Happy Thanksgiving from your Slingbox: What’s In the Much-Needed App Refresh
On November 18th, Sling Media released an overhauled version of its SlingPlayer app for Android and iOS. With this update came a lot of features that we really like, some of which even breathe new life into some of our old “televestigial” devices.
In case you missed our first Slingbox post, or aren’t altogether sure about what a Slingbox does, you can read up on it here.
The nice folks at Sling Media sent us a Slingbox 500 after the first review. It’s a solid device with a few new features. It seems to drop the connection a bit less often than our Slingbox SOLO, but the main improvements are the built-in WiFi and ease of setup.
My main gripe with the Slingbox experience remains a tough one to fix – namely, the painfully long delay that accompanies each button press. This means that rewinding or fast-forwarding is a challenge not unlike parallel parking in a car with no brakes. And my slow broadband connection at the farm is like adding some potholes into the mix.
But enough with the holiday driving analogies. On to the latest SlingPlayer app update, which brings some sorely needed features to our fingertips.
Two screens are better than one.
Sling’s updated iPad app brings with it a second-screen experience, making it possible to control the SlingPlayer app on a whole slew of other devices. A SlingPlayer channel also landed on Roku. But (surprise, surprise) there’s a catch.
The free SlingPlayer app that populates our other streaming devices (NeoTV, WDTV, GoogleTV, and Boxee) comes with some basic controls for playing video. (I use the word “control” loosely here, as you can’t do much besides punch in channel numbers). But just keep your eye on that word “free.”
SlingPlayer for Roku doesn’t work this way. It’s free to install, but after that, you must use the SlingPlayer app on your phone to control it. (This is very Chromecast-ish, by the way.) So when you click on the Sling channel, you end up on a page telling you how to buy the SlingPlayer app for iPhone or Android. Huh?
About those mobile apps…
Ahhhh, right. Use-case stumble in the value chain that is payTV. Here’s what we mean: SlingPlayer’s mobile apps cost $15 each (yes, that’s fifteen dollars each), and are device-specific. You buy the tablet version,the phone version still costs you. And if (like us) you shelled out for the iPad version, can you use it to control your Roku? No.
But just as I was mulling over whether to purchase another app just for the Roku (again: fifteen dollars) , something buried in the iPad app settings caught my eye:
Connected device settings on iPad
You’re welcome? Anyway — yes — that’s right, now you can use the iPad app to control the SlingPlayer app on other connected devices. Who knew! Though at the time of this writing (just around Thanksgiving, 2013) you won’t find much (or anything) about it on their website or in the user forums. It took a chat with tech support before I figured out the correct sequence, but it works – quite well, actually.
Please do try this at home!
Step 1: First, log in to the SlingPlayer app, on whatever device that’s connected to your TV, and start streaming live TV.
Step 2: Open the SlingPlayer app on the iPad. Find something to watch. When you select the title, choose “Play on TV.”
Step 3: Wait for 10 to 20 seconds. Come on! You can do it!
Voila: The channel streaming on your TV will change. It did for us, anyway (we tested it on the 2nd-gen Google TV, NeoTV, WDTV Live Hub, and even the Boxee Box).
Today on FitTV, “Fabulous Cakes.” Wait, what?
This differs from the Roku implementation, in that the iPad is not talking directly to the device it’s “controlling.” It’s just changing the channel on the Slingbox, without taking over the video stream the other device is viewing. However, from your and my perspective, it’s the same general process: Select a show in the SlingPlayer app, tap “Play on TV.”
The latest version of the iOS for Slingbox app also adds AirPlay, so you can send the stream to an Apple TV as well. Bummer dude: When we tested it, the video continued playing out on the iPad screen, while the audio played out through the Apple TV. It’s an odd tug on the senses.
Other app features:
One of our favorite new things about the iPad app is the “Gallery” view. It’s an image-based guide that makes for a much easier browsing experience. The gallery view also lets you browse favorites only, if you set favorite channels (by tapping the heart icon in the guide). Favorites have long been a feature of SlingPlayer’s iPad app, but they work particularly well in Gallery view.
Gallery View on SlingPlayer for iPad
Another SlingPlayer for iPad thumbs up: Ahhh, there you are, metadata! In previous versions of the app, tapping an item in the guide would automatically tune to that channel. As people who expect guidance metadata — What show is this? What’s it about? — I had a lot of trouble with empty, trigger-happy channel changes.
The latest version of the app keeps the current channel playing when you tap an item in the guide. On the same screen real estate, it loads a description of what you’re watching, with the option to watch or record. As this is a table stakes capability we expected from the app all along, we’re glad to see it.
The updated Slingplayer for iOS apps also offer a “TV-out” feature, where you connect your mobile device to the TV using an Apple Digital AV Adapter and Component AV Cable. This is a mandatory option for Slingbox owners who travel a lot. It means you only need to pack a couple extra cables to replace the standard hotel lineup — with your own premium channels and DVR.
The growing trend toward two-screen control of our panapoly of OTT devices is a welcome one. We’ve long needed a remote control that lets you browse while you watch, controlling the TV from a handheld device. In other words, we’ve needed a cord-cutter’s version of the iPad guide apps that payTV companies rolled out years ago.
An iPhone and an Incubator
Sometimes I don’t fully understand the usefulness of things right away. Ustream, for instance. When I first heard of it, I imagined nothing beyond webcam “concerts” and talk shows filmed from somebody’s living room. (Party on, Garth.)
But now I’ve tried it, and I say Ustream is for the birds. Literally. (Never mind the other obvious use cases, such as following police scanner feeds in Boston this week.)
I live on a farm, as you may already know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. Usually, that only comes into play here when I’m explaining how I became a cord-cutter or whining about my slow DSL connection. But now, even my chickens are getting involved.
I’ve been keeping a small flock of chickens since I moved to the farm, but this year I’m hatching in an incubator for the first time, with eggs due April 26th. And in trying to learn as much as I could about the process, I found myself actually using YouTube on the AppleTV for once.
But I really made the connection when I saw a mention of a live hatch on Ustream. I tuned in, first on my iPad and then a Boxee Box, and that night I watched a stranger’s chicks hatch across the country.
As it turns out, Ustream is great for this sort of thing: a camera trained on something interesting, preferably involving baby animals.
So, naturally, I had to try it myself.
After debating various combinations of cameras, computers, and encoding options, I chose the easiest possible setup:
An old iPhone, with a paperclip kickstand.
Not surprisingly, I’ve run into a few glitches with my slow connection (~2 Mbps upstream) and have to take the camera offline whenever I want to upload photos or do anything that requires a lot of bandwidth. I didn’t honestly expect it to work at all, so I’m pretty impressed with the video quality.
My chicks will be hatching on or about April 26th. Starting today, you can find the hatch cam on my new food and photo blog The Homegrown Gourmet. (If I’m not uploading anything, that is.)
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.
Review: Amazon Instant Video on the iPad
By now you know that the iPad is my go-to device for watching TV while tackling boring household projects (because nothing puts laundry day in perspective like an episode or two of Hoarders.)
Last month, my iPad life improved all the more. Why: Amazon’s Instant Video app entered the iPad scene. The app combines content from Amazon Prime and Amazon Instant Video.
Amazon Prime costs $79/year and gets you free shipping on most stuff you buy, plus free unlimited streaming of about 25,000 TV and movie titles. Amazon Instant Video lets you rent or buy titles to watch (movies and TV.)
Like iTunes, Amazon lets you purchase or rent video content for download, and includes a “Season Pass” feature for episodic TV – with day-after viewing access.
Amazon’s Instant Video catalog offers about 120,000 TV and Movie titles for rent or purchase, though it’s not clear whether that fat number incorporates the Prime titles too (since you can also rent or purchase that same content if you’re not a Prime subscriber.)
By contrast, Netflix currently offers about 50,000 unlimited streaming titles; iTunes advertises around 75,000 titles for purchase or rental.
More content, unlimited streaming, plus this kicker: They aren’t kidding about the “Instant” part. You buy it (or rent it), you stream it. Instantly. iTunes makes you download the content to your device before watching it. Here on the farm, my DSL line tops out at about 4700 Kbps, which necessitates waiting 90 minutes or so before a typical 2-hour movie is ready to play. And even then, there’s a good chance the buffer runs out before the video ends.
Performance: Sketchy at First
How does the Amazon Instant Video app perform? A lot better now than it did initially.
When Amazon’s iPad app first came out, in the beginning of August, it lacked a search function, which really crippled the process of finding content. After finding something to watch, the video regularly paused to reload and often crashed, displaying a variety of error messages. Like this one:
And this one:
Hello, Amazon, are you out there? Not ok, ok?
I couldn’t even get through a 20-minute video without the app crashing three times. The persistent reloading (as in every few seconds) was experience-crushing. And the experience, in this case, was a particularly suspenseful episode of Breaking Bad. (Ultimately, I gave up and watched it on the Google TV. The Google TV! Can you imagine?)
This sort of issue is likely more pronounced in low-bandwidth situations (the farm, for example,) but it’s a sharp contrast to the Netflix app, which uses adaptive streaming well enough that the video almost never hangs up.
Fortunately, an early update added search functionality, and also seemed to fix a lot of those technical issues. Though the app still crashes and reloads on occasion, it’s now improved to the point being reasonably stable.
But it does beg the question: Why release an app when it’s not ready for primetime? The buffering issues are one thing, and my low bandwidth at home probably exacerbated the problem (though the app initially crashed like crazy in the lab, too, which uses cable broadband.)
The lack of a search feature, however, seems like something that should have been built and included before the app was released.
I was also a little disappointed when I realized the AirPlay icon, which I assumed would let me stream the video to my Apple TV, only streams audio from the Amazon app. So the video keeps playing on the iPad, while you get sound only from the TV. Weird, right? While I don’t find that scenario particularly useful, I do use this feature quite a bit to connect to my Jambox speaker.
Bottom line: The Amazon Instant Video app, despite its initial glitches, brings a huge selection of content to the iPad. For cord-cutters, the app makes it possible to purchase full-season and next-day access to premium shows — without the download buzzkill of Apple’s video eco-system.
While one-day-after access is a far cry from the ability to watch live TV on the iPad (as we can in the lab, with AnyPlay), Amazon still does a nice job of filling in the gaps between Hulu and Netflix. I’ll give it a B+.