Despite all the advances of the past couple of years, watching your favorite TV show can still be a challenge if you're constantly on the road. Digital video recorders and the iTunes video store--not to mention BitTorrent--have all helped transient couch potatoes keep up with the latest episodes, but it's the Slingbox that's really changed the game for media on the go. The $200 device--introduced in 2005 from start-up Sling Media--lets you access your cable or satellite box or any other video source from virtually any Windows PC with broadband Internet access, whether it's in your home or halfway around the world. But putting the boob tube on your PC wasn't good enough; Sling Media has added mobile software to its repertoire, letting users stream their home TV programming to any Web-enabled, Windows Mobile-powered handheld or cell phone.
The process all begins at home, where you set up the Slingbox hardware. The device itself is a modest-size, tapered silver brick, measuring 1.75 inches high by 10.75 wide by 3.75 deep. It actually looks a bit goofy, due mainly to the pointillist marketing inscriptions on the top: My Cable, My DVD, My Music Anywhere, and so forth. Fortunately, once you connect the Slingbox to your home A/V system, you never have to see it again; the always-on device can be tucked away in the depths of your TV stand where it will toil away indefinitely. The physical setup is quick and logical. Simply hook up the video source, be it cable box, satellite box, DVR, and the like, to the Slingbox's composite, S-Video, or RF cable inputs; place the IR blaster; and connect the device to your home network's router with an Ethernet cable--you're good to go. You can connect as many as three devices to each 'box, but the dual-headed IR blaster will control only two external devices. You can, however, change channels on the built-in analog tuner if an unscrambled RF source such as an analog cable feed or an antenna is connected. The Slingbox also has pass-through S-Video and composite-A/V outputs, and it provides the necessary cable interconnects, so it integrates seamlessly into your system without the need for any major rewiring.
Once you have the Slingbox base station wired up and ready to go, you'll need to install the viewing software on a PC; the initial setup must be done within your home's local network. The software follows a bulletproof, wizard-style install path; if you have a plug-and-play (UPnP) router, the whole process should take just a few minutes. Once it's up and running, the SlingPlayer software gives you a video window not unlike that of QuickTime or Windows Media Player but with channel-changing controls. If you've connected the Slingbox to a TiVo, ReplayTV, a cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR, or even a DVD recorder, you'll also get video-transport controls: pause, rewind, fast-forward, and so on.
Right off the bat, the Slingbox's basic functions worked as advertised. We were watching our living room TV on the bedroom PC, able to flip channels at will. The SlingPlayer software automatically optimizes viewing quality, but keep in mind that this is Web video; when broadcasting to the outside world, it's also limited by the upstream bandwidth of your home's broadband connection, which is often significantly less than your downstream speed. Thanks to the indicator on the bottom right of the screen, we were able to track the bit rate of the stream in different situations. At home via a, we maxed out at around 1,400Kbps for wired streaming and close to 900Kbps when streaming to our wireless laptop PC. At work and even from a hotel room halfway across the country, streaming remotely from our home cable Internet connection, we achieved speeds of as much as 365Kbps, which comes close to our connection's maximum upload speed of 384Kbps.
While the blocky video quality was nothing to write home about--especially when expanded from the small 320x240 window to full screen--it maintained an impressively smooth frame rate. Naturally, quality improved immensely at higher bit rates, but even from remote locations at 350Kbps, the video was perfectly watchable. We could easily make out CNN's news crawl, for example, but the fine print in a home loan ad was unreadable. Audio quality seemed to remain constantly decent and uninterrupted, regardless of bit rate. Keep in mind that the Slingbox isn't designed for aimless channel surfing; you'll experience a delay of a second or two when sending any commands, but it handles live TV with aplomb.
We also tried it with a DVR, and the results were similarly satisfying, although we had to practice to get the timing right when fast-forwarding through commercials. With the delay, we'd often resume playback too late and have to rewind back to catch the first few seconds after the commercial break. Since you get essentially full control of the device, having a Slingbox means you can program your DVR remotely. On numerous occasions at work, we'd remember we wanted to program a show to begin taping before we could get home. Firing up the Slingbox software from a work PC and scheduling the recording took about a minute. In another thoughtful design touch, repeated commands queue up to transmit more quickly, so we could repeatedly press the page-down command to quickly scan the DVR's EPG, for example.