Not all apps are created equal - the sometimes-brilliant use of Xbox SmartGlass
The Penny Arcade Report lamented the decision by Microsoft to release their Xbox SmartGlass app with support only for Windows 8 devices. An app that was designed to bring unity and accessibility was walled off behind exclusivity, and with no suggested time frame on when it would reach Android and iOS, SmartGlass was dead in the water. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait long for SmartGlass to extend its reach. Now that the app is available on Windows 8 devices, Android devices, and iOS devices, we decided to give it a test drive.
Come on people now, get together
SmartGlass' goal is to unify your home devices and give them a single routing point: the Xbox 360. Consoles have long abandoned their design as a gaming-only device, and Microsoft has been particularly aggressive about turning the 360 into a home entertainment solution. That means making the console more accessible and understandable to non-gamers, and SmartGlass is a good step in that direction. SmartGlass is quite fast; the moment you open the app with your Xbox 360 powered on, a notification will pop on the screen, letting you know a new device has successfully connected. I have an iPhone 4s and iPad 2, and both were able to connect without problems, even running SmartGlass at the same time. The interface reacts quickly, is visually appealing, and is easy to navigate on both phone and tablet. My only gripe is that while SmartGlass itself reacts the way you would expect, controlling your Xbox with your connected device does not. On both phone and tablet, SmartGlass has its own menu, with five tabs to swipe through. In order, they are: Bing, Home, Social, Recent, and Discover. You pull each of these to the main area of your device with your finger, so for example, if you wanted to go from Home to Social, you would drag your finger right to left across the screen. When you use your device as a controller for the Xbox dashboard however, it's inexplicably reversed, so that you now “push” your way to what you want. To go left to right, you drag your finger left to right. That's not how most touch UIs work, and SmartGlass' own menus don't work that way, so why did Microsoft choose to switch things up when you use your device as a controller? It's counter-intuitive and confusing. The app's usefulness isn't limited to video games. Microsoft has stated that 40% of Xbox use is non-game related, and SmartGlass acts accordingly. You can create playlists and look up artists while using Xbox Music if you have an active account, and your SmartGlass device will display additional information about the artist currently playing on your TV. A video guide app can also enhance the experience of watching a TV show or movie through Xbox, including scene navigation, cast and crew information, and playback options. Unfortunately, while every TV show and film I tested had basic info and playback controls, not all films have full SmartGlass compatibility. I also took the opportunity to use SmartGlass to send a message to a friend through Xbox Live since I don't have a keyboard controller attachment. Oh, the ease and joy of using a full-sized virtual keyboard! Typing on the iPad is much easier than entering text with the Xbox 360 controller. You can also use your device to control apps like NBC News, HBO GO, and ESPN, though in many SmartGlass compatibility just means you can navigate menus with your device; there's nothing special or extra to gain by not using a controller. You can find a full list of compatible films and apps online.
Of course, the big question for players is how well SmartGlass works with games. Is it, as I suggested in an argument with Ben, something that undercuts the Wii U's touchscreen? Right now, the answer is no. That's not to say it doesn't have its use or appeal, but while on paper there are many things to admire about SmartGlass – you probably already have a compatible device, the resolution on many tablets and phones exceeds the Wii U GamePad, you're likely familiar with the features of Xbox – in practice it's not convenient enough. The biggest problem with SmartGlass is the fact that you can't hold both your device and controller at the same time. This means that either SmartGlass will function as something for someone else to use while you play, or you'll constantly be switching focus when using SmartGlass alone. I've had trouble swapping attention between the Wii U GamePad and the television with what hands-on time I've had, but SmartGlass requires so much focus it becomes more of a cool novelty than something truly useful. For example, you can access your Halo 4 stats while you play, and get all kinds of cool info regarding commendations, achievements, KDR, and more. You can even watch cinematics from Spartan Ops and the game's hidden terminals. It's all incredibly detailed information the information is conveyed well. But if you already have Halo 4 running, what's the point? You could just as easily – more easily, even – flip through those stats on the television with the controller you're already holding instead of shifting attention, change what you're holding, and scrolling via a SmartGlass device. It's nice to show off your stats and have them detailed before you, but trying to use SmartGlass during a game of Halo isn't very appealing. This is the power of the Wii U: the screen is already in your hand as you're playing. You need only look down to use it. Ben tested SmartGlass with Forza Horizon, and the ability to look at the map in real time while someone is driving the car is neat, but he found the experience too laggy to be enjoyable. Dance Central 3 does a better job of making SmartGlass a viable option. Its SmartGlass implementation works in conjunction with the game's Party Time mode, where shortened versions of songs play and players don't need to navigate any menus or select difficulty. The songs are usually shuffled at random, but SmartGlass allows you to play the role of DJ and set up a queue or playlist while others dance. I tried this with a group of friends and it worked well. A player who wanted the next song could take the iPad, flip through songs, and choose while another player danced. It takes a lot of the downtime out of the process, and reduced stress on friends who were having trouble getting Kinect to recognize their arm swipes during menu navigation. The app also lets you track your progress on leaderboards and challenges in-game. Right now the app doesn't have a solid identity; is it a remote control for your Xbox? Is it there to augment your game? Is it something to give more information? It could be all of the above, and it seems like developers are still figuring out the best way to make use of the technology. It's important to note that this is just the beginning of what is possible, and it may take some time and the right games to take advantage of what the system is capable of doing. The foundation is here, and it's solid. Given time, support, and proper guidance it could grow into something that's a competitive advantage for Microsoft. It's free too, so if you have the compatible devices, downloading SmartGlass should be a no-brainer. The question is whether there is enough here at launch to make you want to do so.