Why the World Still Needs the Slingbox

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My Technologizer column for this week is about the state of cable TV channels and shows on the Internet. It’s spotty–Time Warner Cable and Cablevision have introduced apps that turn iPads into portable TVs, but the entertainment industry doesn’t appear to be thrilled with that fact. And even though a high percentage of the significant shows from broadcast and cable networks are available in on-demand form online, they can be hard to find–and they might or might not be viewable on all the gadgets you own.

But truth to tell, there’s been a way to watch all your favorite cable or satellite shows–all of them–on the go for years. It works with Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Android handsets, BlackBerries, Windows Phone handsets, and even Palm and Symbian devices. And it works well. It’s Sling Media’s Slingbox, and even though it’s a gadget that starts at $179.99 and competes in some ways with fully Internet-based services such as Hulu, it’s clearly not obsolete.

I bought a Slingbox not long after the first version was introduced back in 2005, and for a long time I was addicted to it. When I traveled, which was often, I didn’t even bother to turn on the hotel TV. Instead, I’d pop open my laptop, launch Sling’s software, and get access to all the DirecTV channels I was paying for back home, plus everything recorded on my TiVo. I also used it at home, turning my desktop PC in my home office into a second TV. I became an evangelist for the thing.

But three years ago, I moved–and when I set up my TV in my new house, I didn’t connect the Slingbox. Why not? For one thing, I’d gotten HD service for the first time, and my old Slingbox model only supported it via an adapter. For another, I had a bunch of gizmos crammed into my not-so-huge entertainment center–a TiVo, a DVD player, a Wii, and more–and figuring out how to patch the Slingbox into the system sounded like a headache. I kept delaying the job–especially since I was spending less and less time on the road.

Then I got married, and got a new reason not to reconnect my Slingbox: remote-controlling your TV from afar is great when there’s nobody home, but it might be startling if someone (such as, oh, your spouse) is seated in front of the set back in the living room. Annoying, even. (Disclaimer: it’s possible there’s a way to set things up so the Slingbox doesn’t change the channel that’s being displayed on the TV–I didn’t bother to figure it out.)

Along the way, Dish Network owner EchoStar bought out Sling Media in 2007, and while it would be unfair to say they botched the acquisition–they’ve released new models, released apps for smartphones, and built Sling technology into Dish set-top boxes–they also haven’t aggressively updated the Sling hardware. It’s pretty much the same device I left behind in 2008. And I find it odd that now routes you to Dish Online and doesn’t even mention that you can still buy a Slingbox.

I reman an ex-Slingbox user, at least for the moment. But you know what? Writing about it is getting me excited over its capabilities all over again. And my old one is sitting patiently near my TV even now, hoping that I might try it again. Maybe I will.