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Sling Media Slingbox (2nd generation) review: Sling Media Slingbox (2nd generation)

The Slingbox Tuner lets you watch your home TV anywhere, but it's useful only for those who have a good basic cable lineup.

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
11 min read

Editors' note: The Slingbox Tuner is no longer produced. It has been replaced by the Slingbox Pro-HD, which includes a built-in analog and digital tuner.


Sling Media Slingbox (2nd generation)

The Good

Streams home A/V sources to any broadband-connected Mac, Windows PC, Windows Mobile, or Palm Treo 700p device in the world; no host PC or monthly charges required; simple, straightforward setup; excellent, easy-to-use software; doesn't need a host video device, just an analog cable source; good video quality over LAN, decent video quality via the Internet.

The Bad

Receives only analog cable TV signals; cell phone/PDA viewing software costs extra; no built-in wireless networking support; Palm viewing software works only on Treo 700p.

The Bottom Line

The Slingbox Tuner lets you watch your home TV anywhere, but it's useful only for those who have a good basic cable lineup.

The Slingbox lets you watch your TV anywhere--anywhere, that is, that you can access a broadband Internet connection with a device that runs the company's SlingPlayer software. When it first hit the market in 2005, the SlingPlayer software could run only one platform: Windows XP computers. Windows 2000 compatibility was added soon after, and Windows Mobile devices--handhelds and smart phones--followed later. A long-promised Mac client debuted in the fall of 2006, and now Palm OS devotees can finally join the Sling party--if they have a Treo 700p smart phone. The Palm software provides yet another venue for users all of three Slingbox models--the Slingbox Tuner, the Slingbox A/V, and the Slingbox Pro--to watch their home TV programming. But only the high-end Slingbox Pro model supports multiple device inputs and the ability to accept HD video.

Slingbox and SlingPlayer: several choices
The original Slingbox (model SB100-100) may not have been the first placeshifting device to hit the market, but it quickly became a favorite way for gadget fans to watch their favorite TV shows, regardless of their location. The company followed up in the fall of 2006 with a trio of second-generation models: the Slingbox Tuner ($180), the Slingbox A/V ($180), and the Slingbox Pro ($250). Each of the three models is targeted at TV viewers with different needs. The Slingbox Tuner accepts only analog cable TV signals and has just a single screw-type RF input. The Slingbox A/V, like the original model, can control any cable or satellite box and gets its video signals via composite or S-Video. And the Slingbox Pro does it all: It can accept as many as four A/V sources, including (with an adapter) HD video.

Before we look at the Slingbox Tuner in detail, however, it's worth focusing on the basic concept of the device. The Slingbox enables you to watch your home TV programming anywhere so long as you have access to a broadband Internet connection. It takes your home TV source, digitizes it, streams it onto your home network, and--if you'd like--onto the outside Internet as well. You receive the resulting video stream on a computer, a handheld, or a cell phone that's equipped with the SlingPlayer software. Both the Slingbox--the source--and the device running the SlingPlayer software--the 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 for Windows PCs (2000, XP, or Vista) is included on a CD that comes with the products, but you're always better off getting the latest build from Sling Media's Web site. A beta version of the long-awaited Mac OS X version is available for download as well. Windows or Mac, laptop or desktop, just be sure the computer has access to a high-speed connection (Ethernet or Wi-Fi)--dial-up won't cut it.

If you'd prefer to watch your TV on a smaller device, Sling has you covered. SlingPlayer Mobile software is available for Pocket PC (touch-screen devices running Windows Mobile 2003 or 5.0, such as recent Dell Axim and HP iPaq handhelds, as well as phones such as the Palm Treo 700w, the Audiovox 6700, and the Samsung i730), Windows Smartphone (non-touch screen phones running Windows Mobile 5.0, such as the Motorola Q, the Samsung BlackJack, and the T-Mobile SDA), and the Palm Treo 700p. Each mobile software package needs to be purchased on Sling's Web site for a one-time fee of $30, but you can try before you buy--just download the 30-day trial software. Just like the PCs, the mobile devices need to have access to a broadband connection, be it Wi-Fi or a 3G high-speed cellular network--EVDO on Verizon or Sprint, or UMTS/HSDPA on Cingular, for instance.

Don't have a Windows Mobile device or Treo 700p? Sling's Web site mentions that the company is evaluating the feasibility of creating SlingPlayer software for other platforms, such as RIM BlackBerry, J2ME, and BREW, but such plans remain entirely theoretical. (A Symbian version is preinstalled on some phones sold through British wireless provider 3, but it's unclear when or if it'll be made available for purchase to existing Symbian phone owners and those elsewhere in the world.

Handhelds and computers are great, but what about getting your Slingbox to send images to another TV? Sling has announced a product that will do just that: the SlingCatcher. Due in the second half of 2007, the SlingCatcher will be able to stream content from any Slingbox, 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.

Slingbox Pro: Design and setup
Before you can watch your TV shows from 2,000 miles away, of course, you have to get your Slingbox up and running. The Slingbox Tuner is about two-thirds the size of the original 2005 model: 1.5 inches high by 7.5 wide by 4.5 deep. It's grayish black, so--despite the white accents--it'll more or less disappear into your home entertainment system. In fact, the Slingbox Tuner doesn't even need to be placed near your TV. Because it accepts only a screw-type RF coaxial connection (to your incoming cable TV signal) and an Ethernet link (to your home network), it can be placed wherever those two connections are in close proximity. For cable-modem users, for instance, it'll be a quick install.

The trade-off on the quick-and-easy setup, of course, is a loss of functionality: unlike all other Slingbox models, the Slingbox Tuner can't control an external cable or satellite set-top box or DVR. You're limited to only the channels that the built-in analog (NTSC) tuner can see--the exact same "channel 2-99" you'd get if you screwed the RF connector into any old analog TV--not the channels that you need your digital cable box to receive. For many cable customers, that can still be in excess of 80 channels. The bottom line here is that you should only consider the Slingbox Tuner if the shows and the channels you watch are available; otherwise, you'll want to opt for the Slingbox A/V or Pro models.

Like all other Slingbox models, the Tuner lacks a wireless component and requires an Ethernet connection to access your home network. If you don't have a network connection nearby, you'll need to opt for a bridging solution: power-line Ethernet extenders or a wireless-to-Ethernet bridge. Sling offers its own set of power-line adapters, the SlingLink Turbo, available in single and multiport versions (the latter for connecting other networked entertainment devices, such as a game console, Apple TV, or TiVo). We used a pair of older, significantly less expensive Netgear XE102 adapters with no problem.

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.

Streaming performance
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.


Sling Media Slingbox (2nd generation)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6