First Look: Take Your TV With You

At a Glance
  • Sling Media Slingbox

Have a craving to watch soap operas in the office? You may not be able to set up a TV in your cube, but you can watch your home TV over the Internet. Sling Media's $250 Slingbox Personal Broadcaster connects via your home network, and allows you to change channels and watch TV as if you were sitting in front of your TV at home.

Slingbox Personal Broadcaster
The Slingbox Personal Broadcaster is an oddly shaped box that looks something like a silver ingot, with audio/visual connectors on the back that connect to whatever video device you plan to use with it (TV, DVD player, digital video recorder). Two green LEDs show power and network status; the n in the Sling logo on the front glows red when someone is watching TV. The Slingbox's controls replicate the remote control you use at home. This means that if someone comes home while you're watching the video source remotely, they won't be able to watch anything but the channel you've selected--and if they change the channel or input, you'll be watching what they're watching.

Easy Connections

Setting up the Slingbox is fairly simple. You install the SlingPlayer software on your home PC to configure the unit, and again on any PC you plan to use to watch video remotely. Then you attach your video source. The unit accepts a number of video sources, among them a TV antenna or a cable/satellite box that you connect to the Slingbox through either composite, S-Video, or coaxial inputs. However, the Slingbox can't deal with high-definition video: It works with standard-definition video only, so you'll have to scale back the resolution of your HDTV in order to use the Slingbox with it. Other supported video sources include DVD players, DVRs (such as TiVo), and VCRs.

The Slingbox has two infrared emitters for controlling your video source's channels or playback. The software offers templates that resemble various remote controls; built into these templates are the infrared codes for a slew of video devices. The layout of the remote-control window you see in SlingPlayer mimics the functionality of the video source you're using. Unfortunately, you can't add your own infrared code and template if the device you want to use isn't supported; SlingMedia says that this capability will be added in a later release of the software.

To connect to the device remotely, you need the SlingPlayer software and the Finder ID, a 33-digit number that allows it to locate the Slingbox over the Internet. You don't need to remember an IP address. The Slingbox uses Universal Plug and Play, so if you have a router that supports this, you don't have to configure the firewall on the router to allow the video streaming: It's all done automatically.

Middling Video Quality

The video and audio playback are acceptable when you view the video over a home network--say, in a part of the house that lacks a television--but the image has some fairly obvious compression artifacts that become very pronounced if you try to watch the video in full-screen mode (which, bizarrely, didn't fully occupy my 19-inch monitor screen, but centered the image, enlarged it some, and added a black border). The upstream speeds I achieved on my home network--700 to 800 kilobits per second--were better than the connection you can expect from a typical broadband provider using a cable modem. The faster the bandwidth you get across a network, be it the Internet or your home network, the better the picture will appear.

The Slingbox compresses video using the Windows Media 9 codec and optimizes the video stream automatically for the available bandwidth. The compression was much more obvious when I tried the product over a typical domestic DSL connection rated at a 300-kbps upstream transfer speed: The video was jerky and heavily pixelated, and it looked unappealing in full-screen mode (and only moderately appealing in the standard mode).

Unlike the installation process--which went smoothly--the SlingPlayer software is not particularly easy to use. The on-screen remote control often takes at least a second to transmit your command to the Slingbox, and you don't see the change until a couple of seconds later because the video is slightly delayed by the streaming process. The video also gets jittery when the image suddenly changes (such as resuming a paused DVD or a commercial break in live TV), as the unit tries to reoptimize the video stream. This combination can make channel surfing a frustrating experience.

It's a pity you can't pause live TV or record what you're watching to a file, and there is no program guide to tell you what shows are airing. You also can't use any software other than SlingPlayer to watch the video, and it is available only for Windows, so you can't watch the video on a PDA or cell phone. (Sling Media says that it is working on clients for Mac OS, Pocket PC, and some cell phones, which will be released later in the year.)

Still, the Slingbox is an interesting product, and it does a neat job of allowing you to watch live TV or a DVD remotely, effectively mimicking your remote control and supplying the video without requiring you to know anything about the technicalities of streaming video. But the image quality leaves something to be desired (especially over slower Internet connections), and the device is expensive; for $250 you could buy a good portable DVD player or a portable TV.

Sling Media Slingbox Personal Broadcaster


The Slingbox Personal Broadcaster has its uses, but its image quality may be disappointing unless you have a high-bandwidth connection.
Street: $250
www.slingmedia.com

This story, "First Look: Take Your TV With You " was originally published by PCWorld.

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At a Glance
  • Sling Media Slingbox

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