Before there were "TV everywhere" apps, there was the Slingbox, a groundbreaking product that allowed you to stream your home TV signals to any PC or connected device on the planet, so long as you had the available bandwidth. After something of a hiatus -- there haven't been any new Sling products since 2008's Slingbox Pro-HD -- new Slingbox hardware has finally been released: the Slingbox 350 ($180, reviewed here) and the Slingbox 500 ($300).
As the premium price would imply, the 500 is the flagship Slingbox, including some first-time features like Wi-Fi connectivity, limited HDMI support, and the ability to stream photos and videos from phones and tablets. But the Slingbox 350 is no slouch, bringing full 1080p video-streaming to the party. It lacks those additional bells and whistles of its step-up sibling, but it focuses on its core competency -- streaming high-def video to any location -- and it does so in flawless fashion.
Your TV, anywhere
The Slingbox is a personal video broadcaster. It takes any video signal you send into its AV inputs -- such as your cable/satellite box or DVR -- digitizes it, and streams it to you, live and in real time. Think of it as Netflix, but instead of streaming a catalog of on-demand title, you're streaming your TV programming, in real time.
That means you can watch your TV anywhere, on a wide variety of devices. The SlingPlayer viewing software works on Windows PCs and Macs via a free Web browser plug-in. It’s also available as an app for iPhone (and iPod Touch), iPad, Android phones, Android tablets (including the Kindle Fire line), Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry. But at $15 each, the apps are pricey, and the iOS app is not universal -- you’ll need to buy it once for your iPhone/iPod Touch, and again for your iPad (if you own both).
In addition to those PC and mobile offerings, free SlingPlayer apps are available on a handful of connected video devices: the WD TV line, and the (now discontinued) Boxee Box and Logitech Revue. So, you can connect one of those boxes -- including the $99 WD TV Live -- to a TV in a different room of the house (or a remote location, such as a friend’s house, hotel room, beach house, or wherever) and stream live TV or recorded programming from your DVR, whether it’s in the next room or across the country.
Streaming alone is impressive, but the Slingbox (and its remote viewing software) lets you also remotely control the source TV, via on-screen controls (for PCs, phones, and tablets) or the hardware remotes of the streaming video boxes (like Boxee and WD TV). That means you have access to all of your home channels, pay-per-view and on-demand, and recorded DVR programming, no matter where you are.
The Slingbox 350 hardware
The Slingbox 350 is a black box that’s about the size of three standard DVD cases stacked on top of another. The box has a diamond mesh design that I personally found to be a bit garish; I’d rather have a nondescript black box than something that calls attention to itself. Opinions from colleagues differed; some agreed with my take, others thought it was cool. (The prevailing wisdom was that it looked like the long lost sibling to the Jawbone Jambox.)
One reason the Slingbox is larger than microboxes like Roku or Apple TV is that its back panel is bristling with the necessary RCA inputs and outputs needed for analog video ingestion: a set of component video ports (red, blue, green) and a stereo audio (red/white), as well as a fallback composite video port for non-HD video sources.
Each of those six jacks has a corresponding video output as well. The Slingbox is designed as a “pass-through” device, so you can connect it between your DVR/cable box and your TV (using the component or composite video connectors). So it takes the video signals from the DVR, digitizes them for online streaming, but sends the signals on through the pass-through output to your TV, unmolested.
You’re probably using the HDMI cable to connect your DVR/cable box to your TV; if that’s the case, you should be able to continue doing that, but you’ll need to run the component and audio cables to the Slingbox in parallel (though there’s no need to use the pass-through outputs in that case). You won’t find HDMI pass-through ports on the Slingbox 350, but that option is available on the step-up Slingbox 500 model (see the “Caveats” section below for more details).
That more expensive Slingbox 500 is also the first Slingbox model to offer a built-in Wi-Fi connection. Unfortunately, the Slingbox 350 remains Ethernet-only, so you’ll need to make sure you have a wired network connection near your TV.
The USB port on the rear of the Slingbox 350 is currently reserved for future use.
As with past models, the Slingbox 350 is designed to sit on top of the cable/satellite box or DVR to which it’s connected. In the past, that also meant stringing annoying IR blaster cables to sit in front of the cable box, thus allowing the Slingbox to pass along your remote commands (changing channels, play/pause, menu/guide, etc.). The biggest improvement of the new Slingbox line is that the blasters are now built into the box’s body (on front and the sides). In our testing, the results were flawless. Sling still includes a cabled blaster, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll need it for a standard “Slingbox on top of cable box” setup.
Once you get the Slingbox hooked to all the proper cables -- Ethernet, audio/video, and, of course, power -- it’s time to configure the box.
Sling has invested a lot of time and effort through the years streamlining the setup, and it shows. While the company used to offer standalone streaming software for Windows and Mac, that’s all now handled through browser plug-ins. Plug-ins are now available for all major browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and -- on the Mac only -- Safari.
While the Slingbox streams video anywhere on the Internet, make sure you’re logged in to the same home network that the box is on during the setup process. (Best-case scenario is having a laptop in the same room as the TV/Slingbox.)