Editorial Disclosure: The Cannon was provided with a GCL account for this season, and I'm currently using a free preview of the system provided to me as a CBJ season ticket holder.
If you're a hockey fan who can't stop with just one game a night, there's a yearly debate between purchasing NHL Center Ice through your cable / satellite provider, or going with the NHL's GameCenter Live online service. (Unless, of course, you get your cable through a provided like WOW or U-verse who don't offer NHL:CI.)
On paper, GCL feels like a no brainer. Not only do you get the same access to games you'd find with Center Ice, but you have access to replays, previous games from the current season, and "Vault" content of years past. In addition to access over the NHL.com website, you also get mobile access thanks to apps for Android and iOS devices, integration with Apple TV and Roku video players, and in addition to the PS3 client that has been available for the past two seasons, this year fans with XBOX 360 consoles can finally use the service.
I decided to give the Xbox app a spin, since that's the really big new feature for the 2013 season. (Well, unless you count the discounted price of $50 as a feature.)
(Sorry I can't provide screenshots, but there's a nice pic of the main interface up at Major Nelson)
The Xbox app is a free download, and even if you don't have a GCL account you can still view highlights from completed games or get live scores for games in progress. The app does feature Kinect integration so you can either move between games with your hands or try voice commands, but that's a bit of a mixed bag. You'd be amazed how many times the Xbox will pause playback when it hears commentators talk about stopping the puck. After a couple of "whoops" moments, I decided to turn the kinect controls off and do things the old fashioned way with my controller, which worked just fine.
After signing into the app with my GCL account, I was given access to the "Season Center" calendar, which shows the state of games scheduled for today, including scores, and selected last night's Bruins / Canes matchup...only to find it blacked out because it was being shown on NHL network. Oops.
So, after the Jackets / Stars game wrapped up, I moved over to the Nashville / Phoenix game for a bit, and the quality was quite impressive. It's HD quality for both home and away feeds, and I didn't notice the lag and stuttering problems I ran into frequently last season with the PS3 client. Interestingly, it's one of the few ways to get Canadian broadcasts in HD, since most of the time NHL Center Ice does NOT offer HD feeds from Canadian providers.
Just like the other clients, you can rewind, pause, fast forward, and search through action, and the timeline features some nice markers so you can skip to penalties, fights, or goals.
All things considered, I think it's the best set top GCL client I've seen yet, far superior to the PS3 version and on par or better than the AppleTV client, but there are a few problems to mention.
- Time in the "season center" for upcoming games is odd. Despite making sure my Xbox was set to Eastern Time, I kept being told that a game starting, say, at 9pm wasn't starting until midnight. That said, once the game started, I was able to tune in without a problem.
- I didn't experience this, but I have been told by other users that if you have lower bandwidth, you can be "dropped" out of games if the video goes below HD quality
- As I mentioned, the Kinect controls are gimmicky and problematic. Maybe it's because my Kinect is right by the center speakers for my living room, but it's still frustrating.
- NHL Network / national NBC games will always be blacked out, as will your "local market" games. This is true for all GCL versions, but it's particularly annoying if you're somewhere that doesn't offer NHL Network, or perhaps you're traveling in an area that's "technically" territory for a team, even if games aren't actually available. (True story from last year: Staying in a hotel in Utah, couldn't watch a Jackets / Coyotes game because it was technically Coyotes TV territory.)
I believe the illustrious Dan P. and our own Mike MacLean plan to talk about some of the other clients, so I won't go into much detail for them. I will say that the XBOX client is a nice feature for anyone who has an Xbox 360, and in general the GCL experience seems to be improving every year it is offered. As more ways to access the service are added and more features incorporated into each client, it feels like this is the way to go for 90% of hockey fans. Centre Ice is nice if you're only going to watch games at home, but anyone who likes to keep the game with them when they travel should seriously consider dropping a dime on GCL, especially for the reduced price.