Xbox SmartGlass Review: Microsoft Invades The Second Screen

An ambitious free app for Windows 8, Android, and iOS phones and tablets supplements the console experience with touch screens. Groundbreaking? Yes. Finished? Not nearly.

Xbox SmartGlass is Microsoft’s new second-screen experience for the Xbox 360. Using a Windows 8, Android, or iOS device, you can launch apps, play music, and control new game and video content, interacting with an additional layer of what’s on your TV through a unique touch-screen interface.


So let’s get the big question out of the way first: Is SmartGlass the ideal second-screen interface for your living room? Not yet, but it could be. SmartGlass teeters between simple genius and complete impracticality, ambitious scope and totally overlooked details.

This Is Really Hard
SmartGlass is deceptively ambitious. What Nintendo is attempting to do with a whole new console (the Wii U), Microsoft is adding to their aging Xbox 360 platform through a free firmware update. It’s not just a technological challenge, either. These systems are attempting to merge the second screen–what’s traditionally been a totally autonomous system like a laptop or tablet–with the television. This is new paradigm territory.

Practically speaking, this means SmartGlass must dumb down the experience a bit, eliminating for the sake of streamlining the secondary content of that second screen. But if the interface goes too far, we’re left with an inflexible platform that’s woefully crippled compared to, say, just following along with a movie on IMDb with an unchained tablet.

So What Works?
You load the SmartGlass app on your touch screen of choice, and it automatically syncs up with the Xbox via Wi-Fi. Log in just once, and your second screen is fully calibrated and ready to go.

The neatest part of SmartGlass is that once it’s synced with Xbox, it simply follows your television around. What I mean is, if you load Forza Horizon, SmartGlass will automatically sense that Forza supports the platform, and the moment you start driving in the game, your tablet automatically pulls up a GPS map for you to track your progress, waypoint to waypoint.

Internet browsing is probably SmartGlass’s biggest challenge, and yet its handling of the new Internet Explorer on the Xbox is better than any TV-surfing solution I’ve used to date. Your tablet goes mostly blank, serving as a touchpad to mouse around on your television. Click a text box, and SmartGlass pulls up a keyboard to type. Pinch to zoom. Double tap to open links. Once you get used to a slight delay between your gestures and your television (a delay I encountered with every SmartGlass app I tried on my latest-generation iPad), there’s little else to complain about.


Watching a movie on Xbox Video is satisfying in an entirely different way. Here you really want to look at the second screen, browsing IMDb-like profiles of actors or swiping through a scene search to skip ahead without using an Xbox controller. Xbox Music works much along the same lines, although it introduces a very different, album-cover-heavy browsing interface. And as the 2012 campaign came to a close, an ambitious SmartGlass election app enabled real-time polling and issue exploration through yet another UI.

SmartGlass Was Designed For Creativity, Not Consistency
All of these different interfaces and use cases reveal one of the platform’s primary weaknesses: No two SmartGlass apps are alike. Their interface, their aesthetic, their functionality–you never quite know just how much you’ll be able to control on the Xbox or explore from the tablet end. As a user, you’re constantly learning the new rules of many different bites-sized universes.

Microsoft has a good reason for heading in this less predictable direction; they clearly want third parties to create killer apps beyond the vision of Redmond (building on big gaming franchises like Call of Duty in the process), much like Apple relies on devs to produce the App Store’s greatest hits. But Apple, generally, appears to have a more rigid API-level influence on interface, meaning on your iPhone, Yelp actually feels a lot like Twitter–buttons all seem to work the same way, and can be found in familiar places. Though SmartGlass is all of a week old, I’m already getting the impression that in allowing game and entertainment designers to do anything, the core SmartGlass experience won’t have much consistency.

If You’re Streamlining, Really Streamline
You’ll also spot some oddities in the SmartGlass dashboard. It’s not a twin of your Xbox dashboard, but it’s quasi-related in feel and content. It’s more like a cousin than a brother, and I’m not really sure why.

Sometimes you’ll click buttons that take you nowhere. The SmartGlass’s most prominent panel, for instance, often features the Xbox 360 Dashboard. Click it, and you’re taken to a description of the SmartGlass dashboard experience. So the interface’s biggest button is just describing the interface?

And it’s almost never as easy to navigate to somewhere on Xbox using SmartGlass as it is using the actual Xbox interface and a controller. Why is this? Again, if Microsoft just duplicated the interface, it could at least be the same, not worse.


If You’re Going Seamless, Really Go Seamless
A surprising UI flaw cropped up when I was playing Forza, appreciating that GPS map I’d mentioned earlier. I wanted to see if I could exit out of this map on my iPad but keep playing. I ended up at the SmartGlass dashboard fine–so far, so good. When I reloaded Forza on my tablet, the game on my Xbox just closed. Errors like this just can’t happen if SmartGlass is going to become a casual second screen that could be operated by another person in the room. Users need to be able to hop in and out of the experience without the slightest fear of mucking things up in-game.

A similar oddity occurs when someone new signs in on your Xbox. SmartGlass on my iPad is only set up for my Xbox Live account. So when my wife logs into Live, the tablet disconnects. Tying SmartGlass to a console rather than a user seems like it would solve this issue, though it could impact the multiplayer gaming experiences. Either way, it makes little sense to neuter what is often simply a remote control, based only on who’s signed in. Again, predictability is a key component to any user interface.

SmartGlass Is Just Unpolished
No doubt, many of these odd user issues stem from looming competition. SmartGlass had to be tied to the Surface launch, so it had to be cranked out on a deadline. This new software is working on three very different touch-screen platforms, supporting several diverse Xbox apps, right at launch. This is just the bud of an entirely new branch of Xbox, but without Microsoft setting rigorous design standards, we’re going to have to wait for digital Darwinism to take its course, hopefully evolving some standards and practices for this second screen.

Because one thing’s for certain–that tablet already sitting in all of our laps isn’t going anywhere.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.