Before there were iPads and iPhones, Apple (AAPL) TVs and Roku players, there was the Slingbox.
No one had seen its like before. You hooked it up to your home television, connected it to the Internet and -- presto! -- you could take your TV remotely with you everywhere.
Eventually, Sling was acquired by EchoStar -- controlled by satellite mogul Charlie Ergen -- and its hardware business languished. The last new Slingbox was introduced in 2008, eons ago in tech terms.
Now Sling at long last is back with two new devices, the $300 Slingbox 500 and the $180 Slingbox 350, and a few new tricks. After a week or two with the swoopy black 500, I’ve concluded that it’s still the most comprehensive and straightforward way to consume video content on the go, though certainly not the most elegant.
Setting up an Apple TV required me to run a cable to the TV and plug in a power cord. Setting up the Slingbox 500 required me to connect nine, count ’em, different cables. There would have been 10, except that I opted to use Wi-Fi rather than run an Ethernet cable from the Slingbox to my router.
For the first time, the 500 incorporates the now-ubiquitous HDMI high-definition connector that’s supposed to make everything simpler -- so why all these wires?
Belt and Suspenders
It’s because of the way some cable channels are encrypted, leading Sling to recommend using both the HDMI and older component audio-video cables at the same time. (At least all of them were included with the Slingbox.)
It’s a belt-and-suspenders approach that gets the job done but adds to the chances something will go wrong during the setup: My first attempt knocked out the sound from the TV. I eventually got it back by disconnecting and reconnecting the audio cables.
Once everything was working right -- about a 40-minute process from start to finish -- the Slingbox did its thing. And even after all these years (the first Slingbox appeared in 2005), its thing is still pretty cool.
From any computer’s web browser, or using one of Sling’s extra-cost SlingPlayer mobile-device apps, you can access everything on your home TV. You can turn your cable box on remotely and view your full channel lineup, as well as content you’ve saved to a DVR, on-demand programs and even pay-per-view channels.
There are a lot of advantages to watching TV this way. You’ve already paid for the content through your cable or satellite subscription, so you don’t have to pay again. You don’t have to juggle multiple apps, like Hulu Plus and HBO GO, depending on what you want to watch. And you don’t get tripped up by blackout or other rules that prevent you from accessing some content online.
In my case, for instance, I was able to log in to my home TV from the office and watch San Francisco Giants baseball playoff games on my iPad, even though the games were unavailable through the MLB At Bat app.
There are some disadvantages to watching TV this way, too. For one thing, the SlingPlayer apps cost $15 each (down from $30), and you’ll need one for each mobile device you use. In addition to separate versions for Apple’s iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, there are SlingPlayers for Google (GOOG)’s Android operating system; Microsoft (MSFT)’s Windows Phone; and Amazon.com (AMZN)’s Kindle Fire.
You’re also limited by the selection available through your home TV provider. So you might be able to access last week’s episode of “Modern Family,” but not necessarily ones from earlier seasons. And while the video streams are now full 1080p hi-def, picture quality can be affected by several factors, including the speed of your home network and the one over which you’re watching.
Sling says half of all Slingbox use occurs within the home, so the 500 is also beginning to incorporate features similar to Apple’s AirPlay, allowing photos and other content on mobile devices to be displayed on the TV. That feature is missing from the industrial-looking 350 model, which also lacks an HDMI connector and must be hooked directly into a router, rather than using Wi-Fi.
Still, remote viewing remains the core of the Slingbox’s appeal. And granted, downloading and installing an app is a lot more painless than spending $300 for a Slingbox, hooking up nine cables, then downloading and installing an app that may cost you $15 more.
But you can also look at it this way: With Slingbox, you get the pain out of the way up front. And that monthly cable or satellite bill might be a little more bearable knowing your service is now completely portable.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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