Editors' note: The Slingbox AV reviewed here is no longer produced. It has been replaced by the Slingbox Solo.
The Slingbox lets you watch your TV anywhere--anywhere, that is, where you can access a broadband Internet connection with a device that runs the company's SlingPlayer software. When it first hit the market in 2005, the SlingPlayer software could run on only one platform: Windows XP computers. Windows 2000 compatibility was added soon after, and Windows Mobile devices--handhelds and smart phones--followed later. A long-promised Mac client debuted in the fall of 2006, and now Palm OS devotees can finally join the Sling party (if they've got a Treo 700p smart phone). The Palm software provides yet another venue for users all of three Slingbox models--the Slingbox Tuner, the Slingbox A/V, and the Slingbox Pro--to watch their home TV programming. But it's the midrange Slingbox A/V that remains the best choice for most TV viewers, hitting the sweet spot between affordability and functionality.
Slingbox and SlingPlayer: several choices
The original Slingbox (model SB100-100) may not have been the first placeshifting device to hit the market, but it quickly became a favorite way for gadget fans to watch their favorite TV shows regardless of their location. The company followed up in the fall of 2006 with a trio of second-generation models: the Slingbox Tuner ($180), the Slingbox A/V ($180), and the Slingbox Pro ($250). Each of the three models is targeted at TV viewers with different needs. The Slingbox Tuner accepts only analog cable TV signals and has just a single screw-type RF input. The Slingbox A/V, like the original model, can control any cable or satellite box and gets its video signals via composite or S-Video. And the Slingbox Pro does it all: It can accept as many as four A/V sources, including (with an adapter) HD video.
Before we look at the Slingbox A/V in detail, however, it's worth focusing on the basic concept of the device. The Slingbox enables you to watch your home TV programming anywhere so long as you have access to a broadband Internet connection. It takes your home TV source, digitizes it, streams it onto your home network, and--if you'd like--onto the outside Internet as well. You receive the resulting video stream on a computer, handheld, or cell phone that's equipped with the SlingPlayer software. Both the Slingbox (source) and the device running the SlingPlayer software (receiver) need to be connected to high-speed broadband networks--a cable or DSL line or a 3G wireless network--but the distance between the two isn't a factor. As long as you're getting normal broadband access speeds, you can watch your Slingbox playback anywhere--be it in another room of the house or halfway around the world--literally.
SlingPlayer software for Windows PCs (2000, XP, or Vista) is included on a CD that comes with the products, but you're always better off getting the latest build from Sling Media's Web site. A beta version of the long-awaited Mac OS X version is available for download as well. Windows or Mac, laptop or desktop, just be sure the computer has access to a high-speed connection (Ethernet or Wi-Fi)--dial-up won't cut it.
If you'd prefer to watch your TV on a smaller device, Sling has you covered. SlingPlayer Mobile software is available for Pocket PC (touch-screen devices running Windows Mobile 2003 or 5.0, such as recent Dell Axim and HP iPaq handhelds, as well as phones such as the Palm Treo 700w, the Audiovox 6700, and the Samsung i730), Windows Smartphone (non-touch-screen phones running Windows Mobile 5.0, such as the Motorola Q, the Samsung Blackjack, and the T-Mobile SDA), and the Palm Treo 700p. Each mobile software package needs to be purchased on Sling's Web site for a one-time fee of $30, but you can try before you buy--just download the 30-day trial software. Just like the PCs, the mobile devices need to have access to a broadband connection, be it Wi-Fi or a 3G high-speed cellular network--EVDO on Verizon or Sprint, or UMTS/HSDPA on Cingular, for instance.
Don't have a Windows Mobile device or a Treo 700p? Sling's Web site mentions that the company is evaluating the feasibility of creating SlingPlayer software for other platforms, such as RIM BlackBerry, J2ME, and BREW, but such plans remain entirely theoretical. (A Symbian version is preinstalled on some phones sold through British wireless provider 3, but it's unclear when or if it'll be made available for purchase to existing Symbian phone owners and those elsewhere in the world.
Handhelds and computers are great, but what about getting your Slingbox to send images to another TV? Sling has announced a product that will do just that: the SlingCatcher. Due in the second half of 2007, the SlingCatcher will be able to stream content from any Slingbox (so you can access your living room DVR recordings in the bedroom, for instance). It will also offer a function called "SlingProjector" that will mirror what appears on the screen of any networked PC.
Slingbox A/V: Design and setup
Before you can watch your TV shows from 2,000 miles away, of course, you have to get your Slingbox up and running. The Slingbox A/V is about two-thirds the size of the original 2005 model: 1.5 inches high by 7.5 wide by 4.5 deep. It's a stylish black, so despite the red accents, it'll more or less disappear into your home entertainment system. In fact, once you connect the Slingbox to your home A/V system, you never have to see it again; the always-on device can be tucked away in the depths of your TV stand--or even in an enclosed cabinet--where it will toil away indefinitely.
The rear of the Slingbox A/V is fairly uncluttered: just a single A/V input (red and white RCA audio inputs, yellow composite video) with S-Video. The physical setup is quick and logical. Simply connect the video source, be it a cable box, a satellite box, a DVR, a DVD player, or the like, to the input. There's also an included two-headed IR blaster that you can use to control the attached device remotely (change channels, pause, play, fast-forward, rewind, and so forth). A complete list of Slingbox-compatible products--the ones it can control remotely--can be found on Sling's Web site.
The Slingbox A/V can toggle between both the composite and video input, but because they share a single set of audio jacks, you'll need to purchase Y-cable adapters. Likewise, you'll need to have the second device powered off (or muted), or you'll get a mash-up of both audio streams. Alternately, you might use the second input as a video-only security camera feed--just plug in your camcorder. Bottom line, the Slingbox A/V is best considered a single-input device. That's fine: most people just want something to attach to their cable or satellite box or DVR. And if you do happen to need more inputs, you can step up to the Slingbox Pro model, which can toggle among four of them.
Another little setup disclaimer: unlike the Slingbox Pro--and the original 2005 Slingbox--the Slingbox A/V doesn't offer pass-through outputs. That essentially means that your video source needs at least one free composite (or, preferably, S-Video) output. Thankfully, most modern cable and satellite boxes and DVRs do. But you may have to make some adjustments to your setup--losing a connection to a VCR or DVR recorder, for instance, or leaving those devices powered up and using their pass-through outputs as the Slingbox source.