Sling Media just one-upped itself. The maker of the Slingbox, that nifty device that lets customers watch their favorite TV shows on any PC, just released software that enables TV viewing via cell phone. Starting Mar. 23, Slingbox owners can get a free version of SlingPlayer Mobile by registering online before Apr. 26. After that, the software will be on sale for $29.99 (including a free 30-day trial).
Sling Media has hatched an idea that's as cool as it is ambitious: SlingPlayer Mobile lets you watch home TV channels, as well as view and record shows on your digital video recorder, on a Windows-based mobile device.
Here's how it works: Say you're in Paris on business. Your favorite team unexpectedly clinches a berth in the NCAA final four. Whip out your personal digital assistant and voila! Catch the game in real time. Or, schedule a recording and watch it from your handheld whenever you like.
I test-drove the SlingPlayer Mobile with an HP iPaq hx2000 Pocket PC with wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, capability. To use the software, you'll need a Windows-based mobile phone or PDA, a newish PC (one with Windows XP or Windows 2000 and a CD-Rom drive) as well as broadband access. You'll also need the Slingbox device that acts as the intermediary between your TV and the mobile gadget.
Set-up was anything but a breeze. Sling Media assures me this is because I used a prerelease version. In theory, you shouldn't have to spend more than 30 minutes to an hour installing software from the Sling Media Web site onto your PC. That software syncs with your mobile device, and you are good to go.
But for some reason my iPaq couldn't pick up the software application, so I had to install it manually. Then, the software wouldn't connect to my Slingbox device and let me watch my cable channels. (Sling Media told me later that they had resolved that glitch). Ultimately, we got the software to work.
Once the set-up frustration subsided, viewing video turned out to be a pretty good experience. I clicked on the SlingPlayer Mobile icon on my iPaq for the program to launch. Using the program from there was very intuitive and simple.
PACK A BATTERY.
Video quality was only occasionally jerky. The colors are vivid, the audio clear. It's the kind of service a day trader might use to follow business news on a docked handheld, rather than a bulky desk TV. The trouble is, unless your mobile device is plugged into a charger, don't expect viewing to last long. After about 20 minutes of SlingPlayer Mobile use, my iPaq's battery went from a 30% charge to a 6% charge. If you're on the go, you might want to pack an extra battery or two.
Changing channels is easy, though it takes patience -- it can take as long as 10 seconds to 15 seconds. Not much fun for channel surfing. When I remotely accessed a TiVo with my SlingPlayer Mobile, response time was even longer. But in its favor, SlingPlayer lets you set up buttons that let you to go to favorite channels with a single click. And there's something to be said for a gizmo that lets a reporter in Portland watch programming recorded on a TiVo located in San Mateo, Calif.
You'll also need to be careful when watching programming from outside the home. Depending on how you set up the device, you could end up switching the home TV to the big game or the State of the Union address while your kid is watching MTV. To help prevent a tug-of-war, there are other set-up options. You could, for example, split your cable modem or attach the Slingbox to a cable outlet not connected to a home TV. Sling Media doesn't provide instructions on such set-ups, but you can learn more about them at slingcommunity.com.
SIGN ME UP -- EVENTUALLY.
Finally, a few words about the device without which Sling Media Mobile would be just another clever idea: the Slingbox. It's a silvery plastic box about the size of a cigarette carton that you attach to your set-top box and your home broadband network (see BW Online, March 3, 2006, "Will Sling Media Shift Places").
Unlike the mobile software, installation of the Slingbox was straightforward and only took about an hour. When I hit a minor snag, a friendly Sling Media customer-care rep named Greg fixed everything for me in about five minutes. I was able to view my cable channels on a PC located on a different floor of the house. The picture was clear, the colors vivid. While a frame would occasionally freeze, overall the experience was very good -- just as it was, finally, on the iPaq.Yes, there are glitches in the SlingPlayer Mobile. Yet, based on how well the Slingbox works, I believe that Sling Media will probably get this product into good shape, too. And when that happens, I'll buy one myself.