What if FedEx and United Parcel Service replaced their unexciting panel trucks with helicopters? Packages would arrive at our doors somewhat...

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What if FedEx and United Parcel Service replaced their unexciting panel trucks with helicopters? Packages would arrive at our doors somewhat faster, and deliveries would become major events in the neighborhood.

But the extra speed and drama would hardly justify the huge cost of whirlybirds.

That’s how I feel about the Slingbox, an intriguing $249 gadget for sending live and recorded TV shows from your cable or satellite box to your home computer network as well as out through the Internet.

Tech geeks will be impressed by how well the Slingbox works, given the obstacles in its path. Everyone else will dismiss the product as overpriced and underperforming in a market filled with cheaper and better alternatives.

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Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Launched recently by San Mateo, Calif., startup Sling Media, Slingbox (www.slingmedia.com) has begun to reach retailers.

Just trying to explain the Slingbox is a chore, because it takes a fair amount of tech savvy to understand a concept the company calls “personal broadcasting.”

Here’s what you need before getting started with the Slingbox: a Windows XP computer; a home broadband connection, such as a cable modem or DSL line; and a network router hooked to your cable or DSL modem.

Slingbox specs


Model number: SB100-100

Dimensions: 10.6 x 1.6 x 4 inches

Weight: 1.5 pounds

Price: $249.99

Power requirements 110 volts

Although not required, you can’t take full advantage of the Slingbox unless you’ve got a Windows XP notebook computer and a Wi-Fi home wireless network.

If you’ve already got all these pieces, you’ve probably learned enough about home networking — willingly or not — to struggle through the complications of getting started with the Slingbox.

Watch where you want

What the Slingbox offers is “place shifting,” which allows you to watch a program somewhere other than the room where you’ve installed a cable or satellite box.

It’s a two-part solution, one part hardware and one part software.

The Slingbox is the hardware, a 10-inch-long silvery ingot that goes in the TV room. You plug it into a video source — such as cable or satellite box, or digital video recorder (DVR) — and your home network, as well as plugging the box into an AC outlet.

There are several ways to make the video connection: Slingbox has inputs for coaxial cable, composite video and S-video. To control the video source, you stick an IR emitter — a tiny light bulb on a long wire — in front of the remote-control receiver window on the source box.

You put the Slingbox on your home network through an Ethernet jack, which can be connected directly by cable to your router or, with optional adapters, through home power lines or wirelessly via Wi-Fi.

SlingPlayer is the software, which you install on any Windows XP computer where you want to view Slingbox video. The company is working on future versions for the Macintosh, cellphones and personal digital assistants.

Once you’ve installed the software, you have to dive deep into configuring your home router to allow Slingbox video stream to go out on the Internet.

Complicated setup

I had to spend about an hour on the phone with a helpful Sling Media executive to get the SlingPlayer fully functioning. My setup, which includes an older router and an adapter for voice-over-the-Internet phone service, is a bit more complicated than most. But the process will still be daunting for anyone intimidated by terms such as “IP Address,” “Port Forwarding” and “Network Address Translation.”

Once I got over the installation hump, the SlingPlayer worked as promised.

I could watch television programs, coming from my Comcast Motorola DCT6412 cable box, through the SlingPlayer installed on my Compaq Presario laptop, connected via Wi-Fi to my home network.

The SlingPlayer could even change channels.

I also connected through my laptop away from home, using the free wireless network at the public library and at a friend’s house by plugging into his DSL line through his router.

Video quality was good, not great. When connected at home, the picture filled one quarter of the computer screen, with slightly blurred images and motion.

At the library and my friend’s house, where the connection was limited by the slow upstream speed of my Comcast cable modem, picture quality degraded somewhat, and the audio was slightly out of sync.

My cable box also functions as a DVR, and the Slingbox could play back previously recorded programs. I was able to watch last week’s episode of HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” recorded a day earlier, on my laptop.

Not that HBO needs to worry about the Slingbox contributing to video piracy. The system is password-protected, and only one computer at a time can watch a Slingbox video stream.

One thing I liked is that the Slingbox runs independently. That means you can shut down all your home PCs when you’re away — a good thing for both security and energy efficiency — and still use a computer elsewhere to view programs.

Another plus is the absence of any monthly fee. A competing service called Orb Media (www.orb.com) from Orb Networks of Emeryville, Calif., briefly tried charging $10 a month and had to back down; that service is now free.

Where I’m stuck, though, is coming up with scenarios where the Slingbox makes sense.

There are certainly easier ways that deliver better-looking video for moving TV from one room of the house to another.

If you want to watch recorded programs away from home, you can get a home DVD recorder for less than $200 and put the programs on rewritable DVDs to watch on your laptop — again at much higher video quality.

The only situation where the Slingbox stands out is when you’re far from home and want to watch a live or recently recorded program, such a local sports broadcast, that isn’t available where you are — assuming you can access a broadband connection, and you’re toting a laptop.

Unless you’re on the road a lot, this doesn’t seem enough to justify spending $250 and working through a complicated install process.