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 optimizes the software settings to your PC's CPU and graphics-card capabilities. Once it's up and running, the software gives you a video window not unlike that of QuickTime or Windows Media Player, but which includes channel-changing controls.
Right off the bat, the Slingbox's basic functions worked as advertised. We were watching our basic cable channels on the bedroom PC, able to flip channels at will using the generic onscreen remote control. The recent improvements in the SlingPlayer software were notable, as well: there are now several "skins" from which to choose, and you can easily create favorite channels using the familiar channel logos for one-touch access. Just like a good TV, the Slingbox Tuner will scan for available channels, and you can add and delete them at will, and even fine-tune channels that appear a bit fuzzy.
The SlingPlayer software automatically optimizes viewing quality to available bandwidth via an algorithm called SlingStream. The Slingbox Tuner and its second-gen siblings all utilize the same chip, a new Texas Instruments DSP that offers the potential for better video quality than that of the original Slingbox model. Moreover, the quality of the final image (on your computer or mobile device) 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.
However, because the Slingbox Tuner uses the RF connector instead of the superior composite and S-Video inputs found on the Slingbox A/V and Pro, it's starting with a video signal that's of noticeably lower quality. As a result, the image quality just wasn't as good as that of the other models, even with the improved bandwidth that a home network offered (versus the external Internet). Watching sitcoms on TBS even exhibited some interference, waviness, and cross-color artifacts that are common on any RF connection. That said, it was still quite watchable--not too much of a step-down from a TV, in fact.
When broadcasting to the outside world, the Slingbox Tuner 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 a decent 500Kbps--not bad at all, but far below the 3,000 to 6,000Kbps 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 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 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 a 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 EVDO), a Samsung BlackJack (Cingular/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 re-creation of the same solid performance we've gotten on a PC. What's better, of course, is that you can use handheld or cell phone service much more often and in many more locations than you can a desktop or laptop PC. Just be sure you have an unlimited-usage data plan on that smart phone, or you'll have a nasty surprise at the end of the month when the bill arrives.
Competition and caveats
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-B20 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, Windows Mobile, and Symbian 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 until later in 2007). 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 Sling-like streaming, but include built-in wireless networking, HD support, the ability to stream to multiple clients on a LAN concurrently, and better integration with Windows Media Center/Vista than Slingbox.
Moving beyond dedicated 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.
That's not to say the Slingbox is perfect. Among our gripes is the fact that it lacks any wireless networking component, so you'll need to connect a wireless bridge or a pair of power-line adapters. 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 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 obvious limitations of the small screen: the miniaturized versions of your EPG; channel labels; or onscreen text such as sports scores, news crawls, or stock quotes may just be flat-out unreadable on many devices; as will the finer details of some quick-moving videos; for example, hockey pucks and baseballs will be hard to discern.
Is the Slingbox Tuner worth the investment? Anybody who's got digital cable or satellite TV will almost certainly find the identically priced Slingbox A/V to be a better buy, since it can control those set-top boxes, including DVRs, and give you access to the hundreds--not dozens--of channels they offer. That said, the Tuner model does offer at least one distinct advantage over its siblings: the Slingbox A/V and Slingbox Pro "monopolize" the connected video source. So, if you're remotely watching a recording on your DVR, anybody else who's sitting in front of the TV is essentially forced to watch the same thing. But the Slingbox Tuner uses an internal tuner, so it operates independent of any TVs in the house. Essentially, it's an external, networkable TV tuner card. If you have a wide array of analog channels that you'd enjoy watching on a PC or a mobile device, the Slingbox Tuner will handle the job capably.
Senior Editor David Katzmaier contributed to this review.