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July 15, 2006

The Coolest Gadget of All Time

Filed under Gadgets, Reviews

This one is impressive. As I've detailed ad nauseum, I bought a Motorola Q. With a new gadget I bought last weekend, I have turned my cell phone into a TV with DirecTV and TiVo!

The device that makes it possible is called SlingBox. You can see my SlingBox sitting above my DirecTV TiVo in the picture above. The SlingBox takes the output from the TiVo (or any cable box/DVR) and then broadcasts it over the Internet to any PC running SlingPlayer or cell phones running SlingPlayer Mobile. Anything you can do with a TiVo remote can be done by SlingPlayer. The SlingPlayer sends commands over the Internet back to the SlingBox, which mimics the TiVo remote with an IR repeater. You can see the IR repeater in the photo above. It is a small black arm sticking out beneath the TiVo and pointing at the black circle that receives the remote control signal.

Here is a video of the SlingBox/SlingPlayer Mobile in action. It shows my TV broadcasting live TV. I put my cell phone next to the TV so you can see that it is showing the same content. There is about a 5 second delay between live TV and when it arrives on the SlingPlayer. This makes it a bit tricky to try and fast forward with TiVo...not impossible, but certainly more difficult. As long as I have a good signal on my cell phone, the video quality is extremely good. It is sharp enough that you can read the text scrolling by at the bottom of the screen of CNN Headline News. As the signal degrades, the SlingPlayer will drop frames so that it will still work with less bandwidth. Audio rarely ever drops, but video rate can fluctuate. Typically, it runs around 30 fps, which looks really good. I've seen it drop down to 5 fps, which is still very watchable.

All SlingBox does is rebroadcast what your TV is currently doing. If I change channels when I am watching TV at work (this is an example...I would never do this), then my TV at home will be changing channels as well. This works fine for me, because I'm single. But I could imagine this might cause some issues when multiple people are using the same TV.

With my SlingBox setup and DirecTV TiVo, from anywhere that my cell phone works I can now:

  • Watch any DirecTV channel
  • Listen to the DirecTV music channels
  • Order and watch Pay-Per-View Movies
  • Pause, fast forward, or rewind TV using TiVo
  • Watch any programs I've previously recorded with TiVo
  • Set TiVo to record something that is about start in 5 minutes

What a great time waster!

I installed SlingPlayer on my desktop. It can be docked on the side of your monitor to allow you watch TV while you work on your computer. Video/audio quality is excellent.

Installation was surprisingly simple. SlingBox comes with a single sheet of instructions that is about 1' x 2'. SlingPlayer is also easy to install, but requires a bit more Q&A to find out what type of remote control you have and how to optimize the video stream to look its best.

I pay for DirecTV in my bedroom in addition to my living room. With SlingPlayer and my laptop...I may cancel that service. Now I can watch DirecTV *AND* TiVo in my bedroom for free.

How much does all this cost? It is surprisingly cheap. I bought the SlingBox for $150 at Best Buy. I didn't want to run an Ethernet cable from my SlingBox to my router, so I also bought SlingLink (uses power lines to transmit Ethernet in your house) for $80. The SlingPlayer for PC's is free. I am using a free 30-day trial of SlingPlayer Mobile for my phone. After the trial is over, I will pay $30. So the total comes to $260 to turn your phone into a portable TiVo. Since I have unlimited data usage on my cell phone, I can stream video all day and it doesn't cost me anything extra. For comparison, Verizon offers video to your cell phone with their "V-Cast" service for $15 a month with a selection of "dozens of broadcasts per day."

SlingPlayer Mobile is still in beta. I did notice a few issues with the software that will hopefully be fixed. The keyboard mapping to TiVo functionality is a bit awkward for some functions. Turning the volume up and down doesn't use the Q's scroll wheel as you'd expect, but instead requires you to switch the keyboard from "123 mode" to "SC" (short cut mode) by holding down the space bar and then use the shifted 1 and 3 keys to turn the volume up and down. That is a lot of work if you turn on the TV and it starts blasting Oprah in a boring meeting. I want the volume controls *always* available. Also I found that performance can degrade if you start and stop the player a few times. The only way I could get the performance to improve was to turn my phone off and then back on...which sounds like a software bug. Otherwise, the software works really well.

I'm blown away by this. It is very cool and fun. I used it yesterday when I was waiting in the doctors office. The doctor was running over an hour behind schedule so I watched 30 minutes of Headline News and then I watched a South Park episode.

Highly recommended! Two thumbs way up!

Comments (2)


Too bad I just ordered a Razr. How hard is it to get the slingbox to work through a firewall? Air Force networks are tricky.

I'm guessing you are talking about how to get inbound video to pass through a firewall (not the outbound video from the SlingBox). I haven't done that so I don't know what to expect. Here is an answer from SlingMedia's support group.

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