Serious road warriors who spend most of their time traveling probably already know what a Slingbox is and have praised its existence.
Although these set top boxes have been around for about seven years, what they do still seems revolutionary. The device hooks up to a TV and allows the user to stream television shows directly to a laptop or mobile device, just about anywhere in the world.
Much like the early days of the Tivo, the Slingbox has built a small but avid cult-like following among those who swear by its functionality. But it's been five years since a new line of boxes was introduced, so a refresh was long overdue.
Now, the Foster City, Calif., company has unveiled an updated line of Slingboxes, and despite some glitches, the devices are a reminder that any serious TV or sports lover has got to get one of them.
The base model is the Slingbox 350 ($179.99), which requires the user to plug in an ethernet cable for Internet connectivity. But the Slingbox 500 ($299.99) may be the model that most will need. It has a built in Wi-Fi adapter to connect wirelessly to the Internet given that the family room and its TV may not be home to the Internet connection.
Setup • Slingbox has tried to streamline the process, and for the most part it's fairly easy. But it's not without issues.
You must connect the box to your cable or satellite box via component cables (red, green and blue) and an HDMI cable that are included with the unit. Then you either connect an ethernet cable to the back of the Slingbox (for the 350) or search and connect it to your wireless home network (for the 500).
The rest of the process is simple. You input your ZIP code and dial in your cable or satellite provider, and it should automatically do the rest.
But in my case, it didn't do everything right. The first time I tried setting up the box, the TV picture was discolored, and there was no sound. After a half-hour of trying to figure out what to do, I reset the unit, went through the process a second time, and it finally worked.
Apps • The next step is downloading the Slingplayer mobile apps to your devices. There are separate apps for the iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire and Android phones. They are $15 apiece, and there isn't a universal app that works for the iPhone and iPad. But after that, there are no monthly fees.
Once you have the apps, turn everything on and that is when the magic begins.
Everything you can watch on your home television from local stations to on-demand movies and shows recorded on your DVR can be streamed to your mobile device. And you can perform all of your digital video recorder's functions remotely, including watching a recorded program or setting up a recording. You also can watch it on a laptop or desktop computer away from home by just logging into http://www.slingbox.com.
The video can be streamed whether you're connected remotely through a Wi-Fi hotspot, 4G LTE or 3G cellular connection. But be warned. Watching video through your phone's 3G or 4G Internet connection eats up a lot of data, and you could find yourself quickly running up against your monthly cap.
Whether you're watching with a high-speed Wi-Fi connection or through 3G, the video and audio quality from Slingbox is outstanding. Even at lower connection speeds, the video is clear and detailed. Occasionally, the video can stop, presumably to buffer more of the video stream, but the distraction is infrequent.
Another Slingbox 500 feature, the ability to stream photos and videos on your mobile device to your television, is a good way to share them without a transfer to a computer first.
Gripes • About those glitches. There is a lot of lag whenever you change channels or perform onscreen functions. Just setting up a recording takes a long time as you wait for the controls to catch up with your button presses.
Because the Slingbox is directly connected to the video outputs of the cable or satellite box, users can't watch one show remotely while someone else at home watches a different show. They both have to view the same channel.
Comparatively, watching TV on a computer or laptop through a Web browser is not a robust experience. Only a limited number of channels can be saved versus the mobile apps, and the onscreen TV guide is limited.
Despite these small issues, the new line of Slingbox devices is exactly what we need in a world where we are increasingly turning to our mobile devices for entertainment. When Slingboxes first came out, perhaps they were too far ahead of their time to develop a big customer base. But today, the idea of taking your TV with you is not only relevant but necessary, especially for smartphone addicts who want all their content on the go.
Google+: +Vincent Horiuchi
Pros • Fairly easy setup. Video and audio quality are outstanding, even with slower 3G connections. Works with on-demand shows and programs recorded on your DVR. Decent stand-alone price that doesn't require monthly fees of any kind.
Cons • Mobile apps are priced separately and aren't exactly cheap. Changing channels is plodding. Browser-based interface for desktop computers and laptops is lacking, compared with mobile apps.