Make March Madness mobile on your smartphone or tablet

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In recent years, arranging to watch the NCAA basketball tournament online or on a mobile device has been something you could do with the efficiency and effortlessness of a top-ranked team dispatching an overmatched 16 seed. You'd simply download the app at the start of the men’s college basketball tournament, and spend the next three weeks watching live games wherever you happened to be.

For 2013, though, things have gotten a little more complicated—nothing that someone with a serious basketball jones can’t overcome, but still enough hurdles to require a little pregame planning. The good news: The NCAA has made live video streaming of games available on more devices than ever before. All you have to do is check the fine print to make sure that you don’t miss a moment of the tournament—starting today.

We’ll show you what you need to do to turn your smartphone, tablet, or browser into an epicenter of tournament action. And we’ve got a few other ideas for apps that can bring just a little more madness to your March.

Watching games on the go

Let’s start with a little background on this year’s broadcast plans: The NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament airs on CBS, TNT, TBS, and TruTV. (Fun fact about that last channel, in case the name isn’t ringing a bell: It debuted as Court TV in 1990s, making its bones by broadcasting high-profile murder trials. Four years ago, it switched to a reality TV programming format. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a step up or down.) The tournament begins today (Tuesday, March 19) at 6:40 p.m. Eastern time, when the Aggies of North Carolina A&T take on the Liberty Flames, and it culminates in the national championship game on Monday, April 8.

In addition to setting up mobile offerings for iOS and Android, the NCAA is also showing basketball tournament games at its March Madness Live website.

Having the 67 tournament games distributed across four channels means that every game is available somewhere—a definite improvement over the bad old days when you were stuck with viewing whatever game a lone network decided you should watch, even if the game you really wanted to see was happening elsewhere at the same time. But because three of the four networks handling telecast duties are pay-cable channels, you have to jump through a few hoops of your own to ensure that every single game will find its way onto your mobile device or browser.

You can watch games online at the NCAA’s March Madness Live site or via a mobile app for smartphones and tablets. Separate mobile apps are available for iOS devices and for Android devices. Sorry, Windows and BlackBerry device owners—your tournament bubble has been burst once more.

Video streaming is free on the mobile app—unlike last year, when you had to make an in-app purchase for video of live games. But, if you want to watch a game that airs on TBS, TNT, or TruTV (the aforementioned pay channels) you must to be a cable subscriber. Both the March Madness website and the mobile apps will ask you to identify your TV provider. The list is quite extensive list—I counted 122 participants, including major cable and satellite services such as AT&T U-Verse, Cox, DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner, and Xfinity. Sign in with your service’s user name and password, and you’ll be able to watch every game that airs during the tournament.

The schedule that the March Madness Live app provides identifies the network—CBS, TBS, TNT, or TruTV—that each game airs on.

Let’s say you’ve spurned cable. Or registering your TV provider turns out to be a bit of a pain. Or the username/password combo for your TV provider is lost in the mists of time, and seems unlikely to be retrieved before Cal and UNLV tip off on Thursday. Not to worry: Any game that CBS broadcasts is available to anyone on the March Madness app and website. You also get a 4-hour video pass to watch games without logging in. So if you desperately want to watch an early-round game, you can carefully monitor your use of the March Madness offering to ensure that you catch this must-see contest. (NCAA March Madness will helpfully send you alerts as your complimentary 4 hours tick away—including a 5-minute warning that remains on the screen—so you won’t be caught off-guard when the feed stops just as a plucky 14 seed is about to pull off the upset of the tournament.)

Video streaming is available over both Wi-Fi and a cellular connection. When I’ve used the March Madness app in the past, the video experience has been better over cellular, with a smoother picture and less tendency to to blur, especially during action-packed games. Keep in mind that if you have a limited data plan for your mobile device, video can eat up your allotted data long before the winning team cuts down the nets in Atlanta.

More than just video

Live coverage of games may be the main attraction for the NCAA March Madness apps, but it’s not the only thing you’ll find in the iOS and Android offerings. Once the tournament gets underway, you’ll be able to enjoy recaps, stats, and video highlights. Note that time spent watching highlights doesn’t get deducted from the 4-hour video pass for March Madness Live.

The NCAA app also includes social elements—tweets and Facebook posts from fans of all 68 teams in the tournament—as well as a contest where you try to pick the winner of each game. You may want to turn to other mobile apps that specialize in these aspects of the tournament, however.

ESPN's Bracket Bound 2013 lets you compete against others in predicting the winners of the NCAA tournament games.

I won’t be pretend to be a fan of apps that integrate social networking with sports viewing. I prefer to concentrate on the game in front of me rather than what people are saying about it on Twitter, Facebook, or some sport-focused social site. That said, Kwarter’s FanCake at least offers a different spin on the sports-and-social tie-in, by letting iOS and Android users earn virtual credits by predicting what’s going to happen in the games they’re watching. Those credits can be redeemed for real things—apparel and apps, mostly. It’s not to my taste, but casual sports watchers may find that it enlivens tourney games that they otherwise have no rooting interest in.

It’s easy to fill in your tourney picks in Simple Bracket for the iPhone; it’s even easier to challenge friends and colleagues to best your score.

Every would-be bracketologist dreams of correctly picking the winners of all 67 tournament games. At this time of year, many bracket apps promise to give you a platform to do exactly that; and among them, ESPN’s Bracket Bound 2013 probably commands the most attention. It’s compatible with both iOS and Android, and it comes from the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports. More important, you can use the app to pit your tournament picks against a multitude of other users in ESPN’s tournament challenge. (The app offers basketball news and scores, plus analysis from ESPN’s in-house experts.) Still, I’d recommend that iPhone owners take a look at Simple Bracket, a $1 download from Studio Neat. It offers a clean interface for filling in your tournament picks, and it offers the ability to create and join tournament pools with your iPhone-toting pals. After all, watching a live stream of a Cinderella team pulling off an unexpected victory is thrilling, but it’s even more satisfying when you can lord that victory over friends and colleagues.

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