January 21, 2013

Hockey is Back! - Quick update at the end of the post

Yes, hockey is back!  The NHL finally got their act together and decided maybe they should play a few games this year so we don't forget they exist.  However, it will be a short season only 48 games long.  Might make things much more exciting though since there isn't half a season of "ho-hum, we have time to play hard later" games.

Because of the short season, the online broadcasting through NHL GameCenter is only 1/3 the price of last year's regular season viewing package.  On television they are pushing it like mad.  I figured for $50 I could try it out and see if I liked it  and not be too irritated if it didn't work out.  We have an Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone so 3 options to watch. 

NBC Sports tends to show far more games from the Eastern division of hockey.  We are in the viewing area for the Bruins, so we don't get much chance to see Western division teams play unless NBC Sports carries the games… mostly they don't.  This makes the GameCenter very appealing.  

Since I shelled out the cash, I figured I would review it. 

The rest is below the fold for those who could care less about sports.

Opening day…

First of all, there were three games that kicked things off, all starting at the same time.  NBC carried one game in our market Penguins v. Flyers.  At the same time 2 other games were being played;  Blackhawks v. Kings  and Jets v. Senators.  The only game we could watch via GameCenter was the Jets v. Senators.  The Blackhawks v. Kings game was blacked out.   One assumes this is because it was being carried by NBC even though it was not available in our area.

They tell you up front they will black out games when they are available in your market area on local television.  But the Blackhawks v. Kings game was not being shown on any station I could find, so I have no idea why there was a blackout.  Perhaps it was being shown on another stealth NBC channel, but I couldn't find it. Not an auspicious beginning.  

So, I tuned into the Jets v. Senators game via GameCenter on the Apple TV.  Supposedly you get the option of whichever local feed you want.  I tried both of them, just to see what happened.  The only feed for this game was from the Jets, it stated the Senator's feed was not available.  At first the video was terrible.  Very choppy, stop motion, pixelated, stuttering.  Basically unwatchable.  Toward the 3rd period things smoothed out. I was flipping back and forth between the televised game on the local NBC station and the Apple TV to see if things changed over time or if the bad video would continue.  Once the video settled down, then I could start to evaluate what I was getting.  While the quality was not HD, it was certainly watchable.  It has a sort of "tape" look to it, like watching highlights of old games.  The smoothest best looking game was the late night game between the Sharks and Canucks.  It looked nearly as good as the regular television feed and both choices on "local calls" were available.   

It's also slightly behind the live action, I figure by about 2 minutes or so.  This means if you are watching a twitter feed with hockey tweets, you'll see news of a score before you see it in action… please consider this if you like watching the game as it unfolds rather than knowing the score ahead of time.

Anyhow, back to opening day viewing. Then I tried firing up the iPad and iPhone to watch via the NHL game center apps. I wanted to see the quality of the picture compared to the Apple TV.  But, I got nothing.  The schedule would not load and it gave me the message that I was "offline".  Lovely.

Of course the store loaded.  Naturally.  They wouldn't want to miss an opportunity to sell a sweater or hat.  I think they were the ones offline.

I was afraid I had blown $50 and was going to get little in return.  So I emailed Customer Service.  The only problem I referenced was the Schedule not loading in the iPad or iPhone apps. I didn't touch on the stuttering picture via the Apple TV.

To their credit, they do have a message service directly in the app itself (under settings) and phone numbers to call for help.  It was nice to see they at least made it possible to easily get in touch.  I haven't gotten a reply to my email of two days ago, but so far it hasn't been an issue.  If things had continued as they had the first day, I would have been calling them.

Day two.  

I guess, even with the 113 day delay of the season opener, the NHL app was not quite ready for prime time on the first day.  By the second day they had worked out the kinks.  All the games without a local feed were available to watch.  All the "local calls" were available.  The stuttering was gone.  And while it still had that "tape" quality to the picture, it was quite different from day 1 and very watchable.  Excellent in fact.

Also, the iPad and iPhone apps were finally working.  Yay!!!  I was able to watch the games available on all 3 of my systems.  Surprisingly even the iPhone 4 (which doesn't have the fasted chipset) worked just fine.  The game on my iPad 2 - looked great.  On my iPad I had to do some jiggering to get the audio to work. At first all I had was a picture.  It turned out I had to start up the audio portion first then switch to the video feed to get the audio to work.  Didn't have that problem on my iPhone, but since I was able to get the sound, it's all good. It was great to see a couple of "full screen" options depending on what you like to see on the screen.  I prefer the letterbox view since it gives a wider screen.  Some people will prefer a full screen view but you lose the edges of the picture.  

Both the iPhone and iPad  were streaming over wifi.  I'm not sure a 3G connection would stream video all that well, but since I'm not close enough to a cell tower to test it without using the minitower as an intermediary, I didn't try it.  What I would like to try is the audio feed via my iPhone while out in the car at some point in time.  That would be fun having a game available while driving.  

I did see a tweet from someone last night.  He was trying to watch Game Center on his Xbox.  Sounded like he was having the same video stuttering issues I saw the first day I picked up the service.  Unfortunately it's hard to tell if it's a problem with the stream, his network, or just a first day break-in of the service or something else.  

Supposedly you can get a refund if the service doesn't work for you.  So, if you are a hockey fan, and you can afford the discounted service,  this might be the season to give it a try and see how it goes.

Happy watching! 

Update:  I received a canned reply from the NHL GameCenter help people late today.  It basically goes over the stuff on their own website and says:  if this doesn't answer your question, please reply to the email.  Apparently (not surprisingly) they have received quite a lot of requests for help.  So far I don't have to ask them what's up anymore.  Things are still working as of today.

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