If the idea of watching your home television and accessing your DVR away from home is starting to grow on you, Sling Media's new middle child in the family of place-shifting devices offers an affordable option while maintaining Sling's easy setup and slick interface. The $179 Solo can connect to one AV device in your home, say a TiVo or other set-top box, and then control and stream the content anywhere a broadband Internet connection is available, sans monthly fees. The Solo also offers the advantage of integrated HD component inputs-which required an HD Connect accessory on the Slingbox Pro. Add in support for Mac OS X, Windows, and a wide range of smart phones (including Symbian Series 60 devices like the Nokia N95) and you have a first-class place-shifting solution for mobile couch potatoes.
Like its brethren, the Solo's glossy black trapezoidal design sits unobtrusively in your AV setup with just two tiny red lights for power and network connectivity to let you know it's working. The size is just 8.7 x 4.0 x 1.9 inches, so you won't need much room even if your setup includes a TiVo, cable set-top box, and DVD player. On the back you'll see all the inputs and outputs neatly laid out in a grid, including component, composite, S-Video, power, Ethernet, and a mysterious USB port, which, according to Sling Media, is currently used as a service port but will be put to better use sometime soon. Our money is on external storage or perhaps a wireless dongle. Like the Slingbox AV and Pro, the Solo comes with an included IR blaster for controlling your AV equipment remotely.
The best thing we can say about the Solo is that Sling Media was smart enough not to mess with a good thing. Setup is still incredibly simple. We connected our component cables to our Scientific Atlanta HD set-top box, plugged in the Ethernet cable to our Netgear WGR614 Wireless-G router, and installed the software on our Apple MacBook in less than ten minutes with no problems-and without using the instructions.
Once we were up and running on our MacBook, we were impressed by the picture quality and frame rate that the Solo provided using the SlingPlayer software. On our home network, standard-def programming like South Park and Attack of the Show came through clearly and smoothly at about 1 to 3 Mbps, on average. We really appreciated superb frame rates and detail. We then gave a friend in Oklahoma our SlingPlayer user name and password to watch The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on his HP Compaq nx6325 via his home cable connection, and he was very impressed with the video quality.
To evaluate remote-viewing ourselves, we connected at a local hotspot, where the stream dropped to an average of 100 to 500 Kbps. We noticed a significant drop-off in picture quality due to compression, but the frame rates were still excellent, with few lags or jumps. The Slingbox encodes in WMV and handles other variables on the fly behind the scenes. You can tweak settings like resolution and frame rate in the SlingPlayer Software. We found the overall quality of standard-def content on par with or better than nearly all Web-based video services, including Joost and Veoh.
The Solo's high-def inputs provided only a marginal improvement. The Slingbox will automatically set the aspect ratio and frame rate according to your bandwidth restrictions, so the quality will depend not only on the type of broadband you're connecting to while away, but also on the upstream restrictions in your home. In theory, if you're connecting to something like Verizon FiOS on both ends, you could broadcast your 1080i HD channels crisply. We should also note that our previous complaints with the Slingbox AV concerning HD channel artifacts weren't an issue with the Solo.
Another notch in the Solo's "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" column is the remote control software. Once we correctly affixed the IR blaster nodes to our set-top box, we were easily able to change channels whether we were in another room at home or at a hotspot.
The Slingbox Solo also retains support for SlingPlayer Mobile ($29.99; free for new and existing Nokia N95 customers), which allows you to stream and control video right on your Palm OS, Symbian 60 (in beta), or Windows Mobile smart phone. We had our T-Mobile Dash up and running and were watching The Real World in about five minutes. Typing in the 32-character Slingbox ID was a bit cumbersome, but you can always bring that over with a simple Active Sync.
When watching over a Wi-Fi connection, SlingPlayer Mobile and the Solo teamed up to provide an excellent, if small, 320 x 280-pixel window with hardly any stutter. Connecting via EDGE provided similar results, albeit with minor video lag-a Herculean feat considering it's not true 3G. We also got our hands on a preproduction build of the new Symbian 60 client, and tuned into Big Brother. The Symbian client was more prone to time-outs and lag, although this had more to do with the flaky Wi-Fi connection on our N95 smart phone.
We have only two complaints with the Solo: the lack of integrated HDMI, which many new AV devices have, and the lack of Wi-Fi. If your router and set-top box are in separate rooms, you're out of luck unless you're willing to purchase the SlingLink Turbo ($79.99), which uses your home's electrical outlets to extend your network. While we understand that adding integrated Wi-Fi may complicate the easy setup, we'd be happy making the tradeoff.
Despite these quibbles, the Slingbox Solo is a first-class entertainment product, and we can't say enough about the flawless setup. Slingbox AV owners don't have much reason to upgrade, but the Slingbox Solo's superb video quality and dongle-free HD component ports provide a strong midpriced option for TV fans who want to get the most out of that expensive cable or satellite subscription.
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