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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

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I'd echo every point you made here, Shawn. Your experience with the app appears to be the exact same as mine in every respect, including battery life. (I have the wi-fi only iPad, while Shawn patiently waited for 3G.) Which reminds me, how is video on 3G as compared to wi-fi? Is there a quality or battery life difference?

As to the cards issue, I think MLB is taking an approach of simplicity. Just as with MLB Network, we're not getting anything in the way of advanced metrics or even advanced thought because they're not mainstream enough. The baseball-loving subset of the iPad owning subset is still a pretty small market so there's no need to further fragmentize it by confusing the majority of people.

May 06, 2010 07:29 AM
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

I haven't turned on the 3G yet -- I'll probably only use it on trips. When I do, I'll make sure to give an update.

Re: cards, I'm not even concerned with getting advanced stats on there. Having most of the normal stats would be a major upgrade.

May 06, 2010 10:36 AM
 
shower30

I do want to like MLB's At Bat for iPad/iPhone but they are completely hampered by blackout restrictions. I know that local TV broadcasters want their revenue, but if you live in Baltimore, most years you would want to see the O's with the app. I'd be happy to watch the ads if I must.

But the worst place on earth for baseball is Iowa, where I will soon move. The entire state is covered with blackout restrictions for the cubs/chisox/royals/cards/twins/brewers. Televised games for most of these teams aren't even available in most of the state. Let's say I am an Indian's fan. I won't be able to watch any of the Tribe's games vs. the Chisox, Twins or Royals. That's 75% of the divisional opponents! Wow, I can watch them play the Tigers - lucky me! And even if I just loved baseball or has a baseball blog, it is possible that 20% of the games could be blacked-out each day.

Unless you are a fan of a team and live outside their viewing area, this app could be largely useless. In any event, Iowa has the Field of Dreams, just not much "televised" MLB baseball.

May 06, 2010 08:50 AM
rating: 4
 
cubfan131

As an Iowa resident I'm thinking of starting a support group for baseball fans. The local cable company (Mediacom) only carries Fox Sports Midwest in terms of baseball channels so as a Cub fan that means I can watch Cardinals games and the Cubs if they are on WGN which is about 1-2 times per week. I have no access to Royals, Twins, Brewers, or White Sox (other then WGN) even though I'm considered their local market. I hate it and I refuse to give MLBAM any of my money until they resolve this problem.

May 06, 2010 10:35 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

This really is a horrible situation. I'm spoiled -- the team that I care about doesn't play where I live, which ironically allows me to watch them on any device I want. At the very least, you can get Gameday Audio on the iPhone for local games, which is something, I guess.

May 06, 2010 10:38 AM
 
MHaywood1025

I have an iPhone, and the player cards and even box scores are lacking.

Have you seen MLB.tv on the PS3 though? I think you would have difficulty saying the app is better on the iPad...

May 06, 2010 09:08 AM
rating: 1
 
Brock Dahlke

Agreed, the PS3 app is outstanding.

May 06, 2010 11:01 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

I've seen it, but haven't personally used it. It does look amazing, but I'd have to test usability before I make any conclusions.

May 06, 2010 14:32 PM
 
demodulator
(791)

When you say stability is awful on desktops, I assume you're talking about Mac OS X. Flash is notoriously flaky on Macs. I haven't had any stability issues with the windows implementation.

May 06, 2010 09:25 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

I've used it a lot on both, and anecdotally it seems to be more correlated to the actual computing power than the OS. I.e. it works better on an iMac than a Macbook Pro, which is better than a mid-range Dell laptop, which is better than a regular white Macbook, etc. The iPad breaks that trend, partly due to no multitasking, partly due to no flash, both of which have been huge complaints by the haters.

May 06, 2010 10:41 AM
 
PapaGiorgio

The blackout restrictions are what will always kill MLBtv for me too. I'd gladly pay MLB the money for it if I could watch my Giants games, but MLB would rather I keep my money. Why? I really can't figure it out. Would the networks really lose that much money if local games were broadcast on MLBtv?

It's like MLB is trying to kill its own product with terrible TV contracts: can't watch saturday day games if they're not the Fox game of the week, Fox & TBS are a joke for postseason broadcasting, extended postseason play for TV purposes, etc..

Is there any chance the blackout restrictions, or any of this, get changed, and if so, when?

May 06, 2010 09:54 AM
rating: 1
 
thegeneral13

I'm not positive about this, so someone correct me if I'm wrong. I believe the teams own their local broadcast rights, not MLB, so generally speaking MLB doesn't actually have the right to show you in-market games. If they wanted those rights, they'd have to cut a deal with teams, many of whom either already license the rights to an RSN or own their own RSN and make money off of advertising and affiliate fees. When viewership moves from TV to MLB.tv the RSN is cut out of the loop and loses dollars, while MLB gains dollars. So while you personally are willing to spend more money if you could watch local games on MLB.tv, > 100% of those dollars would go to MLB while the RSN, and consequently the team, would lose dollars without some compensation from MLB. It's more complex than this and there are certainly people here who can add more, but I think this is the heart of the issue.

FWIW, the Saturday restriction kills it for me, too. That's when about 75% of my MLB.tv consumption would occur, so without it I've gone back and forth on whether a subscription is worth it. I'm not sure when Fox's exclusive rights to those games expire, but maybe something can be reworked at that time. I think it will be tough to make the per sub economics work, though. MLB.tv subs, as high demand baseball viewers, are worth way more than the $120 MLB.tv subscription to Fox based on the ad revenue they generate.

May 06, 2010 13:26 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

Exactly, and this is why the RSNs are getting a cut in the few local streaming deals we've seen in the last year. It's also why MLB keeps ignoring the issue -- the teams are terrified of pissing off the RSNs (or getting less money on their next deals), and nobody's really come up with a good alternate solution.

(I don't consider a $100 local streaming package a "good solution," btw.)

May 06, 2010 14:32 PM
 
PapaGiorgio

Ah, that clears up a lot. Thank you!

With things like Hulu, OnDemand, Netflix, DVR, etc, it seems that sporting events are one thing keeping live network TV alive right now. Oh, how I would love to see a restriction free MLB.tv service put the final nail in Comcast's coffin!

May 07, 2010 17:05 PM
rating: 0
 
Michael Dennis

I'm mostly interested in the 3G quality. Does it work well? If it works well on 3G then I need to find the money to go get it.

May 06, 2010 09:55 AM
rating: 1
 
drawbb

I don't have the slightest clue what a 3G is and I've never seen MLB.tv, but one thing I do know is that Fox's endless Saturday blackout window is a ridiculously antiquated relic of the 1970s.

I'd love to be able to jump between 3-4 early games just like a college football Saturday, but instead our only option is to wait around for Joe Suck's latest smarm-fest on the Yankee/Red Sox/Met game of the week.

May 06, 2010 23:20 PM
rating: 0
 
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