Xbox SmartGlass has been floating around for a while now, but we got a chance to check out some of the final features being added to it before it's available to everyone later this week. Here's the new stuff.
The biggest boost to convenience with using SmartGlass is probably the keyboard. You know how every time you've got to type in a password on your Xbox and you ponder whether you'd rather climb onto your roof and jump face-first into the arborvitaes or spend the 20 minutes required to select one letter at a time? SmartGlass fixes that by popping up the native keyboard every time you come to a text entry box. From what we saw, it's pretty snappy in the Xbox's Internet Explorer, and in other places you might need to enter a username or search term.
Browsing pages themselves is also made pretty easy. You use the tablet's surface to drag the viewing area around, and you can tap links to navigate around, and pinch and squeeze to zoom in or out. It works pretty well, but you get into some trouble on pages that have smaller links. Because Xbox IE always loads the full version of sites to display on your TV, some of the controls aren't touch-friendly, even though you're using nothing but touch. It's a compromise, but not a huge one.
Music and Movies
Here's where SmartGlass really shines, and is probably where you'll get the most real world use out of SmartGlass. You can use SmartGlass to control your music, either your local files, or streamed songs over Xbox Music. The controls are intuitive, and make your TV seem like a big, visual entertainment centre.
For video, you can press a "Play on Xbox" button, and your video will transfer from your phone or tablet to your Xbox. From there, you'll have a nicely designed control panel, and, basically, Amazon's X-Ray for movies feature -- only much better designed. Microsoft says it will be on 65 per cent of all "views", which is a sketchy metric, but chances are it'll be on any popular movie you watch. The Play on Xbox button changes into a play on tablet function when the movie is playing on your TV. The time between it swapping from one source to another is pretty quick, and I didn't notice any lost time or dialogue as it was changing over. At the very least, it's a much, much, much more fluid way to control your movies than clicking the shoulder buttons on you Xbox controller.
In Australia, we've been told that the sports partners include ESPN, NBA Game Time and UFC, but that was on a press release that cited HBO GO as available. A little addendum says that we'll find out regional availability "at a later date".
Sports are a natural fit for the second screen, so naturally everyone's trying it. For Microsoft, it makes sense because you can use SmartGlass to navigate through content from ESPN and the NBA, UFC, and NHL (in the US at least). That will include games through your cable provider, or ESPN over your ISP. You'll get the usual -- scores, rosters, stats -- and the strangely heavily featured ability to pick the winners of games (no one will use this).
The highlights and stats packages look pretty good, for something you're throwing up on your TV. But the strength of sports on SmartGlass is also a weakness. You're much more likely to want to use your phone or tablet to look at scores while you're watching a game, especially if you're using that phone or tablet as your remote. But without access to your fantasy teams, or some of the more granular stats on dedicated sports sites, it might not be enough for the kinds of fans who already have a tablet or laptop in the hands during games.
Some games will have a SmartGlass Duel Mode, which turns your phone or tablet (there are apps for Android and iPhone, in addition to Windows stuff) into, basically, a Wii U controller. You can use it to select what kind of pitch you want to throw in a baseball game, for example, and then you'll play a mini game to determine how well you throw it. It's a pretty neat feature, but it's totally developer-dependent, so it's not clear how much support you'll see built in going forward for content not all gamers will see.