Editors' note: The Slingbox Pro is no longer produced. It has been replaced by the Slingbox Pro-HD, which addresses many of the issues of the model reviewed here.
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 only run one platform: Windows XP computers. Windows 2000 compatibility was added soon after, and Windows Mobile devices--handhelds and smartphones--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 smartphone). The Palm software provides yet another venue for users of all of three Slingbox models--the Slingbox Tuner, the Slingbox A/V, and the Slingbox Pro--to watch their home TV programming. But only the high-end Slingbox Pro model supports multiple device inputs and the ability to accept HD video.
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 Pro 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, a handheld, or a cellphone that's equipped with the SlingPlayer software. Both the Slingbox--the source--and the device running the SlingPlayer software--the 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, 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 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's 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 also will offer a function called "SlingProjector" that will mirror what appears on the screen of any networked PC.
Slingbox Pro: 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 Pro is the largest model in the line, but it's still modestly sized as far as home-theater components go: 1.5 inches high by 14 wide by 5 deep. For some reason, Sling chose to make the Pro model red, unlike the unassuming black of the smaller Slingbox Tuner and A/V models, though the color is tempered somewhat by the tapered, smoked-gray housing. Fortunately, 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 Pro is crammed with A/V inputs and outputs: one composite A/V, one S-Video, one RF coaxial, and one input that looks suspiciously like an HDMI port but isn't (more on that later). The physical setup is quick and logical. Simply hook up the video source, be it cable box, satellite box, DVR, DVD player, or the like, to the Slingbox's composite, S-Video, or RF cable inputs. There's also an included two-headed IR blaster that you can use to control the attached devices 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.) In addition, the Slingbox Pro, like the original Slingbox but unlike its two less-expensive siblings, has pass-through outputs for all of its audio and video connections. The necessary cable interconnects are included, so the Pro can integrate seamlessly into your system without the need for any major rewiring.
About that "HDMI" port: despite its appearance, it won't accept HDMI signals. Instead, its sole purpose is to interface with the proprietary dongle (officially known as the Sling Media HD Connect) that provides component video in and out. When connected, the $50 dongle allows the Slingbox Pro to accept all standard HDTV resolutions, namely 720p and 1080i--but not 1080p; not that it matters since very few component 1080p sources are available.
The final step in connecting the Slingbox Pro is to get it on your home network. Your only option to do so is via a wired Ethernet cable. If you don't have a network connection nearby, you'll need to opt for a bridging solution: powerline Ethernet extenders or a wireless-to-Ethernet bridge. Sling offers its own set of powerline adapters, the SlingLink Turbo, available in single and multiport versions (the latter for connecting other networked entertainment devices, such as a game console, Apple TV, or TiVo). We used a pair of older, significantly less expensive Netgear XE102 adapters with no problem.