Apr 042011

Now that the baseball regular season is finally here, it’s time to take a look at all the ways you can consume as much MLB content as possible!

One great thing about the MLB is they make their content more accessible than any of the other professional sports in the US. Aside from watching directly on the MLB website, they have apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, PS3, Boxee, AppleTV, Roku, and probably your toaster oven. Only one other entertainment company comes to mind as being so widely available, and that’s Netflix. I find it refreshing that the MLB mostly gets it right, and I often find myself wishing the other pro sports would follow their lead. They don’t try to lock a customer into one source for watching or listening to games and reasonably price their content. This is in stark contrast to the NFL, which only provides access to all of their games through DirecTV at insanely high prices — not to mention having an exclusive video game deal which ensures that Madden will be the only NFL video game. Ever. Yes, I’m still bitter about the untimely death of the NFL 2k series.

MLB iPhone App

I have to admit, the MLB At Bat app for iPhone is one of my favorite apps. It was one the first apps I bought when I got my first iDevice, a second gen iPod Touch back in 2008. Through the years it has progressed and added more features. The app costs $15 and offers live game day audio for every game in every market, with both the home and away feeds. While it’s one of the more pricier apps I’ve bought, it’s great even for people who are only fans of one team, in that you can listen to the games anywhere, and provides a live game tracker that shows each pitch and the scoring. You’ll also get the latest news and highlight clips from every game, along with customized push notifications that can alert to game starts, end of game scores and highlights. As an added bonus, for the month of April, you get free access to MLB.TV in the app, which gives you live video of all games, however, the dreaded “blackout restrictions” apply, which means don’t expect to watch your local team on anything other than the actual TV channel that’s airing on. This year has a new feature, called “Live Look-ins” which provides a quick-look of a game where something interesting is going on like a late-inning rally. These live look-ins are blackout free, and are reminiscent of the NFL Red Zone channel. For full gameday video, anything outside your “market” is available. It’s worth noting that video quality is very good, even when viewing over a 3G connection. The app also has “check-in” abilities when you actually go to a game, which can sometimes offer special deals and other incentives.

MLB iPad AppTo go along with the iPhone app is a separate iPad app. When I say the MLB “mostly” gets it right, this is one area that is a bit disappointing. The iPad app is a separate app that also costs $15. It would have been nice to see it as universal app, even if they bumped the price to $20. The features are similar to that of the iPhone version, but with a different layout and accurate replicas of the real stadiums in their “Game Day” game trackers, using assets from Sony’s great MLB The Show game. If you’re a MLB.TV subscriber or a baseball junkie, you’re probably going to want both apps, but if you’re only interested in the game day audio, it’s probably best to stick with just the iPhone version.

I also had a chance to take a look at the free “apps” on Boxee, PS3 and AppleTV. These apps don’t do much aside from showing scores, unless you’re a MLB.TV subscriber. No gameday audio is available in a “lite” or free option. Being this is the first year I’ve subscribed to MLB.TV since I received it as gift subscription, I was excited to check out each option.

The PS3 version is definitely the most feature rich. Not only can you watch the games in HD, but you can rewind live games and zero in on highlights, as the video timeline is identified with markers and short descriptions of key plays like home runs, extra base hits, strikeouts, etc. While the interface is the nicest, I found the video and audio quality a bit problematic on the PS3. It frequently skips and stutters to the point where I didn’t want to use it, despite all the features it has that can’t be found elsewhere. It almost seemed as if the PS3 was struggling to keep up and acted like it was CPU stressed. Hopefully Sony and/or the MLB updates the app soon to fix those issues. Sony has a video tour of their MLB.TV app here — it’s very impressive.

MLB Apple TVIn checking out the AppleTV version, it’s not quite as robust as the PS3 version, but provided me with perfect HD quality, and timeline markers that indicate the start of each half inning, but no highlight markers. A very nice interface and a great way to watch the games, I can see this as my preferable way to watch MLB.TV on the big screen, at least until the PS3 version gets smoothed out. Lastly, I took a look at the Boxee app, which is probably the most stripped down, but provided perfect HD quality and worked well. After all, fancy features aside, watching the game in great quality is the most important aspect.

After opening weekend with an MLB.TV subscription, I’m enjoying it a lot. At a cost of $100 per year, it’s affordable when you compare it to other sport subscription and other entertainment options (i.e. Netflix is about $96 per year for a streaming-only sub). If you’re a fan of a team other than the local team or just enjoy watching games all over the country, then MLB.TV access is a must have. If all you enjoy is watching your local team and could care less about any other teams, consider the iPhone or equivalent smart phone app for the game day audio when you’re not at home and leave it at that. Being a bit of a baseball junkie and now having access to so many other games no matter where I am, I can definitely see myself being a regular MLB.TV subscriber.

Mar 142011

In what I’m expecting to be a bit of an Apple fanboy week for me (yes my iPad2 has shipped and is scheduled to be delivered this week), I wanted to share an experience I had of setting up a Mac Mini for my parents over the weekend.

A little bit of back story:  My parents are not the most computer literate people around, although they’ve grasped email and do some online banking, they’re not stuck in the stone age either.  They’ve used some form of a Windows PC for all of their computing experience, and really never even seen a Mac, let alone used one.  However, my parents, and my Mom in particular, are avid iPad1 users for doing things like checking/sending email, playing games and reading books.  They even stream some of their favorite shows at the breakfast table via the ABC app that they may have missed the night before.  They purchased their iPad last summer and have loved it since day one.  These are people without any technological biases, unlike many of us who pretty much eat/breath/drink tech every day of our lives.  They don’t really know the difference between operating systems (mobile or desktop), and could care less about Steve Jobs or any of that stuff.  They’d never get any of the snide jokes we make about Apple’s “walled garden” or Android being “open” when it only suits Google.  They just want things to work, and not require an extensive background in technology to do things.

They’ve had a Dell desktop computer running Windows XP for about 6 years now, which was getting to be quite sluggish and running out of disk space.  50GB doesn’t go as far as it used to, even for casual users with iTunes libraries full of music and lots of digital pictures.   I offered to set them up with a Mac Mini, to which they had no real idea what that meant.   I said that a Mac is a bit different than a PC, but for the most part things will be very similar, and possibly a little less stressful.  The vexing thing for my parents was always the need to manage antivirus on the PC.  I’ve tried to set them up with low maintenance solutions, first with AVG, and then going to Microsoft’s Security Essentials, but even that would have its troubles from time to time.  If it wasn’t able to update on a particular day, all sorts of errors and warnings exclaim that “your computer may be unprotected!”  Other cryptic and ominous sounding messages would tell them their computer was unsafe, even though the antivirus was active, it hadn’t updated in a day or two.  These are things that most computer savvy people may ignore, but something that can be unnerving to novices who hear things about a killer virus going around the internets destroying everything in its path, in the most sensationalist way that only main stream media can achieve.  Of course the first thing that was asked was “What kind of antivirus do you need to run?”  After telling them you don’t really need to worry about that (although, yes, there are plenty of Mac viruses out there, if you practice safe computing, you won’t need to worry about them) they were quite amazed.

The next thing they found amazing was the Mac Mini form-factor.  Apple has a way of creating something that is not only functional, but looks and feels great while doing it.  Love them or hate them, the Mac Mini definitely has one of the smallest and sleekest form-factors for a desktop computer.  Along with that, they noted how much quieter it was versus their old Dell, and that it wasn’t spewing tons of hot air after running for a while.

Getting them set up on the desktop was fairly straight forward.  Switching from the Start Menu system in Windows to the Mac OS X dock they found to be an improvement, and common things they do, like using Firefox, Gmail and iTunes were obviously unchanged.  The thing that really won them over was iPhoto.  Since getting their first digital camera around 4-5 years ago, they’ve taken tons of photos of pretty much everything.  I had previously tried to set them up with some ways to try to keep them organized on Windows, starting from just creating a folder organization scheme in Windows Explorer under “My Pictures” to introducing them to Google’s Picasa, and all resulted in limited success that I think served more to confuse them than to actually organize anything. Questions like “how do I email this picture to someone” were frequent and the answers always changed depending on the method the picture was stored.

iPhoto was just the thing they were looking for.  By dragging and dropping a backup copy of their photos into iPhoto, it automatically organized them into events based on their previous folder structure, and then started by recognizing every one’s faces.   My Mom even quickly learned how to do a slide show (without any help), and was amazed that it was no effort to do, with fancy animations and transitions, all set to music with just a couple clicks of the mouse.  I even had her scanning multiple pictures at once on her HP multifunction without any driver or software install procedures.

To end the whole thing up, as I left them, they were excited to go “play” on their new computer later that day, without my guidance or supervision, and are actually looking forward to using the computer, rather than just fighting with it to do the tasks they wanted to do.  For my next trick, we were already planning on replacing my Dad’s 4 year old iPod classic, which he uses religiously with all the traveling he does each month, with an iPod Touch, so I’ll show them Facetime so they can video chat while he’s away.

I was a bit unsure how they’d take the transition from PC to Mac and was a even bit surprised it on how smooth it went.  The whole experience reminded me that  Apple really does try to focus on the end-user experience so that your average day-to-day user doesn’t have to worry about what’s going on under the hood.  Just turn it on and go.  Even with the advancements Microsoft has made in Windows 7, it still can’t compete with Mac OS X in terms of usability, and there really are no Windows equivalents to the programs that come bundled with every new Mac in iLife.