Jonesing for a "Tyra Banks" fix over your lunch break? Feeling compelled to catch an inning of the Nats game between afternoon spreadsheets? Can't live without watching Derek McGinty on that business trip?
Fear not, the Slingbox has arrived. Hook it up to your cable box and wireless router and get set to watch your TV anywhere at home - or just about anywhere on earth with high-speed Internet access.
The Slingbox Pro is a $229 device promising the capability to view your cable or satellite TV programming remotely, using a Windows or Mac computer, certain smartphones and a wired or wireless network connection.
There are practical advantages to this. One is to share a TV signal with computers at home or far away. As long as you have a high-speed Internet connection and the player software, you're ready. The other is to send the signal to a mobile phone. It's a way to carry your home TV service with you.
There's no cost beyond that of the Slingbox hardware and, for Palm-, Symbian- and Windows Mobile-based phones, a one-time cost for a software client. (You can't use an iPhone with the Slingbox, but a BlackBerry client is coming, maker Sling Media says.) This contrasts with the various mobile phone plans that deliver streaming video to a hand-held device: Users of various Palm-based cell phones, among others, can pay a given amount each month, often around $10, to watch Fox News or CNN or ESPN's mobile channel on their phones. But that adds up to $120 per year, every year, plus tax. Compare that with the Slingbox Pro's price, and the $29.99 asked for the mobile client - both one-time fees - and the advantage of the Slingbox strategy becomes apparent.
At first, the task of setting up the device might make you wonder if an engineering degree wouldn't have been a wiser choice in college. There are any number of cable inputs and outputs that you can use to route a television signal not only to that big flat panel in the family room but also to the Slingbox "network" you end up having.
The Slingbox instructions are step-by-step simple but should be tackled only after you have thought things through. The various connection options could yield different results.
For me, the most successful was the combination of S-Video, or standard video, cable from the set-top box to the Slingbox and a separate cable for the audio feed. This brought me the various Verizon digital cable channels, remotely, without hassle.
However, it also would mean that - oops, so sorry, dear - my family-room companion could be subjected to my channel-changing whims. That's OK if you live alone or the rest of the family is away, but not so good if you're trying to make one set-top box do the work of many.
My attempt at using the Slingbox Pro as a second tuner - something the firm's literature says is possible - was less fruitful. The idea is to hook up the coax wire of the cable system and "pass through" the signal to the set-top unit.
Passing through worked; passing along didn't. Verizon's service is dependent upon having access to the cable box for the full range of channels, so I was left with an exceptionally limited range of local stations.
The bottom line is that with the Verizon service, I would need to connect the Slingbox to a separate cable box in order to get the full range of channels available. That would add $5 or $10 to my cable bill, but that may not be an unreasonable amount if I'm aiming for convenience. Many users may already have more than one cable box at home.
More impressive, to me is that the Slingbox can use a home's electrical wiring to network the device with a wireless router if the two are in separate rooms. An $80 option called SlingLink does the trick quite nicely: Using the S-Video setup, I could send a TV signal via Wi-Fi, the home and small-office networking standard, to various parts of my house, even if my wireless router and the Slingbox weren't contiguous.
In operation, the picture quality and especially the sound quality of Slingbox programming was impressive: very good resolution with the S-Video cable, though not high-definition, and stunning stereo sound, especially on music programming.
You can learn more about the Slingbox at www.sling media.com.