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Bringing Your TV Signal Along

Times Staff Writer

Now that we are living in the iPodian era, wherein all media strive to be portable, a new device called Slingbox lets you take your home television with you wherever you go.

Not the actual set, which would be tough to get into a carry-on bag, but the signal -- including all your cable or satellite channels and even your TiVo selections.

Slingbox, which costs about $250, is from Sling Media Inc. of San Mateo, Calif. Using a box connected to your home TV setup, it sends the signal out onto the Internet, allowing you to watch a video stream of your home channels from any Windows computer with broadband access and the Sling software installed.

As I write this, “Doctor Zhivago” is streaming in a window on a corner of the screen, direct from my satellite-TV service’s Turner Classic Movies channel. I can make the window bigger, entirely obliterating any work I am supposed to be doing at the moment.

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In addition to the signal, Slingbox sends along the TiVo controls I have at home. Clicking on a graphic representation of the remote control, I can channel surf, decide there’s nothing on I want to watch, then surf again. Just like at home. I can even use my TiVo functions to halt the picture, rewind, schedule a show to be recorded or watch something I’ve already recorded.

I actually am controlling my home TV from far away. When I change channels on the computer, the TV at home changes too. (This could really drive an unknowing house guest nuts.) And the TV does not have to be on for Slingbox to work.

Very cool. Even with several drawbacks -- most notably the variable picture quality of the video streams -- Slingbox has a high “gee-whiz” factor.

It also has a high “do I really need this?” factor.

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After all, there are already lots of televisions in the world that you can watch when you’re away from home, and the vast majority of them get a far better picture than possible via the Internet.

Even with a fast broadband connection on both ends -- at home and the remote connection -- the image produced by Slingbox is fuzzy and sometimes terribly pixilated, especially when viewed full-screen.

That might not be a significant problem when the choice is between seeing a live show or waiting until it’s old news. But for regular viewing, it’s disappointing after the novelty wears off.

Also, hooking up a regular TV is simple. Not so with Slingbox. I’m told that installation can go smoothly, but don’t bet on it. It took me all day and into night. (Two pieces of advice: Never plan to install something on your home network the same day you plan on using it. And never, ever start one of these projects when the tech help-lines are closed.)

For me, the main installation problem was getting Slingbox to recognize my wireless Internet connection. Almost as frustrating was configuring the Sling software on my laptop.

Once the gadget was finally up and running, I amazed colleagues at work with the results. But even though they were impressed by the technological marvel that is Slingbox, no one asked where they could get one.

So, who would buy it?

“It is for people who like sports and want to watch the home team” when they are on the road, said Jeremy Toeman, head of project management for Sling Media. “And for people working in a foreign country -- after a couple weeks, the CNN international channel gets very old.”

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Agreed. Those are two pretty good uses.

He went on to say that people on the move don’t want to miss an episode of their favorite TV shows. (What, they can’t wait a week or two, once their vacation is over, to catch up on “24" -- and with far better picture quality?)

But Toeman wasn’t stopping there. He had a ready answer when I pointed out that a person watching the Slingbox-designated TV at home was forced to watch the same channel as the person watching remotely.

“When I’m on the road,” he said, “sometimes my wife and I will pick a program to watch together.”

Who says romance is dead?

But are any of these applications compelling enough to justify the expense and the set-up hassles?

Slingbox, unfortunately, looks like one of those solutions looking for a problem, like all too many tech products that seemed interesting when introduced, only to fade into obscurity.

Like record players for cars. Seriously -- in 1955, Chrysler began offering the “Highway Hi-Fi” record turntable as an accessory. (Check it out at ookworld.com/hiwayhifi.html) It died even before the advent of audio cartridges and cassettes.

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Remember the satellite telephone? There’s another gee-whiz device that never scored big.

And just last year came Microsoft Corp.'s much-hyped SPOT technology, which uses FM signals across the country to send news, sports and stock updates to specially equipped digital wristwatches. I’ve never spotted anyone actually wearing one, outside a trade show.

Maybe the clever Slingbox won’t join this group. Maybe it is the future of television.

But if not, you could always keep it as a collector’s item, a token of a bygone tech era.

I’m already scouring eBay for a Highway Hi-Fi for my Honda Civic.

David Colker can be reached via e-mail at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.


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