Sling That Media – Slingbox Pro

I know over the years I have subjected many of my readers to the “woes” of living on Bonaire, a small Caribbean island with, among other things, lousy TV service, and obviously no U.S. ZIP code. You might ask why TV is even important when living in paradise, and would answer that mindless entertainment is needed even here.

The reason the ZIP code (or more specifically, not having one) is important is because it means we cannot get Electronic Program Guides – EPGs – see my post on “TV Time Shifting in Paradise” from over a year ago about this.

I have managed to cobble together a partial EPG on my new HP z565 Digital Home Entertainment Center (a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC that’s designed to sit in your living room) by using a Miami-area ZIP code, and then renumbering and deleting channels as best I can. It at least works for three major U.S. networks, Cartoon Channel, HBO, Showtime, and Disney, and has already been useful. As an added bonus, I can stream recorded shows to the Xbox 360 in my bedroom should I choose to.

However, an acquaintance recently reminded me that I am paying for an expensive business connection for DirecTV in my office in Marshall, Texas, where I only spent a few weeks last year, with the TV there being unwatched the rest of the time (and I only watch it for background noise in the evenings when I am there). The Samsung DirecTV decoder also has an 80GB driver and TiVo service. But, still it’s rather expensive per-hour viewing cost.

Around the same time as I was reminded of this, a couple of other friends mentioned that they had installed Slingbox devices so they could watch their home TV signals remotely while traveling. Ding ding ding – bells went off in my addled brain.

So, during my most recent visit to Marshall a few weeks ago, I installed a Slingbox Pro box (ordered from Amazon.com – about $218), and I couldn’t be much happier. The Slingbox Pro device takes video signal input in the form of either a cable TV signal, composite video or S-Video plus audio, or HDMI (with an optional cable) digital input for HD signals. I plugged in my DirecTV TiVo box, hooked up the infrared transmitters that come with the Slingbox Pro so they could control the DirecTV box, and I was off.

The Slingbox software, which maker Slingmedia calls “SlingPlayer”, was easy to set up – both to control the Slingbox itself, as well as provide the necessary controls on my notebook to view my TV signal. I also had Linda try it back on Bonaire after I set it up, and she was able to get it going there too. The really neat thing about SlingPlayer is that it knows all about the particular DirecTV decoder I have, and even has a virtual remote control (looks identical to the physical remote) that I can manipulate with my mouse. That in turns means I can access all the TiVo functionality of the box remotely too. And it all works over an Internet connection. The more upstream capability you have to send out a signal, the better. In my case the DSL connection at my office in Texas offers 768Kbps upstream, sufficient for a pretty reasonable 640×480 video stream from the Slingbox.

After I got back from Texas and CES I went and set up Slingplayer software on the HP z565 in my living room, and can now watch live TV from Texas in my living room. Full screen on my 61” TV is too grainy and jumpy, but I can get a decent image at about 24” diagonal, which is just fine to catch up on missed shows and programming I would otherwise not get. It also means I can stop paying $1.99 for missed episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and Lost. And, I can also watch it from any PC with the SlingPlayer software. And for certain handheld devices, there’s even Slingplayer Mobile version for mobile phones and PDAs running the Windows Mobile operating system.

I’m also considering installing another Slingbox at my in-laws in New Hampshire so I can watch their TV signal here on Bonaire, kind of as a back-up of sorts (no TiVo there yet, though, but I can fix that too).

My biggest regret with the Slingbox is that I didn’t think of getting one sooner.

My next issue to solve is how to get a video signal from the output of my big screen TV in my living room to the small TV in my kitchen without running cables (my wife hates cables across the floor or ceiling). We have concrete walls, so there’s no good way to run them inside the walls. The concrete walls also effectively destroy my use of a wireless AV transmitter – those really need to be line of sight, or at least through a wood/drywall panel, not eight inches of concrete in order to have an interference free image.

However, if I wait long enough, Sling Media will be selling the SlingCatcher – a box which will let me use my network connection (wired or wireless) to receive TV input from a Slingbox either in the same building or anywhere else there’s a Slingbox I have access to.

I give the Sling Media Slingbox Pro a 9.5 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale.