You're sitting in your Tokyo hotel room on a business trip and the only English channel on TV is CNN. But you don't care, because you've got a direct line back to your living room. You open your laptop, and suddenly you're flipping through your TV channels and seeing live American TV just as though you were on your couch. You can even access your TiVo and all its recordings. When you get back home, you can tune in ESPN on the laptop while you're grilling in the backyard.
Where digital video recorders brought us time-shifting-watching what you want when you want-a pair of new services introduce place-shifting: watching what you want where you want.
The idea of streaming media from your PC out into the world isn't exactly novel, but it's finally becoming useful for the masses. Orb Networks launched as a $10-a-month online streaming media service last November, then dropped the fee in March. And now the long-delayed Slingbox has arrived, a $250 gold-ingot-shaped device that sits between your cable box or DVR and your home network and feeds video over the Internet, with no additional monthly fees.
Orb and Slingbox have several similarities but also substantial differences. I brought my laptop to Starbucks, ordered a Venti, and put them to the test. See the facing page for my results.
From your pc to any device
Who it's for
Anyone with a PC-it's free!-but those with Media Center PCs or TV tuner cards will get the most from it.
What it does
Install the free Orb software on your home computer (PC only, although Mac and Linux versions are coming) and access all of that computer's media over the Internet. This includes live TV (if your PC has a compatible tuner card), video files, audio files and digital photos. You can also check out a webcam feed from home, schedule recordings on your home
PC (a free program guide is included), and listen to Audible audio books. Because Orb is a Web-based application, you
can view your stream on any computer (Mac included), Web-enabled phone or non-Palm PDA. Dell's Axim 50v Pocket PC provided an excellent picture during my Starbucks experiment.
Easy. The installer accurately located the media files on my home computer, asked just one simple question about my TV tuner source, and voil-I was streaming. On the road, you can access the media through any Web browser.
How it works
Audio and video quality will depend on how fast your Internet connection is, but overall I was impressed. Even on slow connections, audio plays smoothly and photos load quickly. Video was consistently smooth over broadband, especially when watching in a small on-screen window, as opposed to full-screen. The online program guide is helpful, but you have to load a new Web page for each channel and then click "Play."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.