Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro, Personal Tech Columnist

Slingbox Video Streaming Not Perfect, but Remarkable

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, March 23, 2006

I watched television while I walked to the Metro on Tuesday morning -- and during my trip through the subway, then at my desk at the office. My TV set was a Treo 700w "smart phone," my antenna was the phone's wireless data connection, and the broadcast came from a small silver rectangle parked next to the TV in my living room.

This experience had a lot in common with the first days of video on the Internet, complete with irritating dropouts. But getting a full spread of satellite-TV channels on the screen of a phone was a sufficiently remarkable feat that I could overlook those flaws.

The technology behind this feat came from Sling Media Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., start-up. Its $250 Slingbox debuted last year, allowing users to stream any video source -- over-the-air TV, cable, satellite, DVD, whatever -- to a broadband-connected computer running Sling's software.

The Slingbox did that reasonably well and generated an impressive level of hype in the process, but it also required some finicky configuration and hit one nagging relevancy issue: How often are you within reach of broadband Internet but not TV?

Since then, Sling has fine-tuned its setup software, and today it's introducing the ability to stream video to a Windows Mobile handheld organizer with a broadband Internet connection -- either WiFi or the wireless carriers' data services.

This new feature both extends the reach and utility of Sling's product and helpfully expands the ongoing debate over television's future.

Installing a Slingbox took far less work than last year. I didn't have to turn off my computer's firewall (Sling's software requires Windows 2000 or XP, with a Mac OS X version due by midyear) or restart the candy-bar-shaped Slingbox over and over. The only real hassle was the wiring: audio and video cables to a satellite-TV receiver, an "IR emitter" to send commands to that box's remote-control sensor, and an Ethernet cable to link the Slingbox to a wireless router.

(A WiFi receiver and digital-television tuner built into Slingbox could immensely simplify things.)

After identifying the satellite receiver in the Sling program and adjusting a security setting on my wireless network with the help of clear directions on Sling's Web site, the setup concluded with my installing SlingPlayer Mobile -- a beta release that will cost $30 for people who buy a Slingbox after April 26 -- on the Treo.

And so I found myself watching a spring-training baseball game on the Metro. Later on, I watched a handful of other live programs, plus a couple of recorded shows stored on the satellite box's hard drive.

Sling's mobile software can function even on such slow data links as the 50 to 70 kilobits per second of Verizon's NationalAccess, at the cost of awful image quality (players in that baseball game looked like the faceless characters of an early-1990s video game) and frequent dropouts.

But with the 200 to 300 kbps of Verizon's BroadbandAccess, Sling-relayed TV looked a lot more like TV, aside from hard-to-read text in news tickers.

Like its desktop counterpart, Sling's mobile software lets you control the video by selecting buttons in an onscreen remote control; the lag between selecting a command and seeing its effects seemed longer on the Treo, however.

With all of its trying moments -- say, when the Verizon broadband would mysteriously shrivel away to 30 or 40 kbps -- Sling video also looks pretty good compared with other options for on-the-go TV watching.

Unlike Apple's iTunes downloads or the mobile-video services of wireless carriers, Sling doesn't require you to pay for each show or cough up a subscription fee. Unlike video recordings transferred from a Media Center PC, it doesn't require running complicated software before syncing large files over to your handheld.

On the other hand, networks, broadcasters and cable or satellite operators don't make anything extra off the Slingbox either. Some people in those businesses seem uneasy about the way the Slingbox gives customers so much more control over their TV viewing.

Like that's a bad thing.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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