- Review Price: £179.99
In this age of PVRs, Bit-Torrent downloads and podcasting, it’s possible to argue that plain old broadcast television has had its day. Unless it’s something you really have to watch live, like a football match, why should people be forced to watch what’s on at the time instead of consuming what they want at the time of their choosing.
So while we wait for TV on demand to become the de-facto delivery medium, SlingMedia’s SlingBox is a clever device that promises to make TV seem fresh again. Why? It enables you to watch your TV from anywhere in the world as long as you have Internet access. That’s cool.
The Slingbox was born out of frustration after the founders of the company found themselves unable to watch their beloved baseball, basketball or ‘Football’ team, (or whatever sport it is that seems fascinate Americans so much), when they were on holiday. This gave them the idea of using the Internet to bring their home TV to them. SlingMedia calls it ‘placeshifting’.
So how does it work? It’s actually quite simple. The Slingbox is a small box that connects to your cable or satellite set-top box, and then to your home router. The Slingbox takes the incoming TV signal from the set-to box and encodes it on the fly into a Windows Media video stream. Once you’ve installed some software onto your PC or laptop you can then access that TV stream, whether you’re sitting in the same room as your set-top box or in an amphitheatre in Rome. The Slingbox is a one on one experience though – only one person can access it at one time, so you can’t share your TV with a group of friends.
The requirements then are that you have a router and a fast enough connection in your home to upload the video stream and a decent Internet connection to access the stream when you’re outside of your home network. Anyone with broadband connection with an upload speed of 300Kbps should be fine. The great thing about the software is that the faster the connection at either end, the better the picture quality. This is because the SlingPlayer software can automatically adjust the bit-rate to give you the best viewing experience.
The icing on the cake is that you can remotely control your set-top box as if you’re sitting in front of it. The candles on top of the cake are that you don’t even need a set-top box as the Slingbox has a built-in DVB-T tuner. This has been especially added for the UK specific version of the Slingbox and it’s great to see a US company taking the time and trouble to create a truly version specific version of its product rather than just assume that what’s fine in the US works across the pond.
This is great as it means that if someone is watching the set-top box, you can still access the DVB-T stream, whether you’re upstairs on a laptop or half a world away.
Thanks to the built-in tuner you could even use the Slingbox without a TV at home, but in fact you’d fall foul of the law as a TV licence is required for the TV tuner. If you have a TV licence, you’re covered, though I can’t think why you’d want a Slingbox if you didn’t even have a TV at home.
There’s no SCART input on the Slingbox, but instead you get the choice of S-Video or composite. A SCART to composite pass-through adaptor is provided, as well as an S-Video cable and the required audio and Ethernet cables. An IR Blaster is also supplied that enables the SlingBox to change the channel on your set-top box. This is well designed with sensors attached to sticky grips that attach at the top and bottom of your set-top box so they can be precisely placed above the IR sensor.
The box itself looks like no home entertainment product you’ve ever seen before. It resembles a slab of Toblerone that’s been made out of metal. As such, it’s surprising when you pick it up to find that it hardly weighs anything. It’s also covered the surface is a number of funky messages such as MY TV. If you’re a conservative type and prefer your utilitarian black boxes then this certainly will stand out, but I think that’s a good thing.
At the rear of the box you’ll find the S-Video and composite inputs and these both share an audio input. This is a limitation as it means that while you could have two devices attached, you can only hook one up for sound.
While the Slingbox has an Ethernet port for connecting to your router, it doesn’t have any wireless capabilities. If your wireless router happens to be located next to your TV or set-top box, that’s not a problem. If not you’re going to have to run a very long Ethernet cable or go and get a wireless gaming adaptor as used to connect consoles to your router to get them online. An alternative is Ethernet over your home electricity plugs, as reviewed here.
Set up proved to be an easy and straightforward process. The first thing to do is to make sure you’ve hooked everything up correctly but lay the Quick Start guide out on the floor and follow the instructions and you shouldn’t have any problems. Without wanting to be politically incorrect when you’re used to ‘Ingrish’ from the manuals of most component manufacturers it’s refreshing to read clear instructions written in correct English. Continuing that theme, the SlingMedia web site is also a very good resource for information and updates.
The software sensibly checks for updates before it gets going, and a Firmware update was downloaded and applied on my first go. For Sky+ users it’s well worth downloading the very latest version (currently beta) of the SlingPlayer software as it contains remote skins that exactly mimic the layout of the Sky + remote (a design classic in my book), which makes controlling your Sky + remotely virtually the same as if you were in the same room as it.
As you set-up the SlingPlayer software you choose which input you wish to configure, but you can only do one at a time. I first had to set up the Sky+ and then had to go back to set up the internal tuner.
After finishing a scan the software picked up a long list of channels. However, the software help warns that not all type of programmes can be accessed – this includes pay-per-view, encrypted and radio- so you can’t use your Slingbox to stream digital radio, which is a shame. I also found that most of the stations picked up didn’t actually generate any picture. This is probably due to the fact that the TV reception in my house is poor, which isn’t the Slingbox’s fault. Fortunately, the major stations were all picked up.
The next step is to choose your make of set-top box from the list in order than the software sends the correct control codes. The list is very extensive and the chances are that your equipment will be there. Sky+ was located straight way but you do have to do some tweaking to how the codes are transmitted to get it to work well.
The SlingPlayer software isn’t the best looking media player in the world but it’s well laid out and effective. The downside to having to use proprietary software is that if you want to access your TV remotely it’s a hefty download but it’s required because of the nature of the dynamic bit-rate adjustment and does have some nice features.
One in particular is a row of square along the bottom where you can drag and drop the logos for your favourite channels for one click access. Next to the maximise button at the top right you’ve also got a Dock Left and Dock Right option so you can place the software to one side of the screen. You can have the player full screen or drag it to any size your want though inevitably the larger you make it the worse the picture is likely to look.
The player has three skins to choose from including a Mac-like brushed metal look. Ironically however, there’s no actual Mac support at present, though the web site states that it’s been worked on.
There are two ways of connecting to your Slingbox from outside your network. You either input your Finder ID, which you can find in the Properties dialogue box of the SlingPlayer software, or you can input your world facing IP address though you’ll have to alter this if your IP address changes regularly, and could leave you stuck if it changes while you’re away from access to your Slingbox. You then just enter a username and password, which you’ll have set up in advance at home.
When testing within my home network on my PC, which was connected to the network via a wireless adaptor, with Sky+ as a source, I found that picture quality was excellent, even full screen.
The SlingStream is the automatic network optimisation tool and had three settings for Low, Medium and High action. With the World Cup being the main viewing material at the moment, I left it at High Action most of the time. The software indicates the bit-rate at the time and delivered around 1,500kpbs at 25fps. However, when switching to the built-in DVB-T tuner the picture quality was not as good and the bit-rate dropped too, presumably as it adjusts to the lower quality source. However, with SlingStream enabled the bit-rate will adjust on the fly as more bandwidth becomes available or rescues. This is important when bandwidth is variable such as a Wi-Fi in a hotel.
While all the talk these days is of High Definition it’s worth noting that the Slingbox will only encode at up to PAL resolutions or NTSC for the US version, which has a lower resolution. It will work with HD set-top boxes but only if their S-Video or composite outputs can downscale to SD.
The first time I used the player outside of the office I was very impressed with it. It’s really quite something to be able to access your home TV, while sitting in a desk at the office. It’s even cooler being able to control it and I must admit that I did enjoy scaring my wife by changing the channel when she was sitting at home in front of the TV.
Quality outside of the network is inevitably lower than inside the network being limited to around 300- 400Kbps on a 1Mbps connection. This meant that the picture had to be limited to normal size to look decent. However, inside a network from a Sky box, you can make the image full screen and still get a great picture.
This means that is that Slingbox effectively gives you a second TV in the home wherever you are in the house, without having to go to the expense of getting another TV, or get a second aerial point put in. I could watch the football upstairs on a laptop, while my wife watched Desperate Housewives in the lounge. Everyone’s a winner.
Once you’ve got used to the Slingbox, you won’t want to be without the freedom it brings. When you’re on holiday, you’ll no longer be slave to rubbish local TV as long the hotel has Wi-Fi and you’re willing to pay for it.
One feature though that isn’t available in the UK is the ability to watch on portable devices. As its Windows Media based you’d expect it to work with any Wi-Fi enabled Pocket PC. However Slingbox says that currently mobile devices aren’t compatible with the PAL version of the box. This is a shame as it’s one area where it loses out to Sony’s rival Location Free, which is designed to work on an PSP.
However, the Slingbox is quite a bit cheaper at £180, whereas Sony’s box or tricks will cost you £230.
If Slingbox can add PDA and Smartphone support to its little box then it really would be a near perfect product. Let’s hope it does so soon, along with Mac support.
The Slingbox is a great idea that’s well implemented. It’s looks different, it’s very easy to set-up and use, and delivers your TV to you over the Internet wherever you are with. Slingbox just needs to add support for portable device to the UK version and it would be even better.
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