Review: Slingbox lets you watch TV from anywhere

The Slingbox is one of those gadgets that you never knew existed, but once you learn about you've just gotta get. A "place-shifting" device, the diminutive box simply hooks up to your TV and lets you watch it from anywhere with an Internet connection. Not just a few channels or a few shows, but your TV, including full access to your DVR, OnDemand services, and Pay-per-View. However, how well does it work? It's a great idea and all, but if it's a horror to set up and provides choppy, unwatchable video then it's not worth the plastic it's made from. In order to test it out I brought a new Slingbox AV up to my parents' place in New Hampshire and hooked it up to their DVR cable box with my dad. Then, upon returning to New York City, I took the interface for a spin to see how well I could watch my beloved Patriots from a few hundred miles away.

Hooking up the Slingbox is a breeze for the most part. Upon hooking it up to your TV or cable box and to your home network, it automatically assigns itself an IP address and is easy to find using the included SlingPlayer software. The only issues we had setting it up involved needing audio splitter cables so the Slingbox could share the audio-output jacks on the back of the cable box. It would be helpful if just a note about this potential issue was included in the documentation, but overall it's a minor gripe.

Slingbox: Found
As I said, the Slingbox was easily detected by the software once it was hooked up. The software is a cinch to install, and once it's up and running, you'll automatically see a list of Slingboxes for you to choose from on your home network. We only had one, obviously, so the choice was easy. Once you choose your Slingbox you can set it up with a password so nearby mooches can't steal your cable via the Internet.

You tell the software what model cable box you have it plugged into so it can replicate your box's remote control on your computer screen. One cool feature of the software is the fact that it replicates your remote exactly, so you can use all the same buttons you're used to… in theory, at least. The remote that came up for our Motorola cable box/DVR was missing some essential DVR-control buttons, forcing us to go through the SlingPlayer's pulldown menus to select shows to record and whatnot. A list of remotes allowing you to choose the proper one when this issue arises would be a really great touch.

Going Long
Watching TV via the Slingbox is a pleasure. The video quality is great if you're on the same network as the Slingbox, and you have the added bonus of getting to mess with whoever's in the living room by changing the channels or pausing the TV. This is good news for my dad, who gets to watch the news while up in his home office, but what about when you're actually using it over the Internet? I installed the Slingbox software on my laptop and headed back to NYC to see how well it works over long distances.

Finding the Slingbox from off the network wasn't an issue; once the Slingbox is in your list, it stays there, allowing you to select it from wherever you are. After a few seconds of choppy buffering, the signal came in, albeit a bit fuzzy. To be fair, the decrease in quality probably has as much to do with the fact that I was connecting wirelessly to my infernal Speakeasy DSL connection (but that's for another review) as it does with the Slingbox, so I was impressed with the fact that it was streaming smoothly and wasn't stopping to buffer ever 30 seconds.

My roommate and I were able to watch the Patriots get embarrassingly defeated by the Colts on Sunday Night Football, and the picture (despite the lousy connection) was clear enough to read the score on the bottom of the screen and tell what was going on. Oftentimes we would need to wait for Madden to fill us in on whether or not a pass was caught, but that's a lot better than listening on the radio or refreshing ESPN.com every 30 seconds.

At the End of the Day…
Overall, the Slingbox is a brilliant device. It gives your TV functionality you never before imagined it could have and does what makes a good device a great one: it changes the way you use your television. Why stress about setting the TiVo to record Lost? You can just do it later when you get to the office. Despite a couple little blips when we set it up, anyone should have no problem getting the Slingbox up and running and they should be able to use it within minutes of taking out of the box. I think my dad said it best when I asked him what he thought of it, so we'll let him wrap it up for us. Take it away, pops: "Overall I think it's an awesome device. I can keep CNN on in the corner of my desktop in the office; watch TV with Mom while on the road or wherever. What's not to like? Even for an old man like me, this is way cool!"