We're seeing more companies turn out new iterations of their products without changing much -- or almost nothing at all.
Case in point: Sling Media's new place-shifting set-top box, the Slingbox M2, is a dead ringer for its predecessor, the (shown at right). In fact, a Sling spokesperson told CNET that the M2 "boasts the same category-defining hardware as M1."
As with past Slingbox models, the box digitizes video streams from your cable/satellite box (or DVR) and streams them in real time to a wide variety of devices: Windows PCs and Macs, iPads, iPhones, Android phones, Android tablets (including the Kindle Fire line of Amazon tablets) and Windows phones. The mobile apps also enable streaming on home devices, such as an , , and , which use the apps as "remotes."
There's just one catch: the new M2 retails for $200 -- a $50 increase over the price of the M1 when it first debuted. But the price hike for the hardware is coupled with those mobile apps going free -- albeit with ads.
Free editions of mobile apps
In the past, Sling, which is owned by Echostar, charged $14.99 for those companion apps on mobile platforms. Those paid apps still exist on Android, iPhone, iPad and Fire tablets, but users can now instead opt for free, ad-supported versions as well. Basically, you can test-drive the free app, and pay up to make the ads disappear.
On top of that, Sling says that later this year it will release "usability enhancements to the app, including video quality improvements and a gallery viewing mode on iPhone and Android phones, similar to what is available on the iPad."
Bonus extra: Set-up help
To set up the M2, all you have to do is connect the box to the component video outputs of your cable or satellite box, then set up a Slingbox account and link the box to your Wi-Fi network from your computer. It has built-in infrared (IR) emitters that interface with the IR remote receiver on your cable or satellite box, allowing you to turn your mobile device into a virtual remote control. If for some reason the integrated IR doesn't work, you do get an IR extender to stick right on your cable or satellite box. However, chances are you won't have to use the blaster (I didn't have to connect it when testing the M1).
It's pretty straightforward, but apparently a lot of users found the set-up processing challenging. To address this issue, Sling says it will now offer Slingbox users free live video setup/installation assistance.
Video 'placeshifting' in the age of TV anywhere apps
We're not sure exactly when we'll review the M2, but -- given the fact that the hardware is essentially the same -- much of what we said in ourstill applies. (In fact, if you can get the M1 at closeout prices, it appears to be the better deal.)
The bigger question is this: can you still justify buying Slingbox hardware in an age where TV anywhere (apps like Watch ESPN, HBO Go and Comedy Central that are "authenticated" through your cable or satellite provider) and on-demand video apps (HBO Now, Showtime, Hulu and the like) are so widely available? Indeed, Sling offers its own "skinny bundle" of channels called, with prices starting at $20 a month. Meanwhile, current models of the Dish Hopper DVR (also from Echostar) already offer Sling-like functionality built-in; TiVo Roamio DVR models offer similar in-home streaming, too.
While the Slingbox hardware platform paved the way for those innovations, they largely make it redundant. If you're happy with any of them, Slingbox isn't for you. But if you're looking for an easy way to access any and all of your cable channels any place where you have broadband, this may be just the ticket. For frequent travelers and die-hard sports fans, the Slingbox M2 may still be worth an audition.