Sling Media Slingbox review
The idea of timeshifting TV broadcasts may have been around for a while, but US startup Sling Media has come up with a new concept: placeshifting. Put simply, the Slingbox enables you to directly tap into your TV signal from practically anywhere with internet access.
Setup is satisfyingly simple. Plug in the video input, attach the Slingbox to your wired network, then install the software on a network-attached PC. This will give you a unique 32-digit code to identify your particular unit, which you’ll also need when setting up additional computers. Assuming you have a UPnP-enabled router, the Slingbox will even configure all port-forwarding settings for you. Otherwise, the documentation makes the process of manually setting up reasonably painless. A wizard will also check that your remote access is working before you leave the house.
The real beauty is that the Slingbox is input-agnostic. You can use the composite S-Video or composite RCA ports (a scart adaptor is also included) to connect extra devices, and even switch between them remotely. There’s also a built-in DVB-T tuner, so you’ll be able to access any Freeview channel (although currently not digital radio) and pass the aerial’s signal through to your existing TV unaffected. Just note that this won’t allow your TV to play Freeview content.
Remarkably, you can also control the equipment remotely using a software remote. Once you enable Control Mode, the supplied infrared blaster will communicate with a variety of different devices over the network – Sling is claiming direct support for “thousands” of models, ranging from DVD players and VCRs to fully fledged MCE PCs. Naturally, what you see will be reflected in your living room, so if your spouse is watching Sky One and you flip to Sky Sports they may not be too impressed.
Once you’re connected, the hardware and software constantly communicate about both the uplink and download speed, and the level of compression is adjusted on-the-fly. By default, the stream is buffered for seven seconds and this keeps playback smooth, even when the connection speed dips. Audio is also prioritised, ensuring no interruption. Using Windows Media Video, quality varies from highly and noticeably compressed up to a 640 x 480 resolution PAL-like quality when watching on a LAN, but we found it watchable throughout testing, particularly in windowed mode.
The only use of Sling Media’s servers is to resolve the IP address of your router when connecting from an outside network, so there’s no subscription model round the corner. That also means that even if Sling Media itself disappears, you can always use a service such as www.dyndns.org to keep in touch with your home IP address.
The playback software – called SlingPlayer – doesn’t smack of maturity, shunning the standard Windows look and feel, but it has some imaginative features. You can have an unlimited number of favourite channels in the bar along the bottom of the screen, with icons assignable for most UK stations. You can also run it in windowed, full-screen or a variety of sidebar modes. Our only real complaint is that in full-screen mode we found widescreen broadcasts letter-boxed both horizontally and vertically, even on widescreen displays.
In Control Mode, a virtual remote control will mirror the device it’s controlling and can be shrunk down to take up less screen space, or you can close it completely and use key commands instead. You can’t teach the player specific infrared codes, though.