Couch Potatoes, Don't Budge Yet


By Cliff Edwards

TECH & YOU PODCAST

TiVo (TIVO), pioneer of personal videorecorders, has gotten a lot of mileage out of the slogan "television your way." The point is that you can watch shows whenever you want, without the ads -- but you still have to sit in front of the TV. Now, by piggybacking on broadband services, several companies let you watch TV not just any way you want but also any place.

One of the most promising approaches is Slingbox from Sling Media in San Mateo, Calif. The $250 device, about the size and shape of a gold bar, connects to your TV, cable, satellite, or digital video recorder set-top box. Slingbox then uses your home network to stream programming to a computer in your house -- Windows 2000 or higher -- or out over the Net to your laptop.

"PLACE SHIFTING." At first blush, it seems like a great choice for frequent travelers or TV junkies who, like me, want to watch their local news on the road. But after trying Slingbox for a month or so, I found it's not quite ready for a prime-time audience. Despite a stellar support staff and an easy installation process, there were too many technical glitches and hoops to jump through for me to recommend Slingbox to the masses.

That said, the device is an improvement over similar efforts such as Orb Networks' free Orb streaming TV service or Sony's (SNE) $1,000 Location Free TV. When Slingbox works well, you get clear, fairly crisp pictures and sound. You need no extra equipment and pay no monthly fee. It's an important step toward TV-on-the-go, or what Sling Media founder Blake Krikorian calls media "place shifting."

To get started, you simply hook Slingbox up to your set-top box or TV using cables the company supplies. Slingbox does not work with high-definition boxes, so I connected the unit to a combo DirecTV-TiVo box in my den. At this point, the less technically savvy may get nervous. Hooking Slingbox into my home Wi-Fi network required running an Ethernet cable to my home router. Then I installed Sling Media software on a PL connected to the same router. (Sling Media says a Mac version and handheld edition are in the works.)

HOME VS. AWAY. Inside the house, Slingbox worked as advertised when I tried it first with a Dell Inspiron 6000D (DELL) laptop and then with a tiny Toshiba Libretto laptop (TOSBF). When I watched the live premiere of TNT's Over There (TWX), the pictures looked nearly as sharp as those on TV, even in full-screen mode, and were less choppy than on other streaming-video services.

The on-screen navigation aids, similar to TiVo's, made it easy to move through menus, fast-forward, or pause -- although there is a two-to-three-second lag after each command.

The big challenge is trying to watch TV outside the home, which ought to be Slingbox's main selling point. You'll need to fiddle with your router's port settings and be on the lookout for firewall and Internet security programs running on your home network, which may balk at Slingbox' efforts to "sling" your programs out onto the Net. For people who have purchased routers in the past year, there is an automated wizard that will do most of this work. I got it all set up in less than 20 minutes.

FUTURE PROMISE? But when I tried to use Slingbox wirelessly at a hotel during a trip to Toronto, the picture seized up. At a hotel offering free wireless access down the road from my office, the software could not find the Internet address assigned to my Slingbox. And on a trip to San Diego, my attempt at access on a wired Ethernet connection in my hotel resulted in an error message saying that firewall security might be blocking the connection. Turns out my DSL line at home was too slow. Upgrading to a speedier connection smoothed out my Slingbox experience.

I was impressed by how quickly Sling Media reps responded to problems. The company is constantly updating its software, and it has one of the best Web support sites I've seen. Some aspects of the setup may scare off mainstream customers. But I'm hoping Sling Media will quickly make this new breed of go-anywhere TV as easy as sitting on the couch with a remote.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau


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