With some gadgets, there’s a “wow” factor that you can milk with each person you encounter. But when the “wow“s wear off, you’re sitting there with a device that doesn’t always have an everyday purpose. That’s my feeling with the Slingbox, a cool device that lets you watch your home TV — including your TiVo or digital video recorder — from any Windows computer or mobile device with a broadband Internet connection.

First, let’s look at the gee-whiz factor. If you’re over at a friend’s house, you could bring up your TV through Sling Media’s software installed on your friend’s Windows-based computer (Macintosh support coming soon…). Not only can you watch your home TV and its cable or satellite collection of channels, but you actually control the TV — changing channels, watching shows you’ve recorded on your DVR, setting up shows to record, etc.

And now, with SlingPlayer Mobile, you can watch your TV on smart phones with broadband Internet connections, like the Treo 700w lent to me by Sling Media, the company that makes the Slingbox. This is where you impress people at cafes, who stop to gawk as you watch TV on a mobile device and fast-forward through shows you’ve recorded. The software interface mimics your TV’s remote control, making it easy to learn to use. The only problem is that the lag time from you pushing a remote button and the TV responding is often so long that trying to fast-forward through commercials can be difficult to time. For instance, sometimes I would fast-forward through part of the show.

But a bigger problem is the complex setup required to get the Slingbox to work properly. It took me half a day to get my TV hooked up properly, and another half day to get the mobile application running. You have to run video and audio wires through the Slingbox, which sits on top of your TV, and then hook the Slingbox into your home network, which is required to get it to work. And that has to be a wired connection to your home network — no wireless — so you either are lucky enough to have your home network hub in your family room, or you need a very long wire.

(The other option is the Slinglink ($99), which I used, that extends your home network via your electrical wall plugs.)

Sling Media tries very hard to make this complex setup seem simple as 1-2-3, with a quick-setup guide that comes with the Slingbox promising just three steps. But you quickly notice that there is a step 1-A, step 1-B, etc., showing just how much more work really is involved.

Is There a Real Purpose Served?

So I got Slingbox up and running, I wowed friends and random folks, and… then what? Is this something I really need? If I forget to tape a show at home, couldn’t I call my wife and have her tape it? With all the TV shows now available on the web, can’t I just watch them online instead of having to set up a Slingbox?

I have a nagging suspicion that as cool as Slingbox is, it seems like a bridge technology — something to tide people over until they can access TV programs on their smart phones, on the Net and everywhere the Slingbox works now. However, you only pay once for a Slingbox ($250), and don’t have to pay for each show you watch or how much you use it. And of course 99.9% of the shows on cable TV aren’t available yet on the Net or via iTunes.

Sling Media has showcased some of its users’ extreme uses for Slingbox, including one person, J.W., who uses Slingbox to access all these video sources:

1. The DVD left in my DVR/DVD player
2. The recorded programs on my DVR’s hard drive
3. Cable TV (with channel changes)
4. Satellite TV (with channel changes)
5. Exterior home security camera
6. Baby monitor
7. Yet another wireless camera that I can move around the house or yard

OK, that’s cool, but how many people are going to figure out how to set all that up? For me, I did find one interesting use for Slingbox and the SlingPlayer Mobile. While sitting at work in my cubicle, I had the Treo handheld playing my home TV tuned to CNN, so I could check out breaking news stories as they happened during the day. But I have to admit that it can also be a bit of a distraction, too.

Philosophically, I like the idea of Slingbox taking the TiVo and DVR idea one step further by offering to “place-shift” your TV. This is something that the TV networks and rights-holders aren’t too thrilled about, as they like to control the environment and place where you get your TV. So anything that hands more control to the viewer is something I applaud.

Overall, I’d give the Slingbox a hearty recommendation for people who like to have the latest, greatest gadget, and who just can’t leave home without their cable or satellite TV and DVR setup — and who aren’t afraid of elaborate electronics setups. But for the rest of us, it’s probably not worth the hassle at this point.

Postscript: After returning my Slingbox and associated gear, I do admit to missing having it around. Not that I needed it, mind you, but it was definitely a cool toy to show off to people.

Slingbox: $250
Slinglink (home network extender): $99
SlingPlayer Mobile: $30
System requirements

(Note: I was given review units of all of the above for a limited time for free from Sling Media.)

Other reviews:

Slingbox sets your TV viewing free

Slingbox Video Streaming Not Perfect, but Remarkable

TV Here, There, Everywhere

Legal issue with Slingbox:

HBO Exec: Sling Slags Copyrights

Slinging Lessons

What do you think? Have you used Slingbox and do you think it’s worth the setup hassle? How do you use it?