At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last June, Microsoft introduced a secondary screen app called Xbox SmartGlass that provides additional content related to the game, movie or music being played on a user’s Xbox 360. After waiting nearly five months, the Xbox SmartGlass was finally released for iOS devices. Having spent some time with the app, I’m ready to give you an overview of its capabilities and tell you whether it has lived up to the hype. Hit the jump to dive in.
It’s Not a New App, Really
Our own Connor Turnbull reviewed an app this past August called My Xbox LIVE, which allowed users to manage their Xbox LIVE profile and launch content remotely on their console. The Xbox SmartGlass app as we know is essentially an updated version of the My Xbox LIVE app. Both offer up the same familiar Windows 8 interface design, as well as many of the same features (message friends, change your avatar, control your Xbox).
The SmartGlass Experience
At the time of this writing, only a few games actually utilize the SmartGlass experience (Halo 4, Home Run Stars, Forza Horizon and Dance Central 3). Unfortunately, I don’t own any of these games so I can’t provide insight as how the app performs with them. Instead, my review will focus on my experience in three areas — Dashboard Navigation, Xbox Video and Xbox Music.
If you previously used My Xbox LIVE to control your Xbox, you’ll know it was a bit of a hit or miss experience (my biggest issue was the inability to press and hold an arrow button to navigate). The control scheme for Xbox SmartGlass takes a new approach by offering up a new UI. Instead of four arrows on the left and the four familiar Xbox buttons (A, B, X, Y) on the right, the app utilizes gestures (yay!) to control your Xbox, and the X, Y and B buttons have been relocated to the four corners of the screen (the main [A] button is used by simply tapping the blank portion of the screen).
Navigating the Xbox UI is done by flicking in any direction (just like you would with the Xbox controller’s D-pad or joystick); even better, though, is that you can swipe and hold a direction to navigate quickly, which is really handy when browsing a long list of titles. In my first attempt to use the new controls I found myself wildly scrolling in all directions without any real sense of control; but, after spending a few minutes getting a feel for the controls I soon had it mastered.
It’s best to perform flicks quickly and with minimal distance between start and end points, otherwise you’ll navigate past your desired tile/item.
Xbox Video Experience
To give the Xbox Video SmartGlass experience a trial run, I rented The Amazing Spider-Man using using the app’s Bing search feature (a great tool for finding content quickly). When my search results were displayed, I tapped on my desired option, which transitioned me to an information screen about the movie. I wasn’t able to rent the movie from the app (Microsoft would have to give Apple a cut if it did), but tapping the Xbox Video icon (I was also provided an option to rent/buy the movie from CinemaNow and VUDU) immediately took me to the Xbox Video store so I could rent it via my Xbox.
As a movie is playing, the app will update to match the current scene (but doesn’t provide information about the scene, oddly enough) and provides a list of the actors appearing in the scene (tapping on the actor’s icon will open a window with the actors information and filmography). You’re also provided a Scenes option (this provides a visual timeline of scenes, allowing you jump anywhere in the movie by tapping a scene’s icon) and Full Cast & Crew option.
The bottom navigation bar, which is static as you navigate to different parts of the app, includes options to pause/play and skip chapters (tap and hold the buttons to rewind/fast forward). I found the features and controls to be useful, but they’re not really compelling enough for me to keep my iPad on the whole movie (even with the iPad’s great battery life). If the app provided more information about scenes, or soundtrack information (title and artist of the song that’s being used in the scene), I’d find myself keeping an eye on the app as the film progresses.
Xbox Music Experience
If there’s one area in which Xbox SmartGlass should shine, it’s integration with Xbox Music. If you’ve never used the Xbox Music app with the Windows 8 UI, it’s not the easiest to navigate with a controller (but that could be said about the Windows 8 UI in general). But, navigating Xbox Music with a touchscreen device using Xbox SmartGlass, could provide an ideal navigation solution (“could” being the operative word). Unfortunately, the app doesn’t live up to his idea.
When you open Xbox Music on the Xbox 360 console, there’s no special control system is place within Xbox SmartGlass; instead, you’re stuck navigating the UI with same built-in controller function. When you pick a song to play, the SmartGlass feature kicks in (similar to a video) and you’re transitioned to a new screen that provides similar play/pause and skip controls. On the right side of the screen, you’re shown “similar” artists to the one that’s currently playing (similar is in quotes because the results are a bit hit and miss). You also have the option to play the current artist’s top songs (sort of like an artist radio function), access your playlists, and search for and play a specific artist.
A Major Issue
One of the problems with how Xbox SmartGlass operates is that it requires you to be signed into your Xbox LIVE account for it to work, and because of the Xbox ecosystem, that’s really the only way Microsoft can make an app like this function. The reason it’s an issue is that Xbox often signs you out of LIVE for various activities, mainly updating games and apps. So, if you open the Netflix app and an update is required, you’re logged out of LIVE automatically and Xbox SmartGlass no longer works as a controller (defeating the purpose of the app and making you have to reach for physical controller).
The Bottom Line
Xbox SmartGlass isn’t a perfect app, but it definitely has features that will make using your Xbox a more enjoyable experience. I love that I can input text using the app, which is an extremely tedious task if you don’t own a Chatpad. Finding content you want is really easy with the Bing search feature, though I wish discovering content was more fleshed out (it’s a bit bare bones at the moment).
Bottom line, if you’re an Xbox enthusiast that loves the idea of controlling your console with your iPad, it’s definitely worth downloading Xbox SmartGlass (free in the App Store) and giving it a test run. I can say for certain that I won’t use the app for my full-time Xbox 360 navigation needs, but I can also say for certain that I’ll call upon it for the features the app does best.