Monday, June 05, 2006

Orb vs. Sling

A few months ago, SlingBox began advertising on 810 WHB, the radio station I tend to listen to the most. The ads said that using their device, I would be able to watch my living room TV from anywhere in the world with my laptop or Windows cell phone. The drawback to me was the $250 price tag.

I started doing some research on this device to see if it might be worth trying. I could see situations where it would be nice to be able to watch TV when I’m not home. I spend a lot of time at the ball park watching my kids’ baseball and softball games. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to watch my child’s game while also watching the Royals game?

I discovered another option for “place shifting,” a free download call Orb. Orb isn’t a device like the SlingBox. Rather, it is software that runs on a computer that has a TV tuner card installed. I have an older PC at home with a tuner card, so I decided to try it. The download and installation are very simple and I had Orb up and running within minutes.

The Orb software scans your computer for music, photos, and videos and also accesses your TV tuner card. To access your media remotely, you log into the Orb web site, and it presents web pages that allow you to select what you want to access. For example, if I have the MP3’s for Van Halen’s 5150 CD on my home computer, I will be able to select that album from the Orb web site and the site will send a signal to my home computer to begin streaming the audio file back up through Orb’s server and down to my remote computer.

This works pretty well for audio and for viewing pictures. For Live TV, Orb interfaces with a TV listings service. You tell it where you live, and what kind of TV system you have (for example, basic Time Warner Cable in Kansas City). Then, when you log into your Orb site, you can see what’s currently on, click on a show and Orb will send a signal to your TV tuner card to change the channel and begin streaming it to your remote computer or cell phone to be played with Windows Media Player.

I didn’t have much luck with Live TV through Orb. Perhaps it is because my home computer isn’t very powerful by today’s standards. The picture was always very pixilated and typically very choppy until it just quit all together. I also found that after selecting a channel, for some reason Orb would then mysteriously go up one channel.

I tinkered with Orb off and on over a couple of weeks, then decided to try the SlingBox. The SlingBox is a small device that looks a little like a chocolate bar. Simply put, you connect your television input (cable TV, satellite receiver, etc) to the SlingBox then plug it into your home network and viola; it becomes a TV streaming machine.

I’ve been extremely impressed with the SlingBox. I have the most basic configuration. I connected my cable TV coaxial line directly to the SlingBox. I then configured the SlingBox for remote viewing (you don’t have to enable it to be viewed over the internet, you could use just over your home network to allow you to use your computer to watch TV anywhere in the house). One advantage of the SlingBox over a service like Orb is that Sling Media is investing a great deal in developing their own streaming technologies. To watch SlingBox, you must install their SlingPlayer on the computer you’d like to use to watch TV. When you install the SlingPlayer, it steps you through a wizard to determine how to provide the best picture for you.

I watch a lot of sports, and a frustrating thing about typical video streaming is that the small score box at the top of the screen is very pixilated and unreadable. Sling’s streaming technology seems to detect where text is on the screen and enhances it so that it is readable. As an example, I was watching Fox News Channel earlier tonight, and the news crawl at the bottom of the screen was crystal clear even though I could see some pixilation in the rest of the picture. The streaming technology also constantly monitors data transfer rates and adjusts the stream to provide the best possible picture.

The SlingBox is itself a tuner, so nothing else is needed to watch cable TV. When you use SlingBox as the tuner like this, channel changes are almost instantaneous.

If you have a cable set-top box or satellite, then you would want the SlingBox to be able to control your receiver. The SlingBox can handle this. In this situation, you can connect your cable or satellite receiver to the SlingBox, and then attach an included IR blaster to your receiver. When you configure the SlingPlayer, you can specify what brand of receiver you have, and it will provide a virtual remote that looks just like your remote control. Click a button on the virtual remote, and the SlingBox will send the correct IR code through the IR blaster to activate your receiver. This allows you view your guide, change channels and otherwise control your receiver. This also works with TIVO boxes.

We have Time Warner Cable’s DVR service at our house. If I chose to, I could connect my SlingBox to the DVR and could then view recorded shows remotely, or better yet, program the DVR to record a show if I forgot to do it when I was at home.

Sling Media is also hard at work creating versions of their SlingPlayer for all platforms. I am currently using the SlingPlayer Mobile application to view watch TV on my T-Mobile MDA PocketPC phone. Sling has just released the beta version of their player to run on a Windows SmartPhone. They are also working on Apple versions.

Using T-Mobile’s EDGE network, I’ve found that I’ve been able to view full screen video with a pretty decent picture. Of course, EDGE isn’t as fast as an Ethernet network, so there is more pixilation in the picture, but text on the screen is very clear.

The best part is Sling recently reduced the price of the SlingBox to $199. I wish I had invented this little box.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, I was just wondering how that stuff worked. At first I was of the mind that I wouldn't really want this technology but I could certainly see its usefulness if I had a good PDA. Anyway, thanks.