Want the cheapest Cloud PC, you say? Well, how about a $299 Xbox Series S?
Microsoft's proper Edge browser for Xbox opens the door for a number of use cases beyond gaming - does it work?
It was just one bullet point included in a larger announcement - in the stealthy fashion sometimes important things are - so let us bestow upon it the attention it deserves: what Sony refuses to do for more than 15 years now, and Microsoft refused to do for just as many until a few short months ago, is now a reality. A home entertainment system built for games - four different such systems, in fact - now offers a full, proper, modern Web browser: Microsoft gifted its Xbox One S/X, as well as the Xbox Series S|X consoles with the latest version of Edge. Not a "special" version - meaning a limited, cut-down one - but practically the same Edge browser found in Windows 10. So why is that important?
Well, you've heard of Cloud PCs, yes?
The Web can do a lot for a great many people these days, including things that we once needed an operating system or a whole PC for. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, image editing, even basic video editing or desktop publishing, as well as the usual "simple" stuff - such as social networks, e-mail management, scheduling, etc. - all can be done in a browser window without much difficulty. Hell, even a virtual remote Windows computer can be run within a browser window since July. All that's needed is Internet access that's fast enough and a computer with modest processing power - and all four Xbox systems are powerful enough, even the One S.
So does this mean that people can hook their Xbox to a TV or monitor, connect a keyboard and mouse to the console and start using it as a PC? Yes... and no.
After installing the latest system update on an Xbox One S and an Xbox Series S I connected a USB keyboard and mouse to each one of those in turn and took the time to test Edge (a) as a regular Web browser and (b) as an environment for running Web apps in. The good news: even on the hard disk-based Xbox One S Microsoft Edge works reasonably well. Multiple tabs, autocomplete, bookmark syncing, almost everything works in the same way the desktop Edge browser does (one important thing missing is extension support). One S did not become sluggish after opening three or four quite complex websites in separate tabs but started re-downloading homepages beyond that number. If one intends to do focused work or light multitasking through Edge on an Xbox, that's an acceptable compromise.
What is not as easily acceptable is the system's insistence on calling up the on-screen keyboard every time some new string of text has to be typed in. Well, it makes sense, of course, since the Xbox UI is built for controllers, but it messes with even simple workflows, often leading to frustration. It's possible to keep the virtual keyboard hidden when continuously working on the active tab of the Edge browser (when e.g. writing in the online version of Word or in Google Docs) but as soon as one needs to switch tabs or point-and-type somewhere else, it pops up again. For normal work - let alone demanding and/or time-sensitive work - this is a problem.
Then it's the stuff that comes with the fact that an Xbox console is a closed system, like no downloading of files and no local retrieving of files. The Xbox UI also runs in 1080p resolution, which is restrictive by today's standards and looks soft on big-screen TVs (Microsoft has promised a full 4K rework of the Series S|X user interface at some point). All of that combined means that while "working in a browser on a games console" sounds cool at first, Microsoft did not intend to offer that per se so... it didn't. Trying to use the Xbox One as a PC feels more like a hack than anything else right now.
Funny thing is that, if Microsoft ironed out all the kinks, an Xbox could be used as a Cloud PC. The company could add a setting to keep the virtual keyboard from appearing all the time if a keyboard and mouse are connected. It could maybe allow file access for external devices only, so consumers could use e.g. a USB stick or HDD as temporary local storage. Offering a true, proper 4K user interface would also give users breathing room to comfortably work with presentations, graphics or video (Edge runs maximized as an Xbox app obviously). All of that is probably doable and it would transform any Xbox into a capable Cloud PC: there really was no major performance issue with the Xbox One S - and the Xbox Series S felt much, much snappier, as it features an SSD and more system memory. If Microsoft’s executives deem it an interesting use case, this "working in a browser on a console" thing, they could make it work.
For the time being, though, the Edge browser on an Xbox console is supposed to be used as a gateway for streaming services such as Google Stadia or Microsoft's own Xbox Cloud Gaming - testing out PC games on an Xbox browser via servers the cloud is as close to the Inception concept as we're ever going to get in real life - as well as Discord or any other Web service doesn’t have an Xbox app. Its announcement claims as much. This does not mean that it should be limited to those services. Microsoft could even conceivably work on a Remote Desktop app for the Xbox at some point, so as to enable Windows 365 access through its consoles - or let the service itself work through the Xbox Edge browser. A zippy €299 Cloud PC that can also play the latest Xbox games in 1080p? Yes, please!