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REVIEW: Sling Media Slingbox - UK Version
Posted by Arne Hess - on Friday, 14.07.06 - 17:19:40 CET under 08 - Reviews - Viewed 25860x
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For some weeks now, I'm using a Sling Media Slingbox which arrived right in time during the FIFA World Cup last month. So what's the Slingbox about? It's a small silver/red chocolate-bar looking type of set-top box, which is on one side connected to a TV source and on the other side connected to a LAN or WAN.
Basically, it lets you watch your TV and recordings, wherever you have access to that LAN or WAN. It received a TV signal from a certain source, converts and compresses this signal into a IPTV-kind of signal and transfers this TV signal to any compatible devices (PCs, Smartphones or PDAs) where the stream is received in a dedicated player and play-backed. Everything happens on the fly and works within your home LAN as well as from anywhere else in the world where you have Internet access and that's where the name "place shift TV" comes from.

In this article, I'm reviewing the UK version of Sling Media's Slingbox, which was introduced over a month ago into the British market, after Sling Media successfully released it into the US market last year already and soon to launch it in Japan as well.

If you are a US reader and you own a Slingbox already, you already know mostly everything I'm going to write about - except one feature the US version doesn't has (and doesn't need at all): support for DVB-T (called "Free View" in the UK). DVB-T is a digital terrestrial TV standard which is or going to be adopted all over Europe now. It will replace the good old analogue terrestrial TV and depending on your country, it will serve way more channels than the analogue forerunner was able to serve. For instance, here in Germany I'm receiving up to 23 channels now while before - with analogue terrestrial TV - I've received 9 channels only.
So indeed, with the UK version of the Slingbox, you can use DVB-T as one of many TV sources. However, if you use analogue cable, you can use this source as well as well as digital cable or satellite, where you can connect the set-top box to the Slingbox as well. You can even connect different sources the same time, which means you can enrich your place shift experience.

The Slingbox sales pack includes nearly everything you need to start using the Slingbox within minutes and includes the silver/red Slingbox itself and several cables and adapters to connect the box to your TV source as well as to the Internet but also a quick start guide which explains the different ways to connect your box very well:

For my initial tests I've just connected the box to my regular DVB-T house antenna, to get the previously mentioned 23 channels. However, as also said before, you can also connect it to your cable or satellite receiver or you connect both in parallel. If you set-top box is also working as DVR (Digital Video Recorder) even better, because if it is supported by Sling Media, you can even place shift previously recorded TV shows right from your the DVR. This is something I have to do as the next, because the Slingbox also supports Microsoft Media Center Edition which means you can either watch the TV stream live from your MCE or you watch recorded shows, stored on the Media Center PC.

But back to the box setup. It has inputs and outputs for virtually any kind of video, plus the required wired Ethernet jack to stream the TV signal. What the Slingbox isn't supporting natively is a wireless LAN connection, in this case you need some extra equipment which isn't part of the sales pack. The also included IR blaster remotely controls the channels and play/pause the set-top box or Media Center PC, if you connect the box to this kind of signal sources. This means, that the Slingbox acts as a remote control and you can remotely control all basic functions you need to access:

However, the reason why I've waited for the UK version of the Slingbox was its DVB-T support which has several benefits (for me). The setup is fairly the easiest setup you can imagine, since you only have to connect three cable to the box and if somebody is at home while you are place shifting, the other person can still see a different TV channel. This isn't possible if you use/share a single set-top box, because in this case, the Slingbox "hijacks" the signal, that nobody else at home can watch TV through the same set-top box anymore (in worst case it means you need a second dedicated set-top box for the Slingbox).

So this is how the easy DVB-T setup looks like. On the left the power cord, in the middle the LAN cable and on the right the white coaxial antenna cable:

After you have connected the box to the power, the LAN and a TV signal source, you have to initially set it up and for this, you need the SlingPlayer. But you have to go through the setup process the first timeonly and if you are not playing too much with the configuration or you are not changing the configuration, you will never see the wizard again.
Interesting enough - and here Sling Media is following a typical trend - the SlingPlayer software is not part of the sales pack at all but you have to download it from the Internet. Nevertheless, this makes sense since included CD-ROMs are outdated most of the time you buy anything and there is always something better available in the Internet.

After you have downloaded the player, the wizard will asks you if you want to configure a box the first time or if your box is already configured and you've just installed the player on a different PC again:

So here we go with the initial setup where the Slingbox firmware might be automatically updated as well, you have to select your country location where you will use the box, the way your TV source is connected to the box to come to the tuner setup (in this case, since I've using the inbuilt tuner):


After you've successfully configured your TV source, the wizard ends with some optimization settings, where you can fine tune the picture quality and you are done - the first stream appears in the SlingPlayer software on your PC:

But why another player, if you have Windows Media Player on your PC already and Sling Media builds on the Microsoft Windows Media technology? Well, it builds on it but it's not the standard Windows Media Video codec but Sling Media invested a lot of time and money, to get this codec even better to be used as the underlying technology and the software does a first-class job in providing remarkably good video quality.

One word about the LAN connection. Basically, everything is plug and play and for me, it worked just out of the box. It configured even my UPnP router automatically to allow access from the Internet to the home network, to get the TV also streamed outside my home LAN. However, Sling Media warns that the setup can become tricky if you don't have a UPnP router or if you have multiple routers and firewalls. In this case you need some network knowledge and you have to configure your router and firewall yourself. Anyway, even this isn't too hard at all - I think.

Talking about streaming within your LAN and via the Internet. For sure a stream within your LAN will look better than a stream through the Internet. Within my home environment, I've reached a up to 1 Mbps and more which makes the video stream looking nice and smooth and you can easily watch a whole movie on your Notebook while in the garden or balcony:

As you can see at the screenshots above, you can even customize the player with your own channels where you can either name the channel buttons or you use a small picture (for instance the channel logo).

However, the maximum video size, the SlingPlayer natively supports, is 640x480 pixels only. Everything larger might results in more artifacts.
For remote access, the quality depends on several factors: how fast is your home broadband connection able to upstream, how fast is your used Internet connection to downstream and I've tested this during the past days from several locations: public hotspots, hotel room connections, UMTS connections and friends' DSL connections:

During theses tests, I've reached UMTS connections up to 300 Kbps (keep in mind, that UMTS is able to serve a theoretical value of 384 Kbps only, so it's not that bad at all) and since my DSL connection here at home serves speeds of up to 1024 Kbps, I got downstream speeds up to 500 - 800 Kbps through hotel or hotspot connections and both - UMTS and broadband Internet connection speeds were good enough to watch the TV stream and even more important - to enjoy it!

Final Conclusion

Do you need a Slingbox? No, not if you don't watch TV or you don't travel/leave your home or you have a TV in every room in your house anyway. But if you watch TV, if you travel or if you don't have a TV in every room but you have a W-LAN network and a Notebook in your house or apartment, it might makes sense for you as well. You don't have to worry where you are going, because you take your known entertainment and information with you, all you need is a broadband Internet connection, wired or wireless - doesn't matter and since Sling Media also provides a SlingPlayer mobile version for Windows Mobile Pocket PCs and Smartphones (still in public Beta), you can even watch TV on truly mobile devices. And you are watching real TV, nothing precompiled your carrier might offers you.
Let put it that way: When I was in vacation in Spain last May, I had a wonderful hotel with in-room Internet access and a nice flat screen. Unfortunately, the TV was configured to receive only 3 German channels, same for French and British channels and a couple of Spanish channels. Not that I watch TV too much in vacation but sometimes you simply want to watch your well known news channel or you want to have some easy entertainment before you go to bed. With the Slingbox you can have exactly the channel you want and as I said, the hotel room had a nice flat screen. Next time I'm going there, I just have to take a cable with me and I can connect my Notebook to the flat screen to watch my German live TV even more comfortable from the bed.

Talking about live and the question is - how live, live is? Well, basically it's near live or near time. It's not live or real time at all since you have to keep in mind, that the Slingbox has to transform the TV signal into a IPTV signal which is distributed via the LAN or Internet. It's closer to live if you stream within your local are network and is delayed even more, if you stream it via the Internet. Within my LAN it have a delay of maybe 5 - 10 seconds only and via the Internet it have a delay of 10 - 20 seconds but this is fine, but better don't adjust your clock using the TV stream as the reference.
However, switching through the channels is even faster and takes between 3 - 5 seconds only. So indeed you can zap through the TV channels.

What I truly like is the easiness of setup. If you have a standard configuration at home, it's more or less plug and play and might takes 15 minutes or so only. If you don't have a standard setup you might have to dive into your router setup which can takes some extra time but also this shouldn't be too hard. Overall, every PC user should be able to get a Slingbox configured and working without any hazels. Also I like the licensing model of Sling Media for the SlingPlayer software. Unlike Sony's LocationFree equipment, which works similar to Sling Media Slingbox, you can install the SlingPlayer software on as many PCs as you want (even if you can use it at one PC at the same time only, so you can not distribute the TV to all your friends at the same time) and you are not charged per license you've installed. For the Windows Mobile versions you have to purchase further licenses anyway, which is only fair.

So yes, I can say that I really like to use my Slingbox and I'm using it quite often: while traveling, while on the go in the city, at the balcony or in the bed. Your local TV is where you are.

Cheers ~ Arne


 
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