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Wednesday, May 13, 2009, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone: an in-depth review


Working with audio and video settings

How a video program is displayed in Slingplayer Mobile depends upon how it is broadcast or sent to the Slingbox; some cable channels nearly take up the iPhone's full display, while others are rendered as video surrounded by a large black margin of dead pixels (below). There's no option to zoom the display on the iPhone, but you can enable a letterbox mode that puts the video into a stretched format with even more black margin, which might be desirable for watching movies. All video (and all navigation and menus) of the SlingPlayer mobile app are presented in full widescreen mode, and it doesn't really make sense to expect something different.

Slingbox


In addition to switching the remote video device feed, the mobile video player's Options menu (below) also presents that Standard Quality mode that reduces video quality slightly to make it work better on a less than optimal network connection. If you are only passively following a program, there's also an audio only mode that blanks the screen and devotes your bandwidth consumption to providing a usable audio signal. While in audio only mode, you can even blank the screen with the top button to extend your phone's battery.

The program's volume isn't muted by the iPhone's silence switch, so expect something embarrassing and loud to be playing when you enable the app in mixed company. The only way to quiet it down is using the volume switch or online volume touch controller, which often takes long enough to reveal to your friends that you were last watching Lifetime or the Home Shopping Channel.

Slingbox


If the app is busy sending a command, like your frantic effort to change the remote channel, it might not even immediately work to push the volume switch. The application's volume slider control is also independent from the system volume set by the physical volume switch, so if the app is turned all the way down, you might end up increasing the volume with the switch without getting any audio; make sure both are set properly.

A final Options menu button offer to provide access to Help, which thankfully opens up an iPhone-optimized page of information without dumping you out of the application and into your browser, although after you close out of help you have to wait a few moments to reconnect to your remote Slingbox.

Changing other settings requires you to disconnect and enter the Settings menu from the front page. These menus let you select a home TV channel for startup to prevent potential embarrassment, and allows you to configure audio settings to use either high or standard quality audio in either stereo or mono, to suit your available bandwidth.

Overview

The early version of the Slingplayer Mobile application we have been testing seems stable and very usable, even despite the clumsiness of navigating via a remote control relayed over the Internet. Video quality is adequate for watching TV or movies and the default standard sound quality is fair. There shouldn't be any illusions that Sling Media has unlocked some special magic to tunnel HD video and pristine audio back out the slow end of your ISP's cable, but if you're accustomed to viewing YouTube videos on the iPhone, you'll be pleased with the video that comes from the Slingbox.

Unless you are already a Slingbox user, the new iPhone software might not be enough to temp you into signing up for a new Slingbox device, given that the iPhone can't access it anywhere over 3G. Of course, that's no problem to iPod touch users who aren't tethered to AT&T in the first place, nor a real issue to many iPhone users who have turned off their 3G support due to the combination of scant service and poor battery life, nor original iPhone users who couldn't realistically expect to coax video across EDGE anyway.

Sling says owners of an existing Slingplayer Mobile software license for another platform can transfer that license to the iPhone version for free, but we haven't heard exactly how that process will be handled. If you've already bought a mobile viewer, contact the company for details before snatching it from the App Store, and you could save yourself $30 (or 18 pounds, if you're in the UK).

If you'd like to access your TV channels and media boxes from work or school or anywhere else that already provides a WiFi signal, the new playback app might be right up your alley. If you're hoping to pair it with Apple TV to deliver your home iTunes content to you while you travel, you might want to keep an eye on Sling Media's progress in delivering improved support for Apple TV, which at present is still something we'd only describe as experimental.

Existing Slingbox users of earlier models will be relieved to find that while Sling Media doesn't officially support the use of the new Slingplayer Mobile app with those older models, it does not disable support. This includes the discontinued Slingbox Classic, AV, and TUNER models. The company doesn't guarantee that future updates of the iPhone app or Slingbox firmware updates will continue to work, so users of legacy Slingbox devices will definitely want to make sure subsequent updates aren't applied until they are confirmed to work by other more adventurous users.

Rating 4 out of 5

4 out of 5


Pros

Delivers watchable video from your home to your iPhone or iPod touch from anywhere you have WiFi service
Mobile app configuration and setup is easy enough to do without a manual
Basic touch support and widescreen playback provide better navigation and video viewing than other devices
Free upgrade to existing Slingbox Mobile users
Delivers a way to stream home iTunes content from Apple TV to your iPhone

Cons

Limited to WiFi by the App Store
$30 price might induce sticker shock in iPhone users
Early version stable but needs navigation enhancements

Where to buy a Slingbox

SlingMedia: $179 to $299
Amazon: $148 to $239

Where to download SlingPlayer Mobile

Apple's App Store: $29.99