Watching live sports online has come a long way in the past few years, thanks to TV Everywhere and apps like NBC Sports Extra and WatchESPN. But there are three big problems — broadcasters don't always have online streaming rights to their sports, authentication systems sometimes break, and not every pay-TV service offers authentication. For example, I have DirecTV and can't use the WatchESPN app.
With the help of a set-top box, Slingbox bypasses all that and lets you watch exactly the same content on the go that you can get at home.
You simply plug in one of the Slingbox devices to their existing cable or satellite box, run through a brief setup process, and then you can "sling" live television from the box to anywhere on the internet. Quality depends on both upload speeds at home and download speeds on the go, but the Slingbox is smart enough to adjust quality on the fly as needed.
Sling is now owned by the same company as Dish Network, and the technology is included in that company's special Hopper set-top box, which is a nice perk for Dish users. The company also offers apps for iPhone, iPad, Android phone and tablet, Windows 8 and Windows phone, and the Kindle Fire. Apps are $15 (USD) per platform, which is a steep one-time purchase that seems like it should be included with the cost of the hardware. Video can also be watched on any newer PC with a modern web browser.
The Slingbox uses infrared repeaters to act as a "remote control" for the satellite or cable box, allowing the remote viewer to change channels, pause or play when in DVR mode, or to navigate on-demand menus. For my DirecTV box, the SlingPlayer iPad and web browser apps even show an exact replica of the actual DirecTV remote (Figure A).
Replica of the actual DirecTV remote.
The biggest benefit of the Slingbox is to fans of live sports and news. Because you're getting your regular broadcast, you can watch local sports teams on their regional channels, plus news channels like CNBC, CNN, Fox News — all of which aren't typically available for mobile or online streaming.
For other networks like ESPN and HBO, which typically require authentication to view live content, it's as easy as changing the channel.
There are several downsides, however. For one, when the Slingbox is in use, it effectively takes control of whatever cable or satellite box it's hooked up to. So, if you use it with the box connected to your living room TV, whatever the Slingbox user is watching is also what's shown on the TV. This isn't a problem for folks who live alone, but if your significant other likes to watch NCIS the same time you're looking to watch Downton Abbey, there will be a conflict.
Second, the Slingbox itself isn't exactly cheap. There are two versions, the Slingbox 350 is $180 (USD) and has component and composite in, pass-through connections, and wired ethernet. The Slingbox 500 is $300 (USD) and includes HDMI in/out, Wi-Fi and ethernet connectivity, plus other personal media viewing options. You can purchase the Slingbox from the company's website or from Amazon.com for slightly lower prices. Of course, as I mentioned previously, that cost is in addition to the $15 mobile app.
Do you use Slingbox or another mobile app to watch TV on the go? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.