Walt Mossberg

Device Lets You Watch Shows on a Home TV, TiVo From Elsewhere

Most people understand the concept of time shifting for television shows. Using a digital video recorder, such as a TiVo, or a videocassette recorder, you can record a TV program for viewing at a time that is more convenient for you.

But there is another idea for making TV watching convenient that is less well known. It is called “place shifting.” Place shifting allows viewers to watch TV shows they receive at home in other locations, and on devices other than their TV sets.

Unlike time shifting, which has been around for decades, place shifting is just getting going. A few portable video players are available, but they can’t play live TV, only shows recorded on special TiVo models or relatively expensive TV-capable “Media Center” PCs. And they are clumsy to use.

Today, however, place shifting of TV shows takes a big leap forward. A Silicon Valley start-up company called Sling Media is introducing a $250 gadget it calls a “personal broadcaster.” This small device, named the Slingbox, can beam any live TV show coming into your home to an Internet-connected Windows PC anywhere in the world. It also allows you to remotely watch shows you have recorded at home on a TiVo or other digital video recorder.

Slingshot
Sling Media’s Slingbox

The Slingbox gives you full control of your home TV and digital recorder even if you are thousands of miles away. You can change channels, use the program guide, and perform any action on the menus of your TV or recorder just as if you were sitting in front of your set. The home TV doesn’t even have to be on at the time.

And, best of all, the Slingbox is just a piece of hardware, not a service. It is a small silver box that simply sits between your cable or satellite receiver and your home broadband Internet connection and pumps your TV programs out via the Internet. It doesn’t require a TiVo, and it works with a standard Windows PC.

There are no periodic fees to pay, no membership is required and no advertisements are beamed at you other than the normal commercials that appear in the TV programs. All you shell out is the $250 for the device itself. Starting today, it will be available at CompUSA and Best Buy stores, and at those companies’ Web sites.

I have been testing the Slingbox at home, in my office and on the road. In my tests, it worked exactly as advertised. At my office, about a dozen miles from home, I watched recorded episodes of “Charlie Rose” and “Desperate Housewives.” At an airport, I watched CNBC live on my laptop via a public Wi-Fi connection. And in a Boston hotel room, about 450 miles from home, I watched a live Washington Nationals baseball game unavailable in Red Sox country.

The Slingbox was even useful when I hung around the house. I was able to watch live and recorded shows in rooms of my house that lacked TVs, and even while sitting out on my porch.

Video quality was surprisingly good — much better than the average video clip streamed over the Internet. The company has some video-optimizing technology that resulted in mostly smooth, stutter-free viewing. There were a few brief freezes, but nothing serious, even when I expanded the video playback window to the full screen.

The Sling software is well designed and easy to use. It allows you to view TV programs in a variety of sizes and formats, and it includes a software control panel with all of the key functions of your home remote control.

Setup, while not perfect, was as easy as the company could possibly make it, given the complexity of computer networking.

That brings me to the inevitable downsides and limitations of any new product. The Slingbox requires a broadband connection on both ends. It only works on PCs running Windows XP. The company has demonstrated it running on PDAs and cellphones, but software for those devices isn’t ready yet. Software for Macintosh computers is in the works.

You need a home network and a router. And even though the setup software and the manual are very well done, there is a step where you have to configure your router for the Slingbox that can get complicated fast. This has more to do with the needless complexity of computer networking than with Sling Media itself, but it can be an obstacle.

Also, the Slingbox doesn’t allow you to record or save the programs you receive on your remote computer, mostly for legal reasons — though somebody will probably come up with a way to do that. Similarly, mainly for legal reasons, there is no built-in way to give access to your Slingbox to another person, but all that person needs is a copy of the free Sling software, your password and your Slingbox’s ID number, which you could give them. Two PCs can’t access the same Slingbox at the same time, however.

There is another problem with the Slingbox: It extends the fight over the remote well beyond the walls of your home. If someone is watching the TV at home and you start changing channels from afar or launching recorded programs the other person doesn’t want to watch, long-distance arguments can ensue.

Still, I really like the Slingbox and can heartily recommend it to roaming TV lovers. It is a very good product that finally makes TV place shifting a reality.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


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