APP OF THE DAY: Xbox SmartGlass for Android review

When Pocket-lint was invited to a briefing about Xbox SmartGlass in London, we were taken through a number of features and shown exactly what would be coming to Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 when it was launched. Those things have now happened and SmartGlass is available for those platforms (expect you won't be able to try it out on WP8 until the first handsets start to arrive).

Weirdly, however, Microsoft also told us that the iOS and Android versions of Xbox SmartGlass would not be available until "early 2013". So imagine our surprise when we opened Google Play and saw...

Xbox SmartGlass for Android

Format
Android smartphones
Price
Free
Where
Google Play

SmartGlass, in concept, is an excellent idea: control and integrate with your Xbox 360 using your phone, PC, laptop or tablet device. Sometimes that's as simple as offering a touch controller for internet browsing, sometimes offering additional information to accompany a game, movie or music track.

Its only problem at the moment though is that it is starved of content to interact with. At present there are only two games it works with - Forza Horizon and the Kinect-enabled Home Run Stars - and we've even struggled to get the former to work. But more on that later, let's look at the potential of the application...

There's no doubt about it, the second-screen experience is becoming more and more a part of a modern family entertainment. Twitter is on tap, it seems, during shows like X-Factor or I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! And during live sports, such as football. The smartphone and now tablet device have become important tools in helping people expand their opinions on content beyond the confines of their own family unit. SmartGlass is a natural next step.

Setting it up is a doddle. Download the app, sign in to the same account as your Xbox 360 and have both devices switched on at the same time - Bob's your uncle and Fanny's a rude word.

The application will recognise your Xbox 360 is sparked up and react accordingly. It can be used as a controller to swipe through menu screens, an extension of the Bing search engine, and a keyboard for interacting with Xbox Live when it needs it (we find it particularly useful with entering the painfully long voucher or download codes).

However, more impressive functionality comes when it's coupled with another new feature to have arrived during the latest Dashboard update: Internet Explorer.

Internet Browsing using a conventional Xbox controller is a miserable experience at the best of times. Long URLs are a pain to enter using the on-TV alphabet and moving the pointer over the screen is fiddly. Not so with SmartGlass. You get to use the touch controller as you would if browsing on a smartphone. Of course, that throws up the question of why you'd be browsing on the Xbox 360 when you could do it (a bit quicker) on your Android device, but hey, don't knock it.

Another interesting feature that is built-in from the off revolves around the interaction with Xbox Video and Xbox Music files. When playing either, you're treated to information and artwork on the cast, artist or other relevant details. This is the second-screen experience we we're looking for. It's added value and something we can see helping Microsoft's new Spotify rival attract subscribers.

We're also fond of the way Xbox SmartGlass for Android works with the "Social" aspects of Xbox Live. Not only do you get an animated version of your avatar on screen, with a shop to tart them up in ever more interesting ways, but also easy-to-navigate lists of your friends and - which will probably get more use - a message system that can page those on their Xboxes, even if they don't have SmartGlass.

Now we come back to the only major caveat we've found (apart from the occasional slow loading time for pictures and information, which we can forgive at this stage): try as much as we like on a Samsung Galaxy S3, we could not get the Forza Horizon GPS map to work. The app happily started the game playing on screen and gave us full details on the achievements we've already accumulated, but nothing else. No button for the SmartGlass functionality that the game promises, nothing.

We've heard that many Android device owners have been able to interact with the game just fine but, equally, we've heard from others who have experienced the same problems as ourselves. Microsoft even states that there should be no problems between Forza and the Android app, and it should even work from the bat (previously via a DLC update, but we're told that's not needed anymore). It does though suggest that there may be "configuration issues". We have installed Jelly Bean lately, so maybe that's it. Or maybe it doesn't yet work in the UK? Regardless, we expect an update in the foreseeable future.

In fact, there are a few teething troubles with Xbox SmartGlass for Android, but who'd expect it to be perfect from day one? Especially as we're not even meant to get it until "early 2013". Like all apps, Microsoft's innovative concept will get better with age.

NOTE: Please note that at the time of writing this review, Xbox SmartGlass is not available for Android tablet devices or iOS. We have heard though, that you can side load the app on to a Nexus 7 or other Android tablet. Try downloading it from an app store that isn't Google Play, or pull the APK from your smartphone and upload it to your tablet, if you have both.

UPDATE: For all those desperately fiddling with their settings to get the Forza Horizon GPS map to work on their phone, Microsoft has revealed that Forza compatibility is yet to make it to Android and that it's currently Windows 8 only.

UPDATE 2: Xbox for SmartGlass is now available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. You can download it from iTunes for free. It also features Forza Horizon support, something the Android app - at the time of writing - still lacks.

Have you managed to get Xbox SmartGlass for Android working with Forza Horizon? If so, let us know in the comments below... Similarly, let us know if you've been able to get it working on a tablet device...



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