Review: Slingbox 350 and 500 place-shift TV at 1080p, improve setup process
The last time I set up a Slingbox—a set-top box that lets you watch your TV content remotely on connected computers, TVs, smartphones, and tablets—the experience wasn’t pretty. I remember having to call tech support and consult websites to find obscure router setting adjustments required to get the device working, which made me reluctant to recommend it to non-techies.
That was four years ago, though, and Sling Media (which in the interim was acquired by Dish Network parent EchoStar) has obviously worked hard to make installation feasible for people who don’t know an IP address from an email address. The two new models, the $180 Slingbox 350 (4.5 out of 5 rating) and $300 Slingbox 500 (4 out of 5 rating), are impressively easy to set up—and also can stream 1080p (1920 by 1080) video to computers and TVs. Previous versions topped out at 720p.
The higher-end Slingbox 500 also introduces support for Wi-Fi (other models must be connected to your network via ethernet), and HDMI pass-through, which lets the device put its own content (starting with a user interface) on your TV. And for all models, revamped SlingPlayer mobile apps and desktop software make for a smoother, more-intuitive experience. Both Slingboxes are slated to go on sale in the U.S. on October 14, and in Canada in November.
How they work
For those unfamiliar with Sing Media and its Slingbox line, the company helped pioneer so-called place-shifting—the ability to control and watch your TV from any local network- or Internet-connected device. Slingboxes do so by grabbing output from your usual video source—typically a cable, DVR, Blu-ray or DVD player, or other set-top box—and transcoding and sending it to a remote device.
You can access your Slingbox video via any desktop browser on a current computer (Macs running OS X 10.6 or later, or Windows PCs running Vista or later); a mobile device on which you’ve installed a $30 SlingPlayer app available for iOS, Android phones and tablets —including Kindle Fire—and Windows Phone (and on sale for $15 for a limited time during the launch); or even a second TV connected to a Sling-compatible media streamer such as a Boxee Box, Google TV, or Western Digital media player.
Setup for both devices involves connecting cables from your video source to the Slingbox, connecting the Slingbox to your home network, and creating an account with Sling Media to configure and identify your Slingbox to the player software.
For the video source hookup, Sling provides component and composite video cables, plus stereo audio cables, with both models. You connect the cables to the appropriate outputs on the video source, and the inputs on the Slingbox. For video sources that don’t have spare video outputs, Sling has equipped both Slingboxes with video-outputs as well as inputs, so you can put the Slingbox in between the TV set and the video source by connecting cables from the video source to the Slingbox’s video inputs, and then running the cables you’d previously used with the TV between the Slingbox’s video outputs and the TV inputs.
On the Slingbox 350—a smallish (about 7 by 5 by 2 inches) rectangular box with an unusual honeycomb-style surface—these are your only video hookup options. But the larger, matte-surfaced Slingbox 500, which looks like a standard set-top box that someone has grabbed by opposite corners and twisted (and is therefore a bit hard to stack on top of other components), also comes with an HDMI cable to use with the unit’s HDMI pass-through ports to place the Slingbox between an HDMI video source and TV. But even though you can enable the HDMI input as the content source for the Slingbox 500, Sling recommends not doing so—instead, the company advises hooking up the component video cables as well and getting the video stream from them.
Why? Because the Slingbox doesn’t circumvent HDCP, the copy-protection technology built into HDMI connections to prevent unauthorized use of high-def digital content. That means that you wouldn’t be able to view HDCP-protected content (coming from your cable or satellite box, say) remotely. Using the component video outputs bypasses the problem—content providers have so far been content to let analog video renderings out in the wild.
So why bother with the HDMI connections at all? The idea is to give the Slingbox 500 an HDMI input of its own, without taking up an additional HDMI port (besides the one you were probably using with your HD video source anyway). The immediate benefit of that input is to allow you to set up the Slingbox 500 using the TV screen and a small included remote, much the way you set up most set-top boxes. This is a first for a Slingbox: With other models, you must manage setup via the Web browser of a computer on the same network as the Slingbox.
The SlingBox 500 also lets you view media on your iOS or Android device using a SlingPlayer feature called SlingProjector. Simply tap the SlingProjector button, choose the media (your photo stream, for example) and SlingProjector starts displaying it. SlingProjector hadn’t yet been enabled for videos when I tested it (Sling Media says video support will come sometime after launch in a firmware update), but it worked perfectly with still photos, giving you the option of showing them as a slideshow or one at a time.
Going forward, the Slingbox 500 will also be able to function as a media streamer in its own right. A USB port will support playback of media on a flash drive, either on the Slingbox-connected TV or remotely via the SlingPlayer (the Slingbox 350 has a USB port for remote playback only). This functionality had not yet been enabled on my evaluation unit, but is also due in a firmware update. Presumably Sling Media will pursue agreements with other Internet content providers—I wouldn’t be surprised to see Netflix or Amazon Instant Video support in the near future.
Setup, regardless of whether you do it on a TV with the Slingbox 500 or a computer with the 350, takes only a few minutes if you have information about your video source handy (make and model details). You must also verify a wired network connection or, if you’re using the Slingbox 500’s Wi-Fi, scan for your network and enter its password. The 500 supports 802.11n on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, and I’d recommend using the latter if you’re in a city or any environment with lots of nearby 2.4GHz networks. (I’d also recommend setting up a wired connection, if at all possible, to improve the reliability of your streaming connection.) There was no annoying messing with router settings—the connection just happened.
Another welcome improvement in both models is the robust built-in infrared (IR) support for transmitting remote control commands to the video source. Previous models depended on connecting an included IR blaster—a wire with terminals that can transmit IR signals to mimic those produced by a remote control. IR blasters work well, but are prone to getting disconnected by things like wandering pets. The new models still come with an IR blaster, but the built-in IR support is so good I didn’t need to connect the blaster—even though the Slingboxes weren’t right in front of their respective video sources.
I tested the Slingbox 350 with a Motorola HD cable box and DVR from Comcast, and hooked up the Slingbox 500 to a TiVo Premiere XL. There’s no problem associating multiple Slingboxes with a single account: They all show up in a SlingPlayer directory, along with a photo to help you identify them. You can authorize guests to access your Slingbox from within the Web interface, but only one user can connect to a Slingbox at any given moment.
The SlingPlayer apps and Web interface have been streamlined to make all tasks fairly intuitive. But streaming in 1080p isn’t for a wimpy (read: older) computer: Sling’s system requirements are an Intel Core 2 Duo or better processor and, on a Windows PC, a DirectX 9 video card with more than 256MB of dedicated memory. On my year-old Thinkpad (with an Intel Core i7 CPU, integrated graphics, and 6GB of RAM) the video got choppy and was out of sync with the audio. But the audio and video looked great (and were in sync) on a recent MacBook Pro.
Of course, playback quality is also dependent on your broadband connection, but the requirements are surprisingly modest: Sling Media says you need a 2Mbps connection for HD, 650kbps for SD viewing, and a meager 250kbps for mobile device viewing.
The 1080p support doesn’t extend to mobile devices, but 720p video looked pretty darn good on my iPad and iPhone 5—and I didn’t notice any lag between audio and video. You only get 720p video when on Wi-Fi, but the video quality on a Verizon LTE connection wasn’t bad, either.
The iPad interface produces an image of the remote control, but the iPhone interface wisely simply overlays generic remote commands on several screens that you can swipe through—there’s no room to recreate the actual remote. On the iOS and Android Phone and iPad, you can set reminders for future programs in the program Guide, with the option of having the SlingPlayer tune automatically to the program.
Four years is a long time to go between product updates, and the new Slingboxes and updated SlingPlayer software were definitely long overdue. The Slingbox 350 especially, with its $180 price tag and no-brainer setup, could entice newcomers to place shifting. The Slingbox 500 is more of an investment in a potential combination place-shifting device and media streamer—or for people who need to use a Wi-Fi network.