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Review: Options for watching TV on the road

Sunday - 12/29/2013, 12:50am  ET

ANICK JESDANUN
AP Technology Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- If you are on the road and want to watch live TV and recorded shows on your phone or tablet, there aren't many easy options.

Although services such as Hulu let you watch television shows over the Internet, new episodes aren't typically available until the day after they air. Your cable or satellite TV provider may offer apps for watching, but the channels offered vary from provider to provider, and trying to figure out what's available when or where can be frustrating.

Instead, you can buy a gadget that gives you more flexibility and certainty. You can also subscribe to an online service called Aereo if you mostly watch over-the-air television and live in one of the markets it serves.

Here are a few options for TV on the go:

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-- Slingbox (starts at $180; apps for Apple, Android and Windows phones and tablets are $15 each, free on personal computers):

Video cassette recorders and digital video recorders give us the gift of time shifting. Rather than watching a show when it airs, you can view it at a later time of your choosing. The Slingbox introduces us to place shifting. You watch a given show at a place of your choosing. With the Slingbox, you can even combine the two: Watch a recorded show from a computer, phone or tablet anywhere in the world through an app called SlingPlayer.

I did just that while stuck in traffic in Birmingham, Ala., earlier this year. I was in the back seat and squeezed in an episode of a Showtime series by Oliver Stone. I watched a PBS documentary in my Montgomery hotel room and another while waiting for friends at a bar in New York. Thank you, unlimited cellular data plan.

Each Slingbox is attached to an account, so you can't access a stranger's Slingbox in London to watch BBC, for instance. But you can watch shows on your box while in London. As long as it's a show you can watch at home on the TV, live or recorded, you can usually watch it remotely through Slingbox. Some high-definition programs are blocked by the content provider, but a lower-quality version is often available with the right cables.

The SlingPlayer apps have on-screen remotes to change channels or navigate a DVR's menu. Unfortunately, the remotes are particularly cumbersome on phones and take getting used to.

Another drawback: Because the Slingbox mirrors the TV feed, someone at home can't watch a different show from what you're watching on the road. That person would need to find another TV, connect a separate set-top box or watch with you. You can really spook someone changing channels from afar.

The Slingbox is the most versatile of the three offerings I reviewed. It's also the only one to allow playback in slow motion.

But it's clunky at times. After hitting the on-screen remote, there's a noticeable lag before the channel actually changes. It's OK if you're watching a show straight through, but if you do a lot of rewinding and forwarding, you spend too much time waiting for the Slingbox to respond.

The Slingbox 350 sells for $180. The $300 Slingbox 500 lets you bypass a wired Internet connection and use Wi-Fi instead. It also has HDMI connectors and the ability to project videos and photos from your phone to the big screen.

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-- TiVo Roamio DVR (model with built-in streaming starts at $400, plus $15-a-month service fee):

TiVos are first and foremost digital video recorders. In recent years, TiVo Inc. has let you watch shows on phones and tablets while away from home if you download them before you leave. A new, free app lets you stream those shows on the fly, so you don't have to plan ahead with downloads. Video quality is poorer with streaming, though. You can also use this streaming feature to watch shows live.

Either way, just about anything you can record on your TiVo can be watched on the phone or tablet. Like the Slingbox, some programs are blocked by the content provider. For now, you're limited to iPhones and iPads with Wi-Fi connections. The feature is coming to Android next year. Streaming over cellular networks is coming as well, though you can currently download over cellular if you have a good enough data plan.

I've had occasional log-in problems or unspecified errors, but the feature's great when it does work. There's no awkward on-screen remote with TiVo. I simply tap the show I want and hit "Watch Now." I caught up on "American Horror Story" that way this weekend.

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