Slingbox front (view larger)
As many of us jam up our digital video recorders with shows and movies we don’t have time to watch live, many of us are finding we don’t have time to watch them recorded either. Well, at home anyway. But what about your lunch break at the office? That’s as good a time as any to catch up on some Desperate Housewives, errr, Sportscenter. With the Slingbox you can tap into your home network to watch recorded programs or live TV.
Setting up the Slingbox
Setting up the Slingbox is a pretty easy task. First off, connect the source to the Slingbox. The Slingbox supports S-Video, coaxial cable and standard RCA cables for audio and video. Sling Media has included detailed instructions for various types of setups and the cables needed to do so. For this review we tested with Tine Warner cable and their digital video recorder. After configuring the source cables, the next step is to set up the infrared control cables.
Slingbox back (view larger)
The IR control cable lets you send commands to the cable box with your PC, instead of using the remote control. This part of the setup can be a little confusing, but really all you need is a flashlight to see where the IR receiver is on the front of your cable box. The IR cable has double sided tape on the emitters to secure them on both the top and bottom of the cable box. This is the only goofy part of the installation, but something any device like this needs. The Tivo works the same way, so even though the IR emitters are a little low-tech and look silly in front of the cable box, they work. Ideally, cable boxes would standardize on a connector type, but they haven’t. Some support serial connections, some USB, but the Slingbox isn’t capable of supporting any of these anyway.
The next step is connecting the Slingbox to your network. Depending on where your modem or router is located, this may or may not be an issue. While it would be great for the Slingbox to be wireless, you can use a wireless Ethernet bridge to solve the cabling problem. The Slingbox typically streams at no better than 1.5Mbps, s apeed that is generally easily met even on 802.11b networks. While the Tivo supports wireless, its transferring files, not streaming content, the operation is completely different. A slow transfer means it takes longer for files to move, but a slow stream means terrible quality..
Slingbox on top of DVR, IR cables to the right of the clock (view larger)
At this point the Slingbox is ready to plug in and configure with the PC software. The wizard to configure the Slingbox couldn’t be any easier to use. In fact, the entire setup process is pretty simple, if you’re handy enough to plug in cords and install an application on your machine. The setup even has video tweaks to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation and hue. The only rough spot might be around setting up the Slingbox for remote access. I had to make a settings change on my router to allow universal plug and play access. This isn’t a big deal really, but sometimes remembering how to get into the router to make this change is the hardest part.
The PC client can be installed on as many machines as you like, there are no use restrictions. Sling Media also has the latest version available for download on their site. The only knock I have against the install process is the PC software is frequently updated, but the client doesn’t automatically seek and accept updates like many other more user-friendly applications do. It directs you to the Sling Media site if you need an update, where you have to manually download and install it.
Using the Slingbox
After the Slingbox setup is complete, you’re ready to roll with the PC client, SlingPlayer. From the player you can connect to your Slingbox or anyone else’s for that matter. Each Slingbox has a unique ID that is needed for connection, along with a username and password. Once you connect remotely for the first time, you can save the settings so you don’t have to worry about remembering them.
SlingPlayer with remote on left (view larger)
Once connected, the SlingPlayer is pretty intuitive. The default window is roughly 370 x 275 pixels. At this size, the quality is very good even over WiFi. Of course the quality will improve with better connections. For instance, using the player on the same network of the Slingbox will produce surprisingly good quality in full screen mode. I also tested with the Verizon aircard and received acceptable results.
Detailed player layout (view larger)
To control your cable box at home, there’s a software remote control that docks next to the video window. When remote commands are entered, there’s moderate lag from data entry to the video showing the change. If you have several remote control commands to enter, such as browsing through the channel guide, the SlingPlayer has a remote mode that prioritizes remote control entries over the video stream.
Overall controlling the cable box works very well, the lag is only really an issue when trying to complete more fine commands, like forwarding through commercials of a recorded show. The only real downer with the remote is the buttons and layout is not customizable or very efficient in its display. I found it difficult to interact with certain functions as a result. It would be nice if Sling Media allowed for more management options in the remote display.
Full screen on the same network as Slingbox (view larger)
Full screen over remote WiFi connection (view larger)
I’ve had a lot of fun with the Slingbox. It’s a little gimmicky and you can’t save programs to your computer for offline viewing, but with a decent wireless connection the quality is good. The only other issues I had were surrounding the poor remote layout and a few times over the course of a month the remote viewing would stop working. Going through the software setup again seemed to fix the problem, but Sling Media’s support is a borderline joke. Their online knowledge base is extremely thin and they don’t offer support forums. They do have phone support available form 7am-7pm (Pacific) M-F, though it can be a long wait to get through. The most viable route might be email, which takes them a day to respond to. When remote viewing stopped working the first time it took four days to get to a solution.
Sling Media is continually investing in the platform though, so hopefully as the company matures, the software and support will as well. At the moment they’re working on a Windows Mobile client for PDAs and Smartphones, so that’s a great step that will add more flexibility to viewing options.
The Slingbox has an MSRP of $250, though it’s easy to find close to $200. At that price it’s still too expensive for most, but for those who travel a lot, the investment might be worthwhile. I like having access to my recorded programs at any time, plus the ability to watch local content when I’m not in my home market. This will come in especially handy over the summer when I want to keep up with the Reds.
- Catch up on recorded shows or watch live TV
- Easy to set up
- Good quality over wireless connections
- PDA client in the works
- Lackluster support
- Software remote not customizable
Travel time is a great time to catch up on saved programs. The fact that the Slingbox works pretty well with my Verizon card makes it even more usable. At $200 it’s a little expensive, but if you’re into TV, it’s a fun investment and makes an excellent gift.