Monsoon Vulkano Flow Review - Place-Shifting Isn't Dead Yet

To say my experience in place-shifting is anything other than vast would be an understatement. After a year or two of playing around with Orb's PC software, I found my way into the beta for the original Slingbox (my full review here). It was a revolutionary device to say the least; with it you could bring your home television services with you anywhere you went. Our company provided the software for the beta forum, which morphed into the SlingCommunity website when the Slingbox launched. It's no more today, but I have fond memories of running that site for over five years.

Sling Media carved the path for place-shifting and remains the dominant player, but that hasn't stopped others from trying to get in on the action. Well, one other at least. Monsoon Multimedia, founded by the same guys who created Dazzle back in the 90s, started competing in the space several years ago with their lineup of Hava place-shifters. I checked out a demo during CES a while back, but always shied away from doing any reviews personally given my role at SlingCommunity. Instead, Doug Feltau did a review for DVRplayground, which is well worth a read if you want to learn more about it.

With SlingCommunity gone, and Sling Media no longer innovating in the consumer place-shifting space since being acquired by Dish Network (they haven't had a new retail product since the Slingbox PRO-HD launched in September of 2008), it's high time I take a look at what Monsoon's entry level place-shifter, the Vulkano Flow, has to offer.

The Vulkano Flow

Monsoon's Vulkano Flow competes directly with Sling Media's Slingbox SOLO, although retails at a much cheaper price point ($99 versus $179). Like its Slingbox rival, the Flow is a single source streamer offering an HD compatible component video, composite, and stereo audio. A video only source can also be connected simultaneously. However, with some stereo to mono adapters, you can technically get everything configured to let you switch between two A/V sources if you set the audio to block the left or right channel. Pretty cool of them to offer this in the settings, although I'd still prefer a dedicated set of audio inputs for the component inputs, making it a two source box.

Also like the SOLO, the component input is HD compatible, but it's maximum streaming resolution is SD only.

All the AV connections are on the back of the box, where you'll also find jacks for Ethernet and power. The Flow one-ups the Slingbox SOLO by offering integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi. It's a nice add, and no doubt many will appreciate it. Although if the Vulkano is a good distance away from your router, it's usability over Wi-Fi may be less than stellar.

On the side you'll find a USB port, as well as a button labeled "RSVD." This port is currently unused on the Flow, although it does absolutely work. Not only does it get power, but it also recognized a USB thumb drive that I stuck in there for fun.

It doesn't do anything interesting with it, but it does get power so you could use it to power something useful like a USB LED light.

There's also an SD card slot, used on some of their more feature rich models, covered with black tape.

On top you'll find a single light, a multi-colored LED that indicates network activity and whether or not it's in use. It's far less unobtrusive than the light on the Slingbox, but if you keep your components up high you won't be able to see it.

The Look

I always wondered why Sling never made their Slingboxes at a standard component width... and now I know why. The Vulkano is a husky box, almost unnecessarily so, although it sports a much, much thinner profile than the SOLO or PRO-HD (pictured below is the original Slingbox, Slingbox PRO-HD, and the Vulkano Flow).

It's not horribly unattractive, but whether or not you dig the pattern design on the top will depend on your personal preference. Personally, I would have much rather they made the top totally simple and flat (it slopes upwards as it goes back), so I could simply stack a few of my other smaller set-top boxes right on top of it, like an Apple TV or a Roku box.

The build quality is fairly cheap, made of relatively thin plastic that easily flexes when squeezed. It's not up to the same level as Sling's hardware, but it's certainly good enough (and again, less expensive).

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Setting It Up

I've set up a Slingbox at least a hundred times, either for me during testing or for friends and family. I've always found the experience to be pretty straightforward and not overly difficult. Setting up the Vulkano was a more frustrating experience, not because I couldn't figure it out, but because their setup program kept crashing or losing connection with the box.

The connection issue was likely a separate problem that seems to have been resolved (a network switch totally failed on me a few days after I set up the Vulkano, and since replacing it the connection issues seem to have gone away), but their setup wizard is fairly slow to respond and not always reliable.

It's not all terrible, however. In fact, from a configuration perspective, the Vulkano is very flexible.

For years I told Sling Media that the Slingbox was only useful to someone if it worked with their set-top. In other words, if Sling didn't have the IR code for your gear, your Slingbox was less usable than a paper weight. Only recently have they offered the means to custom learn IR codes (with some models) via an awful online wizard (the last time I used it).

Monsoon stuck an easy to find IR receiver right on the front, and integrated an IR learning wizard directly into the setup software. Shy of a total software crash here and there and a little bit of time, the learning procedure worked well. Now if they only add custom remote skins and custom button layouts for the on-screen remote, they'll be all set.

Of course, streaming your content outside of the home is likely one of your main goals if you're buying a device like the Vulkano, which means you have to set up your router to allow for incoming connections. Like Sling's software, the Vulkano software wizard can open up ports on your router for you via UPnP if your router is capable, which worked fine for me.

The Vulkano does not allow the user to change which incoming port it uses, unlike Slingbox which allows the user to set it to any port number they choose. On the plus side, however, it does open up two of them, so if one doesn't work the other hopefully will.

Like Sling, Monsoon has made it so you don't need to jot down your home IP address or buy a fixed on for your router in order to connect to the Vulkano from outside the network. Each Vulkano has a unique ID, which is regularly communicated (along with your current IP address) to Monsoon. When connecting remotely, the player will fetch your current IP from Monsoon and connect.

The Software

The main component to the Vulkano Flow is the Vulkano Player, which looks pretty much identical on both Mac and PC. It's look is what it is - black, dark gray, and slight orange accents; I found it neither hideous nor particularly attractive.

Looks aside, there are actually some pretty cool features here that are well worth mentioning.

Monsoon has followed in Sling's footsteps by integrating an EPG into their software client, so if you hook up a cable or satellite box (most likely what you'll be using it with), then you'll be able to avoid the remote control delays using the guide on the box. I didn't spend a whole lot of time in the guide, but it seemed to have correct data for my area and worked as intended.

Aside from the core functionality of streaming audio and video from a connected device to where ever you are, Monsoon has added some pretty slick features that Slingbox owners could only dream about. For example, the Vulkano player not only has a time buffer for things like instant replay, but it can actually record the stream to a video file on your hard drive. They have other models with better DVR functionality if that's what you're after, but this feature would let you (for example) record a few episodes of a show in advance for offline viewing on a flight.

Another interesting ability is allowing the box to multicast to one or more clients, so long as those clients are located on the same physical network. Remote streaming is limited to one connection at a time (although I bet I could get it to work with mulitple remote clients using a little VPN voodoo if I had the inclination).

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Use and impressions

As an honest to goodness cord-cutter, I've recently abandoned my cable box and switched to an HTPC for over the air recording and online video streaming from sources like Hulu and Netflix. For my tests I was able to set up the Vulkano to control an HP Media Center Extender for my TV tuning capabilities, with the added benefit of being able to access and stream video, photos, and audio remotely from my Home Server. I was extremely pleased with the remote programming process; they've really nailed this over their competitors.

The core function for most with a device like this to get the image from your connected device to your PC screen, which it seemed to do quite well. HD video quality wasn't anywhere near the Slingbox PRO-HD, which can stream in full 1080i HD to PCs, Macs, and the SlingCatcher. Compared to the Slingbox SOLO, I'd probably give the edge to the Vulkano over LAN.

Remote streaming is always difficult to evaluate. For starters, there are so many variables in terms of network congestion at a hotspot and connection speeds that getting a reliable (and repeatable) test condition is difficult. Also problematic is that while Monsoon has mobile clients for the iPhone, iPad, Android, and Blackberry, I didn't have any of those currently on hand to test with. I recently acquired a new Windows Phone 7 device as my primary mobile phone. I tried to get a compatible device in time for the review, but wasn't able to.

I also (kind of) missed the ability to go to a website and connect to my Vulkano, which is something Sling offers. On the flip side, I despise that Sling is pushing everything to the web and effectively abandoning their native desktop applications. It would be nice to see Monsoon offer a basic browser plug-in that offers simple stream and control functionality, while making the core experience based on their native apps.

I tried out the PC player on my notebook in a variety of locations to get a handle on how it fares in regards to remote streaming performance; here's what (unscientific) conclusions I've come to. If you're able to sustain a reliable, speedy connection to the Internet, the Vulkano can give you a quality 720x480 stream remotely. If you're at a public hotspot, you'd be safer streaming at 352x240. I also believe that Sling Media's SlingStream technology is a little better at handling on the fly adjustments in streaming quality than Monsoon's given some tests at a public hotspot, but that's also not very easy to test reliably.

In any event, remote streaming performance was still good enough that it wasn't a decisive win over their competition.

The software clearly lacks the same spit and polish as their competitors, but they've come pretty far since the early HAVA days. While the Setup Wizard and I haven't gotten along very well, the PC player only crashed on me once throughout my testing. If you plan on switching between two sources, keep in mind that mine didn't often handle the jump from an SD source to an HD source very well; requiring me to to disconnect and reconnect in order to get the picture back.

Being able to record is genuinely awesome; I suppose it only figures that the folks from Dazzle would know how to handle video capture. Anyone interested in grabbing video from a game console or old home movies would really enjoy the Flow for this purpose, and should seriously consider this over another dedicated device; it's super simple. Best of all, the Flow has another use after your video is captured.


Despite a rocky setup experience, my testing of the Vulkano Flow has been quite positive. It's great to see someone continuing to innovate in the stand-alone place-shifting space, adding features that their competitors simply won't (like recording) out of fear from content providers or whatever reason they're giving these days.

Still, I can't help but feel products like Slingbox and Vulkano have an expiration date. Going forward, place-shifting's biggest competitor will be the Internet and online video streaming services. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and others are rapidly offering loads of on-demand content delivered directly over the web. Set-top box manufacturers, like Dish Network (who owns Sling) and Motorola are actively seeking to integrate place-shifting directly into their products, while cable and satellite operators are building services to let customers watch the channels they subscribe to right over the web.

In other words, the rapid pace video is going to the web is diminishing the need for an intermediary box.

Nonetheless, if you're a TV junky that can't live without access to your current DVR from your computer or supported mobile device, there's still plenty of reason today to own a dedicated place-shifter. At $99, the Flow fits the bill nicely, particularly if you plan on using it remotely most of the time. So long as your mobile device phone is supported, I'd probably recommend the Flow over the Slingbox SOLO, even if the experience isn't quite as polished. Not only is it way cheaper and does more, but the mobile software clients cost less than half of what Sling charges for theirs.

Overall, this experience has been positive enough that I may seek out the opportunity to try out some of their more advanced products that integrate a full DVR, online video streaming, and place-shifting into a single box. I'll be sure to share my experience with you if and when that happens. 

See more Vulkano Flow images in the gallery >>


Nice review.
I don't think place shifting will ever be dead. It may just lose popularity as technology advances. As you know the Slingbox was something that was inspired by the need to watch live hometown sports.
It's been getting easier to do so via a few venues, but nothing beats the ease ability to Place shift your own live stream of your favorite team that the Vulkano or Slingbox can provide. Also there seems to be a lot of people who want access to their overseas programs which a place shifting device makes easy to carry out.

I would enjoy seeing you review one of the Vulkano devices that have storage capabilities. With the internal or external storage you can record without your computer being on and can schedule future recordings.

The Vulkano offered by Monsoon is similar to the Sling adapter that I use with DISH Network. The HD is definitely better than what is being produced by the Vulkano. Based off the testing that there were currently no devices to be able to test this and see how good it works. The Sling I have used everyday with great success on the go or in a hotspot. I know that the Vulkano still lacks some testing to really be able to rate it. I know that I can speak that using the Sling adapter has allowed me to enjoy TV more than before. I never really watched TV due to a busy schedule. With this flexibility, I have been watching more TV than ever. DISH where I work is currently offering the Sling adapter free for new customers.


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