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New Slingbox Adds HD Video, Keeps Some Old Issues

I wasn't surprised to see the second comment posted to today's review of the new Slingbox Pro-HD end with "Tell me why I even want a slingbox?"

Sling Media's Slingbox -- a small, Internet-connected device that relays whatever's on your TV to any online computer running the company's SlingPlayer program -- is not what you'd call an obviously necessary gadget. Some people don't see its utility because they just don't watch that much TV. Some are happy with whatever video is already available on the Web or on the hard drive of their laptop.

You can hear my fellow podcast host Greg Schneider voice a little of that skepticism in today's episode (listen/subscribe/iTunes). And when I first tried out the Slingbox -- and suffered through a particularly irritating setup experience -- I was even more scathing in my evaluation.

But I've also heard from a lot of people who rely on the Slingbox to catch programs that they can't get any other easy way. The first among them might have been my old colleague Sam, who pointed out that if he could get a friend back in the Bay Area to set up a Slingbox, he'd never miss another Raiders game again. (Why he'd want to subject himself to such misery is beyond the scope of this blog post.)

Plus, I can't deny that it's legitimately impressive to see the contents of your TV redirected to a laptop or a smartphone -- reliably and in at least decent quality. So by the time I revised the Slingbox two years ago, I had nicer things to say.

The Pro-HD unit continues that evolution; between the upgraded software that lets you pause live TV and its support for high-definition video, it makes for a massive upgrade over earlier models. But at the same time, it's also gotten far easier to watch TV on the Web, between downloads off iTunes and other stores and the free, ad-supported video available at the networks' own sites and the likes of Hulu. Sling Media's gadget doesn't have the same competitive advantage it enjoyed when the networks acted as if nobody wanted to watch TV on anything but a TV.

That brings me to my final point -- for Sling to have a chance in the long run, it has to make this feature something that comes built into a cable or satellite receiver. Last year's purchase of the company by Dish Network parent company Echostar should help make that happen for Dish users soon enough. As for people using other TV services... well, although Echostar also plans to make cable boxes that will work with any cable system (PDF), the horrible track record of earlier attempts at open cable-box standards don't bode well for Echostar's attempts.

I'm sure that Slingbox owners will be happy to explain why they consider these devices worth the money, but I'd also like to hear from people who have held off on buying a Slingbox or anything like it. What would the ability to watch your TV (emphasize "your") from anywhere with a fast enough Internet connection be worth to you? $300 or $200 for a separate box? $50 extra for a cable or satellite box with this function? Nothing at all?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 25, 2008; 9:36 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Video  
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Could I hook a Slingbox to a friend's TV in the UK or Ireland and watch what they're watching?

Posted by: Simon | September 25, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I've had an original Slingbox for more than three years, and it's great. It's a specialized kind of toy, to be sure, but it has come in handy at times -- such as catching local storm/weather/news reports at work more easily than via websites. And yes, there is the fun of hearing Jim and Doreen comment on the traffic on I-395 while you slather on the sunblock to go back out for another stint on that Hawaiian beach.

Technology: love it!

Posted by: DC Spin | September 25, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I know what I'm putting on my list this year! Thanks!

-- Phillip

Posted by: Phillip Phillips | September 25, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

My brother who lives in Basel, Switzerland bought a SlingBox a couple of years ago and sent it to me to hook up in Ann Arbor, MI. I have Comcast internet with 12 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. The upload is the most important part because that determines how good a signal is possible for him to receive. He also bought me a TiVo Series 2 DVR that hooks into the SlingBox. He now has location shifted TV and also time shifted TV. He can watch his College Football and Comedy Central anytime he wishes. An added bonus, becasue of the time difference, I can watch it when he isn't. I am just waiting for the iPhone SlingPlayer software to come out. Though, I am not holding my breathe. I would highly recommend getting a SlingBox of any flavor. Good Stuff.

Posted by: PRozek | September 25, 2008 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Slingboxes require large amounts of upload bandwidth. There's two consequences of this:

a. It slows down the internet access of your neighbors, especially those of you on cable modems. With cable, groups of local users share a set amount of bandwidth. If anyone in that group is running a server (i.e. Slingbox), he/she will slow down the uploads of everyone else. If you are gaming online, e.g. Xbox Live, and you have a Slingbox neighbor, you will see periodic lag on your games.

b. Internet providers are very stringent about people running servers on consumer accounts. Once they detect you, you'll be asked to upgrade to a business account. Also,if your ISP has a cap on the amount of data you can send, you're gonna hit that cap pretty quickly. Video, especially HD, are BIG files. Depending on the ISP, you will find a big fee on your ISP bill, or worse, your access will be interupted or cut off.

Posted by: Ken L | September 25, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Ken, I'd like to see some stats to back up those claims. Pretty much, I'm calling BS.

Prior to this model, by default previous Slingbox generations stream at a max of 320x240 - which does NOT require large amounts of upload bandwidth. A typical DSL plan is fine and 300Kbps up is sufficient. This amount of data should NOT noticeably impact your neighbor (on a cable modem) unless you're leaching off their wireless router.

Regarding point number 2, do you know anyone with a Slingbox accused of running a server? I do not. Again, the amount of data is not huge and most folks are not streaming all day, every day. Again spread FUD that you'll his a cap pretty quickly. Let's switch video sources a minute to something much larger like an Xbox 360 or Vudu HD movie download - they run maybe 6GB for 2hrs of HD (it's variable). So if Comcast's cap is 250GB, we're talking 41 2-hour movies. You going to watch or pay for that in a month? Now putting it back into perspective, it's likely your Sling streaming even in HD consumes less bandwidth. How many people will stream say 100 hours of television to a remote location in a month?

Posted by: Dave Z | September 25, 2008 8:57 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: studentheadg | September 26, 2008 1:15 AM | Report abuse

Is the sling box portable, i.e., can i use it with my laptop/smartphone at other locations besides home?

Posted by: StillFeel18 | September 26, 2008 7:03 AM | Report abuse

The first model of Slingbox worked well for me to watch New York TV in Shanghai. The main problem is that more recent models don't allow saving and sharing programs. An important defect of the first model is that there is no SAP or closed captioning (that makes it hard to use TV for teaching English as a second language). From what I could see online, the company was working on closed-captioning--is it available now on later models?

Posted by: joeshuren1 | September 26, 2008 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I got the Slingbox about 3 years ago. It is absolutely great to view programs broadcast at home. Not only that but some programs available in Canada are not available while in the USA. So it is great to watch them when you are on the road. It has worked very well even in hotels which offer free wireless internet.
Sorry, I am a Gigabig fan of the Slingbox. Great technology.

Posted by: sam | September 26, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I have used a slingbox for more than three years and the device has served me well. It's great when you are stuck shopping and want to watch the game on your cell phone or catch the show you missed while on a plane to somewhere.

I have it hooked to my Dish Network DVR and basic cable. It doesn't cost a monthly fee and my cell phone provider doesn't edit content or say what I watch. It can also be a boon to folks who want to watch security cameras at work or at their home on the road.

Posted by: David Hughes | September 27, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I've been debating a slingbox for a couple of years now and have really only seen value if a user wants to view content broadcast from a specific location in real time, and for an extended period of time.

I bought a TiVo HD over a year ago and between remote scheduling of recordings and downloading recordings to an iPod/laptop/other portable device, it serves the purpose of a sling if one doesn't need to watch television in real time. Somebody's got to be in real need of live television to spend the extra cash on a sling.

Posted by: DJM | September 30, 2008 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Just got the Sony LocationFree, their version of the Slingbox. I travel a bit for work, and it's great to see TV when you're away. One advantage of the Sony system is that it'll work with a PSP.

Posted by: Kim | October 1, 2008 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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