By a strict interpretation of the rules, in a very game-oriented way that is kind of hard to explain logically as the behavior of a real animal, the companion only attacks when you use up your own action to command it to do so. At higher levels, you get to basically share your own extra attacks, but it's not a net win. That makes beast companions questionable in combat — not necessary awful, but not really getting you anything (and no particular synergy).
However, movement is free, and once you get to 7th level, the direction to Help can be taken as a bonus action. That can be very powerful, and sets up a lot of possibilities for synergy. If your companion is an owl, it has a fly speed of 60ft, and the flyby ability avoids opportunity attacks — fly in, grant advantage, and fly out again. This great in cases where you go from nothing to advantage, and essential when you would otherwise have disadvantage. (Want to make a net fighter? Here you go. Hmmm, probably with a giant wolf spider companion....) And, you don't have to focus this on yourself — instead, grant advantage to the party's high-crit fighter, or whereever else it will do the most.
There can also be a lot of synergy with the ranger's role as a scout. Many possible companions have extra senses (darkvision, keen scent) and are skilled in Perception (so add your proficiency bonus to what's already there).
I think the house rule to give the companion a little more independent action isn't game-breaking, but if your DM/gaming group want to play this strictly RAW, Helpful companions might be the way to go.
An update, several years later: see the article The Ranger, Revised, part of the "Unearthed Arcana" series of exploratory mechanics and options published on the Wizards website. Among other things (largely, boosts) the Animal Companion is significantly reworked, and in particular the companion in this version now acts on its own initiative. If you're thinking of playing a ranger with a companion, ask your DM about this option.