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Cable and satellite operators are increasingly coming up with ways for subscribers to view their content beyond the living room – in other parts of the house or while out and about using apps on mobile devices. But there are also standalone devices that grant even more features and freedom.
Slingbox 500 (rating: 4/5)
The Slingbox has been one of my favourite gadgets since the first version was launched more than seven years ago. I have owned four boxes since then, which have allowed me to watch my favourite UK and US television programmes and live sporting events, wherever I am in the world, using any internet-connected computing device.
At home, one attached to my bedroom TV’s satellite box allows me to watch programmes on a tablet, smartphone or laptop anywhere in the house if, say, another family member wants to watch something else on our main TV.
The Slingbox works by connecting video cables to a cable or satellite set-top box, then transferring the signal to your home computer network or the wider internet. The picture can be watched in an app or a browser and channels changed using a replica onscreen remote control unit – touching or clicking on its buttons sends infrared control signals from the Slingbox to the set-top box.
The fresh look to the devices and accompanying updates to apps come in the nick of time – competing boxes have appeared in the interim and streaming services that need no box, such as the BBC’s iPlayer, had made the Slingbox look outdated.
I have been testing the 500 model and the main difference over the 350 and earlier models is that it can now transmit the signals over WiFi as well as a wired connection.
It also comes with its own remote control, mainly used for a much easier set-up process, and has improved video and audio quality through an HDMI connection.
In addition, the updated Slingbox 500 provides a picture with the extra sharpness you associate with high definition, although there is a trade-off of occasional stutters, freezes and jumps.
With the Slingbox giving me full access to the hundreds of channels on my satellite subscription, it still has an edge over online streaming services that offer less comprehensive access to programming. The new features and picture quality are also welcome improvements.
Belkin @TV Plus (rating: 3/5)
Since Slingbox’s launch, other remote TV viewing companies have followed its lead. The Vulkano Lava from Monsoon Multimedia launched in 2011 and offers similar features, while Belkin is the latest to come up with an alternative in the @TV Plus box ($149.99, £149.99).
The @TV’s cables connect to your set-top box and can use WiFi or a hard-wired Ethernet cable connection to send channels to a home network or the internet.
The @TV interface includes a TV programme guide and the ability to search for shows to watch. Like the Slingbox, it gave me a touch-sensitive onscreen replica of my satellite remote control unit, which controls the box through infrared sensors.
It has features the Slingbox lacks, including the ability for more than one person to access it at the same time on different devices (in-home only). It also allows recording of programmes – press the record icon and whatever is on screen is saved as an MP4 video file until you press stop or a set duration expires.
This can be useful for later viewing of a video offline but it is rather crude compared to a digital video recorder. I could not get the record function to work on Belkin’s $13 (£9) Android smartphone app. There is also an iPhone and iPod app for the same price, and tablet apps are free.
I got the best experience on my MacBook Air, where I had more control over the settings. The @TV’s picture is standard definition and noticeably fuzzier than that of the Slingbox, but it was acceptable and provided a smoother and more consistent stream.
Overall, the Slingbox 500’s picture is sharper and its software slicker, but the Belkin does a decent job at a much lower price.
Planet of the apps
What it is: Plex ($5, £3, Android, Apple devices, Windows Phone 7)
Why you should try it: Plex is an all-platform, all-purpose app for streaming the music, videos and photos stored on your computer to a smartphone, tablet or smart TV. Set-up is easy, the interface is wonderfully informative and the streaming adjusts perfectly to your available bandwidth. Channels can be added and a browser add-on lets video playlists be created easily for later viewing.
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