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Microsoft xCloud game streaming on Linux looks worse than on Windows

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Microsoft xCloud game streaming appears to drop to lower image quality when running on Linux. The apparent downgrade of operating systems was spotted by a Reddit user over the holiday weekend and confirmed during Ars testing this morning.

To compare how xCloud handles a Linux machine and a Windows machine, during testing I used an Edge extension to force the browser’s User-Agent string to present itself as a Linux browser:

  • Windows User Agent Verification: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML like Gecko) Chrome/103.0.5060.66 Safari/537.36 Edg/103.0.1264.44
  • Linux user agent tested: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML like Gecko) Chrome/102.0.5005.27 Safari/537.36 Edg/102.0.1245.7

Tests were performed on the latest version of Microsoft Edge (version 103.0.1264.44, 64-bit) running on a Windows 10 PC. All tests were performed on a wired Internet connection with 120Mbps download speed and ~9ms latency, based on selective tests on fast.com.

A GIF that compares one corner of an image across two xCloud streaming sessions, with only the User-Agent string changing between them.

The difference in streaming quality can be seen in the gallery above (expand the images to full screen for a better view). With the Linux user agent, the edges tend to be less crisp and the colors a bit more washed out. The difference will be even more noticeable if you enlarge the image. Forza logo and menu text, indicating a significant reduction in clarity.

What’s going on here?

Interestingly, the drop in quality will disappear if you turn on “Clarity Boost”, an Edge-exclusive feature that “provides[es] optimal look and feel when playing Xbox games from the cloud,” says Microsoft. This is great for Linux users who switched to Microsoft Edge when it launched on Linux last November. currently stuck with clearly reduced streaming quality.

This drop in Linux quality has led some to speculate that Microsoft is trying to reserve better xCloud streaming performance for Windows computers in an attempt to attract more users to its own operating system. But using the Macintosh User-Agent string gives Windows-like streaming performance, which would be a big oversight if that theory were true. Microsoft has also not released any “best for Windows” marketing materials to promote xCloud streaming, which would appear to be a key component in an attempt to attract new Windows users.

(The difference in quality may be an indirect attempt to get Linux users to switch to the Edge browser, where Clarity Boost offers the best quality possible. But it still doesn’t fully explain why Windows users on other browsers without Clarity Boost also get better streaming quality than their Linux counterparts.)

Others have suggested that downgrading may simply be a bug caused by Microsoft’s naive parsing of User-Agent strings. This is because User-Agent strings for Android browsers typically identify themselves as some version of Linux (eg “Linux; Android 11; HD1905”). The Microsoft xCloud code could simply see “Linux” in that line, assume the user is running Android, and then automatically adjust the streaming quality to account for the (presumably) reduced screen size of an Android phone or tablet.

Since Microsoft refuses to comment on Ars Technica, we are still theorizing what is behind this apparent problem. However, for now, Linux users who want better xCloud performance will want to switch to Microsoft Edge with Clarity Boost, or at least fake their User-Agent settings to pretend they’re running Windows.

#Microsoft #xCloud #game #streaming #Linux #worse #Windows

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