Sling Media Slingbox A/V

The Slingbox lets you watch your TV anywhere–anywhere, that is, where you can access a broadband Internet connection with a device that runs the company’s SlingPlayer software. When it first hit the market in 2005, the SlingPlayer software could run on only one platform: Windows XP computers. Windows 2000 compatibility was added soon after, and Windows Mobile devices–handhelds and smart phones–followed later. A long-promised Mac client debuted in the fall of 2006, and now Palm OS devotees can finally join the Sling party (if they’ve got a Treo 700p smart phone). The Palm software provides yet another venue for users all of three Slingbox models–the Slingbox Tuner, the Slingbox A/V, and the Slingbox Pro–to watch their home TV programming. But it’s the midrange Slingbox A/V that remains the best choice for most TV viewers, hitting the sweet spot between affordability and functionality.

Slingbox and SlingPlayer:  several choices

The original Slingbox (model SB100-100) may not have been the first placeshifting device to hit the market, but it quickly became a favorite way for gadget fans to watch their favorite TV shows regardless of their location. The company followed up in the fall of 2006 with a trio of second-generation models: the Slingbox Tuner ($180), the Slingbox A/V ($180), and the Slingbox Pro ($250). Each of the three models is targeted at TV viewers with different needs. The Slingbox Tuner accepts only analog cable TV signals and has just a single screw-type RF input. The Slingbox A/V, like the original model, can control any cable or satellite box and gets its video signals via composite or S-Video. And the Slingbox Pro does it all: It can accept as many as four A/V sources, including (with an adapter) HD video. 

Before we look at the Slingbox A/V in detail, however, it’s worth focusing on the basic concept of the device. The Slingbox enables you to watch your home TV programming anywhere so long as you have access to a broadband Internet connection. It takes your home TV source, digitizes it, streams it onto your home network, and–if you’d like–onto the outside Internet as well. You receive the resulting video stream on a computer, handheld, or cell phone that’s equipped with the SlingPlayer software. Both the Slingbox (source) and the device running the SlingPlayer software (receiver) need to be connected to high-speed broadband networks–a cable or DSL line or a 3G wireless network–but the distance between the two isn’t a factor. As long as you’re getting normal broadband access speeds, you can watch your Slingbox playback anywhere–be it in another room of the house or halfway around the world–literally.

SlingPlayer software for Windows PCs (2000, XP, or Vista) is included on a CD that comes with the products, but you’re always better off getting the latest build from Sling Media’s Web site. A beta version of the long-awaited Mac OS X version is available for download as well. Windows or Mac, laptop or desktop, just be sure the computer has access to a high-speed connection (Ethernet or Wi-Fi)–dial-up won’t cut it.

 If you’d prefer to watch your TV on a smaller device, Sling has you covered. SlingPlayer Mobile software is available for Pocket PC (touch-screen devices running Windows Mobile 2003 or 5.0, such as recent Dell Axim and HP iPaq handhelds, as well as phones such as the Palm Treo 700w, the Audiovox 6700, and the Samsung i730), Windows Smartphone (non-touch-screen phones running Windows Mobile 5.0, such as the Motorola Q, the Samsung Blackjack, and the T-Mobile SDA), and the Palm Treo 700p. Each mobile software package needs to be purchased on Sling’s Web site for a one-time fee of $30, but you can try before you buy–just download the 30-day trial software. Just like the PCs, the mobile devices need to have access to a broadband connection, be it Wi-Fi or a 3G high-speed cellular network–EVDO on Verizon or Sprint, or UMTS/HSDPA on Cingular, for instance.

Don’t have a Windows
Mobile device or a Treo 700p? Sling’s Web site mentions that the company is evaluating the feasibility of creating SlingPlayer software for other platforms, such as RIM BlackBerry, J2ME, and BREW, but such plans remain entirely theoretical. (A Symbian version is preinstalled on some phones sold through British wireless provider 3, but it’s unclear when or if it’ll be made available for purchase to existing Symbian phone owners and those elsewhere in the world.

 Handhelds and computers are great, but what about getting your Slingbox to send images to another TV? Sling has announced a product that will do just that: the SlingCatcher. Due in the second half of 2007, the SlingCatcher will be able to stream content from any Slingbox (so you can access your living room DVR recordings in the bedroom, for instance). It will also offer a function called “SlingProjector” that will mirror what appears on the screen of any networked PC. 

Slingbox A/V: Design and setup

Before you can watch your TV shows from 2,000 miles away, of course, you have to get your Slingbox up and running. The Slingbox A/V is about two-thirds the size of the original 2005 model: 1.5 inches high by 7.5 wide by 4.5 deep. It’s a stylish black, so despite the red accents, it’ll more or less disappear into your home entertainment system. In fact, once you connect the Slingbox to your home A/V system, you never have to see it again; the always-on device can be tucked away in the depths of your TV stand–or even in an enclosed cabinet–where it will toil away indefinitely.

The rear of the Slingbox A/V is fairly uncluttered: just a single A/V input (red and white RCA audio inputs, yellow composite video) with S-Video. The physical setup is quick and logical. Simply connect the video source, be it a cable box, a satellite box, a DVR, a DVD player, or the like, to the input. There’s also an included two-headed IR blaster that you can use to control the attached device remotely (change channels, pause, play, fast-forward, rewind, and so forth). A complete list of Slingbox-compatible products–the ones it can control remotely–can be found on Sling’s Web site.

The Slingbox A/V can toggle between both the composite and video input, but because they share a single set of audio jacks, you’ll need to purchase Y-cable adapters. Likewise, you’ll need to have the second device powered off (or muted), or you’ll get a mash-up of both audio streams. Alternately, you might use the second input as a video-only security camera feed–just plug in your camcorder. Bottom line, the Slingbox A/V is best considered a single-input device. That’s fine: most people just want something to attach to their cable or satellite box or DVR. And if you do happen to need more inputs, you can step up to the Slingbox Pro model, which can toggle among four of them.

Another little setup disclaimer: unlike the Slingbox Pro–and the original 2005 Slingbox–the Slingbox A/V doesn’t offer pass-through outputs. That essentially means that your video source needs at least one free composite (or, preferably, S-Video) output. Thankfully, most modern cable and satellite boxes and DVRs do. But you may have to make some adjustments to your setup–losing a connection to a VCR or DVR recorder, for instance, or leaving those devices powered up and using their pass-through outputs as the Slingbox source.

The final step in connecting the Slingbox A/V is to get it on your home network. Your only option to do so is via a wired Ethernet cable. If you don’t have a network connection nearby, you’ll need to opt for a bridging solution: power-line Ethernet extenders or a wireless-to-Ethernet bridge. Sling offers its own set of power-line adapters, the SlingLink Turbo, available in single and multi-port versions (the latter for connecting other networked entertainment devices, such as a game console, Apple TV, or TiVo). We used a pair of older, significantly less expensive Netgear XE102 adapters with no problem.

Once you have the Slingbox base station wired up and ready to go, you’ll need to install the viewing software on a PC (Windows or Mac); the initial setup must be done within your home’s local network. The software follows a bulletproof, wizard-style install path; if you have a plug-and-play (UPnP) router, the whole process should take just a few minutes. The latest iteration of the SlingPlayer software setup includes a great video-optimization wizard, which automatically optimizes the software settings to your PC’s CPU and graphics card capabilities. Once it’s up and running, the software gives you a video window not unlike that of QuickTime or Windows Media Player, just with channel-changing controls. If you’ve connected the Slingbox to a TiVo, a cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR, or even a DVD recorder, you’ll also get video-transport controls: pause, rewind, fast-forward, and so on.

Streaming performance

Right off the bat, the Slingbox’s basic functions worked as advertised. We were watching our living room TV on the bedroom PC, able to flip channels at will. The recent improvements in the SlingPlayer software were notable as well: there are now several “skins” from which to choose, and you can easily create favorite channels using the familiar channel logos for one-touch access. But where the interface of SlingPlayer really triumphs is the onscreen remote control. Essentially, you’re getting a nearly identical version of the handheld remote of whatever set-top box the Slingbox is connected to. During testing, we were able to toggle between the DirecTV HR20, the DirecTV HD TiVo, the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD, the Dish ViP622, and the Dish DVR-942, each of which had their corresponding remotes available on the screen. The obvious upside is that there’s no learning curve–if you can use your home remote, you can use the SlingPlayer software as well.  The SlingPlayer software automatically optimizes viewing quality to available bandwidth via an algorithm called SlingStream. The Slingbox Pro and its second-gen siblings all utilize the same chip, a new
Texas Instruments DSP that offers the potential for much better video quality than that of the original Slingbox model. Of course, the quality is largely dependent on the available network bandwidth; you’ll want at least 300Kbps on both upstream and downstream connections, with 400Kbps to 500Kbps–and beyond–offering a noticeably better picture.

Of course, the viewing on a home network offers the potential for much greater speeds, and that’s where the improved video quality of the Slingbox A/V was most evident. We were able to watch a Monday Night Football game and fully enjoy all the action. It looked great with the window filling half the screen and was still very good when we blew it up to full-screen mode. To be sure, some softness was apparent–the diagonal lines on the field were choppy, and the long overhead shot of the Superdome looked dull in details, but close-up objects looked sharp enough, and action was relatively smooth and well-rendered. If not the fabled near-DVD quality, it was certainly competitive with–if not better than–the movies and TV shows available on the iTunes Store.

When broadcasting to the outside world, the Slingbox is limited by the upstream bandwidth of your home’s broadband connection, which is often significantly less than your downstream speed. For instance, our cable modem seemed to max out at a decent 500Kbps–not bad at all, but far below the 3,000 to 6,000Kbps that we were getting on the home network. The result is some “down-rezzing” to accommodate the lower bandwidth, which naturally results in a softer picture with more artifacts. (The SlingPlayer has a helpful meter in the window that shows throughput and frames per second.) You can still expand the SlingPlayer window to fill the screen, but you’ll get significantly less sharpness and detail than you would via LAN streaming. Still, as long as you’re getting a decent stream, you can get a very watchable video window that delivers 24fps to 30fps. The quality was much better than you’d get with most YouTube videos, for instance, and looked at least as good as CNET’s own First Look videos (see above).

When watching on a cell phone or handheld device, the same bandwidth concerns apply. But because those devices have such small screens (compared to a computer’s monitor), the resulting image looked even better. We tested the SlingPlayer Mobile software several devices, including an old HP iPaq (via Wi-Fi), a Palm Treo 700w (Verizon EV-DO), a Samsung BlackJack (Cingular/AT&T HSDPA/UMTS), and a Palm Treo 700p (Sprint EVDO), and it worked equally well in all instances. The mobile version is a faithful recreation of the same solid performance we’ve gotten on a PC. What’s better, of course, is that you can use the handheld or cell phone service much more often and in many more locations than you could from a desktop or laptop PC. Just be sure you have an unlimited-usage data plan on that smart phone, or you’ll have a nasty surprise at the end of the month when the bill arrives.

Competition and caveats

The Slingbox is far from the only game in town when it comes to streaming your home TV to a remote location. Sony offers two LocationFree TV products that deliver similar functionality. The $250 LF-B20 includes built-in wireless and the ability to stream TV programming to PSP gaming handhelds. Sony also offers third-party software for streaming to Macs, Windows
Mobile, and Symbian devices, and even has plans for a SlingCatcher-style client called the LF-BOX1 LocationFree TV Box (originally scheduled to debut in 2006, it’s since been delayed until later in 2007). Meanwhile, the Monsoon Multimedia Hava Wireless HD and the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless (essentially the same product sold under different names) also deliver Sling-like streaming but include built-in wireless networking, HD support, the ability to stream to multiple clients on a LAN concurrently, and better integration with Windows Media Center/Vista than Slingbox.

Moving beyond hardware, there are a growing number of options for copying and syncing video media from your PC to a handheld–the most notable being Apple’s video-enabled iPod and TiVo To Go. But that’s just transferring previously recorded media to a portable playback device. If you want live, real-time video, your options are limited. Those with newer mobile phones can opt for live 3G streaming subscriptions such as MobiTV and V Cast but will be restricted to the few channels offered by each provider. And anyone with a Media Center PC should check out Orb Network; it’s a free service that offers remote access to virtually any PC-based media–photos, music, and so forth–but unlike Slingbox, it requires a host PC with a TV tuner card to stream live or recorded television programs.

That’s not to say the Slingbox is perfect. Among our gripes is the fact that it lacks any wireless networking component, so you’ll need to connect a wireless bridge or a pair of power-line adapters. Furthermore, the Slingbox is only as good as its device support. And while its catalog of supported devices has grown considerably since the product’s debut, you’ll be out of luck if it’s missing the remote codes for your primary video device. We’d love it if the Slingbox software could learn codes or allow modification of its virtual-remote template, much as a PC-programmable remote can. We’d also like the option to program hot keys ourselves into the software, which would enable easier control via multimedia-friendly keyboards, for instance. Meanwhile, the mobile client is hampered by some of the obvious limitations of the small screen: the miniaturized versions of your EPG; channel labels; or onscreen text such as sports scores, news crawls, and stock quotes may just be flat-out unreadable on many devices; as will the finer details of some quick-moving videos; for example, hockey pucks and baseballs will be hard to discern.

 Conclusion

Nitpicks aside, however, the Slingbox is one of the few gadgets that adds value to all of your other tech investments–including your cable/satellite service, your DVR, your home network, your laptop PC, and your handheld device. The second-generation models are an evolutionary improvement over the original model, with improved video quality–especially via a home network–and wider device support (Palm, Mac) being the primary step ups. If you’re a hard-core video junkie with the need to access multiple video sources and an appreciation for better video quality on a home network, it’s worth stepping up to the Slingbox Pro. But if you just want to have access to the programming on your cable or set-top box–or DVR–the Slingbox A/V is the pick of the litter 

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