Cable at the Farm (well, sort of)
With winter approaching in Colorado, and a long commute between the farm and the lab, we recently added a Slingbox to the mix, so that I can access the lab’s Comcast/TiVo set-top box from home.
A Slingbox allows you to view and control your set-top box from outside your home network. It’s not new — the Slingbox SOLO we’re running in the lab is virtually unchanged for the past 3 years.
Naturally, Slingbox just released its first new hardware since 2009 – one week after we ordered the SOLO. But after looking at the specs and initial reviews, we’re not convinced it’s worth the trouble and price difference to exchange it for a newer model.
STILL NO WIFI? REALLY?
The main reason for this is that the new Slingbox 350 STILL DOESN’T HAVE WIFI. For a device that costs $180, this is absurd. The higher-end 500 does include WiFi, however, at $300, it costs 3x what we paid for the SOLO. (Uh, thanks, but we’ll just get another $50 router.)
The new Slingbox devices also both have an HDMI port, but still recommend using component in addition to HDMI when connecting to a set-top box. Why? HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection.)
In a nutshell, an HDCP device (the TiVo Premiere is one example) checks the receiving device to make sure it’s HDCP-compliant before transmitting video through the HDMI port. Because Slingbox devices are not HDCP-compliant, some or all of the channels may be restricted when connecting via HDMI, depending on your set-top box.
Slingbox uses an IR blaster to send signals through the IR sensor on your set-top box, controlling it just as your normal remote control does. (Hint: if you don’t know where your IR sensor is, just shine a flashlight at the front of your set-top box.)
You can access a Slingbox from a variety of devices. There’s a $15 Slingplayer app for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices; there are free web apps for Mac/PC, Boxee Box, and Google TV (buried within the Spotlight app.)
In practice, it turns out that watching cable TV through a Slingbox carries many of the same challenges as streaming OTT video — at least with my download speeds, which hit about 4.6 Mbps on a good day.
When I’m watching Hulu, for instance, there’s no way to fast-forward through commercial breaks. That’s by (their) design. On the Slingbox, it’s technically possible to watch time-shifted content, including fast-forwarding through advertisements — but doing so is almost always a losing prospect.
Why: Because each time I press a button through the Slingplayer app, the signal has to travel from my device at the farm to the Comcast set-top in the lab, and back to the farm. On my connection, this lag time averages about 10 seconds (though it goes as low as 4, and as high as 30.)
As a result, attempting to fast-forward through commercials usually lands me smack in the middle of the next commercial break, having skipped through at least 15 minutes of content while waiting for the “Play” command to kick in. The same thing happens when I try to rewind, and I end up in the commercial break before where I started. One step forward, two steps back.
This lag time also means that browsing VOD and the program guide isn’t worth the trouble. The mobile app does have a built-in program guide, but will run you $15 (on top of what you paid for the Slingbox hardware.)
As for video quality, it’s passable but not great. The Slingplayer app allows you to choose video quality manually (from the options “Basic,” “Good,” “Better,” and “Best” – “Best” is disabled at my internet speeds.) It also allows you to test your connection speed within the app (my Internet to SlingPlayer speed was 3.564 Mbps; Slingbox to SlingPlayer 2.171 Mbps.)
Unlike the SlingPlayer iPad app, the free apps for Boxee and Google TV don’t appear to do anything in the way of adaptive streaming. They do recommend a certain setting based on your current bandwidth, and by default they enable optional “video quality messages,” meaning that whenever your bandwidth isn’t sufficient the SlingPlayer app pops up a message recommending that you select a lower video quality.
I don’t know about you, but I find that a pop-up message alerting me every time my bandwidth drops is super helpful and not at all annoying!
On my connection, I can choose “Better” or “Good” video quality with occasional interruptions to the video stream (especially when I download a file or send an email,) or I can choose “Basic” video quality and enjoy uninterrupted video. Since most of my TV watching tends to fall under “background noise,” this is an easy choice.
“How about that picture?”
I will say that the Slingbox really proved useful during the second presidential debate. I was watching over-the-air HD coverage on the Boxee Box, on one of the few channels that comes in crystal clear — until the wind started blowing. I pulled up the Slingplayer app on my iPad, and –voila!- it picked up right at the point where I lost reception.
Even with the sub-par picture and occasional choppiness, live cable TV at the farm is a novelty. As someone who’s normally limited to just a handful of local channels through my Boxee antenna dongle, I’m pretty easy to please.