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Sling Media is back: The original place shifter is launching two new devices in time for the holiday season, promising higher resolution and additional features that could eventually transform them into a home media hub. But the devil is in the details, as I found out during a somewhat painful test of the new Slingbox 500 – and the strategy to hold back on advanced features may eventually come back to hurt Sling.
First, here’s all you need to know about the new hardware in a nutshell: Sling has been an innovator in the space of place shifting, making it possible to stream your TV signal from your cable box to PCs and mobile devices inside and outside of your house. That’s pretty much what the new hardware offers as well, with some added bells and whistles: The new Slingbox 350 is an entry-level model that sells for $180. It’s essentially like the older Slingbox solo, but with a more compact form factor. Also new: Up to 1080p streaming and an integrated IR blaster, so you won’t have to fiddle with extra cables and anymore to control your set-top-box.
The Slingbox 500 adds an HDMI connection to the mix, making it possible to daisy-chain it between your cable box and your TV – something that may look familiar to anyone who has ever checked out a Google (s GOOG) TV device. And it has two USB ports, which will eventually offer the option to add external storage for personal media – more on that later. Sling has also redone its software, offering new players for mobile devices and the option to beam photo slideshows straight to your TV.
The value proposition
Sling’s media team recently invited me to a demo and briefing about the new units, and their pitch sounded pretty compelling. The basic gist of it: The Internet was supposed to make TV more convenient, but it got actually more complicated. You’ve got apps from operators that work inside your house, but not on the go, apps that have some content but not other shows and apps that work on some carriers, but not elsewhere “This isn’t TV Everywhere. This is TV all over the place,” Sling’s Vice President of Marketing Jay Tannenbaum told me.
Sling thinks that it’s instead easier to get back to the basic idea of place-shifting, which makes your entire TV subscription content available everywhere. Of course, this means that you still need a traditional TV subscription – Slingboxes have never really been about cord cutting, and the new iteration is even less so, as none of the new models features an integrated ATSC tuner capable of receiving over-the-air broadcasts. Sling plans to eventually sell an USB adapter for that purpose, but Sling’s Senior Vice President and General Manager Raghu Tarra told me that over-the-air usage in the past has been “in the single digits.”
The actual experience
Sling send me review units of both devices to test, which made me wonder: who of my friends still has cable? Eventually I found someone gracious enough to host me in his living room for a few hours, and I thanked him by unhooking all of his TV equipment – only to stumble onto a number of bumps on the road. I concentrated on the more capable Slingbox 500 with its HDMI ports – but quickly found out that HDMI simply wouldn’t work with the setup I had at my disposal.
The problem: Some TV operators encrypt the digital signal on HDMI, something that’s known as High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP. And in my case, using a Motorola set-top box leased by Comcast, (s CMCSK) every single channel seemed to be encrypted. Sling is anticipating these hick-ups and thus asking consumers to also connect the box via component cables.
These can theoretically transmit 1080p as well, but it’s unclear if every set-top box will serve 1080p via component. There is definitely one added step of converting the signal to analog and then back to digital, and in my case, the signal looked considerably worse. That alone is kind of a deal breaker for something you would permanently make part of all of your big screen TV viewing.
The other problem is that this fallback hook-up makes the whole set-up unnecessarily complicated, in my case adding probably an extra 40 minutes as I tried to figure out what exactly was going on with the HDMI signal. Said my host: “I would have put it back in the box 30 minutes ago.”
The bigger issue
Of course, I may have stumbled across the worst-case scenario. The Sling folks told me that Dish, (s DISH) for example, only encrypts its HBO channel via HDCP, and they hope that even that will eventually go away. “We don’t crack HDCP,” said Tannenbaum, adding that the company’s own encryption of streams could help to get studios more comfortable with place shifting. “We hope that this will open up a dialog,” he said.
But the bigger issue seems to me that Sling got its value proposition backward. It is launching with new devices that out of the box don’t add that much functionality over the previous generation. Sure, 1080p is nice, but matters little on a phone screen, and just a little more on an iPad.
Meanwhile, viewing has evolved, and the traditional place shifting approach may not work as well anymore as it used to. In many households, people are now watching multiple programs on multiple screens at the same time, with only one of them being a TV, and others including iPads and laptops. But with place shifting, everyone is still watching the same – your cable box simply can’t serve more than one stream, no matter the cable connecting it to the Slingbox.
Sling potentially has some solutions for these problems, as I was told that the box will eventually get access to a VOD service. The company is also looking into second-screen functionality, making use of the fact that its boxes are sitting in between your cable box and your TV, which could allow all kinds of overlays. However, don’t expect the Slingbox to turn into a full-blown media streaming device with a plethora of apps. “We don’t think the world needs another app store,” said Tannenbaum.
Where’s the vision?
And then there is the personal media angle. The new boxes include functionality for Airplay-like (s AAPL) photo slide shows from your mobile devices, and I was shown advanced functionality that inlcudes the ability to constantly synch all of your mobile phone’s personal media to a hard drive attached to your Slingbox – and then consume it on any screen. That’s neat, but doesn’t seem world changing. I already have two services backing up all my camera phone photos to the cloud, and a NAS for local copies. So why add yet another media hub to the mix?
Sure, you might say, that’s you – and admittedly, I’m not the average consumer (and being a cord cutter, not part of Sling’s target audience anyway). But I’d argue that the average consumer won’t spend $300 on a Slingbox either. Instead, they’re gonna just install the HBO Go app, and their cable company’s app, and find that it works well enough, despite all of the aforementioned shortcomings.
What’s missing from the new generation of Slingboxes is a vision. Something grand, something that would change TV like place shifting and time shifting have done in the past. The Slingbox 500 may technically be capable of delivering this, but and may get much better over time – but with its current iteration, it’s just a slightly updated version of something that was cool four years ago.