Hot off its acquisition by EchoStar, parent company of the Dish Network satellite service, Sling Media is back in the saddle with a new product, the Slingbox Solo. The latest Slingbox model is essentially a streamlined version of the Slingbox Pro. Like that 2006 model, the Solo ($180 list) can handle standard and high-def video streams via pass-through AV input/outputs, but the HD input no longer requires the purchase of an add-on dongle. The Solo loses the built-in analog TV tuner and discrete audio inputs found on the Pro, but it gains a smaller, sleeker frame. Oh, and there's a USB input--but it's currently "reserved for future use." In other words, if you already have a Slingbox Pro--or even a Slingbox AV--there's no real compelling need to upgrade to the Solo. But if you have yet to take the plunge, the Slingbox Solo is an ideal place-shifting option, and an enthusiastic recommendation for anyone who wishes to stream their TV and home video content to any broadband-enabled computer (Windows or Mac) or any smartphone (Windows Mobile or Palm OS) in the world.
Stream your TV anywhere
Before we focus on the specifics of the Slingbox Solo, it's worth taking a broader look at the Slingbox technology as a whole. The Slingbox enables you to stream your home TV programming to your broadband-enabled computer or smartphone. 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.
Design of the Slingbox Solo
The Slingbox Solo is about the size of three DVD cases stacked together, and it retains the trapezoidal shape of all previous Slingbox models. But the Solo's got a decidedly more polished look and feel--it's jet black (albeit with Sling's trademark red accents on the side), and the metal grille along the top and side gives it more of a classic high-end audio vibe. Except for the three red indicator lights on the front face, all the action is around back. There's no power switch either--once plugged in, the Slingbox is designed to be always on, just like a cable modem or router.
The Solo's rear panel boasts composite, S-Video, and component video inputs and outputs, so it can sit between your cable or satellite box (or DVR) and your TV. That's a step up from last year's Slingbox AV, which lacked pass-through connectors. While you can set up the Solo to receive video from three separate sources (say, a cable box, DVD changer, and Apple TV), you're limited to just one set of stereo audio inputs. Using Y-cable adapters provides a workaround, but you'll get a mash-up of multiple audio streams if you don't power down the other connected sources. We opted to stick with a single AV source--our DVR cable box--but some users opt to use the Slingbox for remote security (no audio needed).
Setup and installation
In addition to connecting the Slingbox between the cable/satellite box and the TV, you'll also need to connect it to your home network. With no built-in Wi-Fi, the only choice is the wired Ethernet connection. If you don't have a network cable in the vicinity, you'll need to opt for a wireless bridge or power-line networking interface. We've had much better luck with the latter, which sends network traffic over your home power lines. Sling offers its own SlingLink Turbo products, or you can opt for similar models from Netgear, Linksys, and the like.
Once you have the Slingbox base station wired up and ready to go, you'll need to install the viewing software on a PC (Windows or Mac). The initial setup must be done within your home's local network. The software follows a bulletproof, wizard-style install path; if you have a plug-and-play (UPnP) router, the whole process should take just a few minutes. The latest iteration of the SlingPlayer software setup includes a great video-optimization wizard, which automatically calibrates the software settings to your PC's CPU and graphics card. Once it's up and running, the software gives you a video window not unlike that of QuickTime or Windows Media Player, just with channel-changing controls. If you've connected the Slingbox to a TiVo, a cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR, or even a DVD recorder, you'll also get video-transport controls: pause, rewind, fast-forward, and so on.
In terms of performance and usage, the Slingbox Solo seemed indistinguishable from its 2006 predecessor, the Slingbox Pro. But that's a compliment, not a criticism--the previous-generation Slingbox models were already the best-in-class place-shifting products available, and the Solo ably lives up to the pedigree. We were able to watch our living room TV--with full access to all our channels and recorded DVR programming--on the bedroom PC, on our work PC (10 miles away), on a laptop, or on a Sprint Mogul (anywhere we had access to the EVDO network or Wi-Fi).
On a Windows or Mac screen, the SlingPlayer software offers several "skins," and you can easily set up favorite channels for one-touch access using the familiar channel logos. But where the interface of the SlingPlayer really triumphs is the onscreen remote control. Essentially, you're getting a nearly identical version of the handheld remote of whatever set-top box the Slingbox is connected to. During testing, we were able to toggle between the DirecTV HR20, the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD (cable), and the Dish ViP622, each of which had their corresponding remotes available on the screen. The obvious upside is that there's no learning curve--if you can use your home remote, you can use the SlingPlayer software as well.
The SlingPlayer software automatically optimizes viewing quality to available bandwidth via an algorithm called SlingStream. Of course, the quality is largely dependent on the available network bandwidth. You'll want at least 300Kbps on both upstream and downstream connections, with 400Kbps to 500Kbps--and beyond--offering a noticeably better picture. Viewing on a home network offers the potential for much greater speeds, and that's where the excellent video quality of the Slingbox Solo was most evident. We were able to enjoy all the action of a Sunday Night Football game, as well as some movies on HDNet. It looked great with the window filling half the screen and was still very good when we blew it up to full-screen mode. To be sure, some softness was apparent, but close-up objects looked sharp enough, and action was relatively smooth and well-rendered. If not the fabled "near-DVD quality," it was certainly competitive with--if not better than--the movies and TV shows available from the iTunes Store.
When broadcasting to the outside world, the Slingbox is limited by the upstream bandwidth of your home's broadband connection, which is often significantly less than your downstream speed. For instance, our cable modem seemed to max out at 500Kbps--not bad at all, but far below the 3,000 to 6,000Kbps that we were getting on the home network. The result is some "down-rezzing" to accommodate the lower bandwidth, which naturally results in a softer picture with more artifacts. (The SlingPlayer has a helpful meter in the window that shows Kbps throughput and frames per second.) You can still expand the SlingPlayer window to fill the screen, but you'll get significantly less sharpness and detail than you would via LAN streaming. Still, as long as you're getting a decent stream, you can get a very watchable video window that delivers 24fps to 30fps. The quality was much better than you'd get with most YouTube videos, for instance, and looked at least as good as CNET's own First Look videos (see above).
When watching on a cell phone or handheld device, the same bandwidth concerns apply. But because those devices have such small screens (compared to a computer's monitor), the resulting image looked even better. We tested the SlingPlayer Mobile software on several devices, including an old HP iPaq (via Wi-Fi), a Palm Treo 700w (Verizon EV-DO), a Samsung BlackJack (AT&T HSDPA/UMTS), and a Palm Treo 700p (Sprint EVDO), and it worked equally well in all instances. The mobile version is a faithful recreation of the same solid performance we've gotten on a PC. What's better, of course, is that you can use the handheld or cell phone service much more often and in many more locations than you could from a desktop or laptop PC. Just be sure you have an unlimited-usage data plan on that smartphone, or you'll have a nasty surprise at the end of the month when the bill arrives.
Limitations and caveats
The Slingbox is not perfect. Like all previous models, the lack of integrated Wi-Fi will be a sticking point for some users (the power-line adapters work perfectly, but they do require an extra expense). Furthermore, the Slingbox is only as good as its device support. And while its catalog of supported devices has grown considerably since the product's debut, you'll be out of luck if it's missing the remote codes for your primary video device. We'd love it if the Slingbox software could learn codes or allow modification of its virtual-remote template, much as a PC-programmable universal remote can. We'd also like the option to program hot keys ourselves into the software, which would enable easier control via multimedia-friendly keyboards, for instance. Meanwhile, the mobile client is hampered by some of the obvious limitations of the small screen: the miniaturized versions of your EPG and channel labels, or onscreen text such as sports scores, news crawls, and stock quotes, may just be flat-out unreadable on many devices. The finer details of some quick-moving videos, such as hockey pucks and baseballs, will also be hard to discern.
It's also important to realize that the Slingbox is only as good as the source device to which it's attached. Most users will find a DVR to be the best source, offering access to the full panoply of live TV channels, plus anything already recorded. And the Slingbox also means you'll never have to worry about forgetting to record your shows, either--just log in from your PC or your phone to schedule recordings and change whatever settings you like.
The bigger issue for most users isn't Sling's fault, but it is an important limitation of the Solo--and all other hardware-based place-shifting devices. Because the Slingbox is piggybacking off of the output of the cable or satellite box, it's monopolizing the attached box whenever it's active. So if you dial in remotely and switch to ESPN to watch a baseball game, anybody watching the TV will be forced to watch that channel as well. Likewise, if they switch back to another channel, the Slingbox feed will change, too. The only way around that issue is to dedicate another set-top box or DVR strictly for Slingbox use.
Finally, don't expect to share a Slingbox key with friends and family to use simultaneously. By design, the Slingbox only supports streaming to one client at a time (be it a PC desktop or a mobile device).
Competing products and services
The Slingbox is far from the only game in town when it comes to streaming your home TV to a remote location. Sony offers two LocationFree TV products that deliver similar functionality. The $250 LF-V30 includes built-in wireless and the ability to stream TV programming to PSP gaming handhelds. Sony also offers third-party software for streaming to Macs and Windows Mobile devices, and even has plans for a SlingCatcher-style client called the LF-BOX1 LocationFree TV Box (originally scheduled to debut in 2006, it's since been delayed indefinitely). Meanwhile, the Monsoon Multimedia Hava Wireless HD and the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless (essentially the same product sold under different names) also deliver Slinglike streaming and HD support. Both include built-in wireless networking and the ability to stream to multiple clients on a LAN concurrently, as well as some limited integration with Windows Media Center PCs.
Moving beyond hardware, there are a growing number of options for copying and syncing video media from your PC to a handheld--the most notable being Apple's video-enabled iPod and TiVo To Go. But that's just transferring previously recorded media to a portable playback device. If you want live, real-time video, your options are limited. Those with newer mobile phones can opt for live 3G streaming subscriptions such as MobiTV and V Cast but will be restricted to the few channels offered by each provider. And anyone with a Media Center PC should check out Orb Network; it's a free service that offers remote access to virtually any PC-based media--photos, music, and so forth--but unlike Slingbox, it requires a host PC with a TV tuner card to stream live or recorded television programs.
All in all, none of those competing products deliver as good an experience as the Slingbox. It's one of the few gadgets that adds value to all of your other tech investments--including your cable/satellite service, your DVR, your home network, your laptop PC, and your handheld device. The Solo is a nice choice for those who need HD compatibility and/or pass-through outputs, but who don't need the overkill of the Slingbox Pro's multiple device control. But if you can live with S-Video inputs (fine for streaming outside the house) and no pass-through outputs, stick with the Slingbox AV--available for $50 less, it remains the pick of the litter, and the Editors' Choice.