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Slingbox Moves Into the Living Room, Clumsily

A new model of the Slingbox, SlingTV, tries to put a modern interface on your big-screen TV. But I found it clumsy to set up and use.

For a decade, the Slingbox has had one mission — to allow you to view your home cable TV on PCs, tablets and smartphones while you’re away from home. And it has worked well, especially for live events, like sports, which people might rather see in real time, wherever they may be.

Now the product’s owner, Sling Media, is trying to evolve it from being purely an enabler of remote TV viewing, to playing a role in the living room, as well. It’s doing this by changing the product so it also can manage your in-home TV viewing by overlaying a modern interface onto your big-screen TV, controlled by its own remote. It also incorporates some Internet-based video apps alongside your cable shows, and has a few other bells and whistles.

This new, upgraded Slingbox is called the SlingTV, and I’ve been testing it for the past few days.

SlingTV costs $300, and is a rebranded version, with new built-in software, of the company’s former high-end model, the Slingbox 500. Like the 500, and the entry-level $150 Slingbox M1, it still enables the traditional remote viewing for which Sling is known.

Unfortunately, in my tests, I found SlingTV frustrating. It’s a nice bonus for Slingbox 500 owners, who will receive the added features as a free software upgrade. And, if you have $300 to spare, it’s a better interface than the one on most of the primitive cable boxes out there.

But if you’re looking for a slick, modern, intuitive interface for linear cable TV, or a seamless integration of cable and Internet video, this isn’t it.

First, the setup will prove daunting for many people. You have to feed your regular cable box (in my case, a TiVo) through the SlingTV to the TV itself, using an HDMI cable, the modern connector meant to replace the tangle of multi-headed cables that once were commonly used. But with SlingTV, you have to connect these older cables, too.

Second, you have to set up the unit on the screen, selecting your exact cable-box brand and model, which many people may not know.

If all of that succeeds, you should see a lovely, colorful grid of icons, called Media Gallery, representing shows playing now. This overlay has useful features, like filters for Sports, Movies and Family programs.

However, you may notice that every show on every channel you receive isn’t there. That’s because SlingTV presents shows based on an algorithm that relies on Twitter activity. So, if you want to see a show that isn’t popular on social media, it may not be there. To be sure that you see everything, you have to manually set up a “favorites” list of channels you like.

As of now, SlingTV’s selection of Internet video apps is sparse. It only offers Blockbuster’s video service and an international video service, both from Sling’s sister company, Dish Network. There’s no Netflix, no Hulu, no YouTube. The company says it’s working on adding more.

And these Internet sources aren’t integrated into the Media Gallery. You have to go to a different screen and select “Apps” to see them.

Then there’s the remote, a key part of the user experience. It’s missing important controls that people expect when controlling the full TV experience. For instance, there’s no standard channel up-and-down buttons. The arrow keys can change channels on some boxes, but not all. They didn’t do this on mine. Instead, you have to remember to punch in the channel number. There’s also no volume control.

SlingTV and its remote also can’t call up shows you’ve recorded on your cable-box DVR. For that (and for volume and channel-changing), you have to reach for your cable-box remote, which means that SlingTV users will need to keep two remotes handy. This is annoying enough when you’re using an add-on Internet streaming box, but it’s worse when the box purports to control linear cable TV, replacing your cable-box user interface.

Fortunately, in my tests, I was able to seize control of my TV with my TiVo remote, but doing that made SlingTV seem suddenly irrelevant in my living room.

SlingTV does have some nice added features. It can show you stats during televised football games, for instance. To see these, though, you have to leave the live game and return to the Media Gallery view. It also shows the Rotten Tomatoes ratings for movies.

You can also view your own movies and photos. But to do that, you must plug in a USB drive and go to a separate, geeky interface to see the media on the drive. And the company is planning to drop this feature altogether.

You can also beam programming from a Sling mobile app to a Roku, Apple TV or Chromecast, and this worked fine in my tests.

I also tested SlingTV as a traditional remote-viewing Slingbox, watching a Sunday NFL game from a coffee shop on both an iPad and a new iPhone 6. It worked fine over both Wi-Fi and cellular connections, and a new version of Sling’s iPad app was especially nice.

But given the limitations of its in-home experience, I’d say that Sling is still best used for this kind of remote viewing. And for that, the much-less-costly M1 model is more than sufficient.

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