Microsoft and Sony have made it clear that they want their consoles to be more deeply connected with gamers' lives. One easy way to do this is to hook into the smartphones we already carry in our pockets, and both firms have released companion apps for their consoles. But, as they stand, both apps are more experimental download than gaming necessity.
Allowing players to plug their mobile devices into the console is a smart move from the companies' perspective. Most people are always in easy reach of their smartphone, and there's certainly something appealing for gamers, developers and the console makers about having a gamer-to-console hotline running all day. For example, just as some online games allow players to monitor what's going on even when they're away from their computers, it'd be easy to imagine that console developers would want to make similar tools for their own games.
Sony and Microsoft allow users to control the console by way of a virtual controller, and the apps also let gamers use their mobile devices as a second screen in some cases. On either, you can see video clips of games you've saved, information on what your friends are doing and a rundown of your own personal achievements.
Overall, the Xbox team has done more to incorporate the app into the console. For the most part, users who already have the Smart Glass app for the Xbox 360 will see a lot that’s familiar about Smart Glass for the Xbox One. (It is, however, a separate app.) The app displays all the basics of your own profile: your achievements, the apps you've used most recently, and access to any messages left on your account. In a nice touch, users can also pin favorite apps on the console by way of their mobile device and the app will sync it automatically. If you've got your app open while you're playing, you can also choose from recently opened or favorite apps to run alongside your game with the “Snap” feature.
Sony's app is a little slower and a little buggier, but has some features in addition to profile access that may help gamers overlook those flaws. Chief among these is the option to chat over the PlayStation Network — in the Xbox One app, you can send messages, but there's no text chat. So if you want to set up a multiplayer date on your lunch break, that's super-easy to do within the gaming network. Sony also makes it much easier to buy things using its app, making sure you're never more than a couple of clicks away from the store. Purchases get pushed to the console, so they'll be ready to download when you get home.
It's probably worth a mention here that Sony has another approach to the second-screen experience, by way of its handheld device, the Vita. Using the Remote Play feature, gamers can push their big-screen games to their handhelds, potentially ending fights over who gets to use the TV. That apes a main selling point for Nintendo's Wii U — which allows users to play games on its tabletlike controller. That feature leaves gamers free to roam about the cabin, so to speak, even if they can't leave the general vicinity of their consoles.
For now, Sony and Microsoft's console companion apps are both works in progress, offering features that enhance but don't dramatically improve the overall experience of owning a next-generation console. In both cases, however, the apps do one important thing: They open the door for the console to escape the living room.