Aside from working as advertised, one of Slingbox's biggest strengths is its frequent firmware and software updates, which have added significant functionality to the product. The SlingPlayer software now supports Windows 2000 in addition to XP, and the beta Mac client is available for download from Sling Media's Web site. Sling has also pledged that its software will work on the forthcoming Origami Ultramobile PCs. Moreover, while the onscreen interface of the original SlingPlayer software included only basic remote controls, the iteration 22.214.171.124 and thereafter actually duplicate the remote layouts for popular set-top models. For instance, the video-transport control keys (A, B, C, List, Guide, Info, and so on) of our Scientific Atlanta 8300HD were all in their familiar locations, so playing back recorded shows and accessing the onscreen electronic programming guide was second nature. Similarly, you can now switch between the Slingbox's three video inputs--say, from a TiVo to a DVD player to the analog TV tuner--straight from the application's menu, whereas older versions required you to rerun the whole setup program.
The biggest upgrade to the Slingbox is the availability of a Windows Mobile software client. SlingPlayer Mobile brings the Slingbox experience to any touch-screen Windows Mobile handheld or smart phone (versions 4.0, 5.0, and even the older 2003 edition), so long as it has access to the Internet. We tested it on an old HP iPaq via Wi-Fi and a new Palm Treo 700w over a Verizon's EV-DO broadband cellular network, and it worked equally well in both instances. Except for the small screen size, 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 a handheld or cell phone much more often and in many more locations than you could from a desktop or laptop PC. Just be sure you have an all-you-can-eat data plan on that smart phone, or you'll have a nasty surprise at the end of the month when the bill arrives. To see the SlingPlayer Mobile software in action, check out CNET's exclusive First Look video. Sling has since released a second version of SlingPlayer Mobile, this time optimized for Windows Mobile Smartphone devices (those that lack a touch screen). The Smartphone version is still in beta, but once it's final, it will cost the same one-time $30 fee as the Pocket PC version. Both versions are available as a 30-day trial download from Sling's Web site, so you can try before you buy.
How does the Slingbox compare to the competition? While the "placeshifting" market is fairly tiny, there is a growing number of options for copying/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. Besides the Slingbox, there's and the software package. The Sony costs at least $300 and enables live video transmission to the PSP or a PC, while Orb is free and offers access to other media (photos, music, and so forth) but requires a host PC with a TV tuner card to stream television programs. If you're interested in viewing your TV remotely, we found the Slingbox to be the best combination of value, ease of use, and flexibility.
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 hook up a wireless bridge or a pair of power-line adapters (such as Sling Media's own SlingLink module) if there's not an Ethernet connection in the vicinity. Furthermore, the Slingbox is only as good as its device support. And while it's improved considerably in the past few months, you'll be out of luck if it's missing remote codes for your primary video device; our hard disk/DVD recorder is currently unsupported, for instance. We'd love if the Slingbox software could learn codes or allow modification of its virtual remote template, much as a PC-programmable remote. 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, stock and 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.
That said, the Slingbox is one of the few gadgets that adds value to all your other tech investments--including the cable/satellite service, DVR, home network, laptop PC, and handheld device. Toss in the ultra-affordable $200 price (it originally went for $250), the notable lack of monthly fees, and the improved PC software and mobile client, and it's not hard to see why one of our favorite gadgets of 2005 is still an easy recommendation for 2006.
Senior editors James Kim and David Katzmaier contributed to this review.