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Slingbox: A cure for a nonexistent problem


I've never understood the appeal ofSlingbox, the 5-year-old device that allows people to watch their local television stations and cable channels from anywhere outside their home. It strikes me that Slingbox is a solution in search of a problem -- and may be creating one too. Soon we'll see if the public and the television industry agree.

In his Slipstream column, the New York Times' Brad Stone says EchoStar, the satellite broadcaster that bought Sling Media almost two years ago in a deal valued at $380 million, is about to launch a big push to bring Slingbox into the mainstream. The plan, Stone writes, is not only to hype the device to EchoStar's 14 million subscribers but also to coax other cable and satellite distributors to license the technology as well. Considering how many times EchoStar's Chief Executive Charlie Ergen has alienated rival media companies, I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.Ergen

Here's how Slingbox works: Plug it into your television, and when you are on the road you can access your TV on your computer through an Internet connection or on a mobile phone.

The thing is, as someone who travels frequently, I don't need to tote my TV along with me. If I'm at a hotel -- guess what! -- there is a TV right there in the room("free HBO"). If I'm with friends, they have -- you're not going to believe it -- a TV. The shows are the same wherever you go, so the idea of watching them through a connection to my own television set really doesn't seem exactly cutting edge. At a price tag ranging from $180 to $200, the Slingbox seems like a redundant luxury in the age of Hulu and iTunes.

The only programming that is different from town to town across America is local news and sports. I'm guessing that most people on the road don't miss their local news. Sports is another story, however, and if the Slingbox does gain popularity, the sports leagues will pull the plug on viewers being able to watch games outside of their hometown but quick. I know someone who lives in Washington, D.C., and accesses Red Sox games from a second home in Massachusetts through a Slingbox. If only a handful of people are doing it, the leagues will look the other way. But if it becomes widespread, local television and cable channels that shell out millions for sports rights would make a stink. Big time. 

Slingbox also touts that you can access your DVR and watch shows you've recorded. Okay, but if they're already on my DVR, I'm in no rush to watch them. I'm much more likely to travel with a bunch of movies or shows on my iTunes. 

And then there's this marketing gem from a Slingbox advertisement on its site that excitedly declares that with the device, "you can watch TV in another room in your house on the computer." Of course, if you have a TV in one room, why would you go into another room to watch it on a computer?

Since it launched five years ago, Stone notes that Slingbox has not grown beyond "a few hundred thousand technology geeks who love the cutting edge and don't mind braving the dust devils behind their entertainment centers to get there." 

And since it launched, numerous other services that don't cost $200 have popped up, so it seems more likely that the tech geeks will move on before the mainstream starts demanding their Slingbox. 

-- Joe Flint

Top photo: Sling Media co-founder Blake Krikorian holds up the Slingbox PRO-HD, left, and the SlingCatcher at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Credit: Paul Sakuma/Associated Press.  Inset photo: EchoStar Chief Executive Charlie Ergen. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Comments () | Archives (14)

Sling box

Believe it or not some people travel outside their home country and
may still want to watch TV from their home country. I was in Beijing
and used my Sling Box to watch English TV.
If you have a DVR at home you can programme it to record things
while you are away and play them back at any time – useful for different
time zones.
Finally it connects to your cable or satellite box or antenna – not to
your TV!

My point is that it is not exactly must-have technology and using it when traveling abroad kind of proves my point. Thanks for the note.

Joe Flint

And for those living abroad? Does that "kind of" prove your point? I use a slingbox to watch the superior broadcasts of the BBC

I use my Slingbox to view content both in my home and outside of it. At home I use a laptop to bring in a second TV during NFL and MLB season. That way I can watch two games in the same room. I also use that same laptop out on the patio while cooking on the bbq.

Out of the house I can access my 'TV' via a laptop, my BlackBerry or a SlingCatcher. When I'm out of the house the most common content I access is news and sports.

In fact most of my viewing is limited to live news and sports. Thus Hulu is of little use to me.

For a couple of years I had to work in Germany for a few days a month.
I was paying my own expenses so couldn't afford a luxury hotel.
But even when I have stayed in luxury hotels they had only 2 english channels and there is only so much CNN you can watch.

The fact that I could watch both whatever was on British TV and whatever was on my PVR made a complete difference to the experience.

Being able to watch the football, without have to trek down to the Irish pub, saved me time and money.

After spending a whole day in a german speaking office, just having some english voices was very relaxing.

I also found it meant I had more time at home when I got back as I wasn't trying to catch up on favourite shows.

The device soon paid for itself.

I also have the Windows Mobile client and can watch stuff on my phone at an internet WiFI hot spot.

I think your article is rather simplistic

Do you travel for work, are you a sports fan, how many TVs do you have in your... apartment?

Lots of comments which is nice. To be clear, I didn't say Slingbox wasn't without any appeal, but I don't think there is a mass market need for it. Believe me, the leagues and local stations find out some are using it to circumvent local sports, say good bye.

Joe Flint

Yes you right that a Slingbox might always have a niche appeal but I find the technology fantastic. If you live and work in Europe (or anywhere outside the US for that matter!) you'll understand how great it is to be able to take your UK tv with you!

There's a big interesting world outside the US!

"Believe me, the leagues and local stations find out some are using it to circumvent local sports, say good bye."

Honestly, you're about three years late to this conversation. MLB's digital media branch made tons of noise about shutting them down. As did HBO. Yet nothing has changed, And at the same time both NBA and NHL use Slingboxes for personal and business uses and Sling helped power DirecTV's web streaming of NFL games.

I agree a stand-alone Slingbox will always be a niche item, especially with the recent proliferation of web video and legal downloads. Which is why Echostar is now building Slingbox technology into their flagship DVR.

And I firmly believe the mobile client drives tons of sales. The neutered iPhone client hurts a lot though. Pretty much worthless to me.

As I post this, I'm watching higher quality television from my home DVR and Slingbox than this crappy tube Zenith TV in a Wyoming hotel while on a work trip.

And if it reaches to a serious level, the leagues will retaliate as will HBO. Charlie Ergen's record in these battles isn't exactly strong--witness the verdict they just got against TiVo.

Joe Flint

I am living in the US, and I'd love to watch Gaelic football televised on Irish TV. Setanta does not stream all football played there. So the alternative might mean that I could install a Slingbox in say, my brother's house in Ireland and "dial into it" from here in US? I am just trying to figure out the connectivity of it all ...... How is the slingbox connected to his Internet? From an output port on his router? Does the router need to be adjacent to his TV? LOve to know the external wiring that's needed. Thanks,

By Golly ... folks are really different out there. Having a column written by someone satisfied with HBO in a hotel ... well, let's just say that not everybody eats the same dinner. In my set (group of similarly minded and behaving folks) we control TV to manage its impact on us. That is we purchase services for their content and for their lack of content. I live in Oregon of the USA and purchase German and French programming, HBO, too. Most of it I record on DVRs and some I archive to network drives and then watch with the ability to condense, skim, delete, sample, save, share and move on. TV is not for us a river in which we be flotsam. Sling is the next step beyond DVR (anybody using TV without such control is a fu%%%ng victim) to allow user decisions to follow them efficiently as they move about the planet.

For those who have a passport ;-) and leave their own country or emigrate, then a slingbox is very useful , not to mention on public transport where I watch TV & News from the other side of the world on my PDA/cellphone/mobile without paying through the nose for sub quality mobile TV "clips". I can then watch BBC and avoid all the cheap american imports we get in Australia ;-)

I also use it a lot for audio only to feed satellite radio stations from my home country to my PDA/mobile/cell.

I think you lack a little imagination, Joe. Slingbox has been great for traveling overseas, where you rarely have more than 1-2 English stations, and very little US news on those. It's also great when you are at work and there is breaking news or a sports event you want to follow, and now with the apps for iPhone and other mobile devices, it's a great way to be able to catch up almost anywhere. One of the most useful places is in airports....


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