Sling Media struck it big by simplifying a process that has been around for a while, but mostly in high-tech circles. There are free downloads available, like VideoLAN, that let you stream any video signal (as well as pictures and music) from your home PC over the Internet, but these applications typically require a host PC along with a deeper level of technological expertise than the general public is comfortable with. The Slingbox offers placeshifting functionality in a device that's about as complicated to set up as a cable box and doesn't require a host compter. Slingbox is flying off the shelves because it makes remote viewing accessible to the masses.
Sony's LocationFree TV is a comparable product -- it's $200 and it has very similar functionality. In addition to computers, LocationFree TV also directs a video signal to a PSP. TiVo Desktop lets you watch your pre-recorded TiVo programs on your PC, Internet-connected laptop or a wide selection of handheld media players. If you have a TiVo Series 2 box or a TiVo HD DVR and you don't need to watch a show in real-time, this could be a good way to go -- there's no additional hardware or service fees involved.
There are also some free downloads out there, such as Orb and VideoLAN, that let you watch your TV programming from a computer. VideoLAN is combination media player/server that supports both Linux and Mac OS in addition to Windows machines, and Orb can stream content to Web-enabled smartphones and PDAs in addition to computers.
To stay ahead of the competition, Sling Media is in constant upgrade mode. Sling Media offers an HD version of Slingbox. The Solo and PRO models can accept HD content, but they both down-convert the signal into a standard definition format before streaming it to your device. Only the Slingbox PRO-HD can stream HD content to other devices.
The big issue right now surrounding "placeshifting" TV is about copyright and digital rights issues. Like the music and motion-picture industries, the TV industry is concerned that people are going to be able to access their product for free. In the case of Slingbox, it's not just a concern about one person subscribing to HBO and giving their friends their Slingbox access codes so they can watch "Rome" without paying for it. The spatial nature of TV licensing adds another dimension to the risk. TV stations typically purchase program rights for a specific region, so "placeshifting" the TV signal infringes on regional access rights for certain shows. Sling Media says it's observing copyright and digital media laws because the Slingbox is a one-to-one transmission device. Slingbox owners can't broadcast a show to everyone they know. Only one person can access a Slingbox at a time, and if the device is used properly, only the person who pays for the programming can watch it. Only time will tell whether the TV industry will accept placeshifting technology like it ultimately accepted the "timeshifting" capabilities of TiVo and other DVRs.
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