Review: SlingPlayer Mobile for the iPhone – A hobbled app still manages to shine
Smart phone owners are notoriously loyal and defensive about their handset of choice, and like a good soldier I have vigorously proselytized the benefits of the iPhone to any Blackberry user I have run into. For the most part this was easy, as the only real argument I couldn’t defend was the iPhone’s lack of a physical keyboard, which to me was a non-issue. However, there was ONE trick the Blackberry could do that had me more than a little envious, and that was the ability to stream live TV via a Slingbox. It wasn’t so much that I even really wanted to watch TV on my iPhone, but the fact that my iPhone physically couldn’t while Blackberry users could for some reason got me steamed.
Well, that all ended about 6 weeks ago when the good folks at Sling Media hooked me up with a beta of their SlingPlayer Mobile for the iPhone. SlingPlayer Mobile allows Slingbox owners to watch live TV, streamed from their homes, on their iPhones. What’s more, if you happen to own a DVR, SlingPlayer Mobile allows you to control that as well, meaning you can watch your recorded shows and movies and access On Demand Programming, as well as pause and rewind live TV, just as if you were watching from home.
Above: Tap the screen to bring up the menu screen
What’s a Slingbox?
For those of you unfamiliar with what a Slingbox is, basically it is a device which you can hook to almost any audio/video source and control remotely from your computer or mobile device, from anywhere in the world where you have an internet connection. For the most part, people use it to control Cable/Satellite/FiOS boxes, but you could use it to control a VCR, DVD player, etc if you wanted to. Setting up a SlingBox is fairly straight forward, and I had my new Slingbox HD Pro set up and streaming to the iPhone in about 40 minutes, including looking for scissors while unboxing the Slingbox and the 10 minutes spent doing some much-needed cable weeding of my entertainment system. Pretty much the only tricky part you will face is if you wish to access your Slingbox from outside of your home network. In order to this, odds are you will need to know a little bit about opening up ports on your home router. I happen to have Verizon FiOS, and assuming you know your router’s username and password, it is quite simple, as “Slingbox” is an option in the port forwarding tab, and selecting it will open the correct port for you. Given that I have about 7 Macs on my home network, I decided to manually choose an IP address up around 12 to avoid any conflicts. If you simply wanted to watch your recorded shows on your home network on your Macs, iPhone and iPod touch’s, you really don’t need to do anything, as the Slingbox setup wizard is one of the easiest to follow and idiot proof installers I have seen, especially considering how potentially daunting a task it could have been.
Above: When the SlingPlayer launches, it takes about 5-10 seconds to optimize the video stream before connecting
One final thing to consider is that in order to work, your Slingbox will need to be connected to a hardwired network. My router is actually in the basement, far from my TV, but luckily I had an extra Airport Express lying around I could use as a bridge, and I just ran a piece of Ethernet cable from that to the Slingbox. If you do not have an Airport Express, or an ethernet cable close to your entertainment center, Slingbox sells a device called the SlingLink TURBO which can use your home’s existing electrical wiring to transfer an internet connection to your Cable Box/TV Set.
Above: You can connect to multiple Slingboxes
Once set up, accessing your Slingbox from the iPhone is ridiculously easy. When you launch the app, you will see a short progress indicator as the Slingbox optimizes itself to offer you the best stream based on your connection. Next, you will be presented with the current live output of your Cable/Satellite box. I happen to have Verizon FiOS as my TV provider, but the functionality should be more or less the same for other carriers. To change channels, simply swipe your finger up or down. Slide your finger left or right to go to the next channel in your favorites list.
Above: You can navigate your TV’s guide and menus just as if you were home with the virtual Keypad
Tapping on the screen brings up a menu across the bottom of the iPhone from which you can access your Favorite Channels (which you can customize), bring up a Virtual remote, Call up your TV’s on screen Guide, bring up your Box’s menu screen, access system options, and disconnect from the Slingbox.
Above: Yeah! I can watch my Batman cartoons while at work!
My FiOS box has a built-in DVR, and by pushing the Menu button, I can access all the content on my DVR as well as set up new recordings from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Navigation is done via a virtual D-Pad, and while the response time between button presses is a bit sluggish (you wait about 2-3 seconds between the time you push the button and the time the action occurs), if you know how many times you need to hit “down” in a menu to scroll through some menu items, you can hit “down” 5 times quickly and wait once instead of hitting and waiting for each push.
Above: The playback controls allow you to pause, rewind, fast-forward etc. live TV (assumign your cable box supports it)
To help minimize lag time, you can create a list of favorites which give you quick access to channels you use most. I was a little confused as to how to add favorites at first, as I thought you could just select the channel, and assign it a favorite number What they really want you to do is manually enter the channel number for each station, and assign it to the favorite. For some reason I expected the SlingPlayer to take my zip code and TV service provider and just know the channel numbers, letting me just hit the Cartoon Network icon instead of assigning the real channel number to the icon first. Because of this, you really sort of need to set up your favorites while at home so you can verify the channel number, unless of course you have them all memorized, which in this day of 1000+ channels, would be pretty sad.
Above: Your “Favorites” list
Video quality is excellent, but depends on both your wireless connection, and the hard wired connection to the player. I was very happy with the video quality overall given that my “hard wired” ethernet connection to the Slingbox was actually an extended wireless connection via an Airport Express. The video looks a bit more pixelated in my stills than it does while moving, and I am sure it would have been even better if I had 60 feet of ethernet cable lying around for a true direct connection. Audio as well sounded great, so no complaints there.
For times when you don’t need to see the visuals of a show (like when listening to home music channels, or shows with visually unappealing hosts like the View and Oprah) the SlingPlayer can stream an audio-only feed to help cut on network usage.
Without a doubt, the SlingPlayer Mobile app is the coolest app I now have on my iPhone. However, the app has unfortunately been held back from reaching its full potential by Apple’s choice of mobile partner. The beta app I tested is able to not only connect via WiFi, but also via 3G and even Edge. And it does an amazing job. Over 3G, video quality was not all that noticeably worse that WiFi, and even over Edge you could get a watchable signal, so long as you weren’t expecting a beautiful picture. Unfortunately, this afternoon, on launch day, AT&T announced that they will not allow the SlingPlayer mobile app to work on its cellular network, and it has forced Apple to make sure Slingbox made the official release a WiFi-only app.
If I may step out of the role of unbiased reviewer for a moment, this is complete bullshit. Slingbox has similar SlingPlayer Mobile apps running on other mobile platforms under 3G, and many of these devices are running on AT&T’s 3G network. AT&T’s decision to single out the iPhone is a real blow to the SlingPlayer Mobile App, and knocks what would have been an otherwise rated 10 app down a couple rungs, through no fault of Slingbox. While I understand that the iPhone is likely the most popular mobile device out there for those who would wish to use the SlingPlayer Mobile service, and yes, the potential is there for bandwidth issues, this is still a shit move on AT&T’s part. I’m not sure how many iPhone users out there actually own a Slingbox, but AT&T’s decision implies the rumors of their network infrastructure hanging by a thread are true. I’m really upset that Apple’s choice of carrier is now hampering developers’ creativity, so here’s hoping that rumors of a Verizon iPhone are based in some sort of fact.
Other minor issues I have with the SlingPlayer Mobile app are simply a result of wishing the onscreen remote was laid out more like my FiOS remote. Slingbox did an admirable job making a one-size-fits-all remote, but having a dedicated DVR button, as well as a “Stop” button on the remote would have made navigation via a FiOS box all that much more enjoyable. Once you know how the remote works you can find workarounds, but given the delays between button presses (however understandable they may be) when you are used to pressing 1 button on a physical remote, and then on the iPhone having to press 5-6 buttons to get where you wanted to be , it’s a little frustrating. Still, the sheer coolness of the SlingPlayer Mobile app makes up for the extra work you might need to put forth, and how annoying this is will depend on how your box is set up, and how you watch shows. My suggestion for a future update to the app would be to make the menus and remotes user-customizable, so we could choose the buttons we wanted most on our remote.
One other quick comment about adding Favorites. I am not sure where SlingPlayer Mobile downloads it’s channel listing from, but some channels are hard to find at first due to the way it lists them. For instance, Disney, Discovery, and Cartoon Network are all listed under “T” for THE Discovery Channel, THE Disney Channel, THE Cartoon Network, where other networks you would think might have a THE in front are not. A note to Sling Media, if you are reading this, drop the “The”.
Even without 3G support, Slingbox’s SlingPlayer Mobile app is truly a must have app for Slingbox owners, and one of the few $29.99 apps I would have no problem paying for. However, AT&T’s decision to single out the iPhone version of SlingPlayer Mobile and ban it from its network certainly give one reason to pause on what should have been a clear cut decision.
To be honest, I am almost always somewhere with WiFi access, and if I am not, odds are I should be concentrating on driving and not trying to watch TV. Still, there is something cool about watching TV while waiting for a movie to start, or while pretending to watch your kid’s lame Easter play (hey, I’m sure my wife is videoing it).
If you are the type of person who would like the freedom to watch your television on your iPhone while lying in bed at home, on vacation at a hotel, at the office, sitting at a Starbucks, or anywhere else there is WiFi, then the decision to buy the SlingPlayer Mobile app is still a no brainer. However, I think for the moment I will be sticking with my beta copy, which can still do the 3G streaming. And apologies in advance if your phone calls drop out while I’m using it. SlingPlayer Mobile is just too cool not to use, and my kids have some end of year plays coming up.
Price: $29.99 (iTunes)
Pros:Video looks and sounds great, very nice navigation, menus, and controls, way easier to set up than you probably think,
Cons: WiFi only (thanks to AT&T’s lame ass), setting up favorites is a little confusing, not all remote functions are there, would be nice to be able to customize