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May 6, 2010

Squawking Baseball

At Bat for iPad Review

by Shawn Hoffman

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Back in January, when Apple finally debuted the iPad after years of speculation, Major League Baseball was one of the few companies invited to demo their application live at the unveiling. After seeing MLBAM's presentation, it was no wonder: At Bat for iPad looked incredible, particularly MLB.tv, and I went as far as to call it "the future of baseball broadcasting."

So needless to say, my expectations were very high, and anything but an outstanding app would have been a major disappointment. Well, after my first week with a 16gb 3G iPad, I'm no less enthusiastic now than I was back in January: Watching baseball on this thing is an absolutely awesome experience, and it is probably the best implementation of MLB.tv I've seen on any device. At Bat for the iPad has already become a staple of my daily routine, and while it's certainly not perfect, I can't imagine that there is a hardcore baseball fan on Earth that wouldn't love it.

Now before I get overly gushy (or even more gushy than I've already been, I guess), let's get into some of the app's negatives:

The Player Cards Suck

I really wanted to avoid repeating anything I wrote in my At Bat for iPhone review, but this is kind of ridiculous. The player cards are exactly the same as they are on the iPhone/iPod Touch, with the same odd choices of stats. Honestly, I don't get it; this is a really important part of any sports app, let alone the sport's official one. Here's hoping these are fixed sooner than later.

There's No Standalone Video Section

At least that I could find. What's cool on the iPhone is that you can see a general feed of videos, including those for news events, the daily Fastcast, etc. On the iPad, it's only game highlights—which are still cool, just a bit limited. It does have standalone sections for news and standings, which are useful, but neither really takes advantage of the form factor—I could just as easily look at news or standings on my MacBook or iPhone, whereas the video experience on the iPad is far better than both.

MLB.tv Isn't Feature Rich... Yet

As you'll read in about thirty seconds, MLB.tv on the iPad is the best implementation of it I've seen in terms of quality and stability. However, if you're used to some of the more advanced features on the desktop version, you won't find them here. It does have on-demand box scores and field view (see below), but that's about it. Among other things, the iPad version lacks multiple-game view, DVR, and highlight alerts, all of which have spoiled the hell out of me. (Sometimes when I'm at a sports bar, in my mind I feel like I should just be able to touch one of the TVs to turn the sound on for that game. Wish I was kidding.) I wouldn't expect these features on the first generation iPad, but I really do hope highlight alerts are on next year's.

And now on to the positives:

Quality and Stability Are Off The Charts

This was even better than I had expected. It's literally like having a mini-HDTV on your desk, and it's far more stable than the full version of MLB.tv that you would use on a regular computer. For all the people who complain about not having flash on the iPhone or iPad, this is a direct benefit—there is no doubt in my mind that MLB.tv will be just as good on the desktop when it inevitably moves away from flash, as it's been forced to on the iPhone and iPad.

The Case/Stand Makes For A Really Cool Setup

It's still cool if you don't have it; it just gets uncomfortable on your lap after a couple hours.

Battery Life Is Insane

I've written before about how MLB.tv just destroys the iPhone's battery—not only does it drain you pretty quick, but it also makes the phone feel like it's about to burst into flames after about 5-10 minutes. The iPad, on the other hand, sips battery like no portable computer I've ever seen. The math is pretty simple: for every hour you watch live streaming baseball, you lose about 10 percent on your battery. On Sunday, I watched games straight from 1:30 p.m. to about 6:30 p.m., and still had 47 percent left. If you've ever tried to power-use an iPhone for anything close to a full day without charging it, you'll know how nice a feeling that is.

Gameday Is Pretty Cool Too

It won't blow you away, but if you follow Gameday while you watch games on TV (which I do sometimes, but not religiously), this will free up your PC. It's more than solid enough, with most of the standard Gameday features—pitch-by-pitch, box scores, summaries, field view, and highlights—that you can watch without having to leave the home screen:

Verdict: It's Awesome

MLBAM has taken something of an Apple-like approach with this app: they're not trying to do everything, but the things that they are doing, they do incredibly well. MLB.tv is fantastic, and Gameday is very solid. I think (hope) they'll fix the issues I mentioned above, but those are really nitpicks. As much as I've criticized MLBAM from a business perspective, their technology continues to blow me away. And for that, hats off.

(Note: I wrote this entire post using the iPad. I complained about the typing when I tested it in stores in April, and again when I first got it. But while it's certainly not perfect, it's pretty damn good. If you don't have the case/stand, the key is holding it in your fingertips instead of your palm, as you would with an iPhone; that will let you reach the keys easier with your thumbs. If you do have the case, then it's a whole different ballgame—you can easily set it up on your lap with a slight slant, and touch type as you would on a regular physical keyboard. It's just as fast when you're just typing letters, if not quite as effective. Correcting errors is still a pain, as is finding numbers, special punctuation, etc. But in general, it's a much better experience than I expected, and while I probably won't be using it to write many long-form articles, I won't be afraid to leave my MacBook at home if I'm going away for a weekend.)

Shawn Hoffman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Shawn's other articles. You can contact Shawn by clicking here

Related Content:  MLB Gameday,  Mlb.tv

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