Game consoles have become entertainment centers that can be used to play Blu-ray discs, stream Netflix and talk with friends. These extras features have expanded so quickly, in fact, that they’ve outpaced the interfaces Microsoft and Sony designed. A game controller isn’t a terrible remote, but it’s not a great one, either.
That’s where your mobile device comes in. A tablet or, in some cases, a smartphone can be used to access or activate some console features. This is new frontier in app development, so the options are limited, but what’s available can be convenient.
The SmartGlass app for Xbox 360 and Xbox One is the eight hundred pound gorilla of console companion apps. Nothing else compares to this app’s scope and functionality.
What does SmartGlass do? Just about everything. The app works as a remote control for your Xbox and, since it’s a first-party app by Microsoft, it has access to most of the important features. You can sign into your profile, view your activity, browse the Xbox marketplace and, best of all, control your console.
For example, you can use the SmartGlass app to browse the web via Internet Explorer, and using the app for this purpose is worlds easier than trying to use the gamepad alone, particularly when inputting text and URLs. You can also start, stop and browse media and navigate the Xbox interface.
There are some games that add some functionality via SmartGlass. Halo is the most notable, and players of the game can view their profile and load-outs via the app. Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut provides the ability to perform certain tasks, like the hacking mini-game, on your tablet. And Forza Horizon offers a beautiful map of the game world.
These are exceptions to the rule, though; there’s no official list of SmartGlass enabled games, most likely because the list would be very slim indeed. Most games that can be paired with your smartphone or tablet instead do so via stand-alone companion apps, which I’ll touch on in a moment.
You can use this app on just about any mobile device currently on the market. Android, iOS and Windows and Windows Phone are supported – only Blackberry and OS X users are left out. The app is free to download and use with no strings attached, but you do need the correct version, as there are separate apps for Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Sony has its own console companion app, blandly called the PlayStation App, and it’s very much an analog to SmartGlass. You can use the app to control console functions as a remote, which is often more convenient than the gamepad.
One useful feature is the friends functionality; you can use the app to chat with your buddies or check out their profiles. Unless you have a keyboard attached to your PlayStation (and let’s face it, most people don’t) this is far easier than chatting using the gamepad.
You can also use the app to browse Sony’s store and purchase games or media. This can be handy because it automatically “pushes” the download to your console. In other words, you can purchase a game at work and expect it to be ready when you get home.
Unlike SmartGlass, however, the PlayStation App is designed with the PlayStation 4 in mind rather than both of Sony’s consoles. Some features do work with the PlayStation 3, but you can’t use the remote control features with the PS3.
The PlayStation App is available on Android and iOS. There’s only one app, rather than separate versions of PS3 and PS4.
YouTube has a handy pairing feature that can be used with all the major consoles (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4). This isn’t strictly a console feature, because it also works with TVs that have a YouTube app, but it works best with consoles due to their superior interface and hardware.
To activate the feature you need to pair your current mobile device with your console. Begin by downloading and then opening the YouTube app. In the main menu you’ll see a pairing option. Select it and note the code provided.
Now open a browser and go to youtube.com/pair – you’ll need to be logged in for this to work. Enter the code displayed on your console and you’re pretty much done. You’ll now be able to send YouTube videos from your mobile app to your console by tapping the pairing icon in the YouTube app on your smartphone or tablet (it looks like a TV screen with a WiFi symbol).
This effectively turns your mobile device into a remote, as the video plays only on your console. You’re then free to browse other videos, pause, play or scroll through the currently playing video, as well as queue up content to watch in the playlist.
Game-Specific Companion Apps
In addition to these three well-known apps there is a wide variety of companions designed for a specific game. Seven of the ten best-selling console games of 2013 had companion apps, including:
Most of these apps are used only for managing friends, character loadouts and viewing your current game progression. The apps for Tomb Raider and The Last of Us are arguably not even companions, but instead paid game guides that help you find hidden treasures and complete achievements. Grand Theft Auto V’s iFruit app and Battlefield 4’s Battlefield Commander are the only apps on this list that provide gameplay, albeit in a limited sense.
However, while today’s companions are underwhelming, we’re likely to see more (and better) apps in the future. Tom Clancy’s The Division, due for release in 2015, is a good example. The game’s developers have previewed an alternative tablet game mode that lets players enter the world as a UAV and call in airstrikes or spot enemies.
Companion apps are still in the early stages of development. Smartglass is the furthest along and allows access to most of Xbox’s features, but Sony’s own effort is gaining steam. The real room for growth, however, can be claimed by third parties like Netflix and game developers.
What would you like to see from console companion apps? Do you want more media features, or do you want games to expand gameplay to your mobile device? Let us know in the comments!