Slingbox

Sling Media’s Slingbox is a device that’s hard to define: It’s a rectangular plastic box that you attach to both your home computer network and to your video source—an analog cable line, cable box, digital video recorder, or satellite receiver. Once that’s done, you can use your Mac (and a host of other digital devices) to watch your home television signals from anywhere with fast Internet access—be it in your backyard or halfway across the world. Powered by slick-looking software, the Slingbox is an excellent tool for anyone who wants the convenience of watching TV in far-flung locations.

Player Powered

Although the Slingbox product line has been around for the better part of two years, the Mac version of the company’s SlingPlayer software was only made available in its final form recently. Original prerelease versions of the software looked like a direct copy of Sling Media’s Windows version, but the final SlingPlayer 1.0 for Mac is an attractive, easy-to-use program with an interface that will be familiar and comfortable for Mac users.

When you first set up your Slingbox hardware , the SlingPlayer software asks you a series of questions to determine what you’ve connected to it. Once I told SlingPlayer that my Slingbox was connected to two DirecTV digital video recorders, it automatically configured itself to use those devices, including their remote-control codes.

In order to watch TV from outside your home network—that is, over the Internet—you’ve got to be able to connect directly to the Slingbox. But such connections are blocked by default by home routers and firewalls. When you first configure your Slingbox hardware, SlingPlayer offers to automatically adjust the settings on your home router to allow incoming SlingPlayer connections to reach your Slingbox. However, this only works with routers that support the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) format—and Apple’s wireless routers do not. As a result, I had to manually set up port forwarding on my AirPort Extreme Base Station and manually assign an IP address to my Slingbox. For an experienced networking hand like me, it wasn’t a problem, but those less familiar with home networking issues might find it confusing.

After your Slingbox and SlingPlayer are configured, it’s easy to connect them via a simple dialog box. As soon as you’re connected, SlingPlayer begins playing back audio and video, although you’ll notice that for the first few seconds your video will seem a little slower than usual; that’s because the software is storing enough video data as a buffer to prevent skipping and drop-outs later.

Unlike Internet video streaming, in which servers provide video to numerous recipients, the Slingbox and SlingPlayer connection is a true two-way conversation. The hardware and software automatically sense the available speed of the connection, and the Slingbox hardware adjusts the level of video compression accordingly. If you’re on a slow connection, Slingbox will continue lowering video and audio quality until it can send you a smooth, consistent picture. And if you’re on an ultra-fast connection Slingbox will take full advantage of that speed to send you a high-quality image.

The Slingbox I tested was sitting on my home DSL network, and I connected to it from numerous hotels and homes with DSL or cable-modem Internet connections. In all cases, the video the SlingPlayer provided to me was watchable, but it definitely wasn’t high quality. If pristine images matter to you, Slingbox won’t satisfy you. But if you want to watch your favorite baseball team’s games while in a hotel room in a foreign city, or play back the season finale of Battlestar Galactica while sitting in an airport lounge, you’ll find the convenience worth the decrease in quality.

Because all the SlingPlayer software does is play back video, its interface is fairly spartan: a video window with a volume slider and a play/stop button. However, the true power of the program’s interface can be found in the floating Remote palette, which lets you emulate your home remote control.

The Remote palette displays a facsimile of your remote (in my case, it was a picture-perfect copy of the TiVo remote control), and when you click on a button, that command is relayed to the Slingbox hardware, which comes with a set of tiny infrared blasters that you set next to the remote-control receiver on the front of your DVR or cable box at home. When I press pause on SlingPlayer’s virtual TiVo remote, it pauses the TiVo at the other end. Using this interface, it’s easy to change channels and pick a show from a DVR’s list of available recordings. Keep in mind, however, that if someone back home is watching the TiVo at that moment, the TiVo will be paused for them, too. As a result, Slingbox is best used when there’s nobody else at home trying to watch TV when you are.

At the bottom-right corner of the SlingPlayer interface there’s an area where you can create a strip of single-click buttons to switch to your favorite channels. After pressing the small Plus icon, I was quickly able to choose an ESPN icon and enter in ESPN’s channel number on my DirecTV satellite system. After that, all I needed to do was click on the ESPN button to command my TiVo to give me my sports fix by changing the channel.

Hardware Delivered

Although the Slingbox hardware is actually a sophisticated mini-computer capable of dynamically compressing live video and streaming it across the Internet, that power is contained in a relatively nondescript box. The Slingbox is a plastic slab without a single button, and it is unremarkable except for its back surface, which is bristling with video inputs. Sling Media sells three different variations of Slingbox: the $130 Slingbox Tuner is intended for basic-cable connections, and is unable to connect to a digital set-top box; the $150 Slingbox AV can connect to two different inputs and control cable, satellite, and DVR devices; and the $250 Slingbox Pro (which I tested) can connect to four different devices and supports high-definition video signals via the $50 Slingbox HD Connect adapter cable.

Unfortunately, all of the Slingboxes include only an Ethernet port for networking. If you don’t already have Ethernet or a wireless bridge near your TV, you’ll also need to buy a wireless or power-line bridge in order to use Slingbox. And while the Slingbox Pro provides compatibility with HD signals, it’s important to note that the Slingbox can’t actually transmit high-definition video resolutions: Slingbox scales down all video to standard TV resolution on your home network, and even lower resolution when you’re not at home.

Video in Your Pocket?

Although I tested Slingbox using Macs and even a PC, the company also offers add-on software that lets you view Slingbox video on mobile devices, including cell phones. The $30 SlingPlayer Mobile software is currently available for phones running Windows Mobile, and a Palm OS version is currently in beta testing. (Here’s hoping that Sling Media is one of the first third-party developers to bring their software to the iPhone!)

Macworld’s Buying Advice

The Slingbox ’s lack of built-in Wi-Fi support is unfortunate, and users of non-UPnP routers will need to manually configure their home networks in order to connect from outside the home. And for all but the most hard-core AV fans, the four-input Slingbox Pro model is simply overkill. But for frequent travelers, especially those who are sports fans or who have DVRs full to bursting with recorded shows, Slingbox successfully brings the comforts of home to wherever you roam. I know that, thanks to my Slingbox, I’ll never miss another game, and that makes it worth every penny.

Jason Snell is the editorial director of Macworld.

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