Sling Media Slingbox Pro & Family

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COURTESY OF SLING MEDIA

Two TV buzz terms you might hear these days are “time shifting” and “place shifting.” Time shifting is what a TiVo does, recording something in the 8 pm slot that you watch later on. Place shifting is what a Slingbox does, giving you access to video stored up in one location—be it on DVD or recorded on a TiVo’s hard drive—from another place using an Internet-connected PC or mobile device.

Until now, Slingbox couldn’t get at the growing mass of high-definition programming available from cable or satellite providers. That was a problem in my house, since we record most primetime shows in HD using a cable company-rented Scientific Atlanta DVR set-top box. The new Slingbox Pro can stream any standard or HD show stored on my cable box, at a reduced quality, wherever I happen to be.

Last Friday afternoon, I was racing out the door for the weekend, juggling bags of groceries, bags of clothes and two cats, each in its own carrier. At 4:11 pm I realized I had forgotten to setup the Slingbox Pro, so we could watch our home TV while out of town. Determined to set a record for Slingbox setup, I pulled out the quick-start guide and rolled up my sleeves. I connected wires for video, networking and power in a particular order. Then I powered everything on and popped the software disc into a PC laptop. (Alas, Slingbox doesn't work for Macs at the moment.) The software found the Slingbox, tested its video, then found my network router and automatically configured it to stream video over the open Internet, not just on my home network. There’s a “do it yourself” mode, but take my advice, nerds, and let Sling’s software take the first crack – it was very fast, and saved me from having to log into my router, let alone recalling frighteningly geeky concepts such as “port forwarding.” On the screen flashed a message that everything was good to go. It was 4:23 pm.

The following evening, my wife and I were telling our friends about Tina Fey’s hilarious new NBC sitcom, 30 Rock, but found we couldn’t do it justice. I suddenly realized that I could simply stream the pilot episode, via laptop, from my cable box at home. We gathered around the dining room table, and I launched the SlingPlayer, which produced a virtual remote control identical to the one sitting on my coffee table back home. Within seconds we were watching a show I had originally recorded in high-def. It may not have looked as good—the already scaled down signal degrades a bit over the internet—but it was just as funny.

If you’re not yet into HDTV this may not sound like a big deal. In fact, aside from HBO and the networks, most of what I record airs only in standard definition: Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, Food Network and a great chunk of the Discovery Channel’s best shows. But there’s a profound psychological difference between having access to most of my shows and all of my shows. Best of all, the Slingbox connects directly to an HD cable box as easily as it connects to any other video source. It doesn’t require anything as elusive as a CableCard, an over-promised, under-delivered digital card offered (in low volume) by cable companies for use in specially built TVs and other devices.

The Slingbox Pro is the new flagship in the Slingbox family, which also includes the Slingbox AV, which handles basic cable and any non-HD video from set-top boxes and other video sources, and the Slingbox Tuner, which doesn’t work with a set-top box, but rather connects directly to the cable sticking out of the wall for less mess, but also less flexibility. Both the Tuner and the Pro have pass-through capability so, in most cases, you can leave it connected to your setup without disrupting your at-home viewing. You must connect the Slingbox AV to a secondary video output, or in place of your TV when you’re heading out of town. The downside to the Pro is that to do the HD thing, you have to pay an extra $50 for the HD Connect cable—and you still might have to go to RadioShack for an extra cable or two.

You may be wondering if place shifting can be anything more than a novelty; I’ve often wondered the same thing. But think about this: If you own or rent a vacation home and want to be connected to television to check news or a game, but not to watch all the time, you can skip the cable or satellite subscription altogether and use a Slingbox. Of course, if you want your place-shifted video to look good, your get-away-from-it-all home will need a broadband connection to the Internet.