Slingbox: Still the best gadget for TV-watching anywhere you go

Six years and counting, it remains state-of-the-art for watching TV wherever you are: in your house, on the road, even overseas.

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Cop show on the road with slingbox

Six years and counting, it remains state-of-the-art for watching TV wherever you are: in your house, on the road, even overseas.

I’m always surprised at the number of people who have never heard of Slingbox, the mobile technology that lets you watch TV anywhere. Since it's been around for 6 years, I would have thought more people would know about it.

And yet, when I open my smartphone and show people live TV pictures from my home — local channels, cable and premium TV, and even recorded shows — the immediate answer is invariably, “Wow, What IS that? I want one of those!

They’re not alone. Slingbox is still among the most highly recommended tech gadgets on the market, especially after its recent introduction of a much sought-after iPad app that turns your tablet into a full-fledged portable TV. (Check out these recommendations from “Good Morning America," Esquire Magazine, and MSNBC, where the Slingbox tout starts at 0:54.)

Slingbox (an actual box) does one thing better than anything else on the market: it lets you take your cable TV service with you wherever you happen to be, and watch it on virtually any device. That’s every live, recorded, and on-demand program and movie.

Any Internet-connected PC or Mac computer, the iPad tablet, and most smartphones can be your home TV via Slingbox. So long as you have an Internet connection, you have the potential to use it anywhere in the world. That's some "anywhere."

Want to watch TV in bed? Open your laptop computer or any other Slingbox-equipped device and snuggle in.

Dreading that long upcoming drive to Portland with the kids? Hand over your cell phone so they can watch The Cartoon Network live, or that Disney “Wizards of Waverly Place” episode you recorded last night.

How about this guilty pleasure? As you lounge poolside on a sunny day in Maui, halfway across the Pacific, log onto your laptop via your hotel’s WiFi and watch TV weatherman Jeff Renner describe yet another cold, wet storm barreling through the I-5 corridor.

The above examples probably contain more than a bit of writer hyperbole, but the following is real: I've personally used Slingbox all over the country — in airports, in hotels, and in cars on the road. I even tested it on a recent Alaska Airlines flight from Chicago to Seattle, watching at 35,000 feet via the plane's WiFi system. A Slingbox spokesperson confirmed that watching U.S.-originated video overseas is common. Some countries or systems may have lousy Internet connections, or may block you from connecting to any outside-the-country IP address, but that’s not due to any Slingbox issue.

It's worth noting that two other companies do business in the same technological arena: Orb, a free software system; and Sage TV, a home theater set top box. Neither, however, has the market share or the "buzz" of the Slingbox.

More details about the Slingbox system:

How does it work? The Slingbox “reads” a video signal from your cable box (or other video source), translates it into a streaming media format (MPEG-4), then securely transmits it over your home network and out to the Internet. 

What's the physical setup like? There are two parts: the Slingbox itself, and the viewing software. The Slingbox hardware “talks” to your cable box via a 5-wire component cable (not with an HDMI cable, unfortunately), then an ethernet cable attaches the Slingbox to your Internet WiFi modem/router. An additional wire with a sensor that controls the cable box (changing channels, etc.) attaches to your cable box. The Slingbox needs to be physically close to your router unless you use Sling’s wireless Turbo device or a third-party wireless bridge to connect the two.

Is installation difficult? The Slingbox setup software makes setting up the in-house WiFi connection is fairly self-explanatory. The remote connection setup is complex, however; calling Slingbox tech support for guidance is the best way to complete that task.

What do I need to watch it? For computers, you download a free player from the Internet. When it’s turned on, you see an on-screen replication of your cable TV remote; press its buttons with a mouse as you would with your manual remote. The mobile apps are bought from app stores serving your mobile device. Don't look for the remote on the small devices. I wish there was one: the mobile controls aren't terribly intuitive.

How much does it cost? The standard-definition SOLO retails for $179.99; the high-definition PRO-HD goes for $299.99. The computer players are free; all mobile device apps — iPad, smartphones, etc. cost $29.99. (Yeah, I know: pricey.)

What effect will the Slingbox have on my wireless data plan? It depends. If you have a wireless data plan with a data cap for your laptop, you need to keep track of how much TV you watch. If you only use a WiFi network, there's no data limit. For cell phone users, you have no worries so long as you're connecting with WiFi, with a 3G plan or any 4G plan that allows you to use unlimited data.

How much data does the Slingbox use? At the highest resolution possible, the standard-definition SOLO Slingbox generates 6 megabits of data per second, or 2.6 gigabytes per hour. The high-definition PRO-HD model streams 8 megabits per second, or 3.5 gigabytes per hour. If you have a 5 gigabyte-per-month allotment on your laptop, you could blow a half-month's worth of data use on a single hour-long TV episode. A Slingbox spokesperson said they have some hairy stories about data use from people who, for example, have phoned in from their overseas yacht screaming about a $30,000 monthly wireless bill because they used their Slingbox full time on a roaming connection.

Are there any legal issues to worry about? None. Slingbox holds the position that you’ve already paid for the TV you’re watching. What you do with it is up to you, so long as it’s just you using it, and not for any other purpose.

Slingbox isn’t saying what's next, but we’ll find out more at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show next January in Las Vegas. Will Slingbox incorporate some of the other new TV viewing “toys” — apps, Internet content, etc. — as cable moves in that direction? The fact that Slingbox is now owned by EchoStar, which also owns satellite TV service provider Dish Networks, may be proof enough that the company will stay in the hunt for whatever the TV world plans to throw at customers.


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