I love TV. So I really wanted to love the Slingbox, a nifty device that lets you watch and control your TV from any PC or Windows Mobile device with a broadband connection.
The original version of the US$250 Slingbox Personal Broadcaster debuted in 2005. With the latest update, the company has expanded the Slingbox family to three devices: the US$180 Slingbox Tuner, which is designed for users who don't have a cable box or DVR; the US$180 Slingbox AV, which connects to a digital cable box, satellite receiver, or DVR; and the US$250 Slingbox Pro, which supports HDTV. I looked at a shipping version of the Slingbox AV, which is most comparable to the original model. Overall, the Slingbox AV was fun to use, but even at a lower price point than the original, the new version still left me wanting more.
The Slingbox AV is thinner and sleeker than its predecessor; the small red and black box will blend in nicely with most TV setups. You connect it to your video source -- whether a cable box, a DVR, or a satellite TV receiver -- via the included S-Video or composite A/V cords. I connected the Slingbox AV to my TiVo Series2 device using S-Video. I then connected the remote control IR cable (which allows the Slingbox to serve as your remote control) so that it was pointing at the IR sensor on my digital cable box. My TiVo requires an IR cable as well, so once my Slingbox was set up, I had two of these cords vying for space on my cable box -- not the most attractive arrangement. Connecting the Slingbox to my TV took less than 10 minutes, though, and was remarkably easy.
From there, you hook up the Slingbox to your home network. (You need to have a router for the Slingbox to work.) The Slingbox attaches to your router via the included ethernet cable. This is where I ran into my first major problem: My router is upstairs in my house, but my TV is downstairs. I ended up draping an extralong ethernet cable down the length of my stairs from my home office into my living room -- what an eyesore. Sling Media sells optional powerline adapters for networking the device through the existing wiring in your home, but at US$100, they're expensive. I wish wireless networking had been built into the device.
Once the Slingbox is connected to your network, you must install the SlingPlayer application on any PC you'll use to watch your TV. The installation is simple, and within minutes the application was up and running on my PC, and had located the Slingbox on my network. With just a few clicks, I was connected to my TV. If you access your Slingbox from a computer that's not on your network, the process takes slightly longer, but is still simple: You enter the code for your Slingbox, and the software locates the device for you.
The SlingPlayer app's setup guides you through the process of optimizing the video performance. The latest version of the software (1.4) supposedly offers video quality that's improved by 300 percent. I can't say whether this is true, but even so I was not always impressed with the video quality. I noticed pixelation and blockiness in the video -- especially when I connected from a computer that was not on my home network. What's especially cool about SlingPlayer is that it displays your remote control right on the screen. I saw my familiar TiVo remote right next to the video display, making it easy to access all of my TV's features. Because I was using a TiVo, I could schedule recordings and pause live TV, but unfortunately the SlingPlayer software itself does not include these features.
With this latest release, Slingbox adds support for mobile devices via the new SlingPlayer Mobile app, which lets you connect to your Slingbox from many Windows Mobile-based devices. You will need a high-speed Internet connection, though, and you'll have to pay extra for the mobile version of the software -- it costs US$30 -- a disappointment considering you've already shelled out US$180 for the Slingbox itself.
Overall, I enjoyed the Slingbox AV and found it a snap to set up and use. I do wish that its price tag included some of the extras, like wireless networking and the mobile version of the software. But if you can't stand to be separated from your TV, the Slingbox is worth a look.
Sling Media Slingbox AV
PCW rating: 83
Die-hard TV junkies will love this place-shifting device, but too many of its features are sold as pricey extras.
List price: US$180