SlingPlayer Finally Lands on the iPhone, Sans 3G

sling_main_controlsIt’s finally here: The long-awaited SlingPlayer app for the iPhone is about to land in Apple’s App Store. I spent some time testing out a pre-release version of the application, and — for the most part — I like what I see. But there are some notable omissions that are likely to vex some users.

SlingPlayer for the iPhone lets you view the contents of your Slingbox-connected TV on your iPhone; it’s similar to the company’s existing apps for BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS and Symbian phones. Like those apps, this one costs $29.99 — which, to me, is one of its biggest downfalls. After all, you need a Slingbox to use it, so you’ve already shelled out at least $180 for that. (The iPhone app is designed to work with new Slingboxes, like the PRO-HD or SOLO. Older Slingboxes, such as the Classic, AV and TUNER models, will work with the app, but will not be officially supported by Sling.) I wish the mobile app was included in that price.

Unlike the other mobile SlingPlayer apps, though, the iPhone version is restricted to Wi-Fi wireless networks, something that has reportedly been a point of contention in even getting this app released. Sling demonstrated the app running over a 3G connection earlier this year, so we know the functionality is there. But recent reports suggested that AT&T (the exclusive carrier of the iPhone) heavily pressured Apple to reject the app because of concerns over the amount of bandwidth it would use. AT&T even changed its user terms of service to restrict the use of mobile video apps, but then retracted those changes. Sling won’t comment on the specifics, but now that the app is finally available, 3G access is absent.

sling_stretchedOver Wi-Fi networks, though, SlingPlayer for iPhone works well. I tested it using various demo Slingboxes set up by the company for media purposes, and found the video quality was very good, especially when watching live TV. The video was clear, and the audio was always in sync. When I used it to access content stored on DVRs connected to those remote TVs, the quality stumbled a bit, though. Video occasionally looked smeared, and content that looked as though it should be in HD was oddly misshapen; the screen seemed to be smushed, making people look taller and thinner than they should be. (Sling says this is a bug caused when using a component input, and notes that a fix will be issued in the first update.) The video only displays in landscape mode on the iPhone; the accelerometer will flip it over when you move the phone, but it won’t display in portrait mode.

sling_controlsThe iPhone’s touchscreen is nicely integrated into the app: You swipe up and down to change channels, or side to side to scroll through your favorites. You tap the screen once to get the controls to appear; my only complaint with this is that you then have to tap again to get the remote control to appear on-screen. I wish you could tap the screen once and get instant access to it. There is a noticeable delay when switching channels or when accessing content on a remote DVR, but that’s to be expected. The delay does not make it unwatchable, but it does make using the controls on a remote DVR a challenge. By the time your content starts fast-forwarding, for example, it’s already past the time to stop.

The inability to use the app at all when you don’t have access to a Wi-Fi network is a bummer, to be sure, but it’s not a deal breaker for me. You’re likely to get better performance over Wi-Fi anyway. What’s more bothersome to me is the price. Nearly $30 is a lot to ask of people who’ve already paid almost $200 — or more — for a Slingbox. If you have a Slingbox and an iPhone, though, you’ll want this app. I would.