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Hands-on with Second Screen: Bonus Blu-ray features on your iPad

When do "extra features" become "too many features"? We think it just happened.

Disney's Second Screen for iPad.
Second Screen: I only have two eyes. Scott Stein/CNET

While my iPad has become a second screen in many ways--as an e-reader, social-networking pane, video viewer, and more--a new series of apps from Disney is ready to take that into a whole new direction. Disney's Second Screen is a series of apps that take over your iPad and offer up a second screen of information during movie viewings, acting as a disembodied set of bonus features.

Second Screen is a feature that's currently offered on Disney's "Tron" and "Bambi" Blu-ray discs. Each movie has its own app in Apple's App Store. These apps are free, and hefty, too--the "Tron: Legacy" app clocked in at over 800MB, the "Bambi" app comes in at 498MB. However, you can't do anything with the app without activating a "Magic Code" found inside the Blu-ray disc's box. I made the mistake of downloading the app and leaving the Blu-ray box in the office, taking home the disc in a plastic sleeve. Unfortunately, the disc itself can't unlock the app, so I had to wait till the next day to Second Screen my home "Tron: Legacy"-viewing experience. Bottom line: don't lose that code.

Second Screen: Odd extras.
Second Screen is chock-full of odd secondary images like this. screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

The cleverest part of the whole Second Screen idea isn't its content: it's the app's ability to synchronize with the movie and play its related content alongside a time code of sorts that counts down in the upper part of the screen. An inaudible signal is what triggers the syncing, a technology Disney seems quite proud of. Indeed, it's pretty cool; when your Blu-ray player and iPad are on the same Wi-Fi network, the time code keeps sync even when you're fast-forwarding or skipping chapters. When the devices aren't sharing a network, the app relies on the audio cue to sync, and requires resyncing after a chapter skip. A tutorial at the beginning advises keeping the volume levels high enough for the iPad to register the signal. Second Screen also works via computer Web browser, though I didn't test that feature.

The app's timeline of gallery photos, brief video clips, fact bursts, and 360-degree renderings is fine for production shot fetishists, but I found myself getting bored with the offerings. You can skip ahead and browse back through the galleries while the movie's playing--the timeline glowed red when I was off the timecode, and a press of the number-count brought me back to the synced flow again. None of it felt worth my attention, but the more I stared at the iPad's screen, the less I paid attention to what was happening on my TV. The experience certainly didn't feel like it deserved nearly a gig of my iPad's flash storage.

'Tron: Legacy' on Second Screen
Is this worth 845MB of space? Depends on how into "Tron: Legacy" you are. screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

There are similar program-syncing apps for Disney/ABC TV shows in the App Store, including one for "Grey's Anatomy." I haven't tried those TV apps, but they already have an edge on the Second Screen Blu-ray app I tested: the "Grey's Anatomy" app clocks in at under 4MB.

One nice aspect of Second Screen is that the entire app is browsable from the iPad at any time, making it a free interactive book. The code from the Blu-ray is still required to activate, but I think I appreciate this app the most as a standalone companion, not as a simultaneously streaming source of information. If Second Screen featured commentaries, more-substantial historical details or reading materials, or something other than endless close-ups of Tron character helmets, I might be more inclined to like the concept. I have little enough attention to spare as it is.