By Michael Evans
ONE OF THE PROBLEMS of spending long periods abroad is the difficulty of watching home television. It is possible, with some fiddling, to have a British Sky dish and decoder in most European countries, but the further east you go the less likely are you to get the main British terrestrial channels operated by BBC and ITV. In Greece, for instance, it is all but impossible to receive these channels without a dish the size of a football pitch.
During the last summer I experimented successfully with using a proxy server, which fools BBC and ITV web sites into thinking you are in Britain instead of 2,000 miles away. This works very well, but is mainly restricted to viewing the limited offerings of BBC iPlayer and ITV Player. It's a good and relatively cheap solution.
For more than a year, though, I have been eyeing SlingMedia's Slingbox, a media streamer that allows you to watch television as it is received on your home set, plus giving access to a video recorder and other peripherals. It all sounded too good to be true, particularly after the bad experience I had had a few years ago with a similar Sony device. That one just didn't work reliably. Last month, though, I decided to buy a Slingbox Pro because the price has come down and I was able to get one for £150 from Carphone Warehouse.
The big surprise is just how well it does work. Set-up was a cinch and within just a few minutes I was streaming very good quality video around my home network. The Slingbox has an integral digital television tuner so it receives all the British Freeview channels. The neat trick is that you can connect a video recorder and, with the aid of a small infra-red sender, control the recorder from the remote Slingbox client. I was soon up and running and able to set up recordings, view existing recordings, delete, pause and fast-forward, just like at home.
Getting the Slingbox video to stream over the internet needed just a few more tweaks, involving setting up a port on my Airport Extreme. The Sling Media site has an excellent widget which notes all details of your router, your system and then tells you exactly what to change by the use of pictures and easy-to-understand tips. I can now view British television and all my recordings while abroad. I can set up the video to record and watch later–ideal when there is a significant time difference between home and away. The picture quality depends very much on the broadband connection, but I get acceptable quality even when using a Vodafone 3G card in my MiFi personal router. The Slingbox software optimises the picture for the speed of connection and manages to avoid pauses and breaks by reducing the qualify of the picture to compensate for bandwidth shortcomings. It certainly isn't HD quality, but it is more than acceptable as far as I am concerned.
The Slingbox iPhone application works just as well, but is let down by the complexity of the control features. Whereas the Mac software includes a virtual remote control, there is a lot of fiddling on the iPhone to do simple tasks like viewing recordings, re-sorting the list of recordings or deleting programmes. I'm sure they will improve this with time, but it is certainly possible to sit in a cafe in Australia and watch live BBC news on the iPhone.
So far I give this device a nine-out-of-ten rating. It does what it says on the tin.