Research in Motion hasn't added a TV tuner to any of its popular Blackberry devices but Sling Media just introduced software that enables Slingbox owners to watch content from their home TV on a Blackberry connected to the AT&T or T-Mobile networks. The company is working on a version for other Blackberries and it's likely to announce an iPhone version at next week's Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
The Slingbox, which was first introduced in 2005, already offers software that works with Windows Mobile and Palm smart phones. The Slingbox also allows you to watch TV on an Internet-connected Windows or Macintosh laptop or desktop PC.
To use the service you must first connect a Slingbox to whatever source you use for TV. It can be a cable or satellite box or a Tivo or other personal video recorder (PVR). The $300 Slingbox Pro HD has a high-definition tuner and four video inputs so it also allows you to connect it to an antenna for over-the-air signals as well as to a DVD player. The $180 Slingbox Solo connects to a single standard or high definition input source.
The Pro allows you to watch programming in HD on a remote device while the Solo down-samples the signal to standard definition which, frankly, still looks pretty good on a tiny smart phone or even a small laptop screen.
There are no monthly fees to use a Slingbox but Sling Media typically charges $30 for software to use it on a mobile device. For a limited period, the Blackberry software can be downloaded for free.
I borrowed a Slingbox Pro HD and connected it to the Dish Network PVR in my living room. After downloading and configuring the software for both the Blackberry and my laptop PC, I was able to watch live TV and recorded shows. I was also able to use both the Blackberry and the laptop to reprogram the PVR away from home, selecting new shows to record. Of course, if someone is watching a show remotely via the Slingbox, anyone sitting in front of your home TV will be watching the same show unless you're using an alternative input source such as the dual tuner that you get with some personal video recorders.
One might ask why someone would want to be able to watch their home TV programs from a smart phone or laptop. As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons.
For one thing, it's a relatively easy and cost-effective way to distribute TV around the home. My indoor exercise bicycle is in a room that doesn't have a TV or satellite box but I can now prop by laptop on the bike's handlebars and watch my favorite TV shows while I burn up calories. If the device you're using to watch the program is on the same home wired or WiFi network as the Slingbox, the picture quality is quite good because you're streaming the video at the full speed of your home network. Sling also sells the Slingcatcher ($300) that lets you watch programs on a remote TV anywhere on your home network. The Slingcatcher also lets you watch internet video from a PC or video files from an external USB hard drive.
Another use for the Slingbox is to be able to enjoy your home local programming -- including local sports programs -- from the road. Most hotels now have WiFi so instead of turning on the hotel TV; you can watch your own TV shows on your laptop. It does require a broadband Internet connection so forget watching shows from a plane unless you happen to be on. College students living away from home could access watch their home TV programs from a dorm room.
I can also think of a few reasons to watch the Slingbox from a smart phone such as a Blackberry. When I go to the YMCA, I usually have to wait in line to get access to a treadmill or elliptical machine with a TV but if I have my Blackberry with me, I can watch my own TV. I have a friend who uses his Windows Mobile device to access his Slingbox on busses and commuter trains or when waiting for a plane to take off. I'm not a big fan of letting kids watch TV from the car (I'd rather they look out the window and talk with other occupants) but it certainly is now possible to hand them your smart phone and let them watch shows while you drive.
Of course, you do need a good 3G connection to the Internet which may or may not be available depending on where you are but as I rode (yes, someone else was driving) around Silicon Valley, I had an excellent signal and an excellent view of my home TV, albeit on a very small Blackberry screen.
By Larry Magid