Xbox Game Pass on Amazon Fire TV is cheap, but unreliable | Digital Trends


A woman holding a remote while looking at an Amazon Fire TV with the Xbox app on it. It's on the Cloud Gaming menu with Fallout 76, Senua's Saga Hellblade 2 and more on it.

It was only a few weeks ago when I gave cloud gaming an earnest shot. For a full week, I resolved to replace my Xbox with a Samsung smart TV equipped with Xbox Game Pass. I’d only stream my Xbox games through the cloud during the time, even playing the entirety of Still Wakes the Deep that way. It went much better than expected. Sure, the image quality wasn’t tip-top, but it ran smoothly enough that I could picture integrating a Game Pass-enabled smart TV in a home setup with multiple TVs.

That experiment just so happened to line up with another significant push in Xbox’s platform expansion. Game Pass is now available on select Amazon Fire TV streaming sticks. That means you don’t need a console or even a specific smart TV to enjoy Game Pass on a big screen; all you need is a very portable and relatively inexpensive stick.

If that sounds too good to be true, well, it is and isn’t. As is generally the case with cloud game streaming, you’re in for a mixed experience that’s partially dependent on your internet speed. If you’ve got a good connection, you may find that Fire sticks sufficiently fulfill the dream of the Microsoft’s canceled Keystone project. That comes with one serious concession based on my tests — and that might leave you praying for a proper Xbox handheld instead.

Lagging behind

When I tested Xbox Game Pass on my Samsung TV, I just so happened to center my experience around slower-paced games. Those worked great, but I wanted to push the Game Pass app to its limits this time on Fire TV. This time, I’d test out more intensive games. That included a three-game gauntlet built to put cloud streaming through its paces: Doom (2016), Celeste, and Forza Motorsport. The end results were much more varied than my last go-around with the tech.

I’ll start with the most impressive experience. Forza Motorsport is the kind of game that feels custom-made for cloud streaming. What’s most clear out the gate is how well its impressive visuals hold up over a stream. The resolution remained clean through my test races, especially when dealing with brightly lit tracks. If you had sat me down with it and didn’t tell me I was streaming it, I mostly wouldn’t have known. The only giveaway came when an achievement popped on-screen, causing a momentary stutter that the app took a quick second to recover from. As far as hiccups go, it’s not the worst-case scenario.

More importantly, I felt like I had fairly good control of my car without noticeable lag. That’s great news, but it perhaps speaks more to Forza Motorsport‘s flexibility. I had my regular driving assist options on, which help balance some of my more reckless driving tendencies. That doubles as a safeguard for streaming delay, as it smooths over those split-second moments where players would lose control. Combine that with subtle driving that rewards players who steadily cruise, and the Forza series just might be the best cloud streaming use case ever.

An ad for Xbox on Fire TV shows a screen full of games.

While that test was a rousing success, the faster-paced games I tried chipped away at the tech’s viability. I picked Celeste largely because it’s a hyper-precise platformer that I’m very familiar with. I know exactly how it feels played natively. I quickly could feel that something was slightly off. Its pixel art visuals didn’t feel quite as crisp as I’m used to, and I found myself dying on its first level more often than I anticipated. The input lag was small, but it was enough that I had to time my jumps to account for it. I’d still give it a passing grade, but it was one step down from my experience on Nintendo Switch.

The toughest test came when I booted up Doom (2016). Right away, I could tell something was off. The text in the opening menu screens looked digitally crushed, and the image quality had plenty of noise. I could live with both, but those weren’t the real problem. As soon as I gained control of the Doom Slayer, I was met with some gnarly input lag. When I pressed my joystick fully to one side until it clicked against the edge and released it, my character didn’t move until after my thumb came off the stick.

I’ve played both recent Doom games to death, mastering their fast and smooth action. I could not get into that groove here. My cursor was constantly sailing past enemies, leaving me flailing like a kid in a carnival shooting gallery. I’m not a fan of overusing the word “unplayable” when describing minor inconveniences, but I can’t say that I’d want anyone to play that way — let along for the first time.

What’s odd is that I have rarely felt lag that rough in a while. I notice a delay on my PlayStation Portal, but it’s minor enough. My experience on Samsung Gaming Hub was perfectly fine by comparison; I hardly noticed lag at all. I’m left theorizing whether it has to do with the app running off a middleman device. Game Pass is streaming to a stick that’s plugged into a smart TV. It’s almost two layers removed from playing a game natively, where as Samsung Gaming Hub is just one. It very much feels behind where the tech has progressed to over the past five years, taking me back to the early Google Stadia days.

But is that an issue with Fire TVs or a a connectivity fluke? The trouble with cloud gaming is that I can’t tell you. Sometimes you’re cruising along with console-quality performance. Another day, you turn on a low-resolution stream that takes a few minutes to straighten itself out. Even when I began testing the app here, games kept crashing and taking me to the home screen. I was told I’d hit a rare bug that would be fixed by unplugging the stick and replugging it back in. That worked, but it’s frustrating that my anecdotal experiences still change every single time. It makes it hard to recommend something like this wholeheartedly even if I just had a great time with it weeks ago.

A woman plugs an Amazon Fire Stick into a TV.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use the Xbox Game Pass app on Fire TV. On the contrary, it’s a great option for the right situation and games. With its sleek size and affordable price, it’s both the most portable Xbox outside of your phone and one of the cheapest ways to play right now. The app easily connects to a wireless controller and remembers it whenever I turn both on (though it’s a slight annoyance that I can’t power my controller and Fire TV down at the same time). The fact that you can throw a controller and stick in a tote bag and suddenly have a functional Xbox on a hotel TV is genuinely exciting. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be doing that for some holiday trips later this year.

I can’t help but feel like this is a bit of an outdated stopgap, though. An Xbox streaming stick made perfect sense four years ago before portable PCs like the Steam Deck took over the hardware market. That was the best way to take high-quality console games on the go. It isn’t anymore, even if it’s still the cheapest way to get them on a big screen. Even then, a wider adoption of the Game Pass app on as many smart TVs as possible still feels like the more ideal move. Perhaps that’s why Xbox canned its own plans for dedicated Game Pass stick.

All of that is to say that you shouldn’t run out to buy a new Fire TV stick just for Game Pass unless you really want to play Xbox games on a TV without breaking the bank. It’s more of a useful perk for those who already own an Amazon stick. It’s an extra bit of flexibility that’s totally viable for games that aren’t as reliant on twitchy controls. But if you really want a true, portable Xbox, pray that Microsoft’s rumored handheld gaming device really comes to fruition.

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