When Sling Media first launched the groundbreaking Slingbox, Web video was just starting to go mainstream, and premium content from name-brand providers was few and far between. Now that online video is everywhere—Hulu, Veoh, Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix Watch Instantly, and more—and Web apps have been created just to serve as online TV programming guides, the field of play has changed. So why would anyone pay $299 for a box that streams your home TV content over your home network or the Web when you can stream or download most of your favorite shows online? Use the Slingbox Pro-HD once and you’ll know the answers.
The Slingbox Pro-HD undoubtedly offers the highest quality pictures we’ve seen to date. Unlike the Slingbox Pro, which was able to process HDTV but down-converted to VGA resolution, the Pro-HD streams high-definition quality video using its component inputs up to 1080i. You also get sleek new desktop software with the ability to pause up to 60 minutes of video on your PC (even if you don’t have a DVR) and a built-in programming guide. Plus, as with previous Slingboxes, you can tap into your DVR remotely and stream high-quality video to your smart phone—things you can’t do with a standalone Web-based service.
Although the $299 price may be too high for the masses, the Slingbox Pro-HD is a first-class place-shifting device, especially for sports fans and road warriors who want to be able to watch any live or recorded programming away from home.
Design and Installation
The Slingbox Pro-HD shares the same trapezoidal design as most of its kin. In order to accomodate the numerous ports on its back, the device, at 13.3 x 5.6 x 2.4 inches, is about the same width and height as most other components in an A/V cabinet, but it’s not nearly as deep.
Sling Media thoughtfully includes a number of wires in the box: Ethernet, component video, composite video, composite audio, S-Video, as well as an IR blaster cable with four extensions to remotely control multiple devices. On the front of the device is Sling Media’s upside-down U-shape logo, which glows a steady red when the device is activated and pulses red when loading software updates. Two more red lights, indicating whether the device is on and networked, are in the lower right-hand corner.
We downloaded the 90.1MB SlingPlayer for Windows file to a Sony VAIO VGN-Z591U, whose 16:9 screen is ideal for watching high-def content broadcast in that aspect ratio. After installing the software, it immediately recognized the Slingbox over our home 802.11g network, and automatically updated the device’s firmware. The rest of the setup wizard was just as smooth; the biggest issue we faced was having to walk over to our cable box to find out the make and model. During the setup process, a small window showing live TV plays in the upper left-hand corner, which lets you know the device is working.
Like previous iterations of SlingPlayer for Windows, to the left of the main screen is an image of the remote that came with our cable box; pressing a button on this virtual remote produced the same response as the real thing, which was very handy. New is a program guide that lets you see what’s on all the channels at a glance; it’s far more useful than using the software to bring up the program guide on your TV itself. Live video buffering allowed us to pause, rewind, and fast-forward up to an hour of content, but it won’t let you record programs to your PC. For that you’ll need a DVR.
We initially plugged the Slingbox Pro-HD into our cable box using component video and RCA audio cables, and into our router using an Ethernet cable, and streamed it over our home network. The picture quality was very sharp; while not as crisp as our 46-inch Samsung LCD TV, it was about the quality of watching a DVD on the notebook. While watching Monday Night Football, we saw very little pixelation—the green grass of the San Diego Chargers’ field looked superb—and there was no stuttering whatsoever as Brett Favre threw for 271 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The only slight delay was in the video—which lagged about 5 seconds behind the actual broadcast—and in changing channels, which took about a second longer than with the actual remote.
When we brought our notebook into the LAPTOP testing lab and connected it to our test server, the software took less than 30 seconds to find the signal from the Slingbox in our home. The image, while not as sharp as on our home network, was still quite good: less definition, but the action was just as smooth. Using the on-screen remote control to change channels was just as responsive.
The Pro-HD also includes a built-in ATSC/Clear Qam digital tuner, so users can connect it directly to the coaxial cable coming out of their wall. When used in conjunction with a splitter, this will allow one person to change channels with the Slingbox without affecting someone else who happens to be watching TV through the cable box. While this is a smart idea, its execution is somewhat less than perfect; we were no longer able to get HD channels that are scrambled by our cable provider, and other niceties are no longer available. When we set up the Slingbox Pro-HD in this manner, we were presented with a generic remote that lacked much of the functionality of our cable provider’s remote—we couldn’t even type in a channel number, though you can set up a favorites list in the channel guide.
Smart Phone Access
We used a Windows Mobile–powered Samsung BlackJack II over AT&T’s 3G network to see how well the Pro-HD streamed to a mobile device; it performed just as admirably as the original SlingPlayer Mobile, and while obviously not a high-def signal, video of The Who in concert was smooth, and audio, for the most part, synced up well and was crystal clear. Likewise, changing channels was equally easy—when we accidentally turned the BlackJack II’s scroll wheel, we were surprised by how quickly it jumped from one channel to the next. SlingPlayer Mobile ($29.99) is also available for Palm and Symbian smart phones.
While the Pro-HD will work with both Macs and PCs, it can stream high-definition channels only to Windows machines; a company rep said that an updated version of the Mac player will come out later. For now, the Pro-HD down-converts HD channels for Mac systems. Even so, the Slingbox Pro-HD, with its ease of set up and use and superior video quality, is the best Slingbox yet. This device will especially appeal to those who have recently bought, or plan to buy, widescreen notebooks; the aspect ratio of HD channels is perfectly suited for those laptops, and you’ll never have to miss a game or favorite show away from home again.
Once the highly anticipated SlingCatcher comes out (we’re hearing early October), the Slingbox Pro-HD will get even sweeter. Not only will you be able to stream high-quality video to another TV in your home (as opposed to just another computer), you’ll be able to output that video to a big-screen TV when you’re away from home, whether it’s in a vacation house or a hotel room. We can’t wait.