Mobile computing: Television to go

No more VCR, no more tapes. You can now watch your favorite programs from anywhere in the world.



From the November 2007 issue of the magazine.


Are you being remote-controlled by your TV? If you’re still setting up your VCR to record shows on tape whenever you’re away from home and dutifully waiting until you’re back to see the programs you’ve missed, the answer is yes. You might not like to admit it, but your TV is clearly the boss.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Several nifty devices allow you to take your TV programs on the road with you and watch them at your leisure, whether you’re sitting in a coffee shop or riding in a taxi. One technology goes even further and allows you to watch your home TV from anywhere with an Internet connection. If you’re in Shanghai and you want to catch a Toronto Blue Jays game as it is played half a world away, you can tune into your home TV and do just that.

An easy way to take your programs on the road with you is to record them on a data card. The V-Mate from SanDisk ($150) is a wallet-sized box that plugs into a video source such as your cable box or DVD player. (Like all the products mentioned in this column, it can be found at major electronics retailers such as Best Buy or Future Shop.) The V-Mate records video onto a removable data card, such as a postage-stamp-sized SD card or a Sony Memory Stick. The V-Mate can squeeze up to 3.5 hours of programming onto a single 1 GB data card, giving you plenty of space for multiple episodes of Lost. (Most data cards, like the ones that come with many cell phones, store 512 MB or 1 GB. If you need more space, larger capacity cards cost about $70 per GB.)

Once you’ve recorded your video, you can plug the data card into your laptop computer, your PlayStation Portable, or any other media player that has a compatible card slot. The V-Mate can also export video to mobile phones with multimedia capabilities. It comes equipped with presets for several smart phones from Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. Or you can use a manual setting to customize it for devices that are not explicitly mentioned in its presets. For example, I recorded a show using custom settings so it would play from the micro-SD card that came with my BlackBerry 8800 smart phone.

If recording to data cards sounds way too geeky for you, you may want to resort to something more familiar. How about recording your TV shows to DVD? You can then take the DVDs with you and play them back on your laptop or any DVD player attached to a TV.

Panasonic offers a line of recorders that allow you to burn your TV shows onto recordable DVDs. The budget-end DMRES16S ($230) records programs straight to DVD, while the more luxurious DMREH55S ($600) includes a 200 GB built-in hard drive. This massive hard drive can store up to 355 hours of programming so you can keep a heap of shows on hand, then transfer them to DVD when you have time. Each recordable DVD disc can store up to eight hours of programming.

If you like the TV-to-go idea, but don’t want yet another gadget to worry about, then perhaps your next laptop computer should be one that can record TV. Many new laptops come preloaded with Windows Vista, a new operating system from Microsoft. Vista comes in many fl avors and the Home Premium or Ultimate versions include a built-in program called Windows Media Center that can record TV shows
when connected to a cable or satellite box. You can even buy laptops such as the Toshiba Qosmio G30 ($2,999), which come already equipped with Vista Home Premium, a remote control, and a TV tuner
as well as a 17-inch screen. If you already own a laptop, you can buy an add-on TV tuner for your laptop from Hauppauge called WinTV. Various WinTV models are priced between $70 and $150.

Perhaps the most elegant TV-to-go technology of them all comes from a California company called Sling Media. Its Slingbox gadget lets you take the TV programs in your living room with you anywhere you go. You connect the Slingbox to your digital cable box. Then you hook the Slingbox up to your high-speed Internet service. Finally, you load the Slingbox software onto your laptop. On the road, you connect your laptop to a high-speed Internet connection and call up the Slingbox software. The Slingbox back home pushes the television signal from your living room across the Internet to your laptop screen, so you are, in effect, watching your home TV on your computer screen. Also on screen is a virtual remote control so you can channel hop just as easily as if you were sprawled on your living room couch.

There’s only one catch: if someone back home is trying to use the PVR or DVD player when you do, you’ll be battling for the remote. Otherwise, though, the Slingbox is the answer to a road warrior’s dream. The basic Slingbox starts at $180. The Pro version ($300) can hook up to four sources, so that TVphiles can access their cable boxes, DVD players, personal video recorders and even VCRs and switch between them remotely.

Sling Media will take things a step further this fall when it introduces the SlingCatcher. This device frees you from watching your Slingbox TV content on your laptop. Once connected to the Internet, this little box receives the signal from your Slingbox back home and pipes it onto any screen, including your hotel room television. Price is expected to be around $225. Sling Media has also released mobile software to let you play your Slingbox streams on an Internet-connected Windows Mobile or Palm device ($35).

Tell your TV that times have changed. You are now the master

2 comments on “Mobile computing: Television to go

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