ATLANTA - Baseball is back, which means die-hard fans like me are hungry for updates and highlights when we're not near our televisions or computers.
For the past six years, I've satisfied my appetite with Major League Baseball's evolving offerings. What used to be a glitch-filled, clunky desktop-based system is now a robust experience that includes sleek, high-performing apps for iPhones, iPads, Android and other devices.
This year's version of the software, MLB At Bat 2012, is the best yet. I've been using it on my iPhone throughout the budding baseball season, and I've found it to be smooth, easy to use and virtually indispensable when I'm on the go.
Although there are still a few kinks to work out, the league has a solid hit. This year's version brings many behind-the-scenes software updates to enhance the experience.
Downloading the app on Apple's iPhone or iPad won't cost you anything, but be forewarned: The free version won't get you very far. It doesn't offer much more than a scoreboard and limited news about baseball.
You'll be tempted to spend $14.99 to unlock the expanded features this year, or if you prefer you can pay $2.99 a month. It's less than the cost of good seats at a game, and you won't be sorry you did.
For that fee, you get access to the app's full offerings on both your iPhone and iPad. The app is also available on Android, BlackBerry and Windows devices, though it's a separate fee for each system. Unlike the app for Apple devices, though, there's no free version or monthly payment option.
Access to the mobile apps is also available through MLB.TV's premium package, which costs $124.99 and lets fans watch live games on their mobile devices, desktops and Internet-connected TVs for that one price.
The price of admission gets you a flurry of features.
You get all the staples you'd expect, including box scores, video highlights and statistics from around the league. You also get Gameday, a graphical tool for tracking the game pitch by pitch.
One glimpse at the Gameday screen lets you know who's on base, what happened the past few plays, who's pitching, who's at bat and, of course, what's the score.
You get a cartoon view of the stadium from where the umpire is standing behind home plate, complete with a generic batter standing on the correct side of the plate depending on whether he's left or right handed. The batter is even wearing the team's uniform.
As each pitch is hurled, you see a dot showing where the ball crosses the plate. The tracker also will let you know if it's a strike, ball, hit or out. And it will tell you the speed and the type of pitch coming across the plate.
It's a lot of information - the type die-hard fans eagerly absorb.
There's often a lag of several seconds, though. Sometimes, I've seen the scoreboard change before Gameday even registered what happened. But programmers have rounded out other rough edges over the past few years, including renderings of all 30 baseball parks that grace the backdrop.
My favorite feature, though, is the ability to listen to any game through my phone. It offers home and away feeds, too, so I can switch to a different set of announcers if I don't like the way things are going.
It can get confusing following Gameday with the audio on because of the audio's lag. But other than that, I haven't had many problems with the feature. At most, I've had to restart a connection to get a clean feed.
Video can get a bit more complicated.
For $124.99 a year, or $24.99 a month, you can sign up for MLB.TV's premium package, which lets you watch live games with a similar choice of home or away broadcasts.
For out-of-towners who want to follow their favorite teams, it's an offer that can be hard to resist. The video can take some time to load, but the picture is smooth and vibrant if you have a strong connection.
Those who live in their favorite team's markets shouldn't bother signing up for the premium service, though. Onerous restrictions may prevent you from watching your team play.
Live games are subject to blackouts in each team's home television territory, regardless of where the club is playing. So if you're a Braves fan living in Atlanta, you won't be able to catch many of the games because local over-the-air and cable stations already have rights to carry them. Many weekend games are also blacked out, even if it's an out-of-market team, because of exclusivity rights.
Don't bother trying to get around the blackout. The app uses GPS and other "reference points" to determine your location. Turning off my GPS locater did me no good.
Still, there are plenty of video offerings without the pricey subscription:
- The app features condensed games, which cut boring pitching changes and uneventful outs so you can watch only the most crucial plays of the game.
- It features a different free game every day.
- And every so often, you'll see a bright yellow button pop up on screen. Click on it to get a live look at a crucial point in a game around the league, with no blackouts.
It's all enough to keep me wanting more - even if the season takes a turn for the worse for the Braves.