Microsoft’s working on an Xbox Streaming Stick, which is codenamed Keystone, and it’s intended to bring Xbox Game Pass to as many homes as it possibly can.
While the feeling of unboxing a new console like the Xbox Series X or PS5 for the first time remains unmatched, the age of traditional consoles could be drawing to a close. With cloud gaming going from strength to strength, and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate now integrating the company’s Xbox Cloud Gaming streaming service, an Xbox Streaming Stick looks like the next step.
We say big, but it could physically be the company’s smallest device yet, which is certainly impressive considering how small the Xbox Series S is. An Xbox Streaming Stick would have much in common with a Roku Streaming Stick or Amazon Fire TV Stick than it does an Xbox Series X. But how will this work, when could we see it, and would it be worth waiting for?
Xbox Streaming Stick: Cut to the chase
What is it? A dongle-sized device that streams Xbox games from the cloudWhen is it out? The device has yet to be officially revealed, though rumor has it that Microsoft could release the new Xbox hardware by mid-2023.How much would it cost? That’s yet to be determined, but we’d expect significantly less than even the affordable Xbox Series S, and are hoping for a sub-$100 price tag
Is Microsoft working on an Xbox Streaming Stick?
(Image credit: M. Andrei)
The first part of the puzzle sits with Microsoft’s cloud gaming technology, known as Xbox Cloud Gaming. Now officially integrated into the Xbox app for smartphones and tablets, as well as being available on PC, an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription lets you stream games instantly from the cloud on mobile, consoles, and computer devices.
Xbox Cloud Gaming will also soon become a feature of the regular Xbox console hardware, from the Xbox Series X right down to last-generation Xbox One consoles, allowing players to play the latest, most advanced games via the power of their internet connections no matter how old their device is, and bypass the initial download waits usually required to jump into a game.
At E3 2021, Microsoft revealed its intentions to move beyond its traditional console hardware platforms for its cloud gaming services.
“Xbox is working with global TV manufacturers to embed the Xbox experience directly into internet-connected televisions with no extra hardware required except a controller,” it said in a press release, suggesting TV manufacturers would soon be offering a built-in Xbox app, ready to stream games from the cloud. There’s already precedent for this from Samsung, which offers the Steam Link app on its web connected TV sets.
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On top of this, and most crucially, Liz Hamren, CVP of gaming experiences & platforms at Xbox, revealed that Xbox is “also developing standalone streaming devices that you can plug into a TV or monitor, so if you have a strong internet connection, you can stream your Xbox experience.”
For those that can’t get hold of the highly-sought after new consoles, can’t upgrade their TVs to get the new television app, or simply can’t afford the high cost that such devices usually require, this could be an excellent entry point into the Xbox Game Pass ecosystem. Simply free up a HDMI port on your existing TV, plug in the dongle, and you could have access to hundreds of Xbox games through the Game Pass Ultimate subscription.
“We’re doing all this because Game Pass works,” says Hamren. “It works for consumers, and it works for publishers. With Game Pass, players spend 20% more time playing games. They play 30% more genres, and play 40% more games overall, including games outside their Game Pass subscription. In a recent survey, we found that more than 90% of members said they played a game they would not have otherwise played without Game Pass.”
Since then, Microsoft confirmed its Xbox Streaming Stick is still in development back in May 2022, revealing it’s codename is “Keystone”. Responding to a Windows Central report, which confirms that the device provides a “modernized HDMI streaming device”, Microsoft released this statement:
“Our vision for Xbox Cloud Gaming is unwavering, our goal is to enable people to play the games they want, on the devices they want, anywhere they want. As announced last year, we’ve been working on a game-streaming device, codename Keystone, that could be connected to any TV or monitor without the need for a console.”
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What can we expect?
The streaming stick market tends to be a race to the bottom in terms of price. Whether you’re looking for a Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick or Roku Streaming Stick, these relatively low-powered dongle devices are sold cheaply as their manufacturers intend to make money back through the content they sell, on-stick.
In the case of the Xbox Streaming Stick, it’d have a built-in money spinner in the form of the Game Pass Ultimate subscription required to access cloud streaming services. Though Microsoft will be keen to reap the slightly bigger margins associated with selling traditional consoles, the low-cost stick hardware could push the lucrative service to people who wouldn’t traditionally splash out on gaming gear. This isn’t taking into account however the potential to bundle in a controller with any streaming stick package.
It could also attract those that turn their noses up at the thought of having a big console box sat underneath their TVs. Streaming sticks tend to be small, USB powered dongles that take up a HDMI port on your TV and measure just a couple of inches long. They’re pretty much hidden from view at all times and, in the case of a proposed Xbox stick, would just require an additional Xbox controller to work.
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Streaming sticks are often relatively low powered and, with Xbox Cloud Gaming currently only targeting 1080p, Full HD streams wouldn’t necessarily need a huge amount of onboard processing power to feel snappy – provided a user’s internet connection was stable and speedy. Xbox could make a larger streaming device, like an Amazon Fire TV Cube or Apple TV 4K, and add the oomph to support 4K streams at a later date.
But that would push the price up, and make any streaming device begin to cannibalize the market space the cheaper Xbox Series S currently targets. There’s a sense that, given consumers already understand the point and usefulness of streaming sticks, Microsoft could get an Xbox Streaming Stick to market relatively quickly.
But the hurdle is getting people to buy into the concept of cloud gaming – it was difficult enough to get gamers behind the concept of digital purchases over physical releases, an idea that’s only now beginning to feel like the norm. Cloud gaming has to compete with the fact that if your web speed is running slowly or inconsistently, performance is going to be a choppy mess.
Xbox’s cloud technology is among the most advanced and stable that we’ve ever seen, but Microsoft will want to feel confident that it’s educated its audience well enough on what to expect – and that broadband market speeds can generally be expected to keep up with the demands of cloud gaming.
When will the Xbox Streaming Stick release?
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Alex Van Aken)
Microsoft hasn’t officially unveiled when it’ll release the Xbox Streaming Stick, but there are rumors aplenty. VentureBeat’s Jeff Grubb and The Verge’s Tom Warren both claimed in May 2022 that Microsoft is gearing up to launch the device sometime in the next 12 months. That means we could see the streaming dongle hit shelves as soon as mid-2023.
Given the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S only released at the tail end of 2020, that expected launch date is fairly surprising. Microsoft will be keen to sell as many Xbox consoles as it can before releasing this cheaper streaming alternative. If the streaming stick does release by next year, it’ll save plenty of potential customers from having to fork out on an expensive bit of hardware.
According to Grubb and Warren, Microsoft will launch the stick as part of a wider Xbox Everywhere project, an initiative designed to extend Xbox Cloud Gaming’s reach to more devices, markets, and players. The idea is to make Xbox streaming more accessible than ever by giving potential players, who would otherwise be turned off by the cost of expensive gaming hardware, an affordable means of hopping aboard the Xbox Game Pass.
Although a 12-month timeframe might seem wide, it’s best to take even this suspected launch window with a pinch of salt. Microsoft hasn’t yet officially announced a release window of any kind, and Xbox boss Phil Spencer has been known to get ahead of himself in the past.
He previously talked about the upcoming Xbox TV app way back in November 2020, suggesting he expected it to appear within 12 months. Well, 12 months has now been and gone, and still we’ve no native Xbox app for smart TVs. Let’s hope Xbox Everywhere is the project that finally puts the app and the Xbox streaming stick into our hands.