Watching TV used to be so simple: Walk over to the set and turn it on, flip to one of the five channels, and sit down. But cable TV came along and changed all that. Then came the TiVo revolution. Now Sling Media has changed the rules again, giving us place-shifting Slingboxes that let you stream live TV or video from your home to a PC, laptop, or mobile phone via a broadband connection. TV anywhere you want it.
Sling Media has expanded beyond its original trendsetting device and now offers several different models, including the new Slingbox AV, which works with any DVR, cable, or satellite set-top box. Although the primary application for a Slingbox is remote TV viewing—perhaps at a vacation house, an airport lounge, or a far-flung hotel—it can also be handy inside the house if you have a Wi-Fi network, letting you watch favorite programs in your bedroom or keep up with a ballgame out on the deck.
The Slingbox AV can also be useful at the office for scheduling recordings or checking in on the news. There is one thing I have to warn you about right up front, though: If you have only one DVR or set-top box, you can have only one channel or program playing at any given time.
So if you’re on the road and dial in Hogan’s Heroes, someone at home may come along and decide it’s time to watch Judge Judy or The Wiggles. Remote wars anyone?
The Slingbox AV itself has an appropriately low-profile design, and it’s small enough to conceal in a stereo cabinet or on top of a DVR. In order to use the device, you need to make a wired network connection to both your DVR (or other video source) and your network router. In my case, this meant running a 50-foot Ethernet cable out the window and back to the Wi-Fi router in my home office. If you don’t like the idea of stringing Ethernet cable about the house, you can buy the SlingLink, a $100 bridging device that transmits Ethernet signals over your home’s existing electrical wiring. The Slingbox AV has both S-video and composite inputs so you can hook two video sources up at the same time. If you have a high-definition DVR, I recommend the more advanced Slingbox PRO, which has four A/V inputs, including a component- video connection.
In my setup, I hooked up my DVR via a composite cable. If your video source only has one output, you’ll need to split the signal, which is not an ideal arrangement because it degrades video quality. In order to control your DVR, you run a “blaster cable” from the Slingbox to the DVR’s infrared (IR) sensor. When you download and run the software wizard, it helps you create an onscreen version of your remote so you can control the DVR from your PC—change channels, record shows, fast-forward, you name it. The software leads you through a few more steps to enable the remote viewing. The whole process is very straightforward and takes 10–15 minutes.
Compared with many other convergence products I’ve reviewed, the Slingbox AV comes with easy-to-follow instructions and set-up procedures and is backed by solid customer support. These things can make a big difference if you have a low tolerance for troubleshooting.
The quality of the video streamed from the Slingbox AV was very good overall. However, the quality does vary, depending on your location and connection bandwidth. At home, the picture looked plenty sharp and smooth while streaming everything from basketball games to music videos, even when the screen was stretched out to 9 or 10 inches. However, when I used the system remotely at the office, performance took a hit. Whereas the video streamed on my home network at a rate of 3000Kbps (a meter on the screen shows the data transfer rate), in 640x480 resolution, the remote connection could only manage about 400–500Kbps due to the upstream bandwidth limitations; this was true using both Wi-Fi and hard-wired Ethernet connections.
As you would expect, the picture wasn’t as sharp and started to get fuzzy when the screen was stretched beyond 6 inches or so. Still, it was plenty watchable and even did a decent job of keeping up with sports action. The Sony LocationFree system had similar limitations when I used it remotely, although I would say the Slingbox AV performed slightly better overall.
Sling Media has established itself with a string of unique place shifting devices that are keeping pace with new technologies and our ever-changing entertainment habits. The Slingbox AV is a good deal at $180 but you’ll want to step up to the $250 PRO model if you have high-def aspirations. TPV