SlingPlayer for iPhone: Good idea comes up short

SlingPlayer for the iPhone

SlingPlayer for the iPhone

iPhone owners can now watch live television with the iconic smartphone, thanks to a new application from Sling Media, the makers of the Slingbox. But the feature has some serious drawbacks and limitations.

Sling announced in January that it would be releasing an application for the iPhone that would work in tandem with its Slingbox devices. Those devices attach to cable and satellite set-top boxes and allow users to watch both live and recorded television programs from them on Internet-connected devices, such as PCs and some phones.

Sling’s decision to bring the feature to the iPhone appeared to address a big hole in the lineup of Sling-compatible devices as well as a sizeable gap in the iPhone’s features. Although you can buy many recently aired TV episodes in Apple’s iTunes store and watch some others through the YouTube and Joost applications, you generally can’t watch live television programming on the device.

I’ve only tested a beta version of the SlingPlayer application, but it generally works as advertised. I used it to tune in live television from my Dish Network DVR box as well as programs that I had previously recorded. The beta version actually worked over the 3G network and displayed a decent, if not great, picture.

But the application comes with some important caveats. Most notably, you can’t use it unless you have a Slingbox. That means that if you want to be able to watch live or recorded television, you need to shell out at least $180 for Sling’s low-end box .

And then you have to figure out how to hook it up, which is not necessarily an easy task. I had to have several phone and email conversations with Sling’s customer service folks to figure out how to hook up my Slingbox review unit to my Dish set-top box. The customer service folks were very helpful, but I rarely require that kind of help in setting up other products.

Even once you bought a Slingbox, you have to pay still more for the Slingplayer. Sling is charging about $30 for the application. That’s expensive for an iPhone app, considering that many programs in the store are free and few cost more than $5 or $8.

But it’s also expensive compared with iPhone applications that have similar features. The YouTube application, for instance, comes pre-installed on the iPhone and you can download the Joost one for free. CBS charged $5 for its program that allowed users to watch any game in the NCAA basketball tournament. Meanwhile, Simplify Media is charging just $3 for its Simplify Music application, which streams music from your iTunes library on your computer to your iPhone.

But the program is not just pricey, it’s also hobbled. Thanks to AT&T, you can’t use the program on the carrier’s WiFi network. You can only use it in a WiFi hotspot. That obviously severely limits where you can use the application and may well mean that you can’t use it where you’d like to.

Want to watch “Oprah” on your iPhone while you’re working out? Unless your gym has a WiFi router, you’re out of luck. Do your kids want to watch “Dora The Explorer” while you’re in the car? Sorry. You can’t do it with the iPhone’s SlingPlayer application.

Another important limitation is that Sling isn’t guaranteeing that the application will work with any Slingboxes except its latest ones. That’s not to say it won’t work at all, but the company won’t support them on the iPhone. So if you can’t get them to work, you won’t be able to call the company’s technical support lines and expect them to help you out.

Setting those concerns — cost, the ban on using it over the 3G network, lack of support for older Slingboxes — aside, I had some other issues with the SlingPlayer. (Note, again, that my experiences were with the beta version; the final version may improve some of these issues below.)

First, it was just darn slow. There was a noticeable lag time of a couple seconds between pressing the “up” button, say, and seeing my DVR scroll up through a list of recorded shows. What that meant was that it was hard to scroll through lists without pressing the “up” button one too many times.

The other problem was that at least with the beta version and the way my home Slingbox was configured, and I didn’t have access to all the same controls that I have on my DVR remote.

One of the cool things about my Dish DVR is that there are buttons to jump forward in a show by about a minute and jump back about 15 seconds. I couldn’t do that with the SlingPlayer application. Instead, I had to randomly fast forward and hope (again, accounting for the lag time) that I was able to get to the spot I was seeking in the show I was watching.

One nitpick I have is simply with the interface, which probably can’t be helped.

With the SlingPlayer application on a computer, you get a virtual remote control beside a window duplicating what would be on your home television screen. Ideally the virtual remote is identical to the physical remote you have in your house — it looks the same and has the same buttons — and you use it the same way to navigate the menu on your set-top box.

In contrast, the iPhone SlingPlayer application doesn’t attempt to duplicate your home remote control. That’s probably wise — there isn’t enough screen real estate to really do justice to a virtual remote.

The SlingPlayer's buttons overlaying a DVR menu

The SlingPlayer's buttons overlaying a DVR menu

Instead, the iPhone application layers important controls over the video  feed. That’s fine when you’re just watching TV. But it becomes annoying when these controls are layered over the menu screens from your DVR or set-top box. That’s because you end up having buttons on top of buttons.

My natural inclination was to want to actually press the buttons being displayed in the menu screens from my DVR — rather than using the Slingplayer’s buttons to navigate them.

But again, that’s a nit.

As is probably clear from all this, I’m very ambivalent about the SlingPlayer application for the iPhone. I love that it allows you to finally be able to watch live TV and your own recorded programs. But I hate that you can’t use it over the 3G networks. And I think it’s pretty pricey.

If you’ve already got a Slingbox and an iPhone, it’s probably worth it to go ahead and get the application, despite the cost. If you don’t yet have an application, you’re probably better off waiting for Hulu to come out with its own iPhone application or for YouTube to add more television programming to its site.

 

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