Wednesday, May 13, 2009, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)
SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone: an in-depth review
Using Slingplayer Mobile on the iPhone
Once your local Slingbox is configured, a process that involves cabling up your devices, positioning the included IR blasters to sit in front of any devices you want to be able to control remotely, and then downloading and configuring the Slingplayer desktop software to finish the installation, setting up the iPhone app is a matter of logging into Sling's website to establish an account, obtaining a code from your Slingbox, and then associating your phone with your account. This enables Sling to keep track of your mobile device and connect you to your Slingbox from anywhere you can obtain a decent network connection.
When you attempt to Connect to your home Slingbox via the main menu (below), the iPhone connects to Sling, which then looks up your box and sends it a command to begin streaming to your phone. You can set it up to connect automatically. Otherwise, you can select a Directory of Slingbox devices tied to your account (if you have multiple devices, such as Slingboxes installed in different locations) and pick the one you want to connect to for remote viewing. This conceptually allows you to work around the limited number of video inputs supported by one box.
The Slingbox can only support a single remote output device, so if you start to watch it from an iPhone, it interrupts any desktop computer that is currently connected to the box and streaming its video. While you can boot a desktop client off the Slingbox from the iPhone, if you're connected from the iPhone the desktop system simply says it can't find its Slingbox. Disconnecting from the iPhone allows a desktop client to connect again normally.
Using Slingplayer Mobile for TV viewing
Once you pick your desired Slingbox and Sling remotely commands your home box to begin sending you its signal, you can choose between your available video sources using the Options menu, reached from the wrench icon on the main menu. Your options will include the TV channels you have configured using your desktop Slingplayer software and any other auxiliary devices you have attached and configured.
The Slingbox supplies a tuner for discovering channels on your cable, satellite or antenna coax; these channels are configured during setup using the desktop SlingPlayer software. You can set up a series of favorite channels using the desktop software, but you'll have to repeat this tedious process separately within the iPhone app. You'll probably want to bite the bullet and do this, as manually surfing through all of your available channels to find what you're looking for might in itself consume your entire lunch break. To program favorites, you select from a preset series of icons representing typical cable channels (below), then supply the channel number, and the setting is saved for you behind the Favorites icon in the TV player.
Connected to the Slingox's tuner input, the iPhone app can be used to click through channels (a rather slow process that minimally takes a good four seconds) using the online menu overlay, or by using an up or down finger swipe, a new feature unique to the iPhone. It still takes the same few seconds to send the command, for the tuner to change the channel, and for the new channel to being received. Since you probably only have a few channels you might want to watch remotely, having configured favorites will be pretty essential to retaining your sanity. Your other option is to memorize all your channels by number, and use the Keypad control (below) to jump to them directly. (That dot/dash key in the keypad is for entering a decimal in cable channel numbers than include one).
Other devices you connect to your home Slingbox, such as a DVR, DVD player, or Apple TV, must initially be configured using the desktop software, but are then available to you remote device without further configuration on your phone. They appear under the Option menu's Change Device listing (below). Sling provides customized support for a wide variety of devices, presenting a generic virtual remote and keypad that can be used to manage most of the functions on popular devices.
Using Slingplayer Mobile with Apple TV
For example, after you change the remote device to a configured Apple TV, you won't see a favorites button in the video player toolbar, as the box doesn't support any idea of favorites or channels. Instead, you'll get a Menu button which supplies the generic remote control with a makeshift extra button to enable you to go back within menus (below). Sling Media has managed to devise a remote simpler than even Apple's. This makes navigating an Apple TV a bit clumsy, as you can drill down into menus from the five way remote with separate play, rewind and fast forward buttons (below right), but in order to work your way back you have to navigate back to the main menu (below left) on the phone and click Menu.
Sending a navigation command takes about as long as changing a TV channel, which is roughly 4 seconds. This makes navigation rather tedius, and something you'll want to plan out. To reach the fourth menu item, for example, hit the down key three times quickly, or you'll need to hit it three times with agonizing delays between each hit. Things really get hairy if you plan to enter text. If you plan things in a particularly clever way, you might be able to enter three letters into an Apple TV search field within half a minute.
Unfortunately, Apple's own Remote app only works when its on the same local network as your Apple TV, so it typically can't be used to navigate around the device to the desired screen before enabling the Slingplayer Mobile app to begin playback. However, if you've ever wished for Apple to deliver a media box that can make your iTunes content available when you're away from home, the combination of the Apple TV, Slingbox and the new Slingplayer Mobile is currently the closest thing to that.
There's still some progress to be made; the Slingplayer Mobile remote needs to be fixed, as the Menu button can't remain stranded on its own page. The Menu button doesn't even always work consistently, making navigation of Apple TV painful and annoying. It would be particularly delicious if Sling could deliver a touch-based remote interface for Apple TV that didn't just pick up simple channel up and down swipes and left and right swipes that bring up favorites (neither of which apply to Apple TV), but instead enabled a smart overlay of finger controls that allowed users to simply point to the menu they wanted to enter, calculate the tedious hops needed to get there from the present menu location, and then send the appropriate up, down, and select signals back to the Apple TV.
That would open the Slingbox hardware and iPhone Mobile player to a wider audience of Apple users. It might also help them justify Slingplayer Mobile's $30 price tag, which may seem reasonable to other smartphone users accustomed to paying an average of $20 for popular mobile apps, but will mark the App Store version as a target for scorn among iPhone users who largely can't fathom any mobile app that costs more than $10.
Slingplayer Mobile isn't your typical simple doodle game however. The company has spent months bringing its player to the iPhone, and despite losing its battle to use AT&T's bandwidth, the company still needs to pay for its development. The company may likely find that it can sell many more copies of its app to the now nearly 50 million installed base of iPhone and iPod touch users than it can to the fifty or so different specific models of other smartphones it officially supports, justifying a discounted price. As many iPhone developers have discovered, setting a high price and then offering a discounted special offer is one way to safely determine what people are willing to pay.
On page 3 of 3: Working with audio and video settings; Overview; and Rating.
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