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The 3UK Slingbox road-test!

FW: Slingbox Review!!!

Back in August I reviewed 3’s X-Series tariffs , the ‘unlimited data‘ add-on for contract customers bundled with a range of applications , and rather liked them.

However, I wasn’t able to test the Slingplayer Mobile application and was dubious about its value a part of the more expensive Gold tariff. This option, costing double the basic price at £10 per month in the UK, allowed unlimited streaming of media to an X-Series handset from a PC (via the Orb software package) or from a Slingbox ‘place-shifting’ device. Well, the nice folks from Parys Communications sorted us out with one to borrow and now I’m eating some humble pie…

For those not in the know, a Slingbox is a small electronic box of tricks shaped similar to a bar of gold (or so I believe from watching the ‘Italian Job’). It contains both an analogue and a Freeview (DVB-T) tuner, but can also be connected to a set-top box (for cable or satellite TV). It then connects to your broadband service and allows streaming of whatever is being watched or any channel from its internal tuners to PCs, PDAs and now Symbian phones so you can watch them away from home (hence ‘place-shifting’).

Usefully the Slingbox also provides an infrared transmitter that knows how to control most popular set-top boxes, DVD players and the like so channels can be changed, menus can be operated and recordings started and stopped remotely too. 3 were the first network in the world to introduce the Symbian client coupled with unlimited streaming over 3G and it wasn’t until almost a year later in October this year that Sling made the client generally available.

Setting up the Slingbox is easy, even with the spaghetti of cables under my TV the instructions had me hooking it up to my Sky box in 5 minutes with all the various cables needed included. An annoyance I hadn’t anticipated was that the Slingbox requires a wired connection to your broadband router so I had to move that closer to my TV (Homeplug-type devices can work around this – Sling even sell their own), but otherwise it worked straight away.

Once connected to my home network and switched on, I loaded the PC client and configured its network settings. Again this worked first time and I was able to start watching and controlling TV on my PC. Exciting as this was though (read reviews here, here, here for more on its basic features) I wanted TV on my mobile and moved straight on to my N73 handset to download the Slingplayer Mobile application from 3’s portal.

On running the application for the first time I entered the details of the Slingbox I wanted to view (the application can remember several if you have more than one) including a long number and letter sequence that I had written down during the initial PC-based config. Then I hit ‘start’ and held my breath… Around 10 seconds later the client indicated it was connected and starting to stream. Another 20 seconds or so passed and then voila! TV… on my phone. I threw on a hands-free kit to get the best out of the sound and settled in for a play…

FW: Slingbox Review!!!

I’m not sure what I expected, but the quality was simple amazing. I would have believed it over a WiFi connection, but over 3G streaming from my ropey home broadband? Wow. Although I had the option to switch it off I also left the sound set to highest quality stereo and it was as good as listening to FM radio on the device. I was astounded. Control of my Sky box was slick too… the client received the configuration of the set-top box I had entered on my PC earlier and through a ‘remote control’ menu I was able to access all of the features of my Sky box including the menus – the options appeared to have been customised for my device. Intuitively the mini-joystick on the phone controlled channels and menus as if using my remote control and I selected a couple of buttons I used regularly to add to a shortcut bar.

FW: Slingbox Review!!!

Showing colleagues at work many wouldn’t believe the video wasn’t being played from a memory card.

However, sat at home or in the office I already had access to TV when I wanted it so I set about testing it properly… on the move. I figured the train was as good a place as any. As a rule, anywhere with a reasonable 3G signal was absolutely fine, but there was nothing doing on 2G. On a 20 minute journey into Waterloo the picture would stutter on 2 or 3 occasions, but even if lost completely it recovered well without intervention after 10 seconds or so. One problem tunnel where only a 2G signal is available routinely caused the connection to fail, but otherwise I was surprised by its reliability. Off public transport and sat in coffee shops or waiting for an appointment the experience was much the same as at home – seamless. The picture was sharp, the sound was stereo and always synchronised with the picture and even text was crisp and clear (if not a bit small).

FW: Slingbox Review!!!

Although greatly impressed there were a few areas for improvement… The free Slingbox client that 3 gives away presents the image across the width of the phone’s display. This felt like a real waste of screen space as my N73 turned sideways has an almost wide-screen aspect. I eventually solved this by downloading the newer, generally-available client from the Sling website. Although not free (£20) it adds this crucial feature and allows the image to be scaled to fill the screen or displayed fully with letterboxing. However, it is a shame that 3 have not updated their client. Another cause for complaint was the start-up speed of the connection. This varied depending on signal and was a little slower on the move – at it’s slowest (over a minute from clicking ‘start’ to viewing an image) it was frustrating and particularly so if re-connecting after one of the rare disconnections. However, my biggest complaint doesn’t really relate to the Sling product at all… it’s TV.

There’s nothing on. Well, nothing worth watching….

The problem is that I normally only sit down to watch TV when something I want to watch is on. Having mobile TV was great but at 8am on the train into work all I could watch was painful breakfast TV… It was at this point that it dawned on me why so much attention to detail had been put into the remote control features. A Slingbox really is at its best paired with a DVR such as a Sky+ box. I went home, re-wired and configured the Slingbox to work with my hard-disk recorder (no Sky+ in my flat!) and bingo… telly nirvana. With the ability to watch shows I wanted from disk, to pause them when I was interrupted and rewind TV if the signal dropped the Slingbox was complete. Rather than being something to idly fill the time, I looked forward to commuting to catch up with the previous night’s Sopranos. On other occasions I’d watch live TV on the train home, pause it at the station and finish the program on the TV once I arrived. ‘Showing off’ my girlfriend called it, but she always says that when she’s impressed…
So would I recommend a Slingbox and Slingplayer Mobile? Absolutely I would – particularly if you’re a regular traveller. But there’s another factor to consider too… the price. Although not making much effort to publicise it, 3 offer a free Slingbox to Gold tariff subscribers. These normally cost about £95 from internet retailers, but if you intend to subscribe to Silver tariff anyway upgrading to Gold for an 18 month contract will only cost an additional £90. That’s pretty good value for a Slingbox and unlimited media streaming in my book.

Update: Since I started this review Sling have released 2 new products in the UK – primarily adding High Definition features. The original model is now referred to as the ‘classic’ but continues to be available for sale and free from 3. Although I haven’t tested them, reports indicate the new models are compatible with the Symbian client, but that there is no noticeable improvement in quality of mobile experience – that requires a PC or Mac client.

By Ben Smith

Ben is an expert on enterprise mobility and wireless data products. He has been a regular contributor to Mobile Industry Review since 2007 and is also editor of Wireless Worker.

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