After you establish a log-in/password and install the plug-in, the rest of the setup process is mostly answering a series of questions: what’s the manufacturer/model number of your set-top box, which TV service do you subscribe to, and so forth.
As usual, someone who’s a real tech novice may have trouble navigating the process (or understanding the terminology). People who are reasonably tech proficient can be up and running in 20 minutes or less. And if -- like me -- you already have a Sling account (from earlier Slingbox models), things can be up and running in as quick as 5 minutes or less.
Using the Slingbox 350
I connected the Slingbox to my Time Warner DVR, and streamed to a variety of devices over the course of several days: an iPad 3, an older Android phone, a Windows 7 laptop, a MacBook Air, and the WD TV Live. Later, I also connected it to a DirecTV HR21 DVR at the office.
To make a long story short: overall, the Slingbox 350 performed flawlessly, and was a pleasure to use.
When you first connect to the Slingbox, it will take 30 to 45 seconds for the stream to optimize to the available bandwidth. Assuming you’ve got enough speed -- upstream (from the source) and downstream (in your viewing location) -- video quality can look positively excellent. If you’re watching on a big enough screen (a tablet, a large PC screen, or a big-screen TV via Apple TV or WD TV Live), you’ll see resolution approaching full 1080p HD, and excellent motion detail, largely free of artifacts and freezes.
When you’re connected, you get the option of a full onscreen remote that -- in most cases -- looks identical to that of your cable/satellite box or DVR. That means you can control the action exactly as if you were in your living room -- play, pause, rewind, and so forth. That said, there is a lag, so don’t expect instantaneous response time.
The viewing software also buffers 30 minutes of video, so you can play, pause, and rewind on your viewing device. Because that happens locally, it’s more responsive. (No, you can't save the buffered recordings to your PC, tablet, or phone.)
The other notable feature when viewing via a local app is the built-in onscreen electronic program guide (EPG). So, instead of having to access the EPG remotely, you can see it as an overlay on the screen (or split-screen with the video).
It’s worth restating another big advantage of the Slingbox: you get exactly the same content you’d be getting in your living room. So, unlike most sports viewing apps (MLB.TV, Sunday Ticket, and the like), you won’t be subject to annoying online-only blackout rules -- like being excluded from watching your home team. And unlike many TV everywhere cable apps, you’re not restricted to viewing in your own home. Nor do you have to worry if you’re an HBO subscriber, but your cable system doesn’t support HBO Go. If it’s on your TV, you can watch it.
The caveats: What you should know before considering the Slingbox
There’s more than a lot to love about the Slingbox 350, and the Sling concept in general. But there are some issues with the Slingbox you should be aware of before you buy one. Some of them are applicable to every streaming device, while others are Slingbox-specific (or at least placeshifting-specific).
Bandwidth limitations: Streaming video -- and especially high-def video -- remains a bandwidth intensive activity. For a home network, you’ll want to make sure you’re using wired connections or the fastest 802.11n Wi-Fi when accessing the Slingbox. Outside the home, things get more complicated. At the source, your home upstream bandwidth needs to be at least 3.5Mbps to deliver full 1080p video. And, wherever you’re viewing the Sling stream, the download speed needs to be just as fast. So don’t expect a good Slingbox experience unless you’ve got good cable broadband in the home, and fast Wi-Fi or 4G wireless at your viewing location.
Monopolization of the video source: One important thing to keep in mind: your Slingbox can only stream what’s being shown on your cable/satellite box/DVR at any given time. If you live alone, that’s not a problem. But, for instance, if you’re watching Monday Night Football streaming from your cable box, and someone walks into the living room and changes the channel to “How I Met Your Mother,” that’s what you’ll see remotely as well. In other words, if you’re a serious Slingboxer in a multiperson household, you might want to consider a dedicated (or at least isolated) video source, to avoid family viewing conflicts.
Power consumption: Note that the Slingbox is yet another “always-on” component; there’s no off switch, since it’s always waiting for a remote command to begin streaming. The Sling tech personnel told me it draws about 15 watts. That’s less than most light bulbs (even CFLs or LEDs), but keep in mind that it’s running 24-7.
Pricey SlingPlayer apps: As mentioned -- with the exception of the free ones available on Windows PCs, Macs, and the hardware boxes like WD TV -- you’ll need to purchase a SlingPlayer app for every device you plan to view on; that's $15 each for iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android tablets, Android phones, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, and Kindle Fire devices. That’s half the price they used to be, but still expensive compared with most other premium apps.
Duplicates some functionality of TV everywhere apps: We mentioned the advantage of the Slingbox versus many TV everywhere apps above. If, on the other hands, you’re happy with those free “authenticated” TV apps -- Watch ESPN, My Time Warner Cable, HBO Go, Epix, and so forth -- Slingbox might be redundant for your needs.
Streaming is dependent upon Sling's network infrastructure: The online EPG and your Sling account are cloud-based services maintained by Sling. So, even though you may be streaming from one room of your home to another, you're relying on Sling's servers to be up and running. For the most part, they do an excellent job, but just note you're relying on them to keep their side of the system running for the duration of the product's lifespan.
There are plenty of products and services out there that aim to bring "live TV" to your tablet or computer. Some of them, like the Belkin @TV, are mere Slingbox clones (includes Wi-Fi, offers free apps, but doesn't stream in high-def). Others are app-based (Aereo) or hardware-based (EyeTV Mobile), but only offer a handful of over-the-air TV channels -- or require monthly fees. Yes, it would be nice if the Slingbox 350 were a bit cheaper, or, most importantly, if it included the built-in Wi-Fi found on its more expensive sibling. That said, the Slingbox 350 is still the best overall choice to stream your home TV anywhere.