Slingbox 350 review: An easy way to stream your TV content anywhere

Attention, couch potatoes: Forget "TV everywhere" apps. The Slingbox can stream live TV -- and DVR recordings -- to most smartphones, tablets, and PCs. If you've got a a Web connection, you can get your favorite TV programs, even in glorious high-def.

John Falcone

John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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Before there were "TV everywhere" apps, there was the Slingbox, a groundbreaking product that allowed you to stream your home TV signals to any PC or connected device on the planet, so long as you had the available bandwidth. After something of a hiatus -- there haven't been any new Sling products since 2008's Slingbox Pro-HD -- new Slingbox hardware has finally been released: the Slingbox 350 ($180, reviewed here) and the Slingbox 500 ($300).


Slingbox 350

The Good

The <b>Slingbox 350</b> streams video from your TV or DVR (or any analog source) to your PC, tablet, smartphone, and some streaming boxes at resolutions up to full 1080p HD. IR blasters are built into the box’s body, eliminating the need for annoying extra external wires. There are no monthly charges or fees.

The Bad

Smartphone- and tablet-viewing apps cost extra. Unlike the step-up Slingbox 500 model, this one lacks Wi-Fi and HDMI support. It duplicates some of the features found on TV anywhere apps you may already be using. As always, streaming capabilities are only as good as your home bandwidth.

The Bottom Line

The Slingbox 350 is an excellent way to watch your TV or DVR video content anywhere.

As the premium price would imply, the 500 is the flagship Slingbox, including some first-time features like Wi-Fi connectivity, limited HDMI support, and the ability to stream photos and videos from phones and tablets. But the Slingbox 350 is no slouch, bringing full 1080p video-streaming to the party. It lacks those additional bells and whistles of its step-up sibling, but it focuses on its core competency -- streaming high-def video to any location -- and it does so in flawless fashion.

Your TV, anywhere
The Slingbox is a personal video broadcaster. It takes any video signal you send into its AV inputs -- such as your cable/satellite box or DVR -- digitizes it, and streams it to you, live and in real time. Think of it as Netflix, but instead of streaming a catalog of on-demand title, you're streaming your TV programming, in real time.

That means you can watch your TV anywhere, on a wide variety of devices. The SlingPlayer viewing software works on Windows PCs and Macs via a free Web browser plug-in. It’s also available as an app for iPhone (and iPod Touch), iPad, Android phones, Android tablets (including the Kindle Fire line), Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry. But at $15 each, the apps are pricey, and the iOS app is not universal -- you’ll need to buy it once for your iPhone/iPod Touch, and again for your iPad (if you own both).

In addition to those PC and mobile offerings, free SlingPlayer apps are available on a handful of connected video devices: the WD TV line, and the (now discontinued) Boxee Box and Logitech Revue. So, you can connect one of those boxes -- including the $99 WD TV Live -- to a TV in a different room of the house (or a remote location, such as a friend’s house, hotel room, beach house, or wherever) and stream live TV or recorded programming from your DVR, whether it’s in the next room or across the country.

The streaming option also works with the Apple TV via AirPlay Mirroring from an iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone.

Use the Slingbox to watch live TV on any of these devices -- and more. Sarah Tew/CNET

Streaming alone is impressive, but the Slingbox (and its remote viewing software) lets you also remotely control the source TV, via on-screen controls (for PCs, phones, and tablets) or the hardware remotes of the streaming video boxes (like Boxee and WD TV). That means you have access to all of your home channels, pay-per-view and on-demand, and recorded DVR programming, no matter where you are.

The Slingbox 350 hardware
The Slingbox 350 is a black box that’s about the size of three standard DVD cases stacked on top of another. The box has a diamond mesh design that I personally found to be a bit garish; I’d rather have a nondescript black box than something that calls attention to itself. Opinions from colleagues differed; some agreed with my take, others thought it was cool. (The prevailing wisdom was that it looked like the long lost sibling to the Jawbone Jambox.)

IR emitters are built directly into the front and sides of the Slingbox 350's body. Sarah Tew/CNET

One reason the Slingbox is larger than microboxes like Roku or Apple TV is that its back panel is bristling with the necessary RCA inputs and outputs needed for analog video ingestion: a set of component video ports (red, blue, green) and a stereo audio (red/white), as well as a fallback composite video port for non-HD video sources.

Each of those six jacks has a corresponding video output as well. The Slingbox is designed as a “pass-through” device, so you can connect it between your DVR/cable box and your TV (using the component or composite video connectors). So it takes the video signals from the DVR, digitizes them for online streaming, but sends the signals on through the pass-through output to your TV, unmolested.

You’re probably using the HDMI cable to connect your DVR/cable box to your TV; if that’s the case, you should be able to continue doing that, but you’ll need to run the component and audio cables to the Slingbox in parallel (though there’s no need to use the pass-through outputs in that case). You won’t find HDMI pass-through ports on the Slingbox 350, but that option is available on the step-up Slingbox 500 model (see the “Caveats” section below for more details).

The Slingbox 350's rear panel is bristling with inputs (and pass-through outputs). Sarah Tew/CNET

That more expensive Slingbox 500 is also the first Slingbox model to offer a built-in Wi-Fi connection. Unfortunately, the Slingbox 350 remains Ethernet-only, so you’ll need to make sure you have a wired network connection near your TV.

The USB port on the rear of the Slingbox 350 is currently reserved for future use.

As with past models, the Slingbox 350 is designed to sit on top of the cable/satellite box or DVR to which it’s connected. In the past, that also meant stringing annoying IR blaster cables to sit in front of the cable box, thus allowing the Slingbox to pass along your remote commands (changing channels, play/pause, menu/guide, etc.). The biggest improvement of the new Slingbox line is that the blasters are now built into the box’s body (on front and the sides). In our testing, the results were flawless. Sling still includes a cabled blaster, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll need it for a standard “Slingbox on top of cable box” setup.

Once you get the Slingbox hooked to all the proper cables -- Ethernet, audio/video, and, of course, power -- it’s time to configure the box.

Sling has invested a lot of time and effort through the years streamlining the setup, and it shows. While the company used to offer standalone streaming software for Windows and Mac, that’s all now handled through browser plug-ins. Plug-ins are now available for all major browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and -- on the Mac only -- Safari.

While the Slingbox streams video anywhere on the Internet, make sure you’re logged in to the same home network that the box is on during the setup process. (Best-case scenario is having a laptop in the same room as the TV/Slingbox.)

After you establish a log-in/password and install the plug-in, the rest of the setup process is mostly answering a series of questions: what’s the manufacturer/model number of your set-top box, which TV service do you subscribe to, and so forth.

As usual, someone who’s a real tech novice may have trouble navigating the process (or understanding the terminology). People who are reasonably tech proficient can be up and running in 20 minutes or less. And if -- like me -- you already have a Sling account (from earlier Slingbox models), things can be up and running in as quick as 5 minutes or less.

Using the Slingbox 350
I connected the Slingbox to my Time Warner DVR, and streamed to a variety of devices over the course of several days: an iPad 3, an older Android phone, a Windows 7 laptop, a MacBook Air, and the WD TV Live. Later, I also connected it to a DirecTV HR21 DVR at the office.

To make a long story short: overall, the Slingbox 350 performed flawlessly, and was a pleasure to use.

Watching streamed cable TV on the ample screen of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Sarah Tew/CNET

When you first connect to the Slingbox, it will take 30 to 45 seconds for the stream to optimize to the available bandwidth. Assuming you’ve got enough speed -- upstream (from the source) and downstream (in your viewing location) -- video quality can look positively excellent. If you’re watching on a big enough screen (a tablet, a large PC screen, or a big-screen TV via Apple TV or WD TV Live), you’ll see resolution approaching full 1080p HD, and excellent motion detail, largely free of artifacts and freezes.

When you’re connected, you get the option of a full onscreen remote that -- in most cases -- looks identical to that of your cable/satellite box or DVR. That means you can control the action exactly as if you were in your living room -- play, pause, rewind, and so forth. That said, there is a lag, so don’t expect instantaneous response time.

The viewing software also buffers 30 minutes of video, so you can play, pause, and rewind on your viewing device. Because that happens locally, it’s more responsive. (No, you can't save the buffered recordings to your PC, tablet, or phone.)

The other notable feature when viewing via a local app is the built-in onscreen electronic program guide (EPG). So, instead of having to access the EPG remotely, you can see it as an overlay on the screen (or split-screen with the video).

John P. Falcone/CNET

It’s worth restating another big advantage of the Slingbox: you get exactly the same content you’d be getting in your living room. So, unlike most sports viewing apps (MLB.TV, Sunday Ticket, and the like), you won’t be subject to annoying online-only blackout rules -- like being excluded from watching your home team. And unlike many TV everywhere cable apps, you’re not restricted to viewing in your own home. Nor do you have to worry if you’re an HBO subscriber, but your cable system doesn’t support HBO Go. If it’s on your TV, you can watch it.

The caveats: What you should know before considering the Slingbox
There’s more than a lot to love about the Slingbox 350, and the Sling concept in general. But there are some issues with the Slingbox you should be aware of before you buy one. Some of them are applicable to every streaming device, while others are Slingbox-specific (or at least placeshifting-specific).

Bandwidth limitations: Streaming video -- and especially high-def video -- remains a bandwidth intensive activity. For a home network, you’ll want to make sure you’re using wired connections or the fastest 802.11n Wi-Fi when accessing the Slingbox. Outside the home, things get more complicated. At the source, your home upstream bandwidth needs to be at least 3.5Mbps to deliver full 1080p video. And, wherever you’re viewing the Sling stream, the download speed needs to be just as fast. So don’t expect a good Slingbox experience unless you’ve got good cable broadband in the home, and fast Wi-Fi or 4G wireless at your viewing location.

Monopolization of the video source: One important thing to keep in mind: your Slingbox can only stream what’s being shown on your cable/satellite box/DVR at any given time. If you live alone, that’s not a problem. But, for instance, if you’re watching Monday Night Football streaming from your cable box, and someone walks into the living room and changes the channel to “How I Met Your Mother,” that’s what you’ll see remotely as well. In other words, if you’re a serious Slingboxer in a multiperson household, you might want to consider a dedicated (or at least isolated) video source, to avoid family viewing conflicts.

Power consumption: Note that the Slingbox is yet another “always-on” component; there’s no off switch, since it’s always waiting for a remote command to begin streaming. The Sling tech personnel told me it draws about 15 watts. That’s less than most light bulbs (even CFLs or LEDs), but keep in mind that it’s running 24-7.

Pricey SlingPlayer apps: As mentioned -- with the exception of the free ones available on Windows PCs, Macs, and the hardware boxes like WD TV -- you’ll need to purchase a SlingPlayer app for every device you plan to view on; that's $15 each for iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android tablets, Android phones, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, and Kindle Fire devices. That’s half the price they used to be, but still expensive compared with most other premium apps.

It's great to use the iPad as a TV, but the app will cost you $15. John P. Falcone/CNET

Duplicates some functionality of TV everywhere apps: We mentioned the advantage of the Slingbox versus many TV everywhere apps above. If, on the other hands, you’re happy with those free “authenticated” TV apps -- Watch ESPN, My Time Warner Cable, HBO Go, Epix, and so forth -- Slingbox might be redundant for your needs.

Streaming is dependent upon Sling's network infrastructure: The online EPG and your Sling account are cloud-based services maintained by Sling. So, even though you may be streaming from one room of your home to another, you're relying on Sling's servers to be up and running. For the most part, they do an excellent job, but just note you're relying on them to keep their side of the system running for the duration of the product's lifespan.

There are plenty of products and services out there that aim to bring "live TV" to your tablet or computer. Some of them, like the Belkin @TV, are mere Slingbox clones (includes Wi-Fi, offers free apps, but doesn't stream in high-def). Others are app-based (Aereo) or hardware-based (EyeTV Mobile), but only offer a handful of over-the-air TV channels -- or require monthly fees. Yes, it would be nice if the Slingbox 350 were a bit cheaper, or, most importantly, if it included the built-in Wi-Fi found on its more expensive sibling. That said, the Slingbox 350 is still the best overall choice to stream your home TV anywhere.


Slingbox 350

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9
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