Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Slingbox

In describing the sweet taste of victory, Family Guy resident philosopher Cleveland Brown wistfully notes, "I bet it tastes good like salt-water taffy. Or a Chunky." Last month, Sling Media provided a sweet-tasting update to the software that provides the window into its flagship product — the $250 Chunky-bar-inspired Slingbox. The product was conceived when founders Blake and Jason Krikorian became frustrated that they couldn't catch live sporting events when they were traveling.

However, the peanut butter to this video chocolate is the DVR.  If you were one of those pioneers who bought a first-generation TiVo or are stuck with a LAN-challenged cable or satellite-supplied DVR, the Slingbox is your ticket out of prerecorded prison. Not only can it stream recorded programs to Windows PCs and wireless PDAs around the house, but it can even enable you to watch TV programs from a remote location as well as schedule recordings using your DVR's native interface – all blessedly free of yet another monthly fee.

While these features are offered by Sony's pricier Location-Free TV, it's not a part of many popular DVR solutions today. Sling's latest software improves video quality and allows you to switch among two video sources, including DVDs that flummox Windows Media Center extenders.

When Sling Media chose its company name, it likely sought to evoke the excitement of media flying through a home network or the Internet as if catapulted from a sling. However, like a medical sling, the company provides great support where it is otherwise scant. This becomes evident if you want to access your Slingbox via the Internet (the hard part). If your router does not support Universal Plug 'n' Play (UPnP), you must configure port-forwarding manually. Thankfully, my Belkin router did support UPnP, which meant I got to experience the frustration of learning that UPnP doesn't always work before having to configure port-forwarding manually.


SlingPlayer?s on-screen help makes heroic efforts to walk you through the port-forwarding process, and product management VP Jeremy Toeman is a discussion-board dervish who must deserve partial credit for the Slingbox?s remarkably low return rate. However, the complexity of inbound ports and private IP addresses resigns the Slingbox to the networking section of stores while its benefits deserve to be highlighted in the video section alongside those iridescent TiVo boxes.

In any case, once it?s up and running, the Slingbox is nearly as empowering as the DVR itself in terms of changing how you watch TV. As far as video quality over remote broadband connections go, the dog talks. Over a wired LAN, though, it renames itself ?dogg? and starts its own hip-hop label. You?ll want access to the Slingbox from nearly every screen bigger than the countdown timer on your microwave oven and there?s a natural opportunity for Sling Media to create a receiver that connects directly to other TVs.

Sling?s software is geared around replicating the remote control that matches your cable set-top. While intuitive, navigation is slow and suboptimal for controlling from a PC. Integrating the EPG into the software could enable some neat tricks, like dynamically switching among multiple Slingbox-controlled DVRs. Unfortunately, the Slingbox is constrained to working with closed systems through which it must communicate through primitive infrared blasters, one of the weakest links in the digital home.

Probably one of the most requested features is to enable remote recording of shows. The company has done a great job of avoiding Hollywood ire, but if TiVo?s software can deposit recorded shows onto a PC hard drive, why can?t Sling Media?s? This would benefit the company in addition to users. The Slingbox would become a more attractive option for primary TVs by operating more transparently and could gain greater independence from the DVR. Like TiVo-to-Go, it would also be ideal for occasionally-connected laptops.

And it would be great if, like its more PC-centric server software-based rival service Orb, the Slingbox could stream music and photos. While the Slingbox has no storage, it could conceivably leverage PCs or NAS devices around the home network. You can kludge some media access today by burning a DVD of your photos or using a widely available MP3-capable DVD player or by letting a TiVo Series 2 or other digital media receiver do the heavy lifting in terms of PC connectivity.

The Slingbox?s market is likely to remain significantly smaller than that for DVRs. With its recent software update, though, the Slingbox builds on its strong introduction. If the continuing flood of improved UPnP routers into the market can simplify its installation, Sling Media should continue to win fans who will support its long to-do list for potatoes cruelly kept from their couches.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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Switched On: Let Freedom Sling