The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune  

November, 2011 

I first became aware of Sling Media seven years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show, when this startup company was trying to convince people that their odd, unique product made sense – creating the ability for people to watch their home television from anywhere in the world on a computer. Years passed, and the greatly expanded Sling has clearly convinced people. I figured it was finally time to give them a look.

There are now a lot of other options for watching television on one’s computer anywhere – whether Hulu, Netflix or products from Hauppauge. But Sling still provides a unique way of doing it. With Sling, you’re not just watching television online, you’re literally watching your home TV, meaning that you can access your favorite local programs live (for instance, home sports teams or news), as well as record and watch programming on your home DVR.

Know, too, upfront that you need to have high-speed Internet (streaming video would be much too slow over anything less), and a router for making a Wi-Fi connection. Since the device is intended to let you access your TV signal over the Internet, the only way this can be done is by connecting it to your personal home network. Most homes today do have a router, but if you don’t – a) you’ll have to get one, or b) stop reading here.

So, we enter the world of Sling Media to see how it stacks up.

SLINGBOX PRO-HD 

Sling Media offers several options in its product line, but for most people the choice will be between the Slingbox Pro-HD and the Slingbox Solo. The main differences are at the Pro-HD allows for watching in high definition, provides for connecting multiple A/V devices (like a DVR, game console, and DVD player) and retails for $300. Also, because it includes an internal tuner, you can set up the Slingbox Pro-HD so that someone at home can watch the TV while a remote user watches standard cable. The Solo is standard definition, has a single connection for your television, and one channel can be watched locally and remotely at the same time – and the retail price is $180. (There’s an addendum to the price issue, but more on that later.)

(Important note: just because you have a DVD player doesn’t mean you have to plug it into the Slingbox. You’d only do that if you want to be able to record/play a DVD remotely. Your DVD player will work normally plugged in as it is now, without any reconnecting.)

There’s a major caveat here that has to be mentioned up front. Sling Media has been around since 2004. It’s a successful company with a popular product. If the product didn’t work, it wouldn’t be around. So, it does work – it just didn’t work properly for me, because of a unique known issue (or semi-known) in my case. I’ll get into that more later, but since the product does work for most of the inhabited universe, I’ll go ahead with reviewing it. After all, I was able to get the Slingbox set up and running. It’s just at that point, it didn’t want to play nice with my system. The company did get me configured with another set up, so I could see it running properly. And I’ll get into that, as well, so you’ll be able to see the Slingbox working properly. But for now, we’ll return to the world of the Slingbox working as its creators intended.

Before getting into how the Slingbox actually works in operation, it’s important to deal with setting the device up, because that’s half the battle for some people. If it’s too convoluted, after all, it won’t be worth the bother.

Rest assured, then, that setting up a Sling Box isn’t too convoluted. In fact, it’s fairly easy, though it might seem bewildering at first to many. But following the reasonably detailed and pretty clear Setup Guide, you shouldn’t have any difficulty (unless you’re one of the Technically Lost. In which case, call your nephew…) Most of the challenge is that it requires a lot of bending over the back of boxes and wedging yourself behind your home theater setup. It’s a physical effort – but what you’re doing in that effort isn’t very difficult.

What you’re doing is changing your setup. If you don’t have a DVR, then it’s extremely simple, because you’re basically going directly into the TV. If you do have a DVR, however, it will be a little bit more effort. For those people, they have a cable coming into a DVR which then connects to their TV. Adding a Slingbox into that mix means unplugging and switching connecting cords around. But today, using what are called “component” or “composite” plugs (depending on your current home system, and the Slingbox package includes everything) is very simple because they are color-coded. Component plugs, for instance, are red, blue and green. A red plug connects to a red slot, a blue to a blue. Very easy. The guide tells you what to unplug and where to plug. It might sound confusing here, but honestly, when there are few options where a plug can go, it becomes far more clear when you see it in front of you.

Two quibbles with the user guide. For the most part, it’s very well written and explains things step-by-step. The initial description is to set up video for people without a DVR, and they add a note underneath for how to do things if you do have a DVR. All very good and clear. Oddly though, when describing in the same section how to set up the audio, they leave out that “DVR note.” Mind you, the process is exactly the same as with the video, and it will be clear that it’s exactly the same when you actually do it – after all, the audio plugs have to go somewhere. But there is a world of people who get utterly bewildered with technology when Every Single Step isn’t written out precisely. It wouldn’t have been difficult to add the “DVR note” under the Audio section.

Secondly, the manual is written in steps. Step 1 is for setting up an HD connection. For some odd reason, they say that Step 2 is about setting a SD (standard definition) connection. But it’s not. You would never set up one and then the other. It’s one OR the other. As a result, what is described as Step 3 (connecting the cable) is in reality just Step 2. Again, this is brain-dead easy to figure out – once you’ve set up the box, there’s nothing else to set up. So, you then connect the cable. But as said, the Technically Bewildered are literalists, following every word as written, so it could cause some moments of grief. I would have called both initial steps as Step 1 and “Alternative Step 1” or something like that.

To be clear, both these quibbles are minor, and so easy to recognize when you’re doing it. It’s just that it’s so unnecessary that they even exist.

(Important note: These quibbles would only be issues if you don’t know about them. Since you just read about them right here, you now know about them. So, they won’t be issues to people reading this. Meaning you.)

Okay, so you’ve got the Slingbox all set up. And really, it’s reasonably easy if you follow the instructions. It just takes some time and effort. Now, you have to connect your Slingbox to your home Wi-Fi network.

Here’s where that other aforementioned price matter comes in.

If your home theater is close to your router, then you don’t need anything else. You just connect the two with the included Ethernet cable. Easy. But my guess is that most people have their router in their home office or wherever their main computer is – and it’s likely that that’s not in their living room. For those people, you’re not out of luck…but you need to buy an additional piece of hardware: the SlingLink Turbo. [http://www.slingbox.com/go/slt] This is a clever way of connecting your Slingbox remotely with your router. Very easy to set up, but it will cost you an additional $150 for the 4-port version (if you’re connecting several A/V devices), or $80 if you just need a single port for a TV only.

The SlingLink Turbo is actually two small boxes. The larger of the two, you simply connect to the Slingbox by plugging the enclosed Ethernet cable into the single available slot on each. Then, the smaller Slinglink Turbo box gets plugged into your router the same way. That’s it.

Note that the company says to plug the Slingbox directly into a wall socket and not to use power strips with surge protection or a UPS device. That’s because a Slingbox has its own surge protection built in and such external power devices could interrupt data flow. From first-hand experience, I discovered that they mean it. I didn’t think my power strip had surge protection built in, but the Slingbox wouldn’t connect. After reconfiguring my plugs, all the network connections worked perfectly.

All your hardware is now set up. The only thing left is left is creating your account and setting up your Slingplayer, which is the software application that allows you to you watch the television with on your computer. This is all set up from online, and the application is installed on your computer – likely your notebook, since that’s of course the computer you’ll be taking on the road or moving around the house. (You can run the Slingplayer application from any computer in your home…or any computer you’re at, anywhere in the world, but just know you’ll have to install the free application on each one. There’s also a standalone program you can download, that runs separate from your browser, though it’s an older product that the company is no longer updating.)

The set-up process holds your hand through all the steps and is generally very easy. You configure channel input, find your cable system, enter your zip code and test to make sure the graphical “onscreen remote” (an impressive duplication of what looks like your cable system’s remote) is working properly.

For many people, this is all you need to do. You’re done. Very simple. If you plan to purchase the Slingplayer Mobile app, which lets you use your Slingbox on an iPhone/iPod, there are a few more steps. Most notably, you have to change settings on your router.

Normally, this would be a high-techie matter, having to know what to change. But the process has a network assistant “wizard” that helps immeasurably: you tell it what router you have and the model number. And then it splits the screen, with the router input area on the right, and step-by-step instructions on the left. Bingo, you’re done!

Well, you’re done unless it can’t find your router. Their database is extensive – it was able to find my lesser-known brand, something that other tech services haven’t always been able to do. But the model is old, so there was no listing for it. Instead, they helpfully provide the settings which you have to manually change on your own. That was a little bit of a challenge, and might bewilder some, but it confirmed one truism: Save your manuals! I found the one for my router and was able to resolve the issue. Know this, however: my circumstance was an uncommon one. The network assistant should work for most people.

And then it was all set up. And time to test the Slingplayer, Slingbox and SlingLink.

After logging into your account, the Slingplayer comes on screen, showing whatever is on your home TV. If the set is off, you click the “Remote” hyperlink, and that graphic remote pops on screen – and you click on it exactly the same as you would if it were the real remote. The Power button brings the TV screen up.

The picture I received was crystal clear and generally was quite smooth. Occasionally, there was some slight buffering, where the image would freeze for a second or two.

There are several options, including Zoom and Aspect. One particularly nice option is Menu, which brings up your channel guide – if you click on a program that is currently broadcasting, the Slingplayer software will jump to it. You can watch the Slingplayer in a small screen that gives you access to other options, as well as direct access to your computer – or make it full screen, or even choose to put the screen in a pop-up window so that you can work on your computer while watching the Slingplayer. The pop-up screen lets you change its window size so that it won’t get in your way. All the options are available in this view, and you can also select to Always Show the remote. The only important thing missing is that you can’t select the window to stay on top. If you click anywhere on the screen, it’ll disappear.

The buttons on the graphic remote weren’t as responsive as I’d like – I had to double-click some options, and occasionally it would only recognize two digits if a channel had three, and I’d have to re-click repeatedly – but (except for changing channels) it works well. I was able to navigate everything. This includes accessing the DVR and getting all the shows that had been recorded there.

It’s worth noting that this “response” issue with the remote channels might be related to the aforementioned glitch I had. Or not. But in a later set-up, a completely different remote oddly appeared on screen, and it worked perfectly. (It wasn’t the correct model, so a couple commands were missing, but everything there was completely responsive and worked exactly as it should.)

At this point, it’s time to bring up The Glitch. As I said above, the picture displayed in the Slingplayer was crystal clear and ran smoothly. Unfortunately, my browser kept crashing, generally within 10 minutes. A few times I was able to run it up to an hour, but no longer. I tried it with different browsers (Firefox and Internet Explorer), and also tried it on a friend’s computer. It crashed every time. They sent me a new Slingbox – and that crashed, as well. So, the problem wasn’t the hardware.

And it wasn’t even precisely the software, because (and here’s perhaps the oddest part of all) I was able to get Slingplayer to run – sort of. Not my own account, but the press department gave me access to a demo account, which I logged into. And this ran wonderfully. The picture was clean, everything worked properly, and I had it going for several hours without a single hiccup. (I couldn’t test the DVR recording feature, because the demo account was linked to another distant system – but I did get to test the DVR on my own set up before it would crash, and the process worked just as it should.)

To Sling Media’s credit, they put in a great deal of time trying to figure this out, but were utterly bewildered by it. The problem was that this is a very rare glitch, so they didn’t have any data to compare it to. (It’s what I refer to as the “Why me, Lord?” Syndrome.) After a couple months of working hard testing the problem, they finally discovered a few other customer reports belatedly cropping up with a similar issue. So, at the time of writing, the engineering department is investigating further. But because the problem is so rare, they’re basically starting from scratch.

Does this mean you should avoid looking into a Slingbox? Not at all. As I said, the company has been around with a successful product. And this was such an uncommon problem that the company hadn’t even seen it. What it means though is that if you do decide to get a Slingbox – make sure you clarify up front that you can return it if you run into the same problem. You shouldn’t run into it. But obviously, it could happen. If it does, you’ll know right away.

Clearly, the Slingbox works for most of the world. And from my experience – when it worked (particularly with the demo account) – it worked extremely well, and is a valuable, even terrific product. But because I had such an odd, rare experience, I can’t help but add a caveat. You shouldn’t have the same problems I did. But you could. Keep your receipt.


TWW Notes 

  • A significant power drain of the new Apple iPhone 4S has been reported in England, and the UK’s Guardian has determined the glitch and a temporary fix. The culprit, it turns out, is the “Setting Time Zone” feature that automatically determines if you’ve moved to another time zone and sets the clock accordingly. By simply switching the setting off, you should be able to return your iPhone 4S to normal power. The downside is that you’ll have to manually change your time setting if you travel to a different time zone. This shouldn’t seem to be the remotest problem for most people until a patch is created.
  • Samsung Electronics overtook Apple for shipment of smartphones in the third quarter of 2011. Samsung now has 23.8 percent of the global market (up from only 9.3 percent a year ago) compared to Apple’s 14.6 percent share. Nokia has just released its first Windows Phones, the Lumia 800 and 710, with the new platform (code-named Mango), though it’s currently available only in Europe.

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article. 

Copyright 2011, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved. 

Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He also writes writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. A screenwriter, he served for five years as a member of the WGA, West website editorial board and Editorial Advisory Committee.