While the concept of slinging content and functionality from PC to TV is neither new nor especially difficult, beaming TV content around the house – or around the world, for that matter – is just beginning to bloom thanks largely to the growth of smartphones and tablets.
Sling Media Inc.'s original Slingbox launched a little more than seven years ago, though back then it was more novel than practical. The supersized candybar-shaped device converted and "slung" one's TV signals over the Internet, so a user could tap into their system and watch all of their channels remotely from a hotel room on the other side of the world (or from their desk at work). It was a niche product, though, and appealed primarily to geeky TV junkies. Now, however, as more consumers buy smartphones and tablets, the allure of watching portable TV is suddenly very real and attractive.
Setting up the Slingbox Pro HD (starts from $330) was not an especially difficult task, but I had a few issues with two of the browsers I use. After connecting the Slingbox Pro HD to my television and home network, users are directed to Sling Media's setup website, which launches an online utility to register and configure your new box. But not on Google's Chrome, which is my preferred browser. When I switched over to Firefox, successive failed attempts to configure the Slingbox forced me to go in search of Internet Explorer, buried somewhere deep in my home PC's dungeons of long-forgotten software. A quick plug-in later and the Slingbox was configured. I eventually ended up grabbing the IE tab for Chrome, which I use now.
Because of my antenna-only TV setup, configuring and using the Slingbox was quite straight forward. I plugged a coaxial cable into the device, another from the device to the TV, and that was it. However, the gadget comes with numerous component, video and infrared cables that let you connect things like a digital recorder (DVR) and access all the functionality of the device remotely. Maybe you've recorded something on your home TV and, sitting in a hotel room in Macao, want to tap in and watch. You can do that.
But perhaps the best argument for getting a Slingbox Pro HD today is that you can make your TV mobile. And credit goes to Sling Media for making sure their SlingPlayer Mobile app is platform agnostic. It doesn't matter if you love Android, BlackBerry or iOS devices, there's an app for each. There are even apps for Windows Phone, Palm OS even Nokia's Symbian. It's one of the few apps that can work on pretty much every smartphone ever built. The SlingPlayer displays large finger-friendly buttons at the bottom of the display that link to your TV guide, keypad for changing the channel and aspect ratio, among other things. A series of favourites buttons makes for quick and easy channel changing.
I tried the iPad app and found it pretty solid, though it's one of the more expensive apps in the App Store at $30. Over a few days in November, I carried my channels around in my bag, watching shows at work over the Wi-Fi network and around the house. I also connected while on the GO Train using an Android phone, tethered to a Wi-Fi iPad. I launched the app to watch the 6 p.m. CTV news over 3G and was surprised at the quality of video. Sound and images came in clearly and only slightly less crisp than watching in a Wi-Fi hotspot. But the connection needs to be constant and strong for the quality to remain high. Through the five minutes or so of watching, the connection fluctuated and consequently so did the video. However, in a Wi-Fi environment, video quality is excellent and consistent.
Another TV-to-PC device that's been growing in popularity – especially among over-the-air converts – is SiliconDust's line of HD HomeRun products. The devices are very popular with antenna heads because unlike the Slingbox, most of the HD HomeRun devices, including the HD HomeRun Dual (from $130) that I tried, are made for beaming over-the-air or unencrypted cable (known as Clear QAM) content around the home. SiliconDust does have a product that can connect to a digital cable box, though.
The HD HomeRun Dual, named so because it has two tuners, was dead simple to set up, but a logistical issue created a bit of a headache for me. The Dual comes with three ports on the back, one for the coaxial line from your antenna, one for an Ethernet cord that connects the device to your router and one for the power. Ideally, every gadget in the world would be this straight forward. The included CD contains the HD HomeRun drivers and software and the company's website has firmware and software updates, all of which installed and upgraded without a hiccup. The setup process automatically detected the HD HomeRun Dual and the channel scanning and software setup went flawlessly. Video can be displayed using the included HD HomeRun QuickTV app or by configuring Windows Media Center. I went with the former and was satisfied with the quality and functionality. Channels and volume control appear on a pop-out bar that runs up the right side of the screen.
Unlike the Slingbox, I had no success with SiliconDust's mobile option, apps made by Elgato called Eye TV and HD HomeRun. While the Eye TV app is available in the Canadian App Store, it's made for Mac users only. The HD Homerun app is not available on the Canadian store and even if it was, it's made specifically for the HD Homerun Prime, not for the Dual. I assume that Canadian Windows users will one day have the option to watch TV on the go, but they'll have to wait.
And for all of the Dual's attributes, I ran into a big roadblock. The line from my antenna runs down one side of the house and my modem and router sit on the other. The device must be connected to both, and I had three options to try and make this work: Split my coaxial and string a line into my office; move my modem and router into the living room or invest in a powerline networking device that would be fast enough to connect the Dual to my home network. The obvious choice was the last – it meant no drilling holes or stapling 50-foot cables along every baseboard and door frame in the house.
Editors note: The picture originally attached to this story incorrectly referred to the pictured device as the Slingbox Pro HD.
Next – Part 3: Powerline networking
Below is a discussion with tech expert Michael Snider on the challenges of wiring up your living room with the latest entertainment technology. Mobile users can click here to read.