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The Toy Every Consultant Cannot Live Without [REPOST]

About a year and half ago, I heard rumors of a little piece of hardware that could make life on the road a lot better. The idea seemed not only novel, but incredibly practical and relevant to my life. Although comparatively expensive for an unknown piece of equipment, I decided to take the risk and see if this device could live up to all of its promises and my dreams.

Here it is, a year and half later, and I have to say it has done that, and then some!

The device is called a Slingbox, and it is put out by a small company called Sling Media. Far be it from me to turn this monthly installment of your reading pleasure into an advertisement, but I would be remiss not to share my good fortune with my fellow consultants and co-workers.

Here is the skinny: the Slingbox attaches to your cable/satellite/DVR/VCR/HD/Etc receiver at home, gets plugged in to your home network, and then can be watched anywhere over the internet. For instance, if there is a Red Sox game going on on NESN and I happen to be in Seattle, WA, I can switch on my Slingbox software on my notebook and get immediately connected to my content at home.

Now the speed of that connection is highly dependent on both the upload speed of your network; the quality of the connection at your location (and many of our clients block the ports Slingbox uses, but you should not be watching the game at work anyway); and the amount of network bandwidth available. On my home network, I have seen speeds as high as 4,000 kbs over the wireless connection while sitting out on the patio fifty feet away. On the other hand, in my hotel in Greensboro, NC, speeds were routinely at 200 kbs. Anything below 100 kbs and the choppiness of the signal is not worth trying to play around with. But even at 300 kbs the signal is strong enough to go hours without getting a single frame skip. In my current hotel in Sterling, VA, my speeds vary from 250 kbs to 1,000 kbs.

Sling Media, to their credit, is continually striving hard to upgrade the decoding software on your notebook and the firmware on the device itself. That said, they do not have to do this. There is no monthly fee for the Slingbox—it is just the one-time fee to purchase the item and that is it. Sling Media has shown great care to continuing to improve the product, though, as their employees are regular users as well.

Not only can you watch live TV, but you can also work with recorded content. I have a DirecTV with Tivo at home and mostly watch my pre-recorded content. The Slingbox not only can control television channels, but can control all of the Tivo functions as well. That means I can watch everything sitting on my Tivo or set up new programs to record. Honestly, how many times can you watch that same episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Cartoon Network at midnight after a long day’s work? Wouldn’t you rather watch something personal to you?

There are many caveats and add-ons you can work with to make your Sling experience (Sling-perience) better. For instance, I prefer to not watch the Slingbox on my notebook and would rather watch it on a real television screen. If you have a computer with an S-Video output, you can easily transfer your computer screen signal to a television. If the TV does not have an S-Video input and only and RCA, you can get a $10 converter at RadioShack. If your computer does not have an S-Video output, you can get a monitor output to S-Video/RCA converter at RadioShack for $100. This is what I have for on the road.

At home, I have actually extended my television network area by using the Slingbox. The TV in my bedroom is hooked up to my personal computer that in turn is streaming the Slingbox. There is one thing to note: you can only have one Sling-stream running at a time, so if you or someone else is going to log in than that person will have control.

When I have talked about this device to people, many have asked me if the people at home see what you are doing. The simple answer is: Yes, anything that you watch or do over the Slingbox will be seen on your television at home (although that can be used for some good pranks if someone does not know you have set it up). My recommendation is to have a receiver and small TV dedicated to the Slingbox. You could even just use a cable-ready VCR if you do not care about pre-recorded content. This alleviates the issue of anyone interfering with another’s quality television time.

Others have also expressed concern over the Slingbox taking over their notebook screen. In actuality, you can “dock” the Sling-window on any side the screen in a fully size-controllable window. That way, you can continue to work on your HAL load file while catching the latest episode of House Hunters.

If you happen to have a nice large screen PDA phone, you can also download Sling software to play on that. I have not had the opportunity to review this feature and will continue to read CNN on my phone while waiting in line at airport security. Still, I’m sure there are others out there that would enjoy this piece of technology.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Wow, this sounds great, but my network router is nowhere near my television. I don’t want to run wires across my house!” Sure, that is a major concern, and I share it. That’s why I picked up a pair Cat-5 jumpers at Best Buy for $100. There are two twin devices that plug into wall outlets and turn your house wiring system into an internet gateway. This way, your connecting wires can be in one room while your Slingbox is in another. Just a warning: the particular brand I chose has a lot of lights on it, so either be prepared for lots of blinking green lights or to hide it somewhere it may be unseen.

Additionally, setting up your home network for the first time can be a bit daunting, especially if you have never played with router settings before. The Slingplayer install software claims it can do this for you, but I never got it to work on two different routers. Also, if you move, change internet providers, or get a new IP address, you’ll have to reboot (and possibly reset) your Slingbox and go through the setup process again to make everything right. There have been times that I have been on the road and my ISP reset my IP address, thus making connection impossible until I returned to fix everything.

These small issues aside, my Slingbox experience has been incredible. I can honestly say that without Slingbox, I would most likely not watch three-quarters of the television I do. Some may say that is not a good thing, but I beg to differ. There is plenty of quality and entertaining shows on television that are worth my time, and I would like to see them. That, and it is always good to be able to catch a Patriots game while in West Virginia.

Slingbox goes from $120 for the “base” (re: you don’t even need a TV, just plug it in) to $250 for the more elaborate models that can handle up to 4 inputs and transfer HD content. The model I bought is now called the “Slingbox Classic” and is not available anymore, but is closest to the Slingbox AV. The ones around today are available in any electronics store, though usually hidden in “computer accessories” in the back corner. Most clerks will have no idea what you are talking about, so be sure to bring this article with you to help them out.

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