Ever catch yourself checking e-mail or browsing the Web while you're watching your favorite show? You're not alone. A recent survey found that 42% of viewers use a smart phone or tablet while watching TV.
Now you can do a lot more with a second screen than post snarky comments on Twitter. Tech and media companies are rolling out apps and gadgets that let you send video wirelessly from a phone or tablet to your HDTV, get more information about the show you are watching, and use your device as a remote control.
Mirror, mirror. Mobile devices make convenient video players. But to get the thrill that only a big screen can provide, try Apple's AirPlay Mirroring app. With it you can wirelessly sling whatever is showing on your Apple phone, tablet or PC (but not your Windows or Android devices) to an HDTV — as long as you also have an Apple TV media-streaming box ($99), which acts as an intermediary. AirPlay Mirroring can transmit anything that's on your mobile device, including Web pages, games and photos, so it's handy for slide shows and other shared activities.
A free Google YouTube app does a similar trick for Android users: It sends video wirelessly from a phone or tablet to a TV or set-top box equipped with Google TV, an Internet-meets-TV platform that has been slow to catch on since its debut in 2010. To be fair, Google continues to improve the service, which comes pre-installed on a limited number of devices, including LG G2 series smart TVs.
Xbox SmartGlass is a free app for Android, Apple iOS, Windows Phone and Windows 8 devices that turns your phone or tablet into an Xbox game console. Plus, when you start a movie, TV show or game, the app automatically detects second-screen content, such as movie trivia and photo galleries, and retrieves it.
Cable providers are also jumping on the second-screen bandwagon. If, for example, you hate the remote that came with your cable box (and who doesn't?), try an app instead. Verizon's FiOS Mobile Remote (Apple iOS and Android) not only controls the set-top box but also lets you record TV shows and movies on your DVR from wherever you happen to be — assuming that there's an Internet connection. Free mobile apps from Xfinity and Time Warner Cable offer similar capabilities.
Nintendo's new Wii U game console ($300 and up) fully embraces the second-screen concept. The handheld Wii U GamePad controller comes with a 6.2-inch LCD touch screen; swipe a finger across the screen in games such as Nintendo Land (included with the $350 deluxe package) and you can fling virtual objects from the device to the big screen. The handheld display shows information that enhances what's on the TV screen, making both devices essential to game play.
Netflix reportedly has big plans to make use of a second screen, but its initial effort — syncing with Sony's PlayStation 3 game console — is modest. For now, the Netflix smart-phone app lets you automatically start playback on the screen attached to your PS3, says Linda Barrabee, an analyst with NPD Group.
Of course, a second screen isn't ideal in every situation. "Personally, I'm a big fan of Homeland," says Barrabee. When it's on, she says, "I don't want to do anything but watch Homeland."