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A whole new way to watch March Madness: Media Center's Interactive Bracket

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For those of you who have Windows Media Center (anyone with Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate), there's a whole new cool way to watch the NCAA Tournament that tips off tomorrow: the new Interactive Bracket on Media Center's new Sports Channel.

After you fire up Windows Media Center in Vista, you'll get a Media Center menu that is sort of 3D-ish, built around X and Y axes. On the Y-axis, you have TV + Movies, Sports, Online Media, Tasks, Pictures + Videos, and Music, and the X-axis options change depending on what Y-axis option is highlighted.

If you select Sports on the Y-axis, you'll get the following options on the X-axis: on now, on later, scores, players, and sports channel. The "on now" and "on later" options require a TV tuner, but the sports channel is entirely internet-based, so nothing but an internet connection is necessary to use it.

When you select the sports channel, you'll first see a happy little orange ball bouncing in a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. Once loaded, you'll see the sports channel main interface, which apparently defaults to whatever channel you were last watching. The only "channels" available right now are CBS Sports, Fox Sports, MSNBC Sports, and Queensberry FN.

In the center, a main image area cycles through thumbnails of the available content with stylish fade ins and outs. On the top is a navigation bar, and for CBS Sports the options are College Hoops, CBS Sports, and Classic Fights. The right sidebar shows the latest news along with gorgeous thumbnail images and headline snippets.

Just underneath the main content area is a filmstrip-style series of scrolling thumbnails of other available content for whatever options are currently chosen. Mousing over these thumbnails brightens them and encircles them with a bright yellow border so it is very easy to tell which video is active. Clicking on one of the thumbnails brings up that video (after a commercial). You can select a new video to watch at any time. Clicking on the main content frame will bring the video to full screen mode.

The very bottom of the screen houses the channel, volume, start, stop, mute, and segment-skip controls.

The coolest thing about the sports channel is the new Interactive Bracket that was just released over the past couple of days. Clicking on the Interactive Bracket button brings up the bracket with a list of games in each of the regions. Regions can be selected via the nav bar at the top. It's fairly easy to mouse over the game you're interested in and to bring up the content for that game. For example, clicking on the East Region and then the Oklahoma State / Tennessee game brings up a pop up box that at this time shows only a pre-game analysis video. Clicking on that takes you back to the main stage and shows the content available for that option, and then clicking on that plays the selected video. One of the coolest features of the Interactive Bracket is the ability to either hide or show the scores. So if you're stuck at work (or somewhere else) and manage to get home without seeing or hearing the score for the game you're upset at having to miss, you can browse through the bracket to find your game and protect yourself against inadvertently seeing the result before you've had a chance to experience the drama.

Pros of the sports channel in Windows Media Center :

  • Stylish interface. The thumbnails are cycled through in the center main area with artsy fade ins and outs and still images panning across the content area.
  • The quality of the video stream is pretty decent even at my resolution, which is greater than the recommended setting. I didn't notice any jumping.
  • The Interactive Bracket is really a very nifty and intuitive interface.
  • The entire window can be minimized so bloggers can watch in one window and write in another. Doing so is a bit buggy at this stage; you have to start maximized and then minimize it. Starting the channel minimized resulted in the sides of the channel being cut off for me.

Suggestions for improvement:

  • I couldn't tell at this time whether the default was to show scores or not. The default should probably be not. Otherwise, it may be too late. Perhaps it could be a customizeable setting.
  • No search function. The interface to choose videos is really cool, but when there are more than just a few choices, it's a lot like looking at a cooler version of your TV's screen guide, which with the growth of channels and content is practically pointless. There are simply too many choices. I wonder how many folks are like me in that they almost never just sit down to see what's on. They're looking for something, and making it easy to find desired content should be a priority. Search is a necessity.
  • In-video navigation is a bit clumsy. There is no timeline scrubber, so jumping large segments isn't possible. The skip back and forward buttons work fine, but there's no indication of how far the video is advanced or reversed. It seems like it's about ten seconds back and maybe 20 seconds forward.
  • Commercials. There's probably no way around this, but if a commercial-free alternative becomes available, this could be a negative factor.
  • Content. Right now, only CBS Sports, Fox Sports, and MSNBC (and whatever that Queensberry FN thing is) are available. What about ESPN, Yahoo, YouTube, and the multitude of others providing free video content on the web? Having "channels" sort of has the feel of the old AOL model back in the day when they were attempting to create their own separate internet for their customers and ultimately realized that they just weren't going to be able to compete with a billion folks out on the real internet. My guess is that most people are moving into smaller and smaller niches, and so they'd be more interested in finding all of the free internet video on the one team they truly care about than flipping the thing on only to be presented with more choices of what they don't care about and fewer choices of what they do. Perhaps that's a problem from a development/partnership/licensing standpoint or something -- I don't know. But I'd bet that folks would like something that would go out and retrieve whatever free videos exist on the web and organize them into a shiny and useful interface. Otherwise, the flashy interface is the only reason to access content through Windows Media Center rather than just going to

    [Note by Joel, 03/21/09 8:32 AM EDT ] Windows is apparently on the same page.
  • Is there a record (or better yet, download stream) function? Internet archives are not to be trusted, and sports bloggers like to have records.

Bottom line, the Interactive Bracket, although there is room for improvement, is something that is both stylish and useful. The sports channel itself may be a bit too unwieldy to be useful at this time, at least to users looking for specific content rather than just something to watch, but it is absolutely gorgeous.