desktop without explanation. Ugh. For now, restarting my computer and my Xbox fixes these things for me, but clearly Microsoft has some work ahead.
I also had an issue where the Xbox stopped sending sound until I turned on my A/V receiver. I think maybe it was trying to send Dolby surround by accident.
Anyway, once things are up and running, it should look like you’ve actually got an Xbox inside of your PC. Just like this:
And from there, you can control the Xbox exactly the same way with the Xbox One controller as if you had it hooked up to a regular TV set. In fact, if your actual TV set is still on in the other room, people can still see and hear what you’re playing on the PC. But it also means you can go totally headless and have an Xbox One sitting around your house that isn’t plugged into anything except a power brick.
Sadly, Microsoft has disabled a whole load of features for streaming. You can’t watch TV or anything else plugged into the Xbox One’s HDMI input on your PC screen. You can’t watch Netflix. You can’t even stream your own Blu-rays.
You’ll get a message like this each time you try something verboten:
What About Games?
Out of every streaming service I’ve tried, from Nvidia to Steam to PS4 streaming, Xbox One + Windows 10 is the ugliest... but also the most playable!
For me, Steam In-Home Streaming tends to look amazing, right up until the moment it stops responding at all and my character dies a horrible death.
For me, Nvidia looks a little worse than Steam, and performs a little better.
For me, PS4 is even a bit grainer than Nvidia, and a little more reliable still.
Which puts Xbox One at the bottom AND top of the metaphoric totem pole.
I tested with two games, Titanfall and Dead Rising 3, to get a nice mix. (Titanfall is a fast-paced online shooter, and Dead Rising 3 is a slow single-player zombie apocalypse simulator.)
Like usual, I placed my computer two rooms and one floor away from the Xbox, with at least two walls separating my receiver (a Surface 3, ThinkPad X240, or Spectre x360) from my Wi-Fi router. I mostly used 5GHz Wi-Fi, which is a little less vulnerable to interference, but also used the more common 2.4GHz with little noticeable difference.
I also tried with my Windows 10 desktop plugged in with an ethernet cable, which seems like a pretty common use case, but I kept the Xbox One on Wi-Fi throughout. I assume that most people won’t be plugging ethernet cables into their entertainment centres. Forgive me if you do.
Then, I tore it up with giant walking death robots and handmade anti-zombie weaponry until I had my fill. Complete with voice chat, by the way: you can use your PC microphone to talk to other Xbox players.
Right from the start, there’s a little bit of a graphical dip compared to your TV set. For instance, Titanfall normally renders at 792p (792 lines of resolution), then upscales to your TVs 1080p. But Xbox One streams to your computer at a maximum of 720p, so if you’re looking at it on a 1080p monitor you might notice a difference immediately.
And then, it might get worse. You know how when you start watching a Netflix video, it’ll start out looking crappy and then start getting crisper as it adjusts the resolution to match your bandwidth? It feels like Xbox One streaming does just the opposite. It starts out looking pretty great, but laggy. My controls don’t always respond right away.
But after a while, it becomes surprisingly responsive and playable. I feel almost as accurate as when I’m playing on the Xbox hooked up to my TV.
When my network lags, it gets ridiculously ugly, like I’m shooting through a digital snowstorm.
But generally, I can keep playing. The main problem here is that if there were any snipers hiding in that grey digital fog, I wouldn’t be able to see them.
And that’s with Titanfall, a game that’s also taxing my Wi-Fi network because it’s an online game. With Dead Rising 3, things were generally much smoother. Things usually looked more like this:
But yeah, occasionally, shit hits the fan. This is the worst I’ve seen yet:
As far as I can tell, the amount of bandwidth that Xbox streaming uses is pretty variable. There are three quality settings you can choose from, and I saw them average around 3Mbps, 6Mbps, and 8Mbps respectively, according to Microsoft’s built-in bandwidth meter. But I also saw them shoot up to 21Mbps and 40Mbps on occasion. Not sure why.
If the low graphics quality is bugging you, though, you could always run the Xbox streaming app in a window, or snapped side by side with another app.
The smaller it gets, the less those graphical artefacts will get on your nerves.
It’s just a shame that you can’t keep controlling the game while you’re using other Windows applications. The controller only works when the Xbox app is in focus. Oh, and you can’t use mouse and keyboard to get an edge on the competition. It’s gamepad or nothing, folks.
The nicest thing about this is you don’t have to take my word for it. Windows 10 is a free upgrade, and you don’t need any fancy hardware or a second PC to make it work. This is probably the most accessible game-streaming has ever been. Give it a try and let me know what you think, eh?