I was thrilled when the Slingbox 500 (MSRP $299.99) arrived at our door. Since the company developed the technology we just reviewed on the competing Hopper, I expected great things.
Like the Hopper, the Slingbox 500 lets you watch live TV on a computer, smartphone, or tablet—but it stops there. The Slingbox is not a DVR, it's just a middleman between you and your precious cable/satellite content.
What Is It?
Wavy box plus streaming equals Slingbox
Despite its unusual appearance, the Slingbox 500 isn't too unorthodox—it's a streaming box for your cable/satellite content.
In the box, you'll find the actual Slingbox, a remote, batteries, HDMI and component cables, and an IR blaster.
The wavy black box takes about 10-15 minutes to setup. Simply connect your set-top box's video output to the Slingbox's video input, then connect the Slingbox's video output to an available input on your TV. Easy, right?
After connecting all the cables, you'll have to input a whole host of info: service provider, set-top box model, network password, and zip code. The Sling interface is pretty spartan, not to mention the remote seems to lag on button presses. In other words, entering all this info is a chore.
Once connected to your network, the Slingbox will then download a software update. Also, you'll be asked to create a Slingbox account. Do yourself a favor and create this account on a computer instead of on the actual device, or else suffer from the previously-mentioned remote lag.
How It Works
The Slingbox uses technology called placeshifting, which is a fancy way of saying "content on device A can be viewed on device B." In this case, "device A" is your set-top box and "device B" is your phone/tablet/computer.
The quickest way to access live TV and your recordings is to sign into the Slingbox website. You'll be given the option to watch your content, which involves the installation of a plug-in. I tried this on four browsers—Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari—and found it to be incompatible with both Chrome and Safari.
So what's different about the content you see on your computer screen? Aside from the occasional lag associated with streaming, not much. One great feature is the virtual remote, which is a replica of your actual cable/satellite controller. The click of a virtual button even offers access to your DVR and the ability to set up recordings. The virtual remote isn't perfect, though. I noticed a delay of two seconds or longer when pressing a button.
You can also access your Slingbox-connected content on a smartphone or tablet, but it's gonna cost you. Sling Media charges $14.99 for the app on iTunes or the Google Play Store, which is way too much considering you just spent $300 for the device. How about free?
At least the app is well made. Getting TV content on your phone is incredibly easy: Press the Connect button and content will magically appear on your screen. There's no virtual remote like on the browser site, but you can use Slingbox's TV guide for finding channels and content. I actually prefer the mobile version, but again, why do we have to pay for it?
The Slingbox's biggest downfall is that it can only be used by one viewer at a time. In other words, if you're watching TV in your living room and your husband/wife/pet wants to stream TV content on their phone, then... hilarity ensues. The person using the mobile app will be able to stream the same content, but if they change the channel, it also changes for the person in the living room. The same goes if the person changes the channel from his/her living room—the mobile user is in for a surprise.
Another issue you'll run into involves using an HDMI cable to connect your set-top box to the Slingbox. Most content would not play for me. This is due to High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP), which is a technology used by many channels that prevents users from watching live TV on mobile devices. Fear not: The Slingbox 500 comes with component cables, which bypass HDCP. Component cables will still get you a 720p or 1080i resolution—your typical HD station doesn't even broadcast in 1080p.
The Slingbox would benefit from some apps.
There are two Slingbox models: the 350 and the 500. Neither offers much in the way of features, though. The major differences between the two are the additions of WiFi and an on-screen interface on the 500 model.
The Sling interface is pretty barren. There's a section that allows you to view photos from your phone... on your TV. OK, so maybe this isn't the best use of your Slingbox—I've yet to meet anyone who wants their photos on a big-screen TV. Other sections on the interface include areas to change the resolution, network, and input method.
Both models come with an IR blaster, which lets you control A/V devices with the included Slingbox remote. That means you can control your Blu-ray player with the diminutive Sling remote—more novelty than necessary if you ask me.
Not included: apps. The ability to access Netflix or Hulu Plus on this device, as well as stream content, would considerably up its value. Also, if you don't have a smart TV and you want additional content, you'll need another device like a Roku or Apple TV. That TV stand of yours could get quite messy.
TV anywhere you want. DVR not included.
The Slingbox 500 is a solid product and does exactly what's advertised—that is, it streams live TV content or recorded shows to a computer or smart device. Don't expect anything like the Dish Hopper, though. Dish's product uses the same placeshifting technology, but blows the Slingbox away with its six-channel recording and commercial-skipping features.
Unfortunately, the Hopper is only available on Dish. Many consumers are either locked into their current cable plan or don't want satellite service. That's where the Slingbox comes in.
The 500 model, which we reviewed, retails for $299.99, while the less feature-packed model—the 350—is $179.99. The only reason to purchase the 500 over the 350 is because the former has WiFi while the latter needs an ethernet cable. The other extra features on the 500—on-screen interface, photo-sharing—don't justify its price bump.
Either way, you're paying a premium for a niche service. If watching live TV on your phone appeals to you, the Slingbox deserves consideration—just pay extra attention to the cheaper model.