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ESPN for Xbox 360 Review July 31, 2011

Posted by Maniac in Reviews.
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This weekend marks the 17th X Games and like so many people, my schedule did not permit me to watch every single second of the event as it aired.  But then I remembered my Xbox Live Gold Subscription (which I just renewed) did give me access to the ESPN program, and I hoped some of the X Games broadcasts would make their way onto the service.  Low and behold, every second of ESPN’s coverage of the X Games were online for me to watch at my leisure.  Since Thursday night, I’ve been using the ESPN app for the Xbox 360 and I have plenty to say about it that I wanted to share with all of you.

I just want you guys to know right now before I get into the technicals is that this only a review of the ESPN application for the Xbox 360 and not a review of ESPN (the channel) or the website ESPN3.com, which also has a lot of the same content which is provided by the Xbox 360 app.

I came into this review thinking that this program was kind of redundant, and not worth being one of the plugs to why Microsoft jacked up their yearly Xbox Live Gold subscription costs to $60US a year opposed to $50US.  The only people who will have access to the program are Xbox Live Gold customers who have an ISP which supports access to ESPN3.com.  As a cable internet subscriber, I figured that would make the program kind of unnecessary since in all likelihood anyone who would have access to the ESPN program through Xbox 360 would already have access to ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3.comSo why bother to use it?  Well, the X Games is on this weekend, and I found out the answer why.

After I pulled up the first day’s coverage of the X Games, I was disappointed to see the picture quality.  Thinking I might not be getting a full amount of bandwidth from my ISP (it’s been slow as of lately), I checked the transmission diagram in the pause menu and saw that I was indeed receiving the best quality HD transmission.  So, an occasionally blocky, sometimes distorted 720p image was as good as it was going to get.

So it’s not as good looking, even in a full HD transmission, in comparison to what you’d see on the dedicated ESPN HD or ESPN2 HD channels.  So for that loss of quality, what do you get as a benefit?  Actually, quite a lot.

In the ESPN program you’ll be able to sort through on-air live competitions and a pretty extensive on demand selection of competitions that already saw air.  What was sweet about this option is that they also had events in the program’s on demand option that never saw air.  This is a much better option to watch previously aired games because while ESPN has its own ON Demand through my cable provider, it is not in HD and does not air games, just ESPN exclusive content like independent movies.  They do not rebroadcast matches through my cable provider’s on demand, but on the ESPN app for Xbox 360, they do.

In contrast to the Hulu Plus program I reviewed some time ago, I noticed that these games on the ESPN app do transmit in 5.1 Dolby Digital just as they do through your cable or sat broadcasts (the X Games were sponsored by DTS), however I didn’t notice a good usage of the rear channels.  It’s nice to know that surround is something that is supported though, because the Xbox 360 can do it, and why Hulu doesn’t is beyond my comprehension.  Regardless, if you have your Xbox 360 hooked up to a 5.1 receiver, it will get some use when you run ESPN.

Kinect support for the application is pretty good too.  Just like with the Zune Marketplace and with Hulu, you will be able to control video playback with voice and hand gestures, making the Xbox 360 Remote Control even less of a good purchase idea.  Voice recognition is really good.  It is a lot faster to just say “Xbox, pause,” than to pick up a remote or your controller, and the control is quite responsive.  That said, you will need a controller to navigate the menu systems, although I have read on Major Nelson’s Blog that the next program update will expand Kinect functionality into the menu system, that probably won’t be coming until at least August.

The last thing I wanted to talk about with the program was the last thing I covered with the Hulu Plus application, the commercials.  ESPN’s app does show commercials, but unlike with Hulu Plus, I actually didn’t mind them one bit.  The reason why is because they are actually shorter than the commercial durations the ESPN channel has, and most of the commercials they show are simply just channel promos.  Also, since this is not a premium program which charges an extra fee on top of the Xbox Live Gold Subscription, simply watching a bumper for SportsCenter every commercial break and then getting back to the action doesn’t bother me one bit.  I wonder why the Hulu Plus program sees the need to require extra money from advertising revenue on top of what they’re already charging you for the ability to use the program in the first place if ESPN can make enough just showing channel promos and not charge any extra.  The only conclusion I can draw is the fact that since this is sports we’re talking about, there’s plenty of ad space you’re seeing when the match is on, as well as the sponsor promos for the event to cover the costs.

In conclusion I do not recommend using this application as an exclusive alternative to just simply watching ESPN or ESPN2 channel in HD through your cable or satellite provider.  You will undoubtably get a better picture on your TV watching the broadcast through the HD channel.  Heck, the X Games was broadcasting in 3D on the new ESPN3D channel, and if I had an HDTV (and that channel) that’s what I’d choose to watch a live broadcast on first.  However, if you missed a broadcast of something you wanted to see due to other commitments, this is without a doubt the BEST possible option to catch it again.  Totally worth a download, and since the X Games are on all weekend, there could not be a more perfect event to get people to download it.  Alone, it’s not a reason to subscribe to Xbox Live Gold, but when you add it up with all the other services Xbox Live Gold provide, it does justify it’s price.

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