Life with a Plugin Episode 20: Media Center's Sports Channel
I was conflicted at how I wanted to address the new Sports Channel which found its way onto the Sports row of my Windows Vista Media Center--such a good idea, but with so many flaws, so I felt it only fair to give it the same time and analysis as I give all Plugins and let users decide for themselves.
The Sports Channel is a new flash based plugin for Vista Media Centers and brings a variety of sports content to your living room for use with remote control. It's the integration of primarily content from CBS Sportsline's vault of videos and news, but it also attempts to tie in news content and videos from the Fox Sports, MSNBC and Queensberry providers from one interface.
Above and Beyond
The video below should give you a pretty good idea of what the experience is like. For the most part, the guys at Mimio who designed the app did a nice job. The interface is clean and peppy. The NCAA interactive bracket is easy to navigate and understand, and videos tended to load much faster than any other sports MCE app I have used in the past.
I did also love the fact that you can play the thumbnailed Queensberry fights from the Boxing tab without having to exit the app, and they start right away. I only wish that type of integration held true throughout the application.
If it appears like it was fairly difficult to come up with many positives, that's because there are more than a few ways the Sports Channel falters significantly. Let's start with the most significant--NCAA March Madness. From the first day when it was released, the main hype surrounding the app was how wonderful it would make the March Madness Experience. If you are any sort of March Madness fanatic, you would assume that would mean you would be able to stream live games from the entire tournament. If you are not aware, ESPN and Sportsline are both offering basically EVERY NCAA tournament game LIVE streamed via their websites, for free (CBS Sportsline has been doing this for years).
Instead--yet again--Media Center users receive a crippled experience. You get to experience an "interactive NCAA tournament bracket" which allows you to see some stats, but NO LIVE STREAM! For myself, that makes this application 100% useless, and I have resorted to using my keyboard and mouse to stream the games from a browser on my Media Center. Disappointing.
I wish the disappointment ended there. As I mentioned, this plugin is based entirely in Flash. While it allows it to be snazzy, it also makes it 100% INCOMPATIBLE WITH EXTENDERS! As if the lack of DVD Playback on Extenders wasn't enough to deter folks from buying them, now Microsoft-supported plugins are being released that don't work on them either. I understand Microsoft must follow the behest of the content providers, but it completely destroys the Extender model we've been pushing for years.
Lastly, it seems like everything was cobbled together rather abruptly. Outside of the Boxing menu which is a perfect example of how the multiple sports sources SHOULD have been integrated, the rest is a mixture of a variety of interfaces with a not-so-pleasant delay loading each ones. Between MSN Sports news, Queensberry Fight Network and CBS Sports, each interface looks completely different. I won't be too harsh on this, since I love the idea of tying in all sports into one portal, I just wish there was more uniformity.
Grade: Once a Month is Plenty
I make no secret of what a die hard sports fan I am (I'm still waiting for Picture in Picture, non-sports fans need not understand why), so it's with a sad heart that I can't fully endorse this product. As I thought about the app as a whole to the entire Media Center ecosystem, I think this benefits non-TV subscribers more than those with TV. For me--a digital cable subscriber--the Fox Sports Lounge does everything I need, allowing me to get sports stats while integrating wonderfully with those events available live through my tuner. Without a tuner, the Fox Sports Lounge is awkward, but that's where the Sports Channel dominates, having zero integration or need for any television service.
One thing I had hoped is the immense popularity of Boxee in such a short time would have convinced Microsoft that Media Center users are not willing to compromise what's readily available elsewhere just for a pretty user interface. MCE's Internet TV is a wonderful interface, but if the only full TV episodes you can watch are Arrested Development, then users will settle with going to Hulu.com for their content, even without the 10' interface. I think the Sports Channel suffers from the same issue as Internet TV had--why would a user go to the 10' Channel just to see highlights, when they can view live games via any ordinary browser.
Media Center will always be making compromises in trying to bring the power and breadth of all computer applications and websites, but efforts like these which seem to be obviously missing such core components concern me for the longevity and continued success of it. In the end, this feels (and would allow me to be less critical of Microsoft) like a CBS Sportsline video channel with a gimmick bracket that does not even tie into your own bracket picks. Whoever knew that the popularity of the NCAA Tournament would draw fans to this app, MUST have known that nobody remembers who they picked. Calling it the "Sports Channel" simply because it adds links to other MCE plugins completely different just comes across as lazy.
I love that more attention is being given to sports in Media Center, but feel that as successful and well designed as the Sports Lounge was, this was rushed and does not deserve to be on the same row.