Slingbox and SlingPlayer Mobile Review


This, my friends, is the Slingbox. The guys at Sling Media let me borrow one for a week and now, three weeks later, I’ve still got it. If the truth be known I can’t bring myself to give it back. I figure that if I keep quiet, they might just forget I’ve still got it. :) What makes this box so good isn’t just what it does, but how it does it. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here. What is it ? What does it do ?



The picture above gives you more than a clue – put simply it’ll let you watch your TV anywhere, but it’s not just your TV. It’ll control your satellite box, your cable box, music system and more. You then get to watch your TV from anywhere in the world – all you need is an internet connection, the Slingbox software (which is constantly updated with the latest infrared codes etc) and a computer or a Windows Mobile phone.



Unboxing and installation

It was late one Sunday evening. The Slingbox package was on the table and I was tired. The last thing I wanted to do was set it up. I had visions of cables all everywhere, complex instructions and having to mess with my broadband router to open ports up and map them through. Ughh.. No way. However, I decided to at least start installing it and, after 10 minutes I was done. I was astounded. The Slingbox and the SlingPlayer software did the majority of the work – all I need to do was put the plugs in the right place.



Here’s the box itself. Emily calls it “the Toblerone box”. Out of the packaging it’s got various words imprinted on the top (like “my satellite, my music, anywhere”). On the front there’s the word “Sling” which has a magic glowing “n” that appears when you’re controlling the device. There’s also a power and a network light too – if these are both on solid you’re in business…



Before we get to use it though there’s some cabling to do…



The fold-out sheet on the lower right is a clear and concise “quick start” guide which will help you get plugged up fast. The cables you’ll see here may be different to the ones you’ll get in your country. There’s a range of Slingboxes available throughout the world, from cable-box ones with integrated decoders and DVB-T ones like this which include integrated digital TV tuners. The cables you get with this particular Slingbox are two AV cables with Audio L/R / Video to 3.5mm, power adapter, IR control cable, S-Video cable, SCART->Phono adapter, aerial cable and an ethernet cable. Confused? Don’t be. There’s various ways to plug it all together. If you’ve just got a TV then it’s still fine – you just plug the aerial cable into the box and you instantly get to control the dozens of digital TV channels available across the UK.

For me, I wanted to try the in-built digital TV receiver and I wanted to plug in my Sky+ box too. For those who aren’t aware, Sky is a TV system here in the UK delivering hundreds of channels via a small dish mounted to your house. The Sky+ system includes a hard drive and offers PVR functionality so you can pause, record, rewind live TV etc etc.



Here’s the inputs at the back of the Slingbox. On the left you can see the standard aerial connection. You can simply remove the aerial cable from the back of your TV and slap it in here, then use the aerial cable in the box to “daisy chain” the output back into the TV (see below). At the centre of the image above you can just see the S-Video input, with the 3.5mm A/V cable to the right.

There’s a few ways to plug in your equipment – I could have just used the SCART lead (which is a pass-through type), however I didn’t have enough room at the back so I used the S-Video and phono “out” ports instead. I grabbed the S-Video cable to do one connection (S-Video OUT from the Sky+ box to S-Video IN on the Slingbox) and then used one of the included AV cables to just grab audio (Phono L/R OUT from the Sky+ box to 3.5mm AV IN on the Slingbox). Done.


If you ever have problems there’s always the reset button.



Here’s the outputs. In my installation I didn’t need to use any of these, however they’ll be invaluable if you want to “daisy chain” your equipment, such as instances where you have an amplifier or similar.



Last up is the power port (which sits next to a blanked-out hole), the IR port (which plugs into two cables with IR “senders” for positioning in front of the TV / satellite / cable box you want to control) and finally the all-important ethernet cable. This end goes into your router. USB modems and the like just won’t cut it – you need a broadband ethernet router of some description and it must be close enough to the TV for you to plug into.

This is where I had a problem – my broadband router is upstairs, and there was no way I was going to get an ethernet cable through the wall and then upstairs and back through the wall again. For a kick-off it was far too much work and also Emily would’ve gone absolutely nuts. Solution ? Well, luckily I managed to get a box like this which picks up my WiFi router and then converts the internet feed back into ethernet. Job done.


So I’d done all the cabling. Now comes the next bit – getting it running. Again, this was far easier than I’d imaged. The quick-start guide says..

“Plug in the box, if the network light comes on then you have successfully received an IP address from your router. Now download the Slinbox software from www.slingmedia.com, follow the on screen prompts and you’re done.”


Amazingly, they’re not joking. I downloaded the PC-based software – it installed and searched my local network for the box. Within seconds it had found it – it went through the whole process of configuring the video streaming for optimal quality, then it offered to configure my router for me. Why does it need to do that? Well, you need to do some “tweaking” to your router so that you can access the Slingbox when your away from your home. It’s sometimes a little hard to explain, so I’ll give you an example..

Imagine you’re in New York and you’ve taken your laptop with you. Your Slingbox software will try and talk to the Slingbox back at home – but it’ll first hit your router. Your router is going to do what it’s supposed to. Your router will say..

“Oi! Who are you? What the heck are YOU trying to do? You want to access something behind my firewall? I don’t think so!”

So you’ll need to open up a “hole” in the firewall on your router – the firewall being the protection you have between you and the outside world. Next, though, the router will say..

“OK, I’ll let you in, but I’ve got lots of stuff in this house you can connect to – which one is it?”

You’ll hear techy words like “NAT” and “PAT” mentioned here, however the Slingbox will try and protect you from the majority of this geekness and will do it for you. I’ve got a Draytek Vigor router, which it couldn’t do automatically, however it gave me simple instructions on what I needed to do. Here’s the resulting tweak on my router..



This states that “anything coming in on port 5001 should go to the Slingbox”. You’re also protected by a second line of defence though – your Slingbox has a password which you need to enter before you can control and view it. This can get saved and entered automatically by the SlingPlayer software, however they’ve also added a further password for administrative access. Good stuff.



In use


The PC-based software is, without a doubt, outstanding. It’ll take you through the whole setup process with ease and it’ll even display individualised remote controls, like this. You simply tell the software which “hole” you’ve plugged stuff into, then you tell it what “thing” you’ve plugged into it. If I’d told the software that this input was a cable TV box, I’d have a different remote displayed below. All of this information is stored on the Slingbox too, so any PC or laptop with SlingPlayer installed can get straight in and display the correct remote control etc. 



Obviously, if you’ve got your laptop with you on your travels then you’re sorted. However, we’re a Windows Mobile website, so let’s take a look at the SlingPlayer Mobile software. After install you’ll be presented with the familiar dotted “n” logo..



The first thing you’ll need to do is setup the SlingPlayer software to talk to your Slingbox. On the screen below you’ll see the “Add New Slingbox” option – use this to tell the software what IP address or “Finder ID” your Slingbox has. The “Finder ID” is on the bottom of your Slingbox and will identify your box easier. In my case I’ve used my ADSL IP address instead – you can use various sites like www.whatismyip.com to find out what your IP address on the internet is. Some ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) give you a different IP address if you reboot your router (this is called “DHCP”). Luckily my ISP gives me a fixed IP address, so I know that when I connect to that IP address it’ll always connect to my router at home and (after those earlier tweaks) to my Slingbox by the TV.

Don’t worry if you reboot your router and find that you’ve got a new IP address – you can use services like www.dynadns.org. Check their website for some excellent background info on this whole IP address stuff.

I’ve added mine in and called it “Home Slingbox”. Click on it and you’ll get the option to Watch, edit or delete the connection.  



After clicking “Watch” or pressing the “Play” button on the lower left you should suddenly find your home TV picture on sreen. I’ve connected my Sky+ and a standard TV aerial, so I should be able to get digital terrestrial TV (thanks to the inbuilt digital receiver). Below you can see the Sky+ remote buttons that the SlingPlayer software has added in for me. You’ll get a slimmed-down thing with normal digital TV – a numeric keypad and channel up/down. Here, you can see the familiar navigation pad controls along with the Sky “select”, “info” and “menu” buttons.  Again, this is picked up from the settings stored on the Slingbox itself.



The remote controls above are added by the SlingPlayer software automatically, however what’s really cool is the fact that you can add your own buttons too…



Here’s the buttons – I’ve added some of the frequently-used buttons plus some that weren’t included with the standard remote options above. The “Green” and “Blue” buttons are used for switching between favourite channels and jumping into the “Planner”. You really can do absolutely everything – just as if you were sat at home on your sofa. Let’s switch channels…



Look ! There’s my Sky information banner. This really is just like home. When you send an IR command it’ll take a beam the appropriate command out of the IR sender which is sat in front of your Sky box or similar. There’s a very small lag whilst it does this, however I love the fact that the commands are buffered – for example if I enter channel “0101” it’ll buffer the command up and send them sequentially.. “0….1…..0….1” instead of trying to send them all at once and getting mixed up at the other end.

Next to the volume slider you’ll see some of the icons we’ve tested already – the “custom buttons” option is first, then the “normal remote control buttons” are on the right. Between them is the full-screen option. When you press this it’ll fill your entire screen.


 


I should mention here that my testing has been done on WiFi, using an Orange SPV M3100 (Pocket PC / Windows Mobile Pro phone), however it is available for Smartphone (Windows Mobile Standard) too. Strangely, you can only get this software from the US version of the Slingbox site and NOT the UK one. A WiFi connection is preferred, however you can try the software on 3G and it’ll work fine on the sync cable too.


You’ll notice the word “Optimizing…” on the top of these screen-shots. The SlingPlayer software will do some clever stuff and will ensure the best viewing and listening experience based on the bandwidth you have available. This can be altered if you want, however it’s best to leave it as it is and let it tweak the stream to suit. This takes a couple of seconds and may reset when you switch channels or screen orientation.


The cool thing about Slingbox is, of course, the fact that you can watch your TV and control anything connected to it. This includes audio equipment (like CD players etc) and PVR’s (Personal Video Recorders) like the Sky+ box, Tivo or similar. But wait – what happens when you’re in New York and you want to watch TV at home in the UK ? Well, unfortunately the time difference means you could be watching late-night TV back home, so it’s great to be able to remotely set and play programmes. In the example below I’ve recorded BBC show “Top Gear” and, with the help of the Slingbox, I can watch it, pause it, rewind it, forward it or delete it – all while I’m in a hotel room overlooking Times Square in NYC…


 



Real life test


You don’t ever need to leave the house to see how cool the Slingbox is – I can carry my Windows Mobile handset around the house and listen to music in the bathroom, or watch my favourite TV show while making dinner, sitting in the garden or putting the clothes away. It’s almost like having your normal TV in your pocket all around the house – Emily (my wife) can sit in the lounge watching her favourite TV show while I can watch my favourite show in the kitchen. No wires, no mess, no need to mount a TV in the kitchen – it’s in my pocket and it’s ready to go!

Sure, I can sit here at home and test this as much as I want, however I wanted to give it a real test. So … just in the name of research, we went to Cancun. This time I took my Orange SPV M5000 – that’s the HTC Universal handset you may have seen under different names on other networks. The hotel we stopped in had free WiFi and each building had one of these on the roof…



These are whacking great AP’s – or “Access Points” and beam the WiFi across the complex we were stopping in. What this means is that I can get free WiFi in our room, on the beach, on the mini golf course, in the restaurants, by the pool and even in the sea itself!


Within seconds I’d started the SlingPlayer software and bingo – I was watching my local TV channel back home. Here’s a shot I took whilst sat on my hammock watching TV… talk about home from home!! :)



Watching your “normal” TV, being able to catch the local sports, watch those expensive movie channels, listen to music, local radio stations or recorded shows and DVD’s…. all whilst sat on the beach drinking cocktails… sorted.


Video demos

I figured the best way to show you the SlingPlayer software in action would be to video it. First up is a demo of the SlingPlayer software controlling and watching Sky TV, followed by a listen to some digital radio stations…







Next up I checked out the internal digital TV receiver on the Slingbox…






Here’s the Slingbox itself. This video shows the Slingbox itself and the IR senders, plus how it reacts when in use..







Conclusion

So what do I think ? Well, as you may have already guessed (the intro was a bit of a give-away!), I love it. Sure, I have a couple of little issues – like the fact that you can only download the SlingPlayer Mobile software from the US site (choosing “UK” shows no mention of it), however overall it’s one kick-ass product. It’s easy to setup, easy to use, easy to understand and works extremely well. The SlingPlayer software is faultless, the Slingbox itself works fantastically well and the functionality and freedom it gives you is wonderful.

Being able to listen to your music, your TV and your media …. anywhere. It does what it says on the tin. This is a fantastic, fantastic, fantastic product. Buy one.



The Slingbox is available from retailers like PCWorld.co.uk for around £149.99.

Links – Slingmedia.comWhere to buy

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