Like many others, I’ve been incredibly disappointed with Apple not allowing Microsoft’s xCloud game streaming service on the iOS App Store. There are valid reasons why Apple has made that decision, and there are valid arguments as to why the service should be allowed on iOS, but the bottom line for me as a consumer and a loyal Apple device user is that having the ability to stream Xbox Game Pass games through xCloud to my mobile device is a HUGE value add and it’s now a feather in the cap of every mobile device maker out there except Apple. Not long after it became clear that Apple wouldn’t be budging on this decision, I decided that it was time for me to pick up an Android device. Mainly this was so I could check out xCloud and see how it worked, but I’ve also been wanting to dip into the other side of the mobile operating system world for a while since all I’ve ever really known is iOS, so this was also a good excuse to finally do so. With that, if you’re in a similar boat as me, here’s what I have put together as my mobile xCloud setup for a relatively affordable price. Here’s what you’ll need:
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
First thing’s first. xCloud is part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which is a gaming subscription service that Microsoft has been running for the past few years and is essentially a “Netflix for video games” that gives you unlimited access to more than 100 titles for your monthly subscription fee. The service originally only worked on the Xbox consoles, but has since been made available on Windows 10 PCs as well. You can subscribe individually to the Xbox version or the PC version of Game Pass for $10 per month, but neither of them include xCloud. The Xbox Game Pass Ultimate option is $15 per month but works across both Xbox consoles and PC AND it includes xCloud streaming. It also includes Xbox Live Gold which is typically $10 per month by itself and allows you to play games online over Xbox Live and includes benefits like Deals with Gold and free games through Games with Gold. The individual Xbox and PC Game Pass plans are really just a formality and there’s no good reason you wouldn’t just want to go with the $15 per month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate option. You can sign up, as well as find all the information you could ever need including a huge FAQ, over at the Game Pass website.
Super Hot Tip: When signing up for Game Pass Ultimate, Microsoft will convert any pre-paid months you already have for Xbox Live and put them towards your Game Pass Ultimate subscription. So for example, I get billed yearly for Xbox Live and it renews every January. When I signed up for Game Pass it converted my remaining months of Xbox Live service into Game Pass meaning that I won’t even start getting billed for Game Pass until February of 2021, which would have been the time my Xbox Live subscription would have needed to be renewed. Since I pay yearly for Xbox Live it breaks down to be about $5 per month, so in essence I’m getting my first 5 months of Game Pass Ultimate for that same $5 per month. Had I known this I would have signed up for Game Pass months ago. This is also true if you have prepaid months of the individual Game Pass (non Ultimate) service under your belt, and it’ll work for up to 36 months of prepaid service you might already have. If you’re someone who prepays for Xbox Live or a regular Game Pass subscription this makes the decision to upgrade to Game Pass Ultimate a no-brainer.
An Android Device
So this is a big investment if you’re only buying an Android device for xCloud gaming, but surprisingly enough there are a lot of very cheap options available. There are a bunch of no-name Android tablets in the 8-inch range for around $40-60, but the only problem with those is that they’re cheap not just in price but also in build quality and performance. Once you start looking in the realm of known brands the prices jump up significantly, usually more than $200 which is just way more than I’m willing to spend on something like this. One of the seemingly better options I came across is this Lenovo Tab M8 which runs $90 for a 16GB version and $100 for a 32GB version. It released just a couple of months ago and so far has very good user reviews. No it won’t be a powerhouse of performance, but it should be perfectly suitable for streaming games on xCloud as well as some light general use as a small tablet device, i.e. watching Netflix, browsing the web, etc.
However, I ultimately didn’t go that route. What I ended up with is the newest Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet. These just launched in June and when I bought mine about a month ago they were on steep discount, down from their regular price of $90 to just $60 for the version with Special Offers aka lockscreen ads. When researching the no-name tablets that were in that same $50-60 price range one of the most frequent complaints was unresponsive and stuttering touchscreen performance. I knew that wasn’t something I was willing to put up with. With the Amazon Fire line of tablets I at least know that basic build quality and performance would be up to par. I would imagine these Fire tablets go on sale often and for $60 I really can’t recommend it enough. For the non-sale price of $90 though, I’d probably recommend checking out the Lenovo Tab M8 I mentioned above. It only runs Android 9 and I’m not certain if it’s able to be upgraded to Android 10 or the just-released Android 11, but it should still be sufficient for doing what you need to do with it in regards to xCloud. Amazon Fire tablets on the other hand come with their own set of caveats, which I’ll discuss now.
So the biggest problem with an Amazon Fire tablet is that… it’s an Amazon Fire tablet! By this I mean it comes with a heavily customized version of Android that is entirely geared towards Amazon’s own services. The biggest downfall to this is that you can’t access the Google Play Store right out of the box, and instead the device is pre-loaded with the Amazon App Store. While the Xbox Game Pass app is available on the Amazon App Store, it is similar to the iOS version of the app and does not include xCloud streaming functionality, and instead simply lets you browse the Game Pass library, check out your profile, and remotely install games to Xbox or PC devices. In other words it’s worthless for what we’re looking to do.
Luckily getting around this roadblock is trivial. There are two main ways to get the Google Play Store onto your Amazon Fire tablet. One can be done entirely on device and the entire process is laid out beautifully by the folks over at Android Police, with both a written guide or an easy to follow video. The other method requires access to a Windows 10 PC, but not only is it an easier process but it gives you WAY more options for unlocking the full potential of your Amazon Fire tablet. This includes not only adding the Google Play Store and Google Services to the device, but also completely replacing the locked down Fire OS that comes pre-installed on the device with pretty much any of the regular Android launchers out there. This lets you make your Fire tablet into more of a typical Android tablet instead of the heavily Amazon-ified version it comes as stock. This process is very quick and easy to do and is fully explained in this 7-minute video from ETA Prime.
A Physical Controller
Ok, so you’ve got your Game Pass subscription, and you’ve got your Android tablet, now you need a controller to actually play the games on xCloud. While some games will be optimized to work with virtual controls like what Microsoft recently showed off with Minecraft Dungeons, the majority of Game Pass games you’ll play on xCloud will require a physical controller. Thankfully xCloud works with any Bluetooth controller that’s compatible with Android, including the Bluetooth Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controllers that work with iOS. That means there’s a really good chance you already own a controller that will work for the purposes of playing xCloud on your Android device. If you wanted to pick up something that’s more purpose-built for xCloud specifically, Microsoft has partnered with several manufacturers on new mobile device controllers for xCloud, some of which they revealed last month.
If I was to pick a winner out of these purpose-built options it would definitely go to the 8Bitdo SN30 Pro for Xbox controller. This is essentially an Xbox-ified version of their fantastic SN30 Pro with a black shell, Xbox-style button labels and coloring, and a dedicated Xbox button right smack dab in the middle. If you could imagine a Super Nintendo controller with added symmetrical (i.e. PlayStation style) dual analog sticks and all the extra triggers and buttons you’d need for modern systems, that is exactly what the SN30 Pro is. It also comes with an optional clip for attaching a smartphone that is likely too small for an Amazon Fire tablet but is a nice addition if you wanted to use the controller with your smartphone for purposes other than xCloud. (Or if you own an Android phone! But if that’s you, why are you even reading this guide!?) I’m currently using my Xbox One controller for xCloud which is great, but I’ll be ordering one of these bad boys anyway just because it’s slimmer and more portable and just all around a great extra controller to have for xCloud and all sorts of other things. They launch next week for just $45 and you can pre-order them on Amazon right now.
A Tablet Stand
If you’re not using an Android smartphone that you could clip onto a controller for xCloud, you’re going to want something to prop up your tablet while playing. This is another area I looked into heavily and hoo boy there are a mind-boggling number of options for propping up your mobile devices! This is also an area where crazy high end designs and premium materials can come into play and really drive up the price of something that should be relatively simple. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to spend hours diving into the rabbit hole that is tablet stands, but for me I ultimately ended up going with the one that I liked the style of and also was the cheapest, and I’ve been thrilled with it so far.
It’s called the MoKo Phone/Tablet Stand, and when I bought it it was $6 but it’s currently selling for $8. Still a very reasonable price. It offers a handful of angles to prop your device up at, starting at 60º and going up from there. It features a rubber pad where your device lies in the stand to keep it from sliding around, as well as rubber feet to keep the entire stand from sliding around on whatever surface you have it on. The area where your device rests is also pretty wide so even if you keep your tablet in a case, as long as it’s not TOO bulky it should fit just fine in this stand. Finally and most importantly of all the MoKo stand folds down really flat making it easy to toss in a bag or even a tablet sleeve when on the go.
An Internet Connection!
Last but certainly not least, you’re going to need internet if you want to stream games from xCloud. Duh! I mention this because in the realm of cheap-ish Android devices, the moment you consider something with some sort of cellular connectivity the price goes way up. Also, since this whole guide is primarily aimed at people that have an iPhone or iPad, chances are you already have a cellular service plan and aren’t looking to add yet another one to the mix. Boy, it sure would be awesome if I could just use the iPhone I already own for xCloud, wouldn’t it?? Sigh. Anyway, if your plan for playing games on xCloud includes places that have WiFi connections like a friend or relative’s house, or business like coffee shops or the like, then having a non-cellular device shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
If you’re truly hoping to game on xCloud anytime and anywhere, as the service was intended, then it makes sense to have an ability to connect to the internet that’s on you at all times and not count on the whims of public WiFi access. For me this simply means using my iPhone’s hotspot feature which is included with my plan on Verizon. I’ve tested it out today in various places around my house, in my backyard, and in my neighborhood, and the connection holds up surprisingly well. For the times I’m able to get on a WiFi connection then that’ll be the preferred option, but for all other times my phone’s cellular hotspot seems to be a totally viable alternative and definitely gives me a sense of freedom that if I’m caught up somewhere with no WiFi and looking to kill some time gaming that it’ll get me through in a pinch.
So that pretty much covers how I, a lowly iOS user, have figured out a way to have a mobile xCloud gaming option despite not being able to use my iOS devices for it. Since I already owned an Xbox controller, and since I was able to convert my existing Xbox Live into a Game Pass subscription, my total out of pocket cost for this was just the price of the Fire tablet and the stand, so about $70 with tax. If you had to start from scratch with buying a controller and you aren’t able to get the tablet on sale then you’re looking at about twice that cost or more. It’s really up to you how much you really need a mobile gaming setup like this during a pandemic anyway. But if you already have a compatible controller and are already a Game Pass Ultimate subscriber, just keep an eye out for the Fire tablets to go on sale as for $60 I think it’s well worth picking up not just for xCloud shenanigans but just for the option of having an Android device around for all sorts of reasons.
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