Hot off its acquisition by EchoStar, parent company of the Dish Network satellite service, Sling Media is back in the saddle with a new product, the Slingbox Solo. The latest Slingbox model is essentially a streamlined version of the Slingbox Pro. Like that 2006 model, the Solo ($180 list) can handle standard and high-def video streams via pass-through AV input/outputs, but the HD input no longer requires the purchase of an add-on dongle. The Solo loses the built-in analog TV tuner and discrete audio inputs found on the Pro, but it gains a smaller, sleeker frame. Oh, and there's a USB input--but it's currently "reserved for future use." In other words, if you already have a Slingbox Pro--or even a Slingbox AV--there's no real compelling need to upgrade to the Solo. But if you have yet to take the plunge, the Slingbox Solo is an ideal place-shifting option, and an enthusiastic recommendation for anyone who wishes to stream their TV and home video content to any broadband-enabled computer (Windows or Mac) or any smartphone (Windows Mobile or Palm OS) in the world.
Stream your TV anywhere
Before we focus on the specifics of the Slingbox Solo, it's worth taking a broader look at the Slingbox technology as a whole. The Slingbox enables you to stream your home TV programming to your broadband-enabled computer or smartphone. Both the Slingbox (source) and the device running the SlingPlayer software (receiver) need to be connected to high-speed broadband networks--a cable or DSL line or a 3G wireless network--but the distance between the two isn't a factor. As long as you're getting normal broadband access speeds, you can watch your Slingbox playback anywhere--be it in another room of the house or halfway around the world, literally.
SlingPlayer software is available for Windows (2000, XP, or Vista) and Mac OS X (10.3.9 or later, for PowerPC or Intel machines) computers on the included disc, or as a free download. Furthermore, mobile SlingPlayer versions are available for many Windows Mobile smartphones and handhelds (both touch-screen and non-touch-screen models) and certain Palm OS models (Treo 700p and 755p). Already preinstalled in some phones sold in Europe, a SlingPlayer for Symbian phone is now in beta testing here in the U.S. Each mobile software package needs to be purchased on Sling's Web site for a onetime fee of $30, but you can try before you buy--just download the 30-day trial software from Sling's Web site.
Sling Media is said to be working on players for additional platforms--the BlackBerry and iPhone have been mentioned--but no official announcements have been made. But the key for any current and future viewing platform is broadband capability, be it Ethernet (for PCs), Wi-Fi, or 3G high-speed cellular networks. Meanwhile, those who prefer a bigger screen will want to hold out for the SlingCatcher. Due by the end of 2007, this "reverse Slingbox" will be able to stream content from any Slingbox and display it on another TV--so you can access your living room DVR recordings in the bedroom, for instance. It will also offer a function called "SlingProjector" that will mirror what appears on the screen of any networked PC.
Design of the Slingbox Solo
The Slingbox Solo is about the size of three DVD cases stacked together, and it retains the trapezoidal shape of all previous Slingbox models. But the Solo's got a decidedly more polished look and feel--it's jet black (albeit with Sling's trademark red accents on the side), and the metal grille along the top and side gives it more of a classic high-end audio vibe. Except for the three red indicator lights on the front face, all the action is around back. There's no power switch either--once plugged in, the Slingbox is designed to be always on, just like a cable modem or router.
The Solo's rear panel boasts composite, S-Video, and component video inputs and outputs, so it can sit between your cable or satellite box (or DVR) and your TV. That's a step up from last year's Slingbox AV, which lacked pass-through connectors. While you can set up the Solo to receive video from three separate sources (say, a cable box, DVD changer, and Apple TV), you're limited to just one set of stereo audio inputs. Using Y-cable adapters provides a workaround, but you'll get a mash-up of multiple audio streams if you don't power down the other connected sources. We opted to stick with a single AV source--our DVR cable box--but some users opt to use the Slingbox for remote security (no audio needed).
The component video connections of the Slingbox Solo have no trouble processing HD video (720p and 1080i, but not 1080p). An HDMI connector would've been nice, but that would introduce pesky copyright protection and digital-rights management issues. Nevertheless, be aware that some cable boxes can't support parallel HD video output (simultaneous HDMI and component video), so if you already have the cable box connected via HDMI, you might need to use component (passed through the Slingbox to the TV)--or just opt for S-Video instead.
Setup and installation
In addition to connecting the Slingbox between the cable/satellite box and the TV, you'll also need to connect it to your home network. With no built-in Wi-Fi, the only choice is the wired Ethernet connection. If you don't have a network cable in the vicinity, you'll need to opt for a wireless bridge or power-line networking interface. We've had much better luck with the latter, which sends network traffic over your home power lines. Sling offers its own SlingLink Turbo products, or you can opt for similar models from Netgear, Linksys, and the like.
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 calibrates the software settings to your PC's CPU and graphics card. 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.
In terms of performance and usage, the Slingbox Solo seemed indistinguishable from its 2006 predecessor, the Slingbox Pro. But that's a compliment, not a criticism--the previous-generation Slingbox models were already the best-in-class place-shifting products available, and the Solo ably lives up to the pedigree. We were able to watch our living room TV--with full access to all our channels and recorded DVR programming--on the bedroom PC, on our work PC (10 miles away), on a laptop, or on a Sprint Mogul (anywhere we had access to the EVDO network or Wi-Fi).
On a Windows or Mac screen, the SlingPlayer software offers several "skins," and you can easily set up favorite channels for one-touch access using the familiar channel logos. But where the interface of the SlingPlayer really triumphs 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), and the Dish ViP622, 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.