OK, it’s happened: We’re officially old. When you sheepishly tell your children that you used to have to watch TV shows by sitting down in a certain place at a certain time—well, then you just know you’re old.
First came the TiVo and its ilk, eliminating the bit about sitting down “at a certain time”. Then came the Slingbox from Sling Media, which obliterated the need to be “in a certain place”. Later, SlingPlayer Mobile software for cellphones even wiped out the part about “sitting down”.
Of course, the Slingbox isn’t nearly as famous as the TiVo; you may not even have heard of it. In that case, saying that the new Slingbox Solo has a lower price ($180) than its predecessors and has built-in jacks for high-definition gear probably won’t mean much to you.
In that case, a primer is in order. The Slingbox’s purpose in life is to transmit whatever is on your TV to your laptop or smartphone (such as a Treo or Windows mobile phone) across the Internet. The point, of course, is to allow people who travel—to another room, another city or another continent—to view all the channels and recordings that they’re already paying so much money for at home.
It comes in handy when you want to watch TV upstairs, but your fancy high-definition TiVo is downstairs. It’s also great when you’re in a hotel room, bristling at paying $13 for a movie when your video recorder back home is a veritable blockbuster.
And Slingboxes are also a blessing when you are overseas and longing for the news, or the sports broadcasts, of your hometown.
There are a few other ways to perform a similar stunt, but none with the Slingbox’s high video quality, super-simple set-up and ability to display both recordings and live TV.
The new Slingbox Solo is tiny; its trapezoidal shape is meant to evoke the shape of a gold ingot, and it’s now about that size, too, (9x4x2”). That’s about half the size of its predecessor, the Slingbox Pro (the Pro is still available, however, for $230, plus $50 for an accessory if you want to connect to high-def equipment). The Pro lets you connect up to four video sources—TiVo, satellite box, Apple TV, DVD player and so on—and switch among them by remote control. The Solo, as its name implies, connects to only one. For most people, that’s the TiVo, satellite box or cable box.
If you’re the kind of person who is terrified by the tangle behind your TV set, the set-up is no joyride. For anyone else, though, it’s not bad. You plug your video source into the Solo’s inputs: component cables (for HDTV gear), S-video or composite cables.
If a video source has only one output—a cable box, for example, you’ll be grateful that the Solo also has outputs that pass the signal on to your TV (another existing model, the Slingbox AV, does not). In other words, you can wire the Solo in between your cable box and your TV. You must also connect the Slingbox to a broadband Internet connection. For most people, that means connecting the Slingbox to a home router.
This may be the stickiest part of the installation, since your router is probably in the basement, closet or office—not next to the TV. And the Slingbox isn’t wireless.
Fortunately, the company’s website (slingmedia.com) offers step-by-step instructions for dozens of router models, mine among them; unfortunately, the illustrations didn’t match the hideous configuration screens that I was seeing. Nonetheless, it was enough help to guide me through changing some parameters such as IP Address, Port Range Forwarding and Service Management. When it was all over—20 minutes—I was watching live TV on my laptop over my home’s wireless network.
On your virtual TV screen, you see a perfect replica of the remote control; Sling has recreated on-screen remotes for over 5,000 pieces of video gear. Every button takes a second or two to respond, but it’s still pretty amazing to think that as you sit in Singapore, you’re controlling your TiVo in Tulsa.
The video quality depends on the network speed at both ends. When you’re in your house, connected over your home network, the picture quality is superb: clear, crisp, perfectly smooth (though never quite as good as on the TV itself). Across the Internet, the picture is a good deal softer, more like a VHS recording. It’s still eminently watchable; you just don’t want to watch special-effects blockbusters this way.
Now, a cellphone’s Internet connection generally is not fast enough to permit the kind of picture quality you would get on a laptop.
But even though there aren’t nearly as many pixels in the picture, they’re shrunken down so tightly on the phone screen that they look sharp. Incidentally, don’t think that because the Solo accommodates high-def gear, you get a high-def picture on your laptop or cellphone. You don’t. You do, however, get a better picture when watching HDTV broadcasts, especially when you’re viewing on your home network.
So, you can imagine today’s young people explaining TV to their offspring. “When I was your age, we needed a box to place-shift our TV.” ©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES