Technology Tuesday: My Love/Hate Affair with Slingbox

Slingbox has been around for quite sometime now. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that it is a broadband connected device that takes your audio & video input and pushes it across the internet for remote access via desktop, laptop or mobile device.

Sling has produced several versions over the last few years and currently offers two models: The ‘Slingbox Solo’ ($179) and the ‘Slingbox Pro-HD’ ($299). The Pro-HD, as the name implies, is able to stream High Definition sources. Additionally, it has a built-in tuner offering an ability to stream without interfering with anyone viewing at home.*

[Slingbox Pro-HD]

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The Good

There’s much to love about Sling. Conveniently, unlike most electronics nowadays, the devices are packaged with literally every cable you could possibly need. As the box needs to be connected to your Internet source, an ethernet cable is included, as well as a myriad of audio and video cables to connect practically any combination of devices.

The HD quality that Sling offers is stunning. I most often use Sling for catching sports events of my hometown teams when I am traveling. I can go full screen on my laptop and the picture quality is perfect. Likewise, the audio is pristine. The controls are snappy and everything works nearly flawlessly most of the time. Literally, you have the same level of command, quality and performance if you were home in front of your TV.

The onscreen remotes to control your device (most typically your DVR or cable set-top box), perfectly match the physical device that you are accustomed to using. There is nothing worse than getting a Universal Remote and then trying to figure out where all your commands and buttons are. The remote can easily be toggled on/off screen and positioned anywhere you want. In a nutshell: It couldn’t be any easier or more intuitive watching your home tv on your computer.

[TiVo onscreen remote]

Being able to watch your TV from anywhere in the world is a pretty awesome use of technology. I only use my Slingbox periodically, but when there is something compelling that I want to watch live, I am always thankful for Slingbox. I used to get nervous booking travel near playoff games for fear that I’d be on a flight during a critical game. No longer a problem with in air WiFi and Slingbox.

However, despite a relatively easy setup, great video quality, no ongoing fees and very good user interface, there are many things you should be aware of before you plop your money down and buy Slingbox.

I speak from experience as this Pro-HD is now my fifth box. I initially purchased a device from Craiglist for $50 and was immediately stoked at how well it worked. But, a couple of months later it completely failed. I figured the previous owner may not have treated it properly and wrote it off a bad luck. A few months passed and despite only having a working Slingbox for a short period of time, I greatly missed having it, so I bought one at full retail price. However, right after this one fell out of warranty (1 year), the IR blaster port stopped working making it impossible to change channels and rendering it useless. To Sling’s credit: they did replace it free of charge with a refurbished unit even though I was out of warranty. Frustratingly, when this unit arrived, it too did not work and had to be swapped out yet again. And, less than a year later, same issue: failed IR blaster port.

Four Slingboxes. Four failures. Not a good track record and indicative of poor build quality. I decided I had had enough and wasn’t going to buy another Sling for some time. Recently, I had the opportunity when a power surge left several of my electronics fried. I figured with insurance, now was a good time to buy another Sling as it was a new model, has been almost two years since previous purchase and many issues must have been resolved by now.

Sadly, I was completely mistaken. First off, my Slingbox couldn’t be detected on the network. After troubleshooting everything I could think of on my end, I called technical support. It took two phone calls and 60 minutes at which point the tech asked me to read the maker of the AC wall power supply that it came with. He informed me that they were having issues with this power supply and it wasn’t giving the box enough juice to power the networking.

Solution should be easy right? I just dropped $300 on a defective piece of merchandise, so surely that power supply would be over-nighted to me…correct? No. They had to put it on the slow boat: 7-10 days! Outrageous. I thought of returning it to Best Buy and getting a replacement, but of course, I could also be saddled with another faulty supply.

It is frustrating not to have the information on Slingbox website under trouble shooting section. I wasted two hours trying to get the box to work when it could and should have been a five minute diagnosis.

Other BAD things about Slingbox:

  • I was fully expecting Sling to have HDMI support now. I was shocked when I opened the box that HDMI is still not an option which would make setup easier and quicker for most people.
  • Why no Chrome? Again, I keep expecting Chrome support but doesn’t seem like this is on the to-do list. It is frustrating not to have one of the world’s most used browsers supported, making it necessary to fire up another browser if Chrome is your default choice.
  • * Remember that asterisk from the built-in tuner? There’s a catch. I ponied up the extra money for the Pro not only for the HD ability, but also for the additional tuner. I wanted to be able to change channels without potentially interfering with anyone if they were already watching at home. But since the coaxial cable goes into the Sling and then into the set-top cable box, the signal is still scrambled coming into the Sling. So the catch is, if your cable needs a set top box to unscramble signal (gross majority of cable providers), the extra tuner is completely worthless to you. So you need to remember: If you try to Sling and there are people at home watching the same TV, you will have some angry people in the house.
  • Slow updates. Don’t expect lighting quick fixes for bugs and enhancements to both physical product and software. Sling is notoriously slow in pushing any updates.
  • No built in WiFi. Roku does it for $79. Boxee offers it as does practically every other device that connects to the internet nowadays. Why can’t Sling figure out how to do this economically and operationally? You don’t always have an ethernet jack available in the room that you want to setup your Sling. Of course, you could use powerline networking, and Sling even sells their own branded solution called SlingLink. This sets you back another $100 or so.
  • No learning remotes. Sling supports thousands and thousands of devices. Chances are: your cable box or DVR is supported. But, in the off chance that it isn’t: you are shit out of luck. If Sling can’t offer you up the appropriate remote, you can’t operate it because there is still no way to teach a default remote commands like any universal remote can. This doesn’t seem like an enhancement that would be very difficult but something Sling has chosen to avoid.
  • Only one viewer at a time. I understand limiting viewers in some way, and a need to keep Big TV happy, but one is an insufferable limit. It would be great to have two kids in a car each able to watch the same video source from separate devices…or two people with laptops enjoying the game.
  • Horrible customer support. Most phone calls are dealt with by someone whose entire knowledge base about the product consists of, “Please hit the reset button”. To boot: the calls are barely audible and seem like you are talking to someone through a string and a tin can (oh, and of course no command of the English language is required either to work for Sling).

The Ugly

  • Software Cost. While you can watch your Slingbox from your computer’s browser for free, the mobile apps price is exorbitant. To add insult to injury, after ponying up $30 for the app, be prepared to drop ANOTHER $30 if you want to watch from your tablet. Yup. That’s right – two separate apps that must each be purchased for device specific use. That’s gouging, pure and simple.
  • Limited Browser Support. I listed no Chrome support earlier, but in reality, the issue is much deeper. Using a company provided laptop with Windows XP and no ability to upgrade? Too bad, no Slingbox for you. Using Mac 10.5 Leopard? Too bad, no Slingbox for you. Using Opera? Too bad, no Slingbox for you. I understand suggested browsers and a limited amount to offer technical support for, but Sling flat out will not work when using a non-supported browser.
  • Sluggish mobile performance. In the past, using SlingPlayer on mobile devices, I’ve never had a mobile device with 3G or even very good processing speed. So, I always chalked up the glitches to my device and not the software. But, now, with a blazing fast device and top notch data speeds, I still experience plenty of issues with the mobile software. Sometimes it is painfully slow to connect, while other times the video freezes while the audio continues perfectly. Responses to remote commands take exponentially longer than the web interface. It just feels terribly sluggish. Yet, once you do get a stream going, the audio and video quality is quite good.
  • Phone support is only 90 days. This is an extremely tiny window that you have from purchase to speak to someone without being gouged on a per-incident basis for support. With a highly technical device like this, with many potential points of failure, this is simply not long enough. Especially given Sling’s track record for shaky long-term build quality, this doesn’t cut it. Maddeningly, what is one supposed to do with a failed item after 90 days but before the 1 year warranty expires? That’s right! You need to PAY $50 to take advantage of your 1-Year warranty. So go ahead and tack on fifty bucks to the purchase price, you’ll likely need it.
  • New units will fail at a relatively high percentage rate. When this happens, even in the initial couple weeks of owning, Sling will happily swap out your box. BUT: they send you a refurbished unit. How is that fair? Shouldn’t you get a brand spanking new unit if your new one didn’t last but for a couple weeks? This is a horrendous business practice.

Bottom Line.
Despite some critical issues, molasses slow development, faulty equipment and a gouge in software price…I still do love much about Slingbox. The web interface is nearly flawless and the quality of the video streams are phenomenal. I have my fingers crossed that this Sling will last longer than my previous ones. And come to think of it: I really should have included the SlingPlayer app in my list of indispensable travel apps. With Sling, across the country or across the world, you are still close to home.

While the Sling Box $179 or $299 suggested retail price is reasonable, don’t forget: you need an ethernet connection at your box location which may cost you $100 or so to remedy if it is not. Also, $30 apps are expensive if you plan on using the mobile players. Don’t expect it to last forever and plan on forking over more dough if things go South.

Fostex AR4i Update

A couple of weeks ago, we highlighted an iPhone 4 audio recording device, Fostex AR4i. A faithful and longtime Hidden track reader won this device and wrote us:

I wanted to write and follow up on my experience and share with you the results of my first experiment with the device.

Last night I attended the Blitzen Trapper/Dawes double bill at the Fox Theater in Boulder, Colorado. A friend of mine, and the former sound man for Widespread Panic (1991-1996) Wes Delk, was running sound for Dawes and I met him at the theater for soundcheck and then dinner. Dawes ended up soundchecking the JGB standard I’ll Take  Melody. They really nailed the song and wondered if they ever played it in their set. I ended up having some drinks with Wes before the show and he told me that the lead singer and the drummer for Dawes are brothers and that their father was in Tower of Power. That might explain the JGB connection… He also indicated that they were just screwing around with the JGB cover and it had not been included in their setlist to his knowledge.

In any case, I was allowed to stand and record next to the soundboard and got much of the Blitzen Trapper set before the batteries in the Fostex started to die. (I didn’t change the batteries before the show, ROOKIE MOVE!) I recorded using the mics that the AR4i shipped with. Listen to the videos on YouTube in the 720 HD setting and you’ll hear that the sound the Fostex is able to pull is actually quite amazing!

Given that it has the ability to record either from mics OR from a line in AND you have the ability to power the iPhone (through a USB port in its base) this is a very versatile recording device. 

Here’s a playlist of the best videos….

[One of Ted’s videos from Blitzen Trapper]

Thanks for the feedback Ted! Agreed! Your sound is amazing. Deep, booming bass, crisp highs, and general great quality.
____________________________________________________________
Hidden Track Technology Tuesday
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Have an idea for an article? Product, app, or web service you are passionate about? Feel free to get in touch with me.

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4 Responses

  1. This is food for thought… I’ve often wanted a Slingbox. Was at a ballgame once and guy next to me had it on his phone. Would watch replays and listen in on some commentary periodically during game which I thought was cool… but the reliability thing makes me pause. Thanks for the recap though, it was helpful in learning a bit more of the pros and cons.

  2. The one viewer limitation is strange. Since the Slingbox uploads to the internet, shouldn’t you be able to connect to it directly by going to the IP address and not through any Sling servers? I sure would hope so both (1) so that Sling isn’t able to track everything you watch and (2) if Sling goes out of business you can still use your device by connecting directly to it. Let’s face it, the bottom line is that this is a piece of stand-alone hardware. All that should be required is an internet connection and a software to run it – there should be no involvement from Sling other than providing the initial software download, or giving it on a CD.

  3. Ben- I don’t think it goes through Sling- though I could be wrong. I think this is a limitation built in to appease the networks and rights owners. Dicey world “place shifting” still is to this day.

  4. Where exactly is it “built in?” The Slingbox firmware? If that’s the case, shouldn’t there be a setting somewhere to adjust that? Not familiar with “place shifting.” What’s that?

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