NBC's Olympics Online Player Reviewed (Verdict: A Necessary Evil)

The 2008 Olympics have already started, but 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. The Silverlight-based player runs well—even on a Mac—but it has a few rough spots when it comes to interface. If you want to make the best of your Olympic experience, here are the things you need to know.


Streaming Player vs. HDTV
When it comes to content, there is no comparison—the web player will stream 2,200 hours of live video, where most of the stuff on TV will be glorified clip roundups of assorted events. But quality is a much different story. The streamed video is blurry no matter what size you watch it in, and even the full-size player is only about 720x480, so standard def at best. Also, while it's understandable that NBC wouldn't provide announcers for a North Korea vs. Nigeria soccer game, there wasn't any commentary for a match between USA and Norway either. We find it almost impossible to believe that major sports like US men's basketball would go without someone calling the games, but based on what we've seen so far this may be the case.

Finding Content
Seeing the 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 above), 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. Searching for content is hard to do in the enhanced player, so you're better off finding it elsewhere and switching 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 multicasting.

The Multi-Cast Experience

Gambling junkies and cubicle drones alike will love the multi-cast, which allows you to watch up to four events at once. For people trying to actually enjoy the 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 shaping up to be unbearable; you can scroll through about five games at a time, which is fine when there are only 16 available, but what will we do when there are hundreds of videos to sift through, by early next week?

The Final Word
NBC's done a fair job so far with their streaming player and by offering up an unprecedented amount of Olympic coverage. But by trying to make things easier, the network seems to have made them harder. It's decent for diehards of weird sports like fencing or those who need their content more live than Bill O'Reilly. But using it feels obtuse, like it's the bastard love child of Windows Vista and Symbian. However, Microsoft's Silverlight is not to blame—you can't even detect the difference from Flash. It's all about content management: At this point there are increasingly vast amounts of material, some live, some taped and mostly impossible to tell the difference, which may even be shockingly announcer-free. Maybe NBC will figure this stuff out when the games really get rolling, but for now it'll have to settle for a Bronze. [NBC Olympics]

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