Hey, TV addicts: Heard about the Slingbox?
(Sling Media, $249.99)
If life-enhancing gadgets like TiVo and the video iPod are already making you watch too much TV, you probably don’t want to know about the Slingbox. A peculiar-looking gray brick, it gives you the ability to watch your home TV from anyplace in the world with a computer and a broadband connection. Slingbox connects to all sorts of video devices, including cable boxes and TiVos. It’s pretty user-friendly too: Connecting the cables and installing the software (Windows-only now, with a Mac version coming soon) can be done in less time than it takes to polish off an episode of The Office.
After that, it’s only a matter of entering a security code before you can tune into your home TV signal, which appears as a small window on your computer screen. (And don’t get any ideas about broadcasting free HBO to all of your buddies: Slingbox can only stream to one PC at a time). Even cooler, the Sling Player gives you an onscreen facsimile of your TiVo’s remote control, complete with working buttons, so you can change the channels and view pre-recorded programs as if you were actually lounging in your living-room recliner.
Still, there are a few reasons why the Slingbox isn’t yet quite deserving of TiVo-level worship. First, while the video runs smoothly, even when blown up to fill your entire computer screen, it’s still a notch below what you’re used to seeing on your television. Second, ”slinging” a device ties it up, meaning no one at home can use your TiVo if you’re accessing it remotely (someone can, of course, watch TV from a different source). Also, while TV programs stream lag-free, there’s a delay when performing actions with your virtual remote control. This isn’t a bother when changing channels, but tasks involving navigating multiple menus, such as telling TiVo to record a show, can be glacially slow. Lastly — and most significantly for cubicle dwellers everywhere — the Sling Player can’t shrink down to a size guaranteed not to catch the eye of a hovering boss.
And if the Slingbox isn’t already enough of a productivity buster, it gets worse. The just-released Slingbox Mobile puts this magic on any cellphone or PDA running the Windows Mobile operating system. Video quality is very dependent on the strength and type of wireless signal that’s feeding your device. If your handheld gizmo is piggybacking on a Wi-Fi signal, the Slingbox feed is nearly as jitter-free as the one on your PC. (It gets considerably choppier when it’s streaming off of a cellphone carrier’s network, which beams data at a fraction of the speed of the broadband connection in your home or office.) These are all relatively minor nitpicks, though. This is still Version 1.0 of Slingbox, and it’s already close to being an indispensable piece of hardware for the television-addicted. Just think — by the time Slingbox 10.0 comes out, no one will be watching TV on their TV anymore. A-