If there's one communication service that's easy to get when you're away from home, it's television. Broadband Internet access, however, is much scarcer. So a box that lets you stream TV from your home to another, broadband-blessed spot does not exactly shout its relevance from the rooftops.
Yet that is all the Slingbox does: This $250 device from San Mateo, Calif., start-up Sling Media (www.slingmedia.com) essentially turns your Internet connection into a very long set of audio/video cables.
It plugs into any video source at home -- such as a TV set, a cable or satellite box, a DVD player or VCR, or a digital video recorder -- and relays its output over your Internet connection to any computer running Sling's playback software.
The Slingbox hides this remarkable capability in an unintimidating package that looks like a large, foil-wrapped candy bar and doesn't require connecting anything to the inside or outside of your PC.
Unfortunately, it still subjects users to three of the least pleasant tasks in the electronic realm: tinkering with a home network, rearranging the pasta bowl of wiring behind the TV set and programming an allegedly universal remote control.
The networking chores are by far the worst of it. To begin, the Slingbox includes only an Ethernet jack, not a wireless-networking receiver. So if your house, like most, isn't wired for Ethernet, you'll need to buy some sort of network adapter such as a WiFi-to-Ethernet bridge to get the Slingbox online. And that, in turn, requires some additional network re-plumbing at two locations (punctuated by reboots of the Slingbox when it initially ignored new connections).
Sling's Windows XP-only software, in turn, failed to report any sort of error when it ran into an obstacle, such as firewall software that prevented uploading new instructions to the Slingbox, leaving me to guess if things were going slowly or had stalled out. So the configuration process dragged on for an hour, with little help from Sling's poorly organized tech-support site (which was unreadable in the Firefox Web browser).
After all that, plugging the Slingbox into a video source was fairly simple -- three out of four times. It worked with a Dish Network satellite receiver, basic Comcast cable and a Sony DVD player, but it couldn't pick up any video from a Comcast high-definition TV set-top box over three cable hookups.
As part of that process, the Slingbox's "IR emitter," a small plastic pod at the end of a wire, must be positioned to face the infrared remote-control receiver on the front of your video source. The Slingplayer software should generate the right control codes for a given model, but this required extra tweaking in practice.
The last step was to open a port in a WiFi router's firewall, needed to allow for remote viewing of TV via the Slingbox. Sling's software could have done that automatically on routers newer than my two-year-old model.
From home or abroad, logging into your Slingbox requires simply entering the Slingbox's name, a 36-character Finder ID and a password. Only one user can log into a Slingbox at a time -- and anybody left at home has to cede use of the Slingbox's video source.
Sling Media's license agreement also prohibits you from logging in to somebody else's Slingbox or putting your Slingbox in somebody else's house, but the software doesn't enforce either rule.
Over home networks, video played reliably but looked little better than video streamed off Web sites.
When viewed remotely over the Internet -- at home, the Slingbox was yoked to a digital subscriber line with an upload rate of about 350 kilobits per second, comfortably above Sling's recommendation of 256 kbps -- things looked and sounded still worse.
The often blocky, blotchy appearance of footage made Slingbox video look like a post-impressionist animated movie, as if Cezanne had signed up with Disney. Audio had the tinny, dull sound of a clock radio, with occasional slight but distracting slowdowns in tempo.
When I tried watching TV via the Slingbox from work, I couldn't even log in. Sling's documentation suggests that some office firewalls will block remote viewing.
Issuing commands to a cable box or DVD player via the Slingbox's IR emitter took surprisingly long, with delays of 10 seconds or more between clicking on a button in the Slingplayer's remote-control window and seeing the results of that command appear in the Slingplayer's video-playback window.
The Slingbox's greatest flaw is what it's missing. Its Slingplayer software lacks pause and record buttons, so you can't take a short break from viewing a program or copy it to your hard drive for later, offline viewing.
Those would have been easy features to add, but Sling chose not to. Richard Buchanan, Sling Media's vice president of marketing, said the company was leery of "legal issues" with copying video to a computer.
Sorry, but that's nonsense. There is no law against storing a TV show on your hard drive, only threats of litigious thuggery from movie studios that see computers as a means to piracy. Sling may feel that it lacks the funds to fight any lawsuits, but that doesn't mean we have to reward its groveling to Hollywood.
That said, the Slingbox does accomplish its stated goal. If you desperately need to watch your own TV programming from afar, the Slingbox can deliver. But who needs that, how often and from how many places?
Sling Media's Web site offers its own suggestions of where you'll want to tune in via a Slingbox, citing "your own backyard, your vacation home in the south of France, your local Starbucks, your three hour snow delay in Chicago, or on the beach in Mexico."
Here's a better idea: When you're on vacation, try not to ruin it by wrestling with glitch-prone, deliberately hobbled, under-performing gadgets.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.