You're sitting at a café in the north of Italy, sipping a Cappuccino and wirelessly accessing your email on an iPad.
Because you have some time to kill before your business meeting, you decide to access your TV — back in Chicago where you live — and use your fingertips to pull up a live Bears game, followed by prerecorded episodes of American Horror Story.
This is possible because you a Slingbox back home, which allows you to watch all of your local television shows on your Internet-connected laptop, smartphone or tablet — and even change channels as if you were sitting in front of the boob tube back on your favorite La-Z-Boy.
It doesn't matter if you're in another room, down the block or halfway around the world, the Slingbox lets you access all your local TV programming — with no monthly fee.
The ability to watch your local television anywhere is commonly referred to as "place-shifting," as you don't need to be at the place where you typically watch your television programming. And if your cable or satellite TV box also has a built-in digital video recorder (DVR) -- which lets you record television shows, movies and sporting events to watch on-demand at a later time -- you can access all of this pre-recorded content on your Slingbox, too (and yes, Tivo is supported, as well). Watching content when you want is referred to as "time-shifting," of course.
I recently test-drove the just-launched, top-of-the-line model: the Slingbox 500 ($299.99).
As with previous models, you'll connect to your set-top TV box at home (cables included) to the back of the Slingbox, and you'll also join the Slingbox to your high-speed Internet connection. In other words, the Slingbox is a liaison between your TV and broadband Internet service.
The Slingbox 500 is the first model with integrated Wi-Fi — so you don't have to use a wired (Ethernet) cable, though it's still an option — plus it offers 1080p HD video streaming for the first time. The previous model was limited to 720p HD video, and this new box also supports HDMI cables for the first time.
Along with connecting your TV box, you can also plug in many different components into the back of the Slingbox and control them remotely, such as a Blu-ray player or camcorder — though I didn't test that for this review.
Now that you've set up the hardware, you'll want to install the SlingPlayer software on your computer (Windows or Mac), which is free, or download one of the SlingPlayer Mobile apps for Apple's iOS devices (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad), Google's Android and Windows Phone — so that you can watch your local, live TV on the handheld device. Problem is, you need to cough up an additional $14.99 for the app, which is disappointing. If you're spending $300 on the hardware, the least the company can do is throw in the app.
Changing channels works well by using the mouse to click on numbers (or your fingertips for smartphones and tablets), or you can easily create custom shortcut buttons that run along the bottom of the SlingPlayer software. Unlike the last version of Slingbox, you don't need to attach the small IR blaster in front of your cable or satellite box in order to access your TV programming — now the Slingbox has integrated IR emitters for controlling the set-top box.
You can also pull up your television's electronic program guide (EPG) to see what's on TV and set the DVR to record (if you have one). Video quality is very good, though if there's a lot of Internet congestion your video might temporarily look blurry or garbled for a few seconds.
Do note, however, if your significant other or kids are watching the same Slingbox-connected television at home, they will see the channels change on their TV, too. Yes, so you may find yourself fighting for the remote 5,000 miles away. For this reason, you might choose to install the Slingbox on a secondary television.
Another feature with the Slingbox 500 is called SlingProjector, where you can wirelessly display your personal media -- such as photos and videos — beamed from your smartphone to the big screen (think Apple's AirPlay, DLNA or AllShare).
Overall, the Slingbox 500 an excellent compliment to your home theater -- especially if you spend any time away for business or recreation. This product is also ideal for "snowbirds" who flock from the northern states or Canada to the south every winter.
If you don't care about Wi-Fi connectivity or the SlingProjector feature, you might opt for the less expensive Slingbox 350 for $179.99.