An Unlikely Union: Microsoft SmartGlass for Android Review

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SmartGlass “Remote” Interface

Despite some concerns and doubts from the community early on, Microsoft has finally released its SmartGlass application for Android. For those who aren’t acquainted with the technology, SmartGlass allows various PC and mobile operating systems to directly control the Microsoft Xbox 360 game console. Users are able to control most aspects of the Xbox interface (and select games) right from their device, reducing the need for the traditional controller or media remote.

The application is certainly not perfect, but does hint at an intriguing future where consumer devices will communicate with each other beyond the traditional barriers of manufacturer or operating system.

Xbox SmartGlass

With the Xbox SmartGlass application, users are able to:

  • Navigate your Xbox 360 with swipe and tap
  • Use your phone’s keyboard to type to your Xbox 360
  • Browse the Internet on your Xbox 360 with full keyboard and zooming
  • Play, pause, fast forward, rewind, and stop videos and music on your Xbox 360
  • Search the full Xbox catalog of music, video, and games
  • Enjoy rich, interactive experiences from select game and entertainment content creators
  • Track and compare your achievements with your Xbox friends
  • Change up your 3D avatar
  • Message your Xbox friends
  • Edit your Xbox profile

A number of these features (such as being able to check the status of your friends, or edit your avatar) were already made available to Android users through the existing “My Xbox Live” application. It’s unclear at this point if the previous application will be removed from the Play Store in the future, or if this feature overlap is intentional.

The most important features however are those which allow your Android device to directly connect to the Xbox 360. Beyond acting as a gesture-based input device, you are also able to directly launch applications on the Xbox without having to descend into the normal maze of menus. Tapping “Netflix” on your Android device immediately sends your console on its way to the app, rather than having to fumble around with the Xbox’s often convoluted Metro-style UI.

Usability

“Now Playing” Info in SmartGlass

While it’s too early to tell how well individual games will end up using SmartGlass, using it to navigate the Xbox’s interface and handle media functions is fairly useful. You can navigate the system pretty quickly without having to find your controller, and being able to directly launch applications on the Xbox from your device is indeed better than anything offered in the native dashboard.

One of the major selling points of SmarGlass was always that you could use it to control Internet Explorer on the Xbox much more effectively than you could with the actual Xbox controller. This is surely true, as the Android SmartGlass app lets you move the mouse cursor around by dragging on your device’s screen, and even supports gestures such as pinch-to-zoom.

But in the end…you’re still using Internet Explorer on the Xbox.

It certainly isn’t a very good browsing experience, even with the improved input offered by SmartGlass. The issue is compounded by the fact that you could just as easily open up the page on your Android device, likely much faster than your Xbox could do it. In fact, there is even a button in the SmartGlass UI to take the current page your Xbox is viewing and open it up in the Android browser.

Of course, there is something to be said for being able to view pages on your TV, but it seems more of a novelty than a realistic way to browse the Internet.

Annoyances

SmartGlass for Android is an initial release, and as such you can’t be too critical with it. But there are a couple of very annoying things which simply can’t be ignored, even at this early of a stage.

The worst has to be the fact that the SmartGlass application disconnects from the Xbox if the Android device goes to sleep or if you switch to another application. This might not seem like a big deal, but consider that certain tasks (such as launching Netflix) can take longer than Android’s default sleep time. So by the time your application has finally popped up on the TV, your Android device (unless you intentionally twiddle with it to keep it awake) has gone to sleep. This means you need to power it back on and sit through the connecting process again, which can take anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds.

As another example, imagine you where watching a movie and wanted to pause it. You would need to turn on your Android device, reconnect to the Xbox, and then press the “Pause” button in SmartGlass. We’re talking about a good 30 seconds to a minute between the time you decided you wanted to go to the bathroom and when the video actually paused. In situations like this, SmartGlass just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, when you could instantly pause the video using the Xbox media remote or a voice command with Kinect.

Another issue is that the SmartGlass application interprets gestures in the opposite of how we are used to on Android. If you want to scroll to the right on Android, you would touch the screen and slide your finger to the left; or if you wanted to go up on a page, you would drag down. That’s because Android (like other mobile operating systems) interprets your input as if you were grabbing and moving a physical object, complete with physics (flicking faster moves farther).

But with SmartGlass, your swipes are interpreted as button presses on the Xbox controller. So if you want to move to the right on the screen, you can’t drag the screen left, you actually have to slide your finger to the right. Similarly, there is no physics at work, so no matter how hard or fast you swipe, the Xbox UI is still going to see it as one button press. Forget about flying though that long Netflix queue like it was your Android contact list, you’re stuck stepping through them one at a time.

This is extremely disorienting, and makes the whole experience very jarring. You have to forget everything you know about interfacing with Android just to use SmartGlass, otherwise you literally won’t know up from down.

As it stands, the SmartGlass interface might as well have a picture of a D-Pad on it, so at least the user understands that their input will be interpreted as such, rather than how they are used to.

Finally, for some unknown reason, the SmartGlass application is only for Android smartphones, not tablets. Dreaming of using that shiny new Nexus 7 to control Hulu on your Xbox? Sorry, not going to happen (not yet, anyway).

Conclusion

SmartGlass for Android is admittedly a very promising product. The very idea that you can control your Microsoft game console with your Linux-based mobile device is thrilling, and you can’t help but wonder if we may yet see the day that the artificial limitations placed on our consumer electronics will start to be lifted. What’s next, an Xbox that uses PlayStation controllers?

But the app, at least in its current form, is plagued by enough problems to make using it a lot more annoying than it should be. The SmartGlass app feels like a square peg in a round hole: if you push hard enough, it will sort of work.

If Microsoft puts some more time in polishing the application and better implementing it so that it feels natural on Android, they could really have something here. More than just a good Android app, they may be able to change not only how we interact with our home theaters, but how we perceive Microsoft as a company.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • jfr

    The strangest thing about Smart Glass only being available on Android phones and not on tablets is that if you manually copy and install the app on a Nexus 7 (bypassing the device check from the Play store) it runs absolutely fine. Seems like the limitation is arbitrary.

    • http://profiles.google.com/deanhowell2 Dean Howell

      I am continually annoyed by the number of applications out there that don’t support the Nexus 7, even though they should. Fail.

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  • Dan Metza

    My galaxy s2 doesnt take anywhere near that long to go from its sleep state. it reconnects the moment I swipe to unlock my screen…maybe 5 seconds at most.

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      After playing with SmartGlass some more, it turns out that the app does not directly connect to the Xbox at all, and instead calls out to Xbox Live and the button presses are routed to your console through some kind of push messaging.

      So performance ends up being determined by a lot of factors, such as how much bandwidth you have, what other things you are running on your Internet connection, load on Microsoft’s side, etc, etc.

      Using it today, sometimes I have it connect almost instantanously, sometimes it takes the better part of a minute. It varies a lot more than I would like.

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  • ET3D

    Pity it requires Ice Cream Sandwich minimum. Would have been better if it ran on older phones and low end ones.

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