Gadgets

The Slingbox

I’m always looking for cool
ways to distribute audio and video to every place I want it.  So, when the Slingbox by Sling Media was introduced, I immediately
checked it out.  The Slingbox connects to
your cable box, DVR, TiVo, antenna, etc. and distributes the broadcast signal or
any recorded broadcasts over the Internet to any computer on which you’ve
installed the Slingbox software, Slingplayer. 
Of course, it’s all password secured so you won’t find yourself at home,
watching television one Saturday night with someone from Bulgaria
changing your channels from afar.  Once I
understood what the Slingbox did, though, my initial excitement waned.  I don’t watch much TV to begin with, so why
do I need to distribute that unused television signal (whether live or
recorded) to other locations, right? 

My friend Brad Feld thought I was missing the point.  He said something like “the Slingbox is
perfect for a geek like you.”  Since I
obviously have a reputation to live up to, I installed one the other day.  I now see what Brad means.  It’s very cool technology and works amazingly
well when you consider how much compression is going on.  Once you get the unit installed and set up,
it’s easy to set up other computers to access it on your LAN or from remote
locations.

So with everything running
on multiple computers in several locations, I thought the Slingbox was cool,
but not compelling.  That is until I
download the mobile client to my Treo 700W.
 Now we’re talkin’!.  Last night I watched the Red Sox game while
hanging out waiting for my kids – outdoors and completely un-tethered.  It’s probably not the application of the
Internet DARPA first envisioned, but I like what it’s become.  Super kewl. 
Maybe I’ll have to start watching TV now. 

Installation

While Sling Media could
hardly do a better job at making installation easier – 4 steps at a maximum and
loads of great, detailed pictures in a poster format – my installation process
had a few snags.  I’m a fairly
knowledgeable guy when it comes to audio, video and networking, so I was a
little surprised I had as much trouble as I did. 

First, for obvious reasons,
the Slingbox is a bit picky about network configuration.  This, itself, is not a problem and they try
to circumvent most issues by addressing network configuration up front.  The Slingbox doesn’t like cascaded routers or
access points, for example.  And, for
those without a uPnP router (a router that Sling’s software can configure from
the outside), you better get comfortable with how to assign a fixed IP address
to the Slingbox and open a port through your firewall.

For some reason, the network
drop I was using, which is behind a single router, connected to a switch and
another hub, gave me problems.  This
shouldn’t have been a problem and I wish I could tell you how I resolved it,
but after playing with settings and ports for about 10 minutes, it just started
to work.  My guess is that the hub is
causing the problem and if I replaced it with a switch it would permanently
resolve the issue. 

The bigger problem I had was
that I couldn’t see the DVR menus or the program guide when I pressed the
appropriate buttons on the virtual remote. 
I could see the picture and I could hear the sound, so watching live
broadcasts was not a problem, but I couldn’t get to any generated
graphics.  I am using a Motorola 6412 –
the DVR distributed by Comcast.  My
projection television is powered through the component video outputs of the DVR
and I used its S-video output for the Slingbox. 
I remembered that there was something strange with graphics only going
out the digital video channel and I verified that this is what was
happening.  When I pressed the “My DVR”
button on the virtual remote running on my computer, I could see the graphics
come up on the image from the projector in the other room.

I fooled around with the
settings in the DVR and discovered that if you set the “4:3 Override” to 480i
(480p won’t work), then the graphics will be output on the analog video channel
when the signal is analog.  Thus, it
appears in the image generated by the Slingplayer software on your computer.  The downside of this solution is that if you
are watching a hi-def channel via the Slingbox, you won’t be able to see the
graphics unless you switch to an analog channel.  This is clearly an issue with the 6412 which
Motorola has apparently fixed in the latest generation of the DVR.  I’m sure people who are less willing than me
to hack at this problem are going to run into it though and it seems like Sling
should hit this right up front in the documentation. 

After perusing their forums,
I did find an entry for this problem here.

With the problems I had, the
Bower Factor for the Slingbox install is about 4. 
That is, it’ll take you 4 times longer to install it than you think it
will; however long that is.  If you don’t
run into the type of problems I did, or you’re aware of the pitfalls ahead of
time, the Bower Factor will be, amazingly, less than 1.

4 Comments

  1. I’m guessing that most consumers just have a Linksys or similar router/hub and that’s it, so presumably it’s designed to be easy with that config.

  2. I’m guessing that most consumers just have a Linksys or similar router/hub and that’s it, so presumably it’s designed to be easy with that config.

  3. Absolutely true.  Thus the low Bower Factor.  Although a TA for a VOIP phone outside the router adds confusion and there’s more of those around as well.  The TA possibility is briefly covered in the basic docs, though.  The real issue is the connection with the DVR.  As I’m learning, there are even some downsides to the way I finally got it to work in terms of normal operation (i.e. without the Slingbox).

  4. Absolutely true.  Thus the low Bower Factor.  Although a TA for a VOIP phone outside the router adds confusion and there’s more of those around as well.  The TA possibility is briefly covered in the basic docs, though.  The real issue is the connection with the DVR.  As I’m learning, there are even some downsides to the way I finally got it to work in terms of normal operation (i.e. without the Slingbox).

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