As Dorothy said, there's no place like home and one of home's great comforts is the familiarity of the TV programs - even the ads.
Well, click your heels and you might just get your wish. Slingbox (www.slingmedia.com) is a nifty little gadget that lets you watch your home TV programming anywhere, providing you have a broadband connection. It takes your home TV source, digitises it, streams it to your home network and then to you via the Web. You can receive the resulting video on a notebook or desktop PC, or on your mobile phone - if you've got a compatible handset and download the software.
As well as live TV you can, depending on your existing setup, get the Slingbox to serve up TV, music and photos from your hard drive. In the US, there are several versions of the Slingbox: a tuner that accepts only analog cable TV signals and has a single screw-type RF input; the Slingbox A/V which controls any cable or satellite box and accepts video signals via composite or S-Video; and the Slingbox Pro which accepts as many as four audiovisual sources, including HD video.
Within a network, the Slingbox's video performance is good. However, when you have to put up with the vagaries of the Internet, the quality drops. This is only to be expected as most broadband services are asymmetric and can upload only at between 288 and 488Kbps (kilobits per second). Even so, I was able to observe good picture quality 110km away from where I live, while a friend in Tel-Aviv vouched for the watchability of the Slingbox from London - not bad from 3540km away.
If you want a Slingbox there are three prerequisites to ownership: your PC must be running Windows XP or 2000 and you need a broadband Internet connection and router. Oh, and make sure you get the PAL version if you want to record free-to-air TV as well. Setting up a Slingbox wasn't hard - in fact, it was a lot of fun. How often can you say that about network kit?
ENJOY HOME TV FROM AFAR WITH SLINGBOX
1. The Slingbox has only two status lights on the right, one for power and the other to indicate a network connection. The 'n' in the Sling logo is composed of a set of red LEDs which indicates whether or not streaming video is in progress. The box gets pretty hot so don't put anything on top of it.
2. You plug in the cables at the rear of the Slingbox. There are 'ins' and 'outs' for coaxial aerial and S-Video/audio leads plus an Ethernet port. It lacks Scart sockets, but there's a Freeview as well as an analog TV tuner. In my case, I plugged my aerial downlead in to the right-hand aerial socket and a fly-lead to the TV in the one next to it.
3. Next is the network connection. This has to be wired so, if your router is far from your TV, get PowerLine network adapters, such as these, to create a network using your home's electrical circuits. Or buy a Wi-Fi bridge unit. The network status LED blinks if the Slingbox can't pull an IP address from the router or your DHCP server.
4. With the hardware installed, it's time to set up the SlingPlayer software on the PCs on which you want to be able to access home TV content. Although you get an installation disc, you may want to download the latest version from www.slingmedia.com or have the program check for updates during the installation process.
5. You now need to specify its physical location. You also need to choose the video input source: S-Video, composite or coaxial. A special composite video lead is supplied that crams the audio and video on to a single 3.5mm jack plug.
6. If you have a cable or satellite set-top box, you need to specify that here. A special infrared cable link is provided to enable you to control your set-top box from afar if needs be. We've selected the internal tuner option. You can then choose between an analog or DVB-T (free to air) tuner. We chose the latter.
7. Next, the Slingbox scans for available channels. This can take a while for all the free to air channels - scanning for analog terrestrial channels, as shown here, is a far quicker process. A screen preview is provided, but don't worry if nothing appears here - the TV pictures often spring to life a little later on.
8. You now have to enter two passwords - user and administrator. The former gives limited, and the latter complete, control over the Slingbox. You can install the SlingPlayer software on more than one PC, but it can be used by only one person at a time. Only the Administrator has the power to boot the other user off the system.
9. If you want to remotely access your Slingbox it has to be able to "traverse" your NAT router. Its UPnP (Universal Plug 'n' Play) setup should automatically configure the router, opening the required port, 5001, then forwarding it to the IP address of the Slingbox. When we did this, the wizard told us it had worked but, in fact, it hadn't.
10. Now you need to tell your router to send inbound traffic using a specific port to a specific IP address. Such port forwarding will send data to the Slingbox. To enable this, we had to create a "service" - we clicked Add rule and created a service called Slingbox - then pointed it at the default Slingbox IP address, 192.168.0.237.
11. A free "finder" service set up by Slingmedia enables you to locate your own Slingbox across the Internet. Enter the Finder ID number provided with your box on the remote PC and you'll connect to your Slingbox back home. The 32-digit Finder ID is a trifle long to remember so you might want to record it somewhere.
12. You can use the rather arduous remote control panel to channel-surf, but it's faster to populate the blank buttons in the Favourite Buttons bar, below the SlingPlayer screen, with those you watch most often. You can assign them the proper channel logos or, if no appropriate logo is supplied, can custom-design one from an image file.
13. SlingPlayer is easy to customise. A choice of four skins is available, ranging from the Classic to the Bauhaus. Additional skins for the player and remote control can be downloaded. The designs of dozens of different remote controls have been emulated and you can browse by brand to choose one that matches your telly.
14. When you connect remotely for the first time, you'll need to tune the video to optimise picture quality. Analog streaming inside a network occupies no more than 2Mbps (megabits per second) of bandwidth; less if you're using Freeview. Remote viewing, thanks to bandwidth asymmetry, uses as little as 250Kbps.
TIPS & TRICKS
If you live in an apartment complex with no phone or cable connections, you might find it rather hard to connect to the Internet. Your best (and perhaps only) option is a wireless connection through companies such as Unwired (www.unwired.com.au - Sydney and Melbourne only at time of print). Although wireless can be more expensive than other connection options, the ability to connect to the Internet from your apartment (and even when you move) should justify the means.
ENSURE THE QUALITY OF YOUR BROADBAND SERVICE
QoS (quality of service) is the name of the game when it comes to video streaming, particularly high-bandwidth HD video. While not strictly part of the 802.11n standard, 802.11e is helping to offer QoS for video streaming. It categorises traffic as video, voice, "best effort" or "background". The latest 'Draft N' routers from D-Link (pictured) and Linksys both offer QoS support.
RECORD SLUNG TV
For some peculiar reason, SlingPlayer doesn't offer a "SlingRecorder" option, which seems like an oversight. So you have to look to third-party suppliers for software that fulfils this TV-recording need. SnagIt from Techsmith is just such a product. Costing around $64, it can capture a full screen, video, a window or a rectangular region. www.techsmith.com/snagit.asp
A PVR FOR FREE
For those of you who have a TV-tuner card and want to turn it into a PVR (personal video recorder), check out GB-PVR. It lets you schedule TV recordings, as well as view and pause live TV. In addition to this PVR functionality, it acts as a media centre allowing you to watch movies, listen to music, view pictures and listen to FM radio (www.gbpvr.com).
MYTH'S A LEGEND
This is another PVR program but one that's more fully featured than most. So if you have two TV tuners, you can get "picture-in-picture", not to mention fully automatic advert detection/skipping. MythTV (www.mythtv.org) also offers the full range of media centre facilities and, as it's an open-source project, this excellent tool is free for personal use. This is designed to work on Linux, but a Windows front-end can be found at winmyth.sourceforge.net.
PINNACLE PCTV DUAL HYBRID PRO PCI EXPRESS
There aren't many dual DVB-T TV tuner cards that sit on the PCI Express bus. The PCTV card is a rare breed. It automatically detects TV signals, has scalable windows and comes with Teletext. www.pinnaclesys.com