Microsoft's offering on PC is in a strange, transitionary place. I've been hearing for years at this point how internal politics between the upper echelons of Xbox and Windows actively prevented Microsoft from improving basic gaming features on PC, like the Windows 10 Microsoft Store. The internal push towards the immature Universal Windows Platform (UWP) ultimately led to an app store that wasn't ready for the prime time when it came to delivering big AAA games, although it is far better now, the catalogue and discoverability aspects leave a lot to be desired.
Beyond the Microsoft Store, the Xbox app for Windows 10 also managed to disappoint. Although Microsoft was early to the game when it comes to creating online gaming communities, even going as far back as MSN Game Zone in the late 90s, Redmond has been unable to stop the meteoric rise of Discord, despite owning Skype, and Xbox Live. The Xbox app for Windows 10 does support community creation, messaging, and voice, but it's all so slow and clunky, lacking basic features, that Discord's ascent was all but inevitable. The new Windows 10 Game Bar is a the first real sign that Microsoft is taking this aspect of its gaming network a little more seriously.
Game Bar in name only
The new Windows 10 Game Bar is quite honestly more like a dashboard than a "Game Bar," fully overlaid on top of Windows 10 at a system level, rather than tied to specific windows as was the case with its previous incarnation. Hitting Windows Key + G summons the overlay from anywhere within Windows, granting you access to its wide array of features.
Using the new Windows 10 Game Bar, you can do all the same things you were able to do previously, such as streaming directly to Mixer, and capturing game clips and screenshots, but there are a range of new features on top. You can now control and browse Spotify media without leaving your game, send messages and voice chat on Xbox Live far faster than the existing Xbox app, and check handy performance monitors and a sound mixer for good measure.
Crucially, it's speedy and lightweight, taking up minimum system resources. Although results will vary depending on your usage, when simply idle, the Windows 10 Game Bar takes up just ~50MB of RAM, versus Discord's ~250MB and Steam's ~200MB. Even setting the Game Bar to record footage only increases its RAM usage to ~67MB, with negligible impact on the CPU. The Game DVR service for clipping the previous 30 seconds of footage reserves around 250MB of RAM, but it can be disabled easily in the settings if you so fancy, reducing its footprint to zero.
Beyond the system resources, the Game Bar is also highly customizable. If you don't use the Spotify integration you can simply turn it off, for example. Closing each widget reduces the resource footprint on your PC as well, you can shrink it all the way down to the basics if you so choose. The modularity of the platform should lend itself well to adding new features without allowing it to become bloated.
Can it really replace Discord?
Discord has become the de-facto community tool for the entire games industry. Microsoft itself uses it for its communities, the biggest game streamers and influencers use it, and groups of friends use it. It's easy to use, has an awesome array of tools for chat and content sharing, and is faster than competing choices on PC, especially the Xbox app for Windows 10. Its focus on community tools also makes it a better option than Skype for many gamers, which has seen its dominance eroded against the rise of competing messaging and calling services.
As of right now, the Windows 10 Game Bar update is only available in preview for Xbox Insider hub users, and even then, the modules for Xbox Live messages and party voice chats are listed as a beta, within the app itself. Even at this early stage, they're quite polished, fast, and do exactly what you'd expect them to. They even have a permanent on-screen overlay option, similarly to Discord, which lights up users when they are chatting.
There are a few bugs here and there, as well as layout oddities and missing features. For example, it doesn't seem to be possible to change the privacy settings on a voice call, and there are a couple of menus you can expand out that simply have no options in them (yet), but it's a truly encouraging early effort. It's already far preferable to use over the Windows 10 Xbox app, with centered notifications and faster access to the most important features.
It's missing things like Xbox Clubs community support, which it would need to truly become a lighter alternative to Discord, but there's no reason to think it wouldn't come across eventually. Xbox Clubs themselves are missing a lot of basic features Discord enjoys, like image sharing, gifs, custom community emotes, and so on, but the integration it has inside Xbox Live gives it a few advantages. Being able to send "Looking for Group" ads that allow you to instantly jump into games, set up competitive tournaments, are aggressively underused, but I believe part of that underuse is the difficulty of access. On Xbox, you have to navigate and type using a controller, on PC, Xbox Clubs are buried in a clunky UWP app that simply isn't fit for purpose. The Windows 10 Game Bar looks set to change all that.
An encouraging emphasis on PC gaming
If Microsoft can make the case for using the Game Bar, built into Windows 10 and accessible via a quick keyboard shortcut from anywhere, it might prove to be an excellent tool for people who don't fancy installing a separate program. It's not really in a position to provide a great alternative to Discord today, given the light feature set and lack of Xbox Clubs support, but if Microsoft is as serious as it seems to be, these features are probably on the way.
I don't think it's any accident how Microsoft undersold the new Game Bar when it was announced this past week. They didn't discuss many of its features, announcing it in a small, fairly understated blog post. Clearly the efforts represent a grander vision for a more cohesive PC-oriented gaming strategy from Microsoft, and the new font typing and rounded edges probably offer a hint at future design language for the next-gen Xbox "Scarlett" consoles. Microsoft wants to earn back that trust, and probably knows it has a lot to do.
With Microsoft set to bring Xbox Game Pass to PC, alongside a widely-expected overhaul of its maligned PC gaming store, Project xCloud for mobile devices and lower-end laptops, and a new generation of Xbox hardware, social and community features are the systems that will tie it all together. It's crucial that Microsoft takes this aspect of its platform more seriously, especially given its investment in Mixer streaming and beyond. Thankfully, these early signs are incredibly encouraging.
Cheap PC accessories we love
Take a gander at these awesome PC accessories, all of which will enhance your Windows experience.
Anker 4 port USB 3.0 hub ($10 at Amazon)
Whether on a desktop or laptop PC, you always need more ports to connect things to. This hub gives you an additional four USB 3.0 Type A ports.
Ikea Fixa Cable Management System ($11 at Amazon)
This IKEA cable management kit is your ticket to a clean setup. It's simple and functional.
NZXT Puck ($20 at Amazon)
This clever little accessory has powerful magnets on the rear to make it stick to any of the metal panels on your PC case or anything else. It's great for hanging accessories like headsets.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!