Not long ago, I bid farewell to the flood-damaged farmhouse in Longmont, Colo. and moved on to greener, less swampy pastures. Despite the stress of moving and the fact that there are still boxes everywhere, there’s a lot to love about the new digs – a neat old Victorian surrounded by gardening space and fruit trees.
And the best part? I’m back on the cord!
One of the first orders of business at the new house, even before the moving truck pulled in the driveway, was to get Comcast service up and running. After the ultra-slow (<5 Mbps) DSL service at the farm, I was beside myself with joy when I saw this:
So how does the “cord-cutting” experience change now that I’m back on the cord?
For starters, I can watch streaming video and download software simultaneously – at the farm, this same challenge caused everything to grind to a halt for 5 or 10 minutes.
I also don’t see nearly as much buffering — there’s some, of course, but it’s generally limited to when I first start playing a piece of content. For example: Slingplayer, whether on my iPad or another device, will now keep playing without dropping the connection for hours on end (at the farm, Slingplayer would lose sight of the Slingbox at the lab at least once an hour, and every 5 minutes if I was watching something particularly interesting).
I expected to see some improvements in terms of video quality, but found it to be about the same as at the farm. Slingplayer works without interruption, but only in the SD or Auto settings – if I change the picture quality to HD, it’s full of skips and starts just like at the farm.
And the same can be said for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus, regardless of whether I’m streaming to a Roku, Apple TV, or Chromecast. I can’t say that the picture quality is noticeably sharper than it was on an ultra-slow DSL connection. What I do notice is that videos play smoothly at the new house, with virtually no “buffer breaks” (which, like commercial breaks, were a good time to grab a snack. Now I have to pause the video).
This underscores the fact that our OTT devices are really good at handling streaming video, even when the connection is less than optimal. At the farm, even at <5 Mbps, the video generally looked pretty sharp and the buffer breaks were manageable when using a streaming device connected to my TV. The main difference now that I’m on a 50 Mbps connection is that videos load much faster, and I very rarely see buffering in the middle of a piece of content.
Aside from the faster connection, the biggest difference with my new setup is that I can easily get local channels with an antenna. Finally!
You may recall that I spent hours moving a huge high-powered antenna all over the farmhouse, and tripping over coax in the hallways, only to find I STILL couldn’t get all the major over-the-air networks. When I connected the dinky little Boxee antenna to a TV at the new house, it immediately picked up ~35 channels, including ABC and NBC, two that I tried in vain to pick up at the farm. Of course, I can get those channels (and more) through my cable service, but the rarely used upstairs TV doesn’t warrant its own cable box. And now that Aereo has shut down its service in Denver for the time being, the timing couldn’t be better.
It’s good to be on the cord again. The fast Internet and cable TV feel downright luxurious after doing without for years, and I’m excited to finally be able to explore some of the other technologies that are making their way into homes. Now that we’re in the time of home automation and connected bike helmets, I’m glad to be back on the cable loop.
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.