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.
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.