A few years ago, Internet-savvy nerds were ga-ga over something called the Slingbox. It was a nifty device—a box that plugged into your flat panel that enabled you to watch live TV on a laptop or desktop wherever you were, so long as you had a decent Internet connection.
It was super-neat, but only if you had the knowledge or guts to go into your router and start configuring ports and so on. For the mass market, the concept was simply too daunting.
The new Slingbox 500, which I’ve been playing with for the past few days, is an effort to correct that. By rejigging set-up into a few simple steps that are done via remote control on your television screen, the updated device brings that idea of streaming anywhere to the masses. The Slingbox is now as easy to set up as any other streaming gadget, like an Apple TV or Roku.
And neat is the best way to describe the experience. The Slingbox serves as a middleman between your DVR and your TV by plugging into both. It then connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi and streams your cable or satellite service to a computer, tablet or phone (Apple and Android on the tablet side, Apple, Android and Windows on phones). This can be live TV or recorded content, so it effectively turns those devices into small televisions.
TV and wireless providers are increasingly offering this sort of thing themselves, but much of it is fragmented or available at extra cost. The Slingbox is really cool because it delivers everything you get on your TV on whatever device you want. I find it amazing that I can watch live TV on my tablet up in the bedroom (because I’m too lazy to go downstairs) or on my phone while I’m on the bus heading home.
The tablet app even replicates your DVR’s remote control on screen, so you can control things in a completely familiar manner. You program in the make and model of your DVR during setup, after which you can call up its remote and press buttons by tapping on the tablet’s touch screen. That way, you can use the on-screen channel guide, fast forward, pause and even remotely record.
As an added bonus, the Slingbox 500 also lets you stream photos from your phone to your TV in Airplay-like fashion. An upcoming firmware update will also expand that ability to videos.
There are some downsides to the device, however. First up is the fact that it can only handle one output at a time, which means that if you access the Slingbox remotely while someone is watching TV at home, you’ll hijack the feed from them. That will necessitate some conversations—and possibly negotiations—between housemates.
There are also some relatively high costs involved. While many pure media streaming devices sell for around $100, the Slingbox 500 goes for $300. There is the cheaper Slingbox 350 at $179, but it doesn’t have Wi-Fi or on-screen setup, both of which are bound to be deal breakers for many. On top of that, if you want the mobile apps, they’ll run you $15 per device. Sling Media representatives say this is a necessary cost because of licensing deals with app store providers.
The biggest downside, for Canadians at least, is the need for good Internet connections in both directions. At home, the Slingbox uploads your content while on the remote access end—be it a hotel, bus or office—the quality of your stream depends entirely on your connection’s download speed and quality.
At a briefing last week, I discussed this issue with Sling Media representatives. I wondered how the product would do in a country that ranks lower than Rwanda when it comes to upload speeds. To make matters worse, Canadians typically have smaller monthly usage limits, which inevitably come into play with any sort of online streaming services. The Slingbox seems to have two big obstacles to overcome here.
Not surprisingly, the representatives said they’ve been selling their devices in Canada for a few years now and haven’t had many complaints. In the United States, they say the Slingbox has actually spurred some Internet service providers into boosting their upload speeds. Cable and satellite providers may have initially resisted Slingbox and everything it represented, largely because they didn’t think of it themselves, but many eventually warmed to it because it does encourage people to keep their subscriptions, rather than cutting the cord.
With cable providers and ISPs often being one and the same, it’s no surprise that Slingbox may indeed be helping to increase upload speeds.
Nevertheless, I did encounter some buffering with my connection, given that my home upload speed is a measly one megabit per second. With large Canadian ISPs finally starting to boost those upload speeds, this should hopefully get better.
There are also data caps to worry about. Company representatives didn’t say exactly how much data the Slingbox uses, though they did say it’s consistent with other streaming services. Netflix uses about 2.3 gigabytes per hour of high-definition content and 1 GB for standard definition. If Slingbox is consistent with that (it may be less thanks to compression), it’s important to remember that its traffic counts twice—once on the upload at home and again on the download, wherever that might be. Watching too much on your cellphone can be perilous, with data caps that are significantly lower than on home connections.
All told, the Slingbox 500 is a very cool gadget that’s ideal for people who don’t want to miss their shows, a definition that generally applies to sports nuts. It’s also good for frequent travellers, although I can’t say I’ve stayed in too many hotel rooms that have had good Wi-Fi. If you don’t use it excessively, it should be fine for the unique circumstances many Canadians find themselves in.