By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Watching television on a computer screen is no special achievement these days. Between the free streaming video on the Web and TV downloads at iTunes and elsewhere, you don't need to work too hard to turn your computer into a replacement for the tube.
But if you can watch your own TV -- with your local shows, your team's games, your recorded programs -- on a computer monitor, and do so hundreds of miles from your home, now that's something else. Under some circumstances, such capability could be worth a non-trivial amount of money.
That's the trade-off of the Slingbox, the Web-connected "personal broadcaster" from Sling Media. Today, this division of the satellite broadcaster EchoStar Technologies is introducing the latest Slingbox, a high-definition device that fixes two flaws of earlier versions but can't do much about some other underlying issues.
The new $299.99 Slingbox Pro-HD, like older models, can take any video input and relay it over the Internet to a computer or smartphone running SlingPlayer software. But with a simple antenna, this model's digital TV tuner can pull in high-definition broadcasts off the air for free; with enough bandwidth, it can send those programs out in nearly their original quality.
With the player comes an updated SlingPlayer 2.0 that -- finally -- adds pause, rewind and forward controls. You still can't record a broadcast, but you can now pause it and zip ahead or behind.
A review unit loaned by the company, running an almost-final version of its software, usually performed those tasks without complaint but still exhibited glitches.
One consisted of its setup. The Pro-HD, like every other Slingbox, does not include a Wi-Fi receiver. So if you don't have an Ethernet jack next to your TV, you'll need to find some other way to get this compact black box on your home network; Sling Media suggests powerline network adapters, at $80 a pair, but I was able to plug the Pro-HD directly into a wireless router.
Once on my network, the box showed up in the new SlingPlayer software, a release for Windows XP and Vista that walked me through the rest of its setup. I elected not to hook it to my satellite box, avoiding the extra wiring and time needed to configure the device to control the box, and instead plugged the Pro-HD into a cheap TV antenna.
After a lengthy scan, the Slingbox's tuner found almost all the local digital broadcasts -- but not as many as a Zenith digital-TV converter box tested earlier this year. Things hit another snag when I had to adjust the wireless router's firewall to allow Sling video to stream to another device on the Internet: The SlingPlayer software couldn't do the job, and the instructions provided for a manual reconfiguration led me astray.
But once I'd puzzled my way through the firewall adjustments, everything worked as promised. On my home network, the SlingPlayer program showed a crisp, clear high-definition picture, though slow-moving images (for instance, David Letterman's interview of Bill Clinton) looked sharper than footage with more action (the evening news' sports recaps). And this didn't require a high-powered 802.11n router; this test relied on a five-year-old router limited to slower 802.11g Wi-Fi.
Sling also provides a seven-day electronic program guide, with detailed information on each program's contents.
Alas, outside my home network the Sling stream was limited by the slower upload speed of a DSL connection -- about a fourth of the 1.5 million bits per second Sling requires for high-def quality. Over a nearby coffee shop's Wi-Fi, Slingbox video looked more like YouTube clips, with blurry images and tinny sound.
In this respect, the Slingbox Pro-HD is little better or worse than earlier models. In practice, it was worse -- late Tuesday night, the review unit inexplicably expired and has refused to turn on since.
Even a fully functional Pro-HD suffers from the built-in flaws of any device that must be bolted into an existing television setup. It's yet another box to plug into the wall, yet another set of wires to mess with behind the set.
And yet Slingbox owners seem as passionate about these boxes as any group of gadget enthusiasts, in many cases for a simple reason: This is the easiest way to follow their sports teams when they travel or move out of town. The TV business can't seem to grasp that idea, to judge from the weak Web-viewing options they (especially the National Football League) offer faraway fans. The Sling Media folks have done a fine job of patching that bug with the Slingbox.
They would be unwise to count on broadcasters and sports leagues ignoring this demand forever, though. The Slingbox's best hope of long-term relevance may not lie in other corporations' continued cluelessness but in its new parent firm, EchoStar; expect Sling functions to show up in Dish Network receivers in the first half of next year.
Sling's capabilities may not seem worth paying $300 and adding another box to the living room, but when people can experiment with them for "free" with a new satellite box, people might find them far more useful than they would have imagined.