Sling Media Slingbox

On first glance, Slingbox looks more like a giant foil-wrapped candy bar than a piece of sophisticated electronics. But it's actually a new product that lets you watch TV from your cable box or digital video recorder (DVR) on any PC attached to your home network or, for that matter, any PC in the world with a broadband Internet connection. The increasing ubiquity of broadband in hotels, offices, and vacation spots makes it more attractive for us to be able to follow our home teams or local news, access our premium movie channels, or watch the programs we've time-shifted when we're away from home. Even within your home, there's something to be said for keeping an eye on that big game or your favorite show while working on the PC in your home office. That's the promise of Slingbox. But does it deliver?

The Short Form / 877-467-5464 / $250 / 10.5 x 1.5 x 4 IN, 1.5 LBS
•Like taking your cable/satellite subscription and DVR wherever you go. •Program your DVR from afar. •Router-specific setup help. •PCs on your home network become secondary TVs. •Decent picture quality.
•Picture size on remote TV is restricted by uplink speed.
Key Features
•Let's you watch programs from your home cable feed, satellite receiver, or home DVR on any PC with broadband access •Requires Windows PC and network router •Adapter cables for composite video and stereo input and output, S-video input and output, coaxial antenna input, IR relay, and Ethernet jack
SETUP You'll need only a Windows 2000 or XP PC and a network router to view your video source from a computer in your home network. But if you want to watch away from home, you'll also need a high-speed cable or DSL modem to transfer the content to the Internet.

Included with the Slingbox are an Ethernet cable, all the audio/video cables to connect it to your source component, and an infrared (IR) blaster that lets you control your source (such as changing channels) from the remote computer. Though there's a built-in analog TV tuner for use with an antenna or unencrypted cable feed, Slingbox will most likely be used with an external cable box, satellite receiver, or DVR.

My Scientific-Atlanta cable box and PC are in different rooms connected by a wired Ethernet link. After loading the Slingplayer software on the PC, I fired up the Slingbox. It took only a few moments for its network LED to become steady, indicating that it had been assigned an IP address by my router. Meanwhile, the PC's hardware wizard automatically recognized the Slingbox, and video from my cable box streamed across my network to the PC. I ran the IR control setup, and I was soon clicking the onscreen remote to change channels.

Setting up your router so that you can access your TV from a distant computer is more involved. Network routers increasingly embed Universal Plug 'n Play (UPnP) technology for easy setup, and Sling Media uses this to automatically configure them. I was stymied, though, when informed that my router was not UPnP-enabled. Fortunately, after I told the Slingplayer software which D-Link router I was using, it gave me graphic directions for reconfiguring that specific router for "port forwarding," then sent me to the free Web-based Slingbox Finder service to get a long alphanumeric code required to complete the job. This otherwise complex task was made remarkably simple by the automated help. Later, when I installed the player software on a computer across town, it immediately found my Slingbox signal.

PERFORMANCE When using Slingbox in another room over my wired network, throughput was about 1.5 megabits per second, which was more than enough to provide a good picture on my 17-inch computer screen with full motion and uninterrupted audio. Accessing it remotely via the Internet dropped the speed to about 350 kilobits per second (kbps) - performance was limited by the 384-kbps upload speed for the DSL modem where the Slingbox hardware was installed. At that speed, the picture looked decent in an 8-inch or smaller window. Quality deteriorated, though, when I further enlarged the window, especially watching any scene with motion. A man strutting across The People's Court looked smeared, as if someone had rubbed Vaseline over the lens. The picture cleared up when the camera switched to the sitting judge. But even with such artifacts, the video and audio never stuttered.

Of course, while watching or listening remotely, you tie up the source device - anyone at home will be forced to watch the same program, or else change the channel on you. Be warned: fighting over the remote takes on new meaning when you and a family member are separated by miles.

BOTTOM LINE For those with broadband, Slingbox lets you get your money's worth from a cable or satellite subscription that would otherwise be wasted when no one's home. Being able to place-shift live or time-shifted shows from wherever you are amounts to ultimate viewer control.