Slinging on my Mac at last

Back at Macworld Expo in January, I got a demo of Slingbox, the hardware product that lets you watch your TV from remote locations via the Internet. As a TV guy, I was pretty impressed—and excited that the demonstration I was getting from Sling Media included a Slingbox running on a Mac.

It’s taken them much longer than anyone anticipated, but now there’s finally a publicly-available version of the SlingPlayer software for Mac OS X, albeit as a public beta. I’ll admit, I was so excited by my original demo that I ran out and bought a Slingbox. For a few months, I used it on a cheap Dell PC that cowers in the corner of my office. Once Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop hit the scene, I began watching my Slingbox on my Intel-based Mac, albeit within Windows.

For the past month or so, I’ve finally been able to watch my Slingbox natively on my Mac, using a pre-release version of the new Mac player, and it’s been a great experience. The Sling Media team has done an admirable job in getting a video product that’s essentially built on Windows Media technology to work—and work well—on the Mac.

But let me back up for a minute and recap what Slingbox is and how you might use it. Slingbox is a small hardware box—the company now makes several models, the $179 Slingbox Tuner, the $179 Slingbox AV, and the $249 Slingbox Pro —that you hook up to video sources in your home. For example, my Slingbox (a “Slingbox Classic”—that’s code for “the original Slingbox that’s now been replaced by these three nifty new models”) is hooked up to my two TiVo digital video recorders at home.

My Slingbox is also hooked up to my home Internet connection, in my case via an Ethernet cable connected to a wireless bridge. (The Slingbox has an Ethernet port on the back; it’s up to you to find a way to connect it, either directly via Ethernet or via a wireless bridge. Or you can buy the $100 SlingLink, which uses your home electrical system to route network traffic.)

So what do you do with a box that’s connected to your home video devices and to the Internet? Stream video across the Internet, of course. I’ve watched San Francisco Giants games in a Chicago hotel room; watched a TiVo replay of American Idol with my wife, with her at home and me on the road in New York; watched World Cup soccer and baseball playoff games in my office, which has no access to cable TV; and even watched a baseball game on my laptop while sitting in my backyard on a warm summer day.

slingbox

Slingbox isn’t like other video streams you might have connected to on the Internet, mostly because it’s a one-to-one connection. Because you’re the only person viewing the Slingbox, the SlingPlayer software running on your Mac communicates with the Slingbox hardware and adjusts the quality of the video to make the most of your connection. If you’re watching video on your local network, the quality is extremely high; if you’re on a somewhat slow, far-off Internet connection, Slingbox scales back its quality settings until it can reliably provide you with smooth, uninterrupted video.

And since Slingboxes (except the new Slingbox Tuner) also come with an infrared emitter, you can use the SlingPlayer software to change the channel and even operate complicated devices like a TiVo or other digital video recorders. SlingPlayer even comes with a huge variety of remote-control profiles; when I told it I was using a DirecTV-branded TiVo recorder, it immediately displayed a new Remote window containing a perfect duplicate of my physical TiVo remote. When I press the on-screen remote buttons, the signal is relayed back to my TiVo via the Slingbox.

Slingbox isn’t for everyone, but if you travel a lot, and find yourself trapped in a hotel room with no access to your favorite sports team or the recorded TV shows you’ve got sitting on a DVR at home, it’s really a fantastic device.

The Mac SlingPlayer software works essentially like its Windows counterpart, and that’s good as well as bad. The first public beta of the Mac software, released Tuesday, makes no attempt to hide its Windows origins. Although the Brushed Steel interface skin approximates the QuickTime Player interface, it’s betrayed by the series of Windows-style buttons in the top left corner. (It could be worse—they could be in the top right instead!) It’s a little thing, but it’s still ugly, and I hope that the final version of the software replaces those buttons with ones of a more Mac-friendly variety.

In any event, almost 10 months after I first set eyes on a Mac playing back Slingbox video, the Mac version of SlingPlayer is finally here. If you’re a Mac user who already has a Slingbox, rejoice—it’s so much easier to not have to resort to Windows to watch something. And if you’ve never considered Slingbox before because it lacked Mac compatibility, that barrier is finally gone.

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