In the beginning–before Hulu, before Netflix Watch Instantly, even before the official launch of YouTube–there was Sling Media’s Slingbox.
The ingenious “place-shifting” box let you re-route the TV signal that would normally go to your TV. It streamed it across the Internet, letting you use any Net-connected computer to watch whatever channels and DVR recordings you had at home.
Slingbox was mighty nifty. It still is. But it hasn’t changed much over the years. Sling (which is now part of EchoStar, the satellite company that powers the Dish TV service) did add mobile apps which let you watch TV on an iPhone and other gizmos. The Sling hardware, however, hasn’t been updated in years, and is missing features you kind of expect in 2012, such as 1080p video support and built-in wi-fi.
Now Sling is entering the modern era of TV gadgetry. As blogger Dave Zatz discovered when an overzealous Best Buy store stocked its shelves a bit prematurely, the company is rolling out two all-new models, the Slingbox 500 and Slingbox 350. They go on sale on October 14; the company briefed me about them and provided units for review.
These days, of course, you don’t need specialized hardware–or, for that matter, a cable or satellite TV subscription–to watch TV on all your gadgets. A bevy of free and paid services offer access to much of the same content you might view via Slingbox. But they don’t have all of it: Live sports and news, for instance, are still a relatively rare commodity online. And they don’t get most of it the moment that it’s broadcast. So there’s still a place for Sling’s bring-your-TV-with-you approach to video streaming.
If you’re interested enough in place-shifting your TV to spend $299.99 on the project, the Slingbox you probably want is the model 500. Its swooping case–which looks like someone tried to fold it in half–contains all the trimmings, including 1080p HD streaming; HDMI, component, and composite video inputs; Ethernet and dual-band wi-fi networking; an embedded IR blaster which lets you control your set-top box without stringing a wire; and a remote control. (The remote is used both during setup and for some new features relating to your personal media–more on them later.)
The smaller, more spartan $179.99 Slingbox 350 has many of the same features, including 1080p capability. But it skips the HDMI input, wi-fi, remote and personal-media features.
Setting up earlier Slingboxes could be a fairly gnarly process, and advanced networking knowledge was helpful. I found hooking up the model 500 to be a lot simpler, in part because you do the job with the remote rather than from a PC. The embedded IR blaster worked perfectly, too, controlling my TiVo as reliably as the TiVo’s own remote does. (Sling provides an auxiliary external blaster as a backup, but I didn’t need it.)
You connect the box in between your set-top box and your TV. In theory, you might be able to do so via HDMI only. However, depending on your TV provider and the channels you pay for, copy-protection might make a pure HDMI setup impossible. I found that my TiVo refused to pass HDMI video along to the Slingbox even when I was just tuned to a local station, so I used both HDMI and component cables to do the job.
It’s important to understand that the Slingbox streams exactly what’s going to your TV set at home. That means that if someone back in your living room changes the channel, the channel will change on the Slingbox’s place-shifted video stream. And if you switch stations using one of Sling’s remote-watching apps, it’ll change on the TV set at home, possibly surprising and/or irritating anyone who happens to be tuned in. (When I was a rabid Slingbox fan a few years ago, I was still a bachelor; the two facts may not be entirely unrelated.)
The Slingbox Pro-HD, one of the models being replaced by the new units, partially worked around this gotcha by including a built-in tuner, a feature missing in the new models. Then there’s TiVo’s TiVo Stream add-on box, which can stream up to four independent video feeds wirelessly. (All Slingboxes do only one stream at a time, although a new feature lets you invite friends or family to tap into your box when you’re not using it.) But the Stream requires a current-generation TiVo, only has apps for iOS devices and only works on your home wi-fi network, not across the Internet. Both of the new Slingboxes talk to whatever TV setup you’ve got, support far more devices and redirect video both locally and remotely.
Once everything’s set up properly, you can use a new Slingbox to watch your home TV service on a Windows PC, a Mac, an iPhone, an iPad, an Android device (including the Kindle Fire) or a Windows Phone. Watching on a Windows PC or a Mac is free; Sling charges $14.99 apiece for its SlingPlayer apps for other platforms. (That’s not as appealing as free, but it is an improvement on the previous price, $29.99.)
When you’re using one of Sling’s apps, you can do pretty much anything you could do if you were watching from the comfort of your Barcalounger at home. There’s an on-screen programming guide, plus a virtual remote control that lets you issue commands to your set-top box. If you’ve got a DVR, you can pull up recorded shows and even schedule new recordings.
So how’s the video quality? In nearly all of my tests using a Windows laptop, a MacBook Air, an iPhone 5 and an iPad, it was terrific. On a computer, the Slingbox can stream true 1080p HD; other devices with smaller screens max out at 720p, but the picture quality still looked crisp and the video didn’t stall. As always, Sling’s technology monitors available bandwidth and intelligently adjusts the stream to look and sound as good as possible.
Here in the Bay Area, Verizon’s 4G LTE network handled video with aplomb. It worked so well, in fact, that it could be dangerous; if you’ve got a Slingbox and aren’t on an unlimited data plan, you’ll need to make sure that you don’t gorge on TV and burn through your allotted gigabytes.
I had trouble only when I used my iPad at a shopping mall which I already knew had horrendously bad wi-fi. In that case, the SlingPlayer video stream did randomly grind to a halt. But I can barely browse the web at that joint, so I wasn’t startled that its network couldn’t handle HDTV in all its splendiferous glory.
Oh yeah, those personal-media features I mentioned above.
They involve wireless viewing of your own photographs and videos, and are in the same general ballpark as Apple’s AirPlay technology (which requires an Apple TV hooked up to your HDTV) and the DLNA standard which is built into many smart TVs and set-top boxes.
Sling’s version is available only on the Slingbox 500, not the 350, and isn’t fully implemented yet; some features will be rolled out via software updates in the coming weeks. The idea is that when you are at home and in front of your TV, you’ll be able to use your Slingbox to transmit photos and videos stored on your phone or tablet onto the big screen, using a feature Sling calls SlingProjector. You’ll also be able to copy said photos and videos onto a USB storage device connected to the Slingbox for later perusal. You can do all this using the remote control that’s bundled with the device.
When the Slingbox 500 goes on sale next week, only the photo-projecting feature will be available, and only on iPhone and Android phones. I tried it with the new iPhone 5, and found it a tad rough. For one thing, as I used the phone to step through photos, it took several seconds to fully render them on the TV.
For another, when I was done, there was no straightforward way to tell the Slingbox to go back to live TV from the SlingPlayer app: I had to use the remote. Or start the video streaming to the iPhone. Or wait five minutes for it to revert automatically. Some sort of “resume live TV” button in the app would have been best of all, but it wasn’t there.
The bottom line on these personal-media features: They might be worthwhile once Sling has finished them, but I wouldn’t buy a Slingbox 500 right now based on the assumption that they’ll be a big deal.
Fortunately, Slingbox and the SlingPlayer apps remain cool even if all you ever do with them is watch TV anywhere and everywhere. As a cable-news and old-sitcom junkie, I fill my TiVo with stuff that isn’t readily available in its entirety on the web. A Slingbox is still the best way to watch it when I’m not at home–or even when I just happen to be in another room. It’s good to get reacquainted with this gadget, in an incarnation that’s simpler and more capable than the version I got addicted to back in the last decade.