Slingbox.

Watch your tv anywhere — that’s the deal. Buy this little device. Connect it to your tv. Watch any place, any time. It’s phenomenal. Traveling? Working? Stuck at the mall? Slingbox it. You get to watch whatever is on your tv from your laptop, your iPad, or your phone. As a sports fan, it comforts me that I can watch my favorite teams regardless of my actual location. I’m sure you can imagine dozens of scenarios matching your own viewing habits. As DVRs enabled timeshifting, Slingbox enables placeshifting. It’s a powerful concept and one I have been looking forward to experiencing for years.

The Reality.

Underwhelming. The truth is that the Slingbox setup is not cheap and barely works. When accessing a recorded program only displays correctly half the time and the guide fails to display certain channels, you have a real problems. Had Slingbox just arrived on the scene, I would naturally be willing to extend it a few months’ grace to iron out the wrinkles. In fact, the first Slingbox went on sale over four years ago. The core experience should be better.

Hardware.

No complaints. I purchased the Sling Adapter directly from DISH Network for $99. The device is tiny, noiseless, elegantly designed, and all indications are that it works as promised. Had I been required to spend the $250+ for the Slingbox Pro-HD, I would not be writing this article. Even a gadget enthusiast like myself has little patience for a several hundred dollar toy with limited utility.

Software.

As a 21st century Hamlet might conceivably lament, ay, software, there’s the rub. Software for accessing your Slingbox comes in three flavors: browser, tablet, and phone. None of them provide the flawless experience I’ve come to expect on Apple devices, though each, in its own way, does deliver.

The user interface is hit or miss. SlingPlayer mingles traits from both parents. It lives on a computer, so it supports filtering, search, and other conveniences, yet it’s saddled with the traditional channel metaphor as the primary interface. While the appropriate design for television is likely radically different than the one currently in place, it’s hard to find too much fault with Sling Media iterating rather than revolutionizing. Still, it would be nice if the implementation wasn’t quite so slow and bug-ridden. For example, SlingPlayer for the Mac only works in Safari and Firefox; no support for Chrome. Except it doesn’t even work for me in Firefox, which means I’m forced to use Safari, a browser that currently sits third on my depth chart.

It’s worth noting that, contra Netflix, only one person at a time may view the Slingbox feed. It’s an understandable if quaint and frustrating restriction. Word is that it’s a technological limitation. Given all the problems I’ve experienced, that sounds plausible. Whether it’s arbitrary or innate, it is an impediment to what ought to be legitimate family usage.

More than a few design decisions are, to be polite, curious. On the iOS side, even basic computer interactions like scrubbing a timeline and gestural controls like pinch-to-zoom haven’t been included. I’d say it’s spit-and-polish like this that makes or breaks a product, but in the case of the Slingbox, the video quality is so grotesque that the UI blemishes are merely salt in the wound.

Video Quality.

Mediocre, below average, and terrible. Watching in the browser is … adequate but hardly without issue. Do not expect HD quality. Don’t even expect March Madness on Demand or ESPN3 quality. Not even close. Under ideal circumstances, with the perfect configuration, you could say watching Slingbox on your computer is like watching SD television. From 18 inches away. This experience, however, rarely lasts more than a minute without interruption, distortion, or lag. The sub-par quality is a bit of a mystery. Even on “HD,” Slingbox fails to saturate my 12Mbps download or 3Mbps upload, so insufficient bandwidth can’t be the culprit. There’s no explicit promise of a high quality feed, but the implication of “watch your tv anywhere” is certainly that you can watch your tv just like you normally do. I don’t know about you, but for me that means HD.

Video on the iPhone and iPad is even worse. It’s blocky. It drops frames. It stutters. It struggles to keep up with any quick motion. It’s practically unwatchable. Cartoons for the kid? Okay, fine. Basketball, football? Eh, if you literally have no other choice. Hockey? You might as well listen to the radio because you won’t be able to follow the puck on the iPad and you might not even be able to follow the players on the iPhone. The miserable quality is a bit confounding. It can’t be the hardware as I’ve seen some pretty fantastic video played on these devices even over the Internet. I can only surmise that the SlingPlayer software is intentionally limiting the quality or is incapable of transmitting, receiving, or displaying even mediocre video. Had I paid anywhere close to retail for the standalone version, I’d be fuming right now. As is, I’m more than a little miffed.1

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It’s fair to say you can watch your tv anywhere — as long as you don’t care to actually watch your tv. Every fiber of Slingbox screams “hack.” They hacked the system to serve up video television operators don’t want you to see, so, naturally, the video quality is horrid. The software itself is a monument to the dying age of cable television. Despite all of this, you are, in fact, able to (usually) watch the tv you want on whatever device you have nearby.2 That’s still an incredible statement to be able to make.

In short, television is still broken. Cable offered choice. Digital video recorders delivered convenience. Slingbox promises independence from television’s physical shackles. In that mission it both succeeds brilliantly and fails dramatically. It cannot provide salvation. It is, instead, a mangled in-between state: the harbinger of television to come and the handicapped progeny of television past, prophesying the way forward yet perversely constrained by its nature as a child of the old way. The beauty of the concept merely serves to accentuate the warts of the embodiment.

There is little doubt in my mind that Slingbox will ultimately be seen merely as a historical curiosity on the road from television comprised of just a few channels on the dial, served up at specific times to infinite programming variety, available at the time and location of your choice.

  1. It’s worth mentioning that if you buy the standalone Slingbox, you’re about to be nickle-and-dimed for $30 for both the iPhone and the iPad SlingPlayer apps. For real. []
  2. “Usually” is more or less accurate. I use the iPhone app most frequently, and the bugs are just excruciating. Even the most mundane requests meet sloth and often outright insubordination. []

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