Catching a favorite TV show used to require being at the right place at the right time: plopped in front of a set whenever a network decided to broadcast something of interest.
The VCR began to break the chains, and digital video recorders such as TiVos made it even easier to catch a show beyond the tyrannical grip of schedules. Now, some gadgets and software make it possible to watch recorded TV not only at anytime but also anywhere.
Sling Media Inc. has taken the next step with its $249.99 Slingbox that streams both live TV, content and the interface from a connected DVR, DVD player, VCR and other set-top boxes to anywhere you've got a Windows computer and a high-speed Internet connection.
Unlike software that streams live TV (Beyond TV and Orb are two examples), the Slingbox doesn't require a PC to be running at home while the user is watching TV remotely.
The quality of the video is surprisingly clear, particularly when viewed in the default window size. The viewer software, though not the most graphically dazzling program I've ever seen, is straightforward and responsive.
To try out the Slingbox, which looks like a silver ingot, I set one up on my home network and connected it to the TV cable. Then I set off on trips to Hawaii and New York armed with a SlingPlayer-loaded laptop.
The home installation required some familiarity with output and input ports on the set-top boxes to be controlled by Slingbox. Fortunately, the fold-out startup guide is clear even if it reminded me of an engineering flowchart.
In the simplest configuration, I hooked up my analog cable to one of the Slingbox's input ports then hooked the TV to one of the device's output ports. After that, I connected it to my home network via an Ethernet cable. Because my router supports an autoconfiguration technology, I didn't have to manually open ports to enable remote viewing. Others might not be so lucky.
(If an Ethernet cable isn't available near the TV, there are other options, including 802.11g Wi-Fi and a technology that uses electrical wiring to carry data. I tried them all but got the best results with traditional Ethernet.)
Controlling a TiVo or a digital TV box requires a bit more work. First, the Slingbox has to be connected between the TV and the device. Then you've got to connect yet another wire so the Slingbox can talk to the other box via an infrared signal.
I completed the setup by checking to make sure the Slingbox found the home network and then installing the SlingPlayer application on a laptop.
After flying to Honolulu and connecting to the Internet using my hotel's Wi-Fi network, I simply launched the viewer program, entered a password and started watching the TV being piped into my California home.
The picture, when in the default size, was clear, though it degrades significantly when it's enlarged to fill the screen. Talking heads on news shows looked the best, while quick-moving sports was less clear.
A recent software upgrade also enables remote switching of input ports, so you can have analog cable on one and a DVR on another. You can even fine-tune the audio and video of each device.
While in New York, I tried the system using Verizon Wireless' EV-DO high-speed data network, which offers a much larger footprint than the typical Wi-Fi hotspot. The picture quality wasn't as good as the Wi-Fi test, but it was acceptable.
There are some limitations.
If you're remotely controlling your TiVo from afar, anyone left behind will be seeing the same thing on the connected TV. And, in a nod to copyright concerns and bandwidth limitations, only one remote viewer can be connected to a single Slingbox at a time.
Users also are limited to watching shows on computers running the latest versions of Windows. Sling Media says it's planning to release software for handheld computers and smart phones. It also says it's working on deals that would integrate its technology into other set-top boxes.
Though the Slingbox works as advertised, it's not clear how many people are clamoring to pay $250 to "place shift" TV — except perhaps goldbricking office workers and frequent travelers who can't wait to watch local programming.
While on the road, I'll stick with the beach, sightseeing and even the hotel's TV, at least until the Slingbox gets cheaper or my local TV selections get a lot more compelling.