The 2008 Olympics have begun, and now that we've had a few days to digest the coverage, we've found the best (and worst) things about watching the games online and on your TV. Those of us stuck here in America and not lucky enough to own Vista must deal with NBC's often delayed event broadcasts. Sure, if it's American basketball or track you're looking for, you can find everything you need without stepping away from your HDTV set. But if you've waited four years to watch table tennis or want to see how that Latvia-Angola rivalry plays out, you'll definitely have to use NBC's streaming online player. Here's a rundown of the tradeoffs between HDTV and NBC's online viewer, and some helpful tips to keep you from getting too mired in the programming.
The Silverlight-based player runs well-even on a Mac-but its interface has a few rough spots. When it comes to content, there is no comparison-the web player will stream 2,200 hours of live video, where for most sports, only glorified clip roundups will appear on the actual TV. Quality is a different story, as you'd expect. The streamed video is blurry no matter what size you watch it in, even though its at 720x480-a far cry from full HD your TV can get. Also, while it's understandable that NBC wouldn't provide announcers on their streaming player for a North Korea vs. Nigeria soccer game, they don't have announcers for any USA sports online, even big ones like basketball. Watching games without commentary can be painful, believe me. One more complaint: PowerPC Mac users are left out of the experience altogether, as Silverlight only supports Intel machines. [Thanks, downbythetracks!] Advantage: HDTV - Watch as much as you can on TV itself, but be aware of the delays.
When it comes to searching for live broadcasts, neither the streaming player nor HDTV are helpful at all. The TiVo guide says which sports will be shown, but doesn't say if they are tape-delayed. To find that out, you'll have to sort through NBC's schedule, which displays "(LIVE ET/CT)" next to anything broadcast in real time. And sorry West-Coasters; you're totally SOL when it comes to live HDTV—everything is shown for you on a 3-hour tape delay.
Then again, seeing the streaming player for the first time may tempt you to bust out the Rosetta Stone. It's actually three players in one, starting with the standard player which is stuffed with ads, tabs, lists, menus and more. For this one, you're best off browsing by channel (#1 in the pic up top), clicking the sport you're interested in and seeing what videos are offered. A button in the corner of the video section (#2) directs you to the enhanced player, which is the best way to watch-it's got a bigger video screen and is so frill- and distraction-free even Frank Costanza would approve.
In the enhanced player, you can watch highlights (#3) and live content with picture-in-picture (#4), and swap between the two seamlessly. You can't search for content in the enhanced player, so you must find it elsewhere and switch over. Finally, a button on the left (#5) takes you to the "Live Video Control Room" which offers the most hyped way to watch the sports you crave-four-channel multi-casting. Advantage: Streaming player - It's very convoluted, but you can't argue with the amount of content on demand.
The Multi-Cast Experience
Gambling junkies and cubicle drones alike will love the streaming player's multi-cast, which allows you to watch up to four events at once. For people trying to actually enjoy sports, the largest video is still too small to see a score, and the other three are barely the size of postage stamps. Swapping between games is easy, but if you expand one to the full-sized player, you lose your other streams, and have to to add them all over again when you return to the multi-cast. Also, sifting through content is unbearable; you can scroll through six videos at a time, but there are almost 200 up there right now, and there's almost two weeks of competition left. Furthermore, you really need to make sure what you're watching is actually live—even though the player looks like it is telling you what's live, the schedule sometimes contradicts this.
HDTV has a multi-cast of its own, and it's called "jumping from event to event." Kudos to NBC's Olympic editors—they seem to have an uncanny idea of when I get sick of gymnastics and want to switch over to volleyball. It's not perfect, but it's effortless and they do a good job with it. Advantage: Even - The streaming multi-cast is great in theory, but execution is pretty weak, though the ability to pick what you want to watch trumps HDTV.
Figuring out what is live on TV is harder than figuring out what is live online. You generally have to read the fine print of NBC's listings to find out what TV programs will be aired live. Helpful hint: If it doesn't say live, then it's probably not live. However, one advantage to HDTV is that you may have access to dedicated live basketball and soccer channels, depending on where you live. I just saw it for myself, and it's not airing anything right now, but I have 12 hours of basketball to wake up to tomorrow and I haven't been this excited in weeks.
You can sign up for alerts of both online and TV events via text message or email. Those alerts don't tell you which TV event is live. (On the flipside, alerts for online broadcast are mostly live, because otherwise they would already be available on demand.) The system sadly won't allow you to set a repeating event by team or sport, but if there are games you MUST see—like USA and Spain basketball for me—this is the safest way to make sure you catch it all.
As seen with the USA-China basketball debacle, NBC has no business delaying broadcasts for Pacific time. Thanks to the internet, this old broadcasting habit looks increasingly lame. After all, even those of us without the dedicated HD channels have TiVos and alarm clocks, right? Those who were shut out are not totally out of luck though—if you tell the online service that you have an East Coast cable carrier, it will stream broadcasts in real time to you at the appropriate Eastern Time. (If you are confused, just remember to say your zip code is 10001, and your carrier is Time Warner Cable.) Advantage: Streaming player - In some cases, the only way half the country can see things live is through the online system.
The Final Word
NBC's done a fair job with their streaming player and satisfied years of pent-up frustration by serving such an unprecedented amount of Olympic coverage. But by trying to make things easier, the network seems to have made our lives harder. Diehards of weird sports like fencing or those who need their content more live than Bill O'Reilly can get something from online that they could never get from the tube. But the quality isn't great and using it feels obtuse.
On the other hand, HDTV looks great and has announcers, which is crucial despite its lack of coverage and antiquated tape delay. While the streaming player is a revolutionary leap forward in terms of content, I can't help feeling that it isn't 100% ready for these Olympics, and that the games are still built around your TV set. To get the most complete experience you need to use both, but if you have a DVR and don't mind delay then stick to your HDTV as much as possible. [NBC Olympics]
By now you may already be an Olympic-level Olympics home viewer yourself. If you have any tips, tricks or usage scenarios that make watching the Olympics more easy or fun, by all means share them with us in comments.