Once it's up and running, the software gives you a video window not unlike that of QuickTime or Windows Media Player, just with channel-changing controls. If you've connected the Slingbox to a TiVo, a cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR, or even a DVD recorder, you'll also get video-transport controls: pause, rewind, fast-forward, and so on. Version 2.0 of the SlingPlayer (Windows only, so far) is far improved from earlier iterations. It includes a 60-minute buffer, a built-in onscreen programming guide, and compatibility with online Sling.com accounts (which provides a central repository for your Slingbox serial number and password--useful if you've got multiple boxes, or access them from multiple devices). The buffer lets you rewind, pause, and fast-forward on the PC itself--eliminating the delay you get when communicating with a DVR through the network.
The best thing about the software (including older and Mac versions) is the onscreen remote control. Essentially, you're getting a nearly identical version of the handheld remote of whatever set-top box the Slingbox is connected to. During testing, we were able to toggle between the DirecTV HR20, the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD (cable), each of which had their corresponding remotes available on the screen. The obvious upside is that there's no learning curve--if you can use your home remote, you can use the SlingPlayer software, as well.
When using an over-the-air antenna or QAM digital cable, you get a generic remote (just a keypad) for changing channels. The SlingPlayer pulled in a current program guide for the over-the-air channels, but not for the QAM channels (the ones you get when just plugging your cable line into the Slingbox's RF jack). When using both configurations, however, we were still able to have access to plenty of digital and HD channels.
The SlingPlayer software automatically optimizes viewing quality to available bandwidth via an algorithm called SlingStream. Of course, the quality is largely dependent on the available network bandwidth. To see the SlingPlayer Pro-HD max out--deliver true HD video--you'll pretty much need to be on a home network (watching the downstairs TV while you're upstairs, for instance). While on a LAN, we were able to get a stunning picture, with the player streaming at speeds up to 8,100Kbps.
While it didn't quite deliver Blu-ray levels of detail, it was the first streaming experience we've seen that really outshined DVD. Watching a Discovery HD Theater documentary on the National Air and Space Museum revealed excellent resolution, with few instances of stair stepping or jaggies; the same was true for a recorded HD episode of Arrested Development. Motion was mostly smooth, but there were a few hiccups. It's important to note that your viewing device (laptop or desktop) will need better-than-average horsepower and video processing to keep up with these HD streams. But the experience was far better than we got from the earlier Slingbox Pro, which had its output limited to 640x480. (The Pro-HD can theoretically push out a full 1080i HD signal.)
Unfortunately, remove your laptop from the home network and then access your Slingbox on the Internet, and it's a different story. Because the Slingbox is limited by your home's upstream bandwidth, you'll get far reduced picture quality--assuming you've got the normal, less-than-spectacular broadband speeds available in most of the U.S. (We usually got around 400Kbps to 500Kbps from our cable modem.) Don't get us wrong: it's still usually a very watchable picture, but it skews more toward a YouTube video than a DVD. Of course, if you've got a premium Internet connection--something like Fios--you may well be able to ratchet up the picture quality to something closer to what you'd be seeing on an internal network.
When watching on a cell phone or handheld device, the same bandwidth concerns apply. But because those devices have such small screens (compared with a computer's monitor), the resulting image looked even better. We tested the SlingPlayer Mobile software on a Sprint Mogul, and it was effectively a miniaturized version of the PC experience. What's better, of course, is that you can use the handheld or cell phone service much more often and in many more locations than you could from a desktop or laptop PC. Just be sure you have an unlimited-usage data plan on that smartphone, or you'll have a nasty surprise at the end of the month when the bill arrives.
Available in the fall of 2008, the SlingCatcher will also be able to view streams from a Slingbox. The advantage here is that you could access your living room DVR while watching, say, your bedroom TV--and do so in high-definition.
Limitations and caveats
The Slingbox is not perfect. Like all previous models, the lack of integrated Wi-Fi will be a sticking point for some users (the power-line adapters work perfectly, but they require an extra expense). Furthermore, the Slingbox is only as good as its device support. And while its catalog of supported devices is excellent overall, you'll be out of luck if it's missing the remote codes for your primary video device.
Meanwhile, the mobile client is hampered by some of the obvious limitations of the small screen: the miniaturized versions of your EPG and channel labels, or onscreen text such as sports scores, news crawls, and stock quotes, may just be flat-out unreadable on many devices. The finer details of some quick-moving videos, such as hockey pucks and baseballs, will also be hard to discern.
It's also important to realize that the Slingbox is only as good as the source device to which it's attached. Most users will find a DVR to be the best source, offering access to the full panoply of live TV channels, plus anything already recorded. And the Slingbox also means you'll never have to worry about forgetting to record your shows, either--just log in from your PC or your phone to schedule recordings and change whatever settings you like.
The bigger issue for most users isn't Sling's fault, but it is an important limitation of the Pro-HD--and all other hardware-based place-shifting devices. Because the Slingbox is piggybacking off of the output of the cable or satellite box, it's monopolizing the attached box whenever it's active. So if you dial in remotely and switch to ESPN to watch a baseball game, anybody watching the TV will be forced to watch that channel as well. Likewise, if they switch back to another channel, the Slingbox feed will change, too. The notable exception: this constraint does not apply to the RF input. Because that input uses a built-in tuner, a remote viewer can flip channels at will, and it won't affect a cable/satellite box on the other input.
Finally, don't expect to share a Slingbox key with friends and family to use simultaneously. By design, the Slingbox only supports streaming to one client at a time (be it a PC desktop or a mobile device).
Competing products and services
The Slingbox is far from the only game in town when it comes to streaming your home TV to a remote location. The Sony LF-V30 LocationFree TV delivers similar functionality to the Slingbox. It one-ups the Sling with built-in wireless and the capability to stream TV programming to PSP gaming handhelds, but it can't stream at HD resolutions, and its third-party software for streaming to Macs and Windows Mobile devices doesn't measure up to the SlingPlayer. Meanwhile, Monsoon Multimedia offers several Hava media streamers, which include built-in wireless networking capabilities, the capability to stream to multiple clients on a LAN concurrently, as well as some limited integration with Windows Media Center PCs. The Havas offer streaming to Windows PCs, Windows Mobile smartphones, and some Symbian (Nokia/S60) smartphones. A version of the Hava software is also used in the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless and Archos TV+ products.
Moving beyond 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. The free software and service is notable for offering remote access to virtually any PC-based--photos, music, and so forth--through most devices with a Web browser, including PCs, , and many smartphones. But unlike Slingbox, it requires a host PC with a TV tuner card to stream live or recorded television programs.
All in all, though, none of those competing products delivers as good an experience as the Slingbox. It's one of the few gadgets that add value to all of your other tech investments--including your cable/satellite service, your DVR, your home network, your laptop PC, and your handheld device. The Pro-HD is the new cream of the crop, and is recommended for power users who want the best video quality when streaming to other rooms of the house, or for those who need access to multiple devices or antenna feeds. But if you just want to watch your TV over the Internet, you're probably better off going with the Slingbox Solo instead. It delivers much of the same functionality, but at half the price.