If you've recently upgraded your PC's operating system to Windows 10 or recently bought a computer that came with Microsoft's newest OS preinstalled, you may have noticed a new, bright-green icon in the Start Menu: Xbox. The free Xbox app lets you perform many Xbox-related functions on your Windows 10 PC, including purchasing select Xbox One titles, voice chatting with friends, and recording gameplay footage. Unfortunately, Xbox lacks the game library to sway PC gamers from Steam, but it can coexist comfortably with Valve's gaming marketplace because of the cool Xbox Live elements it brings to the desktop.
To understand why Xbox is on PC, take a second to ponder Microsoft's current position in the gaming world. Microsoft is warring with Sony on the console hardware side and with Valve on the software side, so extending the reach of its gaming division lets Redmond sell games to a demographic that may not own, or plan to purchase, an Xbox One or Xbox One S. The move is a wise one, as it lets PC gamers enjoy high-profile games that probably would've been exclusive to Xbox consoles in past years.
Liven Up Your PC
Getting started with this app is a breeze, as the app is baked into Windows 10. In fact, the app is only available for Microsoft's newest operating system, so if your rig runs an older Windows operating system, you'll need to upgrade to get a taste of the Xbox app.
The good news is that every person who has a Windows 10 PC has the Xbox app; the bad news is that it cannot be uninstalled, so you must deal with its existence by using it, ignoring it, or unpinning it from the Start Menu. Thankfully, the app is unobtrusive, so it doesn't get in the way if you want to launch, say, Steam.
I signed into the Xbox app with the same credentials I've used since my days gaming on the Xbox 360, and my Xbox Avatar, Gamerscore, and friends list appeared as I remembered them. You can also create a new account from scratch, if you choose.
The Xbox app experience on Windows 10 is much like the analogous service on Xbox One, so I chatted and exchanged messages with friends, tweaked my Xbox Avatar with a variety of cool gear (after I downloaded the separate Xbox Avatar app from the Windows store—more on that marketplace later), recorded gameplay footage, and purchased games as part of my testing. That said, there are stark differences between the Xbox experiences on PC and console.
Xbox Game Library
It starts with the game library. Unlike the recently released PlayStation Now, which lets you stream PlayStation 3 games for $20 per month (or $100 per year), Xbox lets you purchase and download individual Xbox One titles to your PC, but with one caveat. The selection is almost entirely Microsoft-exclusive titles, such as Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Killer Instinct, and Quantum Break. In fact, Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the few high-profile Xbox One games you can buy that will eventually make its way to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Plus.
More games are coming down the pipe, however. The future Microsoft-exclusive titles coming to the Xbox app include Forza Horizon 3, Gears of War 4, Halo Wars 2, Recon, Sea of Thieves, and Scalebound. On the topic of buying games, you don't actually purchase Windows 10 titles using the Xbox app. When you click a game title in Xbox, it launches the Windows Store, the marketplace from which you actually make the purchase. I'm not a fan of adding extra steps to a process like this. I also personally dislike the Windows Store for another reason: It's filled with casual and mobile games, which prevents the marketplace from having Steam's PC-gaming feel. Your mileage may vary, however.
In a nice touch, Microsoft lets you buy Xbox One console games from within the Xbox app, so you don't have to leave your PC to pick up Minecraft for your dedicated gaming box.
When Two Become One
Microsoft's platform unification means you'll only need to buy a game once to play it in multiple locations. The Xbox Play Anywhere initiative means that any digital games you purchase are available for play on both PC and Xbox One—an excellent, inspired move by Microsoft. Your saves, DLC purchases, and achievements are available on both platforms, too.
Only two titles—Ark: Survival Evolved and Killer Instinct Season 3—support this so far. Cuphead, Forza Horizon 3, and many others are slated to join the club, however. I wish Sony would walk a similar path with its PlayStation titles, instead of giving PC gamers a half-baked streaming service.
If you own an Xbox One, you can stream any game from the console to your PC if they're on the same network—and it works well. If you're on a wired connection, that is. In my tests, Madden NFL 25 stuttered and suffered resolution dips when streamed to a PC via a wireless connection, but played damn near flawlessly over a wired connection. It's not true PC gaming, as you need an Xbox One to play games, but if you prefer to game on a laptop or desktop, it's a nice way to bring more games to your Windows 10 setup.
As the app taps Xbox Live for online play, you can game with both PC and console players—and you don't have to fork out money for an Xbox Live subscription for multiplayer gaming. I had a blast exchanging fists and feet with other Killer Instinct players.
The Big Playback
Xbox also brings game recording and snapshot functionality to your PC via the app's integrated Game DVR. You can set it to background record the last 10 minutes of your current play session, which made it a fine tool for capturing footage of me bodying a journalist from another publication in Killer Instinct in testing. There's also an option for up to two hours of non-background recording.
In my tests, Game DVR worked well when it came to recording Xbox games, but it flaked out when I tried to capture footage of Steam games. When I tried to record a Last Blade session, Game DVR recorded my Chrome browser. And it refused to record my Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain session. The app wouldn't let me click the Record button.
Another gripe: There's no way to directly upload your videos to YouTube. You can, however, upload the video files and screenshots to your account's cloud storage, so that you can access the files from another PC running the Xbox app or an Xbox One.
The interface is a cluttered mess. I found it confusing to navigate, even after using it for several days. I dipped into Settings to deactivate some of the alerts and feeds, but there were still far too many panels and sections to keep track of. Simplifying the interface would go a long way to improving the app.
I also don't like the fact that Microsoft requires users to connect their PCs to their Xbox Ones in order to enjoy movie and TV programming from content providers like Crackle and ESPN. For example, I have an Amazon Prime account, so why can't I input my Prime credentials and enjoy Transparent? It's frustrating.
For every step forward Microsoft has taken in bringing Xbox to PC (Xbox Play Anywhere, Game DVR, game streaming, free online multiplayer gaming), the company takes a step back with questionable moves (a cluttered interface, an extremely limited Xbox One game library, requiring an Xbox One console for streaming video features).
Still, it's difficult to ignore the app's potential. Xbox on PC has a much higher ceiling than PlayStation Now, as it's capable of bringing exclusive, current-generation titles to your gaming rig. But in order to reach that potential, Microsoft desperately needs to fill the Windows Store with console-quality titles to make it a destination for PC gamers. Right now, the marketplace is an app store with a smattering of Xbox One games.
I'll happily revisit the Xbox app in the future, as the service continues to grow and evolve. Xbox isn't a must-have app (except in the sense that you have no choice but to have it on Windows 10). Chances are good that you have it anyhow, though, so you should try it if you fancy playing Killer Instinct and other Microsoft exclusives on a desktop or laptop.