Which of us hasn’t got an old smartphone sat in a desk drawer? For a modest outlay, that phone could be turned into a brilliant handheld Xbox console, letting you play hundreds of games without needing a full-blown Xbox.
Here’s how to turn an old phone into a handheld Xbox console that costs a fraction of the price of a Steam Deck or Nintendo Switch.
What you’ll need
- An iPhone or an Android smartphone with a USB-C connection
- A dedicated controller – I recommend the Razer Kishi V2, which has versions for iPhone and Android, but see below for more information on controllers
- A subscription to Microsoft Game Pass console edition, which costs $9.99 per month
How it works
With a controller such as the Razer Kishi V2 (pictured above), the phone slides in between the two sides of the controller. The Kishi has almost all of the buttons you would find on a standard Xbox controller, including the triggers and shoulder buttons. The only thing missing is haptic feedback.
There’s nothing to stop you using your current phone for this project, by the way. The phone slides easily in and out of the Kishi controller, allowing you to use the phone normally when you’re done gaming.
However, I prefer to use an old phone for several reasons. First, it means a phone call can’t interrupt a gaming session, especially if you’re playing an online game. It means you don’t deplete the battery on your main phone with a long gaming session. And it means you don’t have to keep sliding the controller and any phone case on and off. But if you don’t have an old/compatible smartphone available, your current phone can do this too.
If you’re using an old phone, I suggest you factory reset the phone and start afresh, so you don’t have app notifications and other stuff bogging down the handset. When you’ve refreshed the phone, install the Xbox Game Pass app from either the iPhone App Store or the Google Play Store.
Once you’ve got the app installed and signed up for an Xbox Game Pass account, you’ll be able to stream any of the hundreds of Xbox titles that are available for cloud gaming. There’s a huge range of games available, ranging from Fortnite to Forza Horizon 5, Halo Infinite to High on Life, Disney Dreamlight Valley to Dishonoured 2. There’s genuinely something for everyone on there, although you may find some games work better on the smaller handheld screen than others. I’ll come back to this later.
For optimal streaming performance, connect over Wi-Fi, rather than cellular. If you have the choice on your network, connect to either the 5GHz or 6GHz Wi-Fi band for the fastest performance. If you have to connect to a cellular network, you’ll probably need a 5G or strong 4G connection to get playable performance.
I’ve spent hours streaming games on my old Samsung Galaxy M31 phone this week, and it’s been a near-flawless experience. OK, you don’t get the offline play options that a Steam Deck or Nintendo Switch affords you, but neither do you have the big upfront hardware cost, and the range of games available to stream is huge. Trust me, you won’t get bored.
The Razer Kishi V2 ($99) is an excellent controller. It’s comfortable to hold, grips the phone securely, and the triggers are particularly well weighted for a mobile controller. Note there’s a USB-C socket on the bottom side of the right-hand controller, if you need to top up the phone’s battery while you’re playing, although this doesn’t have enough passthrough power for fast charging on my phone, which is disappointing.
There are other options, though. The Backbone One has a very similar design to the Razer Kishi, and that controller includes a headphone socket, which means you’re not reliant on (sometimes laggy) Bluetooth headphones if you don’t want to irritate others with game noise bleeding out of the phone.
Alternatively, you can connect pretty much any wireless game controller to your mobile phone via Bluetooth. Recent Xbox and PlayStation controllers are Bluetooth compatible, and you can buy a cheap clip for the top of the controller so that you can mount your phone on top of it, such as this one from Orzly. I’ve tried this approach before, and didn’t find it enormously satisfying, but your mileage may vary. And it’s a lot cheaper than buying a dedicated mobile controller.
Which Xbox games work well on mobile?
Console games are largely designed for the big screen, and not all games translate brilliantly to the much smaller mobile screen.
For example, first-person shooter games such as Fortnite, where you might have to shoot at a small target in the distance, are often difficult to play on handhelds. Not to mention the fact that cloud streaming can introduce extra lag, which isn’t ideal for competitive online shooters.
In my experience, games that work well on handhelds are the more sedate games, such as the turn-based RPG Chained Echoes, or Stardew Valley, or the brilliantly original adventure game, As Dusk Falls.
That’s not to say action games can’t work on mobile. I’ve had good fun thrashing around the tracks in Forza, for example, but I enjoy those games more on the big screen.