Microsoft's xCloud Xbox Game Streaming being available on Android gives us a certain amount of flexibility to play around and see what we can make it do. Whether that's testing every controller under the sun or, in this case, sideloading it onto the only Android TV box that's ever really been worth buying, the NVIDIA Shield.
Unlike the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, which left me disappointed when trying this same thing, the NVIDIA Shield has a lot more going for it. It's absurdly powerful for a device like this, so much so that there are native Android versions of games like Tomb Raider and Half-Life 2 built to play on it. It also supports NVIDIA's GeForce Now streaming service and Steam Link, so already things are looking more promising.
And while the same applies to the Fire TV Stick 4K in so much as it's not officially supported and requires sideloading, but it does work. And it works pretty damn well.
Sideloading and caveats
This article isn't a tutorial on how to sideload xCloud onto an NVIDIA Shield. There are plenty of ways and means and lots of resources around the internet to do such a thing. The most important thing to remember is that sideloading apps from outside of the Google Play Store is done entirely at your own risk and could lead to trouble.
In my case, I extracted the APK from one of my Android phones (there are plenty of apps for that) and put it onto a USB flash drive which I then inserted into the Shield since I have the larger, older model. Still, a microSD would work as well, and that would also work on the newer cylinder-shaped Shield.
There's also one other thing you have to deal with on the Shield when sideloading apps: You won't be able to see it anywhere. This is just a thing Android TV does, and you have a couple of options. You could use a third-party launcher or you could use the NVIDIA Shield app for iOS or Android which allows you to launch apps from your phone. I took the latter option.
Almost like the real thing
Where the Fire TV Stick 4K is a massive letdown beyond being able to install the app (which is easier to do than on the Shield), the NVIDIA Shield absolutely monsters through gameplay. It's so good that when paired with a decent network connection and an Xbox One controller, you'd be hard-pressed to tell it apart from an Xbox One S.
Pairing the Xbox One controller is precisely as easy as it is pairing to any Android phone over Bluetooth, and when you're not gaming, you can use it to navigate the Shield interface, too. But where my experience on the Fire TV Stick 4K was extremely sluggish, the Shield plays the games from xCloud as if they were native.
If you've been impressed with xCloud on an Android phone, it's just as good on the Shield, but with the benefit of being connected to your TV. Latency feels fine, the sound and video are in perfect sync, and it's just an enjoyable experience.
Mostly, at least. Since the app hasn't been optimized for use on Android TV, there's one big niggle beyond not being able to see the app without a third-party launcher. The guide button on the controller doubles as a home button for Android TV, so getting out of a game and into another one is a little awkward and usually involves forcing the app to close and starting from scratch again. Again, not optimized, not supported, can't really complain.
A future I can get behind
I'm still not 100% sold on cloud-based gaming, and Google's somewhat botched Stadia launch certainly hasn't helped. But I do feel like Microsoft is doing it the right way with Project xCloud. It's clearly not ready for prime time yet, despite being pretty polished already. I wouldn't recommend you rush out and buy a Shield just for this, though, given the price you're probably better off with an Xbox still. But if you have a Shield, or you're getting one, it's a neat little project.
Playing around with it on something like the NVIDIA Shield also opens up my eyes to what could lie ahead with Microsoft's support. Not just boxes like the Shield, but could you imagine if Xbox and Samsung got together and offered a version of the app on Samsung's smart TVs?
There's a definite space for cloud gaming like this if done right. From this little exercise, it was almost as good as just having an Xbox; the only letdown continues to be my home network. But I'd very much like to see Android TV be a part of the xCloud future.
Still the only Android TV box to buy.
The NVIDIA Shield is everything you need to have a great streaming and gaming experience, in a handy tube you can hide pretty much anywhere, and perfectly capable of handling xCloud.
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