- Delivers on its “Watch Your TV Anywhere” promise
- No monthly service fee
- Offers complete TV control via web or mobile app
- All necessary cables included
- Set-top box is ugly
- Some delay in TV controls
- SlingPlayer mobile app costs $15
Slingbox is an incredible product and service. The latest set-top box, the Slingbox 500 is well worth its premium price, particularly for frequent travelers and students living away from home.
“Watch Your TV Anywhere,” that’s the Slingbox promise. By that, Slingbox means your TV, your channels and your DVR content. Slingbox does this by taking the same signal coming into your home, and via a set-top box, broadcasting (or “slinging”) it to a secured mobile or web-based app. As long as there is a reasonably strong internet connection, you’ll have access to your TV from anywhere.
So all Slingbox has to do is make good on that lofty promise and it’s an amazing product right? One content source and multiple, portable screens, including live and local TV, as well as sports?
Good news, it does! Very well, in fact.
Slingbox hardware has been around for about five years, so this virtualization service is on solid ground, unlike the litigation magnet Aereo, or the way-too-ahead-of-it’s-time OnLive. Its latest and greatest set-top box that enables this little home theater miracle is dubbed the Slingbox 500.
Slingbox and Setup
The Slingbox 500 set-top box is light and plastic. It measures about approximately 11.4 x 5 x 2 inches and weighs roughly a pound, so there should be plenty of room for it in an entertainment center. It sports a curved design that is definitely distinctive, but also rather ugly. It’s reminiscent of a bad Art 101 sculpting project.
Kudos to Slingbox for bundling all the necessary cables, including an HDMI, stereo audio, composite video, component video, IR emitter, and Ethernet. A small remote control is also included.
Setup isn’t too difficult, at least not by home theater standards, with the Slingbox connecting in between the content source (typically the cable box) and the TV. The on-screen prompts do a nice job of walking users through it, and complete setup took about 20 minutes from opening the box, with automatic software updates taking up the bulk of the time.
Interestingly, Slingbox recommends connecting both the component and HDMI cables during setup, and for good reason. HDCP content protection prevents the Slingbox of slinging certain content transmitted over HDMI, but not component cables (silly anti-piracy meausres). The green and blue connection serves as a convenient backup, with little to no perceivable image quality difference. Without this setup, users would have to go without a good chunk of channels, or constantly switch connection types.
The Slingbox supports audio and video passthrough, so even though it sits between the source and television set, it never affects or hijacks the picture or sound.
Once setup, Slingbox requires a few additional steps, including quick and free account activation with Slingbox.com. In order to then watch “your TV anywhere,” Slingbox requires an app, if on a mobile device, or a Web browser plug in.
The app costs $15, and is available for the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch (all running iOS 5.1 or later), and most Android tablets and smartphones (running Android 2.2 or later), as well as the Kindle Fire. That stinks. Given that the Slingbox 500 retails for $300 at the time of this review, the mobile app should be free.
The web app works with Macs running OS 10.6 or later, as well as Windows Vista, 7, and 8 machines, but only in desktop mode. It does not work with the new Windows 8 tiled interface as of this review. Fortunately, the web app is free.
Both the mobile and browser apps provide a similar experience, and Slingbox grants literal control over the TV. A handy channel guide is present for quick show browsing and channel changing, as well as a few simple controls, including DVR functions. There is also a virtual remote for the more complex operations. It’s all a bit cramped on an iPhone or other smaller mobile device, but comfortable enough on an iPad or tablet. The picture aspect ratio and size can be adjusted to fit the screen, and the streaming quality can be changed to account for different connection speeds, or just set to automatically select the best available quality.
The web apps have an additional feature that gives it a leg up on the rest, and that’s a 30-minute buffer for pausing and time shifting. During testing, TechnologyGuide also found that allowing the content to buffer a bit before playing also helped improve the image quality.
Keep in mind, that whatever content is being streamed to the SlingPlayer apps is also on the TV, and vice versa. The Slingbox and SlingPlayer provide complete access to the TV, including the DVR (where Slingbox users can watch recorded shows, set recording, cancel recordings, and delete programs) and any time shifting controls irrespective of the web app. So if you are slinging a football game and someone at home wants to watch a movie, expect a Slingbox tug of war.
There is a noticeable delay with any on-screen controls, and that makes precision time shifting, say through a batch of commercials, nearly impossible without impeccable timing. But it’s a small annoyance, given the overall quality of the service.
Speaking of quality, the video looks great, and rivals any other content streaming service. The Slingbox 500 supports 1080p streaming, but quality is largely dependent on wireless speeds. Still, TG tested the Slingbox at home (with a b/g/n router), work, and a few hotels while traveling, always to excellent results. Slingbox streaming also works over 3G and 4G data connections, but TG does not recommend trying it for fear of an outrageously high carrier bill at the end of the month.
If you absolutely must stream over a data connection, or have a weak Wi-Fi signal, the Slingbox 500 can also stream just the audio portion to its mobile apps.
SlingSync and SlingProjector
SlingSync and SlingProjector are two features currently exclusive to the Slingbox 500, and limited to the Android and iOS smartphone apps (a future update will bring both to the tablet apps as well). SlingProjector is similar to AirPlay, as it streams iPhone and Android user videos and photos on the HDTV. Being that TG tested the Slingbox on an iPad app, we were not able to try it out, but have seen it demoed, and by all indications it seems like a simple and reliable way to stream content from a smartphone to the big screen.
The same goes for SlingSync, which also does not yet work with the iPad app. It creates a wireless photo and video archive via the USB port and a USB storage device. Again, TG will update the review once we are able to test it out.
500 vs 350
Both the $300 Slingbox 500 and $180 Slingbox 350 deliver the same basic streaming experience, but sport different designs (the 350 is ugly too) and features. The 500 supports Wi-Fi and HDMI connectivity. The 350 does not. The Slingbox 500 features both SlingProjector and SlingSync, and has a USB input. The 350 does not. The 500 ships with a remote and has a TV interface for setup. The 350 does not. And at the time of this review, the 350 also cannot stream just the audio to mobile apps, but Slingbox claims that feature is coming soon.
It’s easy to overlook the HDMI exclusion as both stream 1080p, and SlingSync and SlingProjector are nice, if superfluous additions. However, it’s perplexing that Slingbox would sell a product in 2013 that does not support Wi-Fi.
There are likely many users with a router somewhere near their TV, and the wired connection is no hassle. Good for them; but the Slingbox service is worth $300 regardless of cheaper alternatives, as far as TG is concerned. And the extra $130 just ensures a bit more flexibility should things ever move around, which is why the TG recommends the Slingbox 500 over the 350.
Remember how cool Tivo seemed you first saw it pause live TV and fast forward through commercials? Slingbox has that same appeal. Watching and controlling your home TV from a laptop, tablet, or smartphone is undeniably awesome.
To rephrase a previous thought, the Slingbox service is worth the price of the Slingbox 500. For a one-time fee, it delivers on its TV anywhere promise, and it’s incredibly useful and convenient.
The obvious use case is for the frequent traveler, but the team at TG also found it useful for sneaking in daytime Red Sox games during work hours, and even finishing up Parks & Rec from the DVR while at lunch. College students, or cheapskates looking to avoid paying cable bills, could also benefit, especially those shipping out of state that want access to local sports coverage. Just hook up a Slingbox to mom and dad’s setup, and mooch away.
It’s still not perfect. The apps should be free, the set-top box design is dreadful, and the lag in controls can be frustrating. But these minor quibbles don’t much mar what is otherwise an excellent service, and an amazing product.