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Friday, November 2, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 p.m.

New Slingbox a nice device for a passing era

By Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News

When Sling debuted the Slingbox in 2004, “place-shifting” was revolutionary.

These days, the place-shifting revolution — watching TV just about anywhere — has long passed the Slingbox by. Thanks to Internet-based services, including Hulu, Netflix, Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Prime and the like, you no longer need to have a special gadget like the Slingbox to view current TV shows and movies when you are away from home.

And with the advent of HBO Go and the new TV Everywhere services from pay TV providers including Comcast, you can access online much of the same programming included in your monthly cable bill at no extra charge.

Still, Sling, now owned by TV technology company EchoStar, isn’t ready to concede defeat. Earlier this month, it rolled out a pair of new Slingboxes, its first new gadgets in four years.

The new boxes add the ability to stream video in full 1080p resolution and other features. I’ve been testing the high-end model, the Slingbox 500, off and on over the past couple of weeks. I like it, but given all the place-shifting choices available today, I’m not convinced that what offers is worth its $300 price.

(Sling offers a new lower-end model, the Slingbox 350, with fewer features for a more palatable $180, but I didn’t test it.)

Sling’s main selling point for its new gadgets is the argument that they offer a much better place-shifting experience than Netflix and the others. Basically, anything that users can watch on their TV at home — broadcast sitcoms, cable dramas, live sports, shows broadcast on HBO and other premium channels — they can watch, via the Slingbox, on their smartphones or computers.

The breadth of content you can get through your cable service — and on your computer through Slingbox — is indeed far greater than what you’ll find on Netflix or any other single Internet service. It also includes programming such as that found on local channels that can be impossible to tune in online.

And beyond the cost of the Slingbox and your regular cable bill, you don’t have to pay anything extra to access the content when you’re away from home.

I was able to set up the Slingbox 500 without too many problems, but it was more complicated than the typical Internet-connected living-room box. That’s because instead of just connecting it to your TV and router, you have to connect it to your set-top box as well.

One of the great features of the new Slingboxes is they come with a built-in IR emitter. In order to control your set-top box or DVR, Slingboxes need to mimic your remote control and beam infrared signals to them.

On previous Slingboxes, this typically meant stringing an unwieldy wire of IR emitters in front of your set-top box and carefully placing them so they beamed the IR signals to just the right place. With the new box, you don’t have to worry about that.

Once I got the device up and running, it worked well. I was quickly able to view my TV programming on my computer, on my smartphone and on my iPad. I watched one of the San Francisco Giants’ playoff games on my laptop at the office via the Slingbox, and the video looked great. So too did an episode of “The Daily Show” that was streamed over the cellular network to my iPhone.

But Sling has higher aspirations for the 500 than being just an improved place-shifting device. The 500 is the first Slingbox with its own remote control and its own interface. Using the SlingPlayer app, owners can beam pictures from their phones or tablets to the Slingbox to watch them on their TV.

In the near future, users will be able to beam home movies to the Slingbox. And they’ll be able to plug in a flash or hard drive to Slingbox and stream content stored on it to their phones and computers.

These new features are welcome, and they help make the Slingbox 500 the best one I’ve tested. But right now, those features don’t go beyond those offered on far less expensive gadgets, such as the $100 Apple TV box.

And the 500 has other shortcomings. As with other Slingboxes, the person using it takes over the home TV, which can frustrate viewers at home.

And if you want to watch on-demand programs or ones stored on your DVR, you still have to contend with navigating your set-top box on-screen menus from miles away using a virtual remote. Just as in the past, this interface is awkward and slow.

But the bigger problem for the Slingbox is that place-shifting the Sling way is a solution for a passing era. Sure, there are still a few things you can’t watch online any other way. But unless you can’t live without those programs when you’re away from home — and can’t find an ordinary TV to tune them in — you can do without the Slingbox.

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