Last week was a big week for Xbox fans. The latest dashboard update completely overhauled the user experience on the games console, iOS users got a dedicated app for Xbox Live and Windows Phone 7 users got the ability to control their Xbox using their smartphones. But how well does that work? We tested it out.
The latest dashboard update for Xbox was all about control. Microsoft did a pretty amazing job of streamlining its different technologies into a design that offers simple controls across three different methods: controller, voice controls and Kinect motion sensing. And although most Xbox users probably don't realise it, they also added a fourth option - the Xbox Companion app for Windows Phone 7.
The app is a free download from the WP7 marketplace, and is incredibly simple to set up. Because Windows Phone 7 already has Xbox Live as a component of its core operating system, there's no need to fuss around with logins and passwords. When you open the app, it clearly and concisely tells you that your Xbox needs to be on and the Xbox Companion option in console settings needs to be enabled before you begin.
Once you've adjusted those settings on the console, you select Next on the Phone and it logs you in and gives you control of your Xbox. What's more, it remembers all your details so you don't have to fuss about it again the next time you want to use the app. Once launched, a messenger message will pop up on your TV saying that you've logged in to Xbox companion, which should help you avoid any controller quarrels with siblings or offspring.
There are two main ways to use the app. The first is as a browser - the phone's screen offers a suite of functions of your console, from movie rentals to browsing - and launching - your games collection. It looks just like the Metro UI tile system of both WP7 and the new Xbox Dashboard, with a few pages to swipe through and control. This view is great for being able to launch Live games stored on your hard drive, or renting movies, although it's a shame you can't watch trailers or demos on the handset's screen, insted having to push everything to your Xbox.
The other main view is the controller view. It replaces the Metro UI with a four way arrow pad surrounding a green A button, with the blue X, Yellow Y and red B buttons along the bottom of the screen. Launching into this screen gives you direct control over your Xbox, letting you cycle through the new dashboard's tiles, menus and options using your handset.
It's pretty responsive - there's a tiny delay between pressing the phone's buttons and the action happening on screen, but it's not enough to stop you using it. What is enough to stop you from using it is that there are already SO many ways to control your Xbox that it's unlikely you'll ever take out your phone, launch the app, let it pair and then navigate around a D-Pad. Whether it's the new voice controls, the Kinect controls, your controller or a universal remote, pretty much every alternative is just a bit more convenient than the WP7 D-Pad.
That said, the app itself is a good launching point for future cross controls between WP7 and Xbox. Throw in remote streaming, the ability to use your phone as a second screen in games (like the Wii U or PS Vita will offer) and the ability to play some Live games remotely over 3G, and this app will not only get used, it will actively sell WP7 handsets. Of course, all that's probably going to take a while...