The idiot box gets smarter

Now available in Canada, Sling Media's Slingbox is a little bit like a dancing bear: you're so impressed it can dance, you forgive its occasional clumsiness.

Couch potatoes arise! If you've ever wished you could surgically remove your butt from the sofa and still catch your favourite TV shows, check out the Slingbox, a $299 device from startup Sling Media. The Slingbox lets you watch your cable or satellite TV service anywhere you have high-speed Internet access, including on a cellphone or a wireless laptop on the other side of the globe. It's a very cool gadget, but it's also like a dancing bear: you're so impressed it can dance, you forgive its occasional clumsiness.

To use the Slingbox, you need a wired or wireless home network. To use it away from home, you also need a broadband Internet connection and a Windows laptop or Windows Mobile device. Plug your cable or satellite receiver into the book-size Slingbox and the Slingbox into your home network. The product comes with a cable that plugs into the back and has infrared (IR) transmitters at the other end, which you stick to the TV box so they point at its IR receiver.

Installing the SlingPlayer software on any PC or compatible mobile device turns it into a TV. On a PC, you can watch in a window or full screen. You can even display a graphic remote control, which looks and works much like the one you use to watch your regular TV.

How good is the TV? At home, with the signal transmitted over your local network and displayed in a window on a PC, it's very good — near broadcast quality. The motion is smooth, the audio uninterrupted. If you display it full screen, the picture becomes a bit fuzzier and slightly pixilated. But it's watchable. On a small screen — I tested it on a Dell Axim X51V hand-held — there is some pixilation. It is still watchable, but less so for fast action.

Away from home, the signal has to go from the Slingbox over the Internet to a remote Wi-Fi access point or cellular tower and then to your mobile device. Video quality dips precipitously, since you now have much less bandwidth. Bandwidth availability fluctuates, and the connection quality is affected by the number of network switches the signal goes through.

I tested Slingbox on a wireless laptop at a Wi-Fi hot spot. Wi-Fi provides more bandwidth than cellular, and the signal didn't have far to go. But picture quality was mostly poor. Motion was jerky, frequently broke up or froze altogether. Audio was better, but occasionally broke up. It seems a fair assumption the situation would be worse at a hot spot on the other side of the planet, or on a cellular network.

Setting up the Slingbox was not without headaches. If your TV receiver and network router aren't in the same room, you'll have to run a cable or buy a Wi-Fi bridge — about $80 to $125 — to connect wirelessly. And not every bridge works properly with every router.

Bottom line: the Slingbox is still very impressive technology. Given better remote wireless connections than I experienced, you could comfortably watch talking-head programming — CBC News in in Singapore, say — but likely not hockey. You could also download the SlingPlayer software and set it up on a friend's computer for remote viewing. And Slingbox lets you watch TV on any PC in your home, including wirelessly connected laptops.