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Sling Media has added a new member to its family of place-shifting streaming media boxes, the Slingbox M1. Despite its ho-hum design, the M1's a pretty cool little box, and the noteworthy hardware feature here is the inclusion of Wi-Fi, which simplifies set-up and placement. Previously, that wireless connectivity was only available in the step-up Slingbox TV -- formerly known as the Slingbox 500 -- which retails for $300. The M1 costs half that, or $150. (It replaces the 2012 Slingbox 350 model, which retailed for $179 but was Ethernet only.)
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, (including the Kindle Fire line of Amazon tablets), and Windows phones. There's no monthly fee, but the mobile apps cost $14.99 a pop -- and you'll need the mobile apps to enable streaming on most home devices, such as an Apple TV or Roku , which use the apps as "remotes." The streaming software on the PC and Mac is via a free browser plug-in, or you can opt for a $14.99 Windows 8 app instead.
To set up the M1, 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 IR emitters that interface with the IR 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 blaster 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).
If you have a router or an Ethernet connection available near where your Slingbox is set up -- yes, the M1 has an Ethernet connection -- that aforementioned Wi-Fi connectivity won't be a big deal. But if you don't, it's obviously a key feature. The fact that it's dual-band (2.4/5GHz) sweetens the deal.
Like the step-up SlingTV (Slingbox 500), the M1 offers 1080p video streaming, but video performance will vary according to your Internet connection. It's more important to have a speedy upload connection at the source -- that would be at your home or where the Slingbox is installed.
(One important note: if you're a Dish Network subscriber with a 2013 or later Hopper DVR, you already have Sling streaming built-in; there's no need for this external box.)
I set up the M1 at CNET's offices in New York, where we have a speedy though not exceptionally fast Internet connection. I then accessed the box from a few different locations with my computer. One location had a very fast FiOS connection and one had a fairly sluggish DSL connection.
The FiOS connection offered a bit sharper image without any hitches, but the DSL connection worked smoothly enough (I streamed a World Cup match). Sling engineers have done some impressive work with video compression schemes and buffering to achieve decent results from even slower connections.
If you're dealing with relatively poor bandwidth, the video does get downgraded to standard definition or worse (yes, the picture can get a little fuzzy at times but the sound always seems to come through).
I also used the iOS and apps and you receive a generally crisp picture on your phone or , particularly if you're on a Wi-Fi network with a good Internet connection (streaming video using a 4G connection usually works quite well, but you will eat up a lot of data very quickly).
At home, where I have a speedy Internet connection, the image on all my mobile devices and computers is rock-solid; it's as if I'm watching regular TV.
I have a TV in the kitchen that has a Roku box attached to it but no cable box (it has a QAM tuner that allows me to get basic channels). Using the Roku and Sling app on the iPhone I can "sling" my full selection of FiOS cable programming to the TV. It's not a totally intuitive set-up, but using your iPhone as a remote works well enough. (You can also do the same thing on an Apple TV box using AirPlay from an iPhone or iPad app.)
If you're looking for differences between the M1 and SlingTV, the SlingTV has an HDMI pass-through port that allows you to navigate your home TV's programming via Sling's well-designed electronic programming guide and a few other extra features. Sling's EPG (electronic program guide) uses a tile-based interface similar to the one found in the SlingPlayer for iPad's Media Gallery. However, from the standpoint of remotely accessing your home TV's programming, you really don't lose anything by going with this more affordable model. It offers the same remote streaming features and uses the same mobile apps.
Several years ago, when it was first released, the Slingbox was a truly groundbreaking device. It was a great way to watch your home TV from wherever you were, even overseas, and came in especially handy if you wanted to watch your local sports teams while you were on the road.
Today, it faces increased competition from "TV Anywhere" apps from cable and satellite providers, but a lot of those apps still offer limited channel selection -- or they don't work outside of your home network. Until those apps truly open up, the Slingbox remains the best way to remotely access all your home's video content, and the M1, with its built-in Wi-Fi, is an attractive place-shifting solution at its more affordable $150 price point. It's an easy recommendation for sports fans or anyone else who really values the ability to access live TV anywhere.