Life's changed a lot for folks stationed far from home in the last decade or so. Text messaging, Skype and FaceTime allow for almost instant connection with friends and family for anyone who's got an email connection. Military.com hosts terabytes of video that proves our forces have high-powered tech in their pockets and they know how to use it.
Slingbox is a device that promises to let you watch live TV from anywhere in the world. That includes sports and also streaming anything that's recorded on a DVR. If you understand exactly how it works and what a Slingbox can and can't do going in, it's by far the best option out there for remote TV viewing.
This might be a little complicated for some readers, so let's go through step-by-step because knowing how these things work will explain what they're able to do and why they can't quite do everything you might hope.
Slingbox offers two devices, the Slingbox 350 ($179.99) and the Slingbox 500 ($299.99). Both devices remotely control a cable or satellite box (and access all the live TV and DVR recordings on that back) and stream it over the Internet. That's the most important thing to understand: Slingbox is a hardware device that lets you highjack a TV signal that you're already paying for and use it in ways that the networks or cable/satellite providers don't always allow with their own systems.
Those are one-time prices to purchase the hardware. There's no subscription fee like you'll find with TiVo or rental fees like you'll pay for a high-end cable box. That's important to remember when we get to some other costs associated with Slingbox later in the review.
I tested the Slingbox 500, which was exceptionally easy to get up and running. I'd helped a friend set up one of the original Slingboxes in 2006 and the whole experience back then was complicated and frustrating and required precise placement of an IR blaster to fool the cable box that the Slingbox was a remote.
The box comes with all the cables you might need: HDMI, Component, standard video and audio cables plus an Ethernet cable if you're connecting directly to an Internet modem. There's a simple and well-designed remote with buttons that have just the right amount of resistance when you push them.
The Slingbox 500 requires two sets of connections to work properly. You can run an HDMI cable from your cable/satellite box to the Slingbox and then a second HDMI to your TV and the signal will pass through untouched. However, several cable channels have add digital rights management "anti-piracy" protection to their signals and Slingbox can't stream those channels over the Internet without users adding an analog Component video connection (the green/blue/red cable plus a red/white audio cable) from the cable/satellite box to the Slingbox.
That step is going to lose a few of you from the start, but (to emphasize again) Slingbox is attempting to give you unlimited control of a TV signal that Comcast/Time Warner/U-Verse/DirecTV and/or their networks don't really want you to have unfettered access to. Any one of the major cable providers could make Slingbox obsolete tomorrow by allowing (or convincing the networks to allow) customers to log into a web page and watch whatever TV they've already bought at home. That's not going to happen anytime soon and Slingbox is the best solution to that problem. But you're going to have to work with them on this one.
Unless you have a sparklingly perfect hyper-fast Internet connection both to your home network and at a remote location, you're not really going to be able to notice a difference in video quality between the channels that let the Slingbox stream the HDMI signal and the ones that require it to use the Component video connection.
Still here? Good. The new Slingbox uses an on-screen menu process to connect to your wi-fi network and get online. (If your TV is next to your Internet modem, you should connect directly via Ethernet instead of using the wireless network). There's been a lot of care and thought that went into making the setup easy and I was up and running within a few minutes.
The Slingbox really does take control of your TV: you're going to stream whatever's showing on the TV that's connected to the Slingbox. If you're a solo act that's traveling and want to access the TV back at your place, then connecting the Slingbox to your main TV is no big deal. If you're setting one up for a family member who's stationed away from home, you'll want to pick the cable box that's in a little-used guest room or (if it's a reasonable expense to add one) even consider adding a cable box that'll be exclusive to the Slingbox (which wouldn't require a TV at all). If you have a whole-house DVR system, the Slingbox can use a remote box to play anything on the system just like you would with the remote box anyway. Some of you with particular tastes might want to have exclusive use of a DVR attached to a Slingbox.
HOW IT WORKS
Slingbox on a laptop using Chrome
If you want to access your Slingbox from a remote computer, you're ready to go. You use a Flash-based browser to log in to the site and then you'll start streaming whatever channel your cable/satellite box is currently playing you can pull up a remote to access the Guide or the DVR. Slingbox gives you an on-screen image of your service's remote and you click on the buttons to make things work just like they would if you were sitting in front of the TV. That's not exactly true: because you're controlling the TV remotely over the Internet, there's some inevitable lag and you're going to have to learn to be patient. If you're a compulsive channel flipper, this is going to be frustrating at first. Just keep reminding yourself that you're watching a TV back home from some remote location and take a breath. It's a miracle of modern technology.
SlingPlayer for iPad
Remember that no-subscription thing from earlier in this post? Since there's no recurring revenue, Slingbox has made a reasonable decision to make things á la carte. If you're using a browser, that experience is included in the price of the box. If you're using an iOS or Android device, you'll have to purchase the SlingPlayer software for $14.99. And if you've got an iPad and an iPhone and want to use your Slingbox with both, you'll have to buy the software twice. It's not universal. Is that what you want to hear? No. Is it reasonable? Probably.
The iPad experience is a really good one. The controls look a lot like the controls on the web browser and you get the image of your home remote on your screen. It's not fast software but that's more about the Internet connection than it is the software itself. Once you've settled on something to watch, your viewing experience is consistently strong. Another thing to understand: if you're the kind of viewing who fast-forwards through the commercials on DVR recordings, you're not going to have the kind of pinpoint control over the FF experience because of the Internet lag. Learn to mute during the commercials and you'll be a lot happier.
SlingPlayer for iPhone
The iPhone streaming experience is strong but the controls and a little clunkier because of the limited screen real estate. They don't look like the controls for the web or table versions of the software. Unless you're determined to have live sports in your pocket, I'd recommend starting with the tablet software if you've got both a table and a phone.
Getting Your Slingbox on a remote TV
One of the great Slingbox experiences is seeing what's playing on your home TV on a big screen thousands of miles away. There's a few ways to accomplish that. If you've got an iOS device with the SlingPlayer software and an Apple TV or a Roku, you can mirror/stream whatever you're watching on your device to the connected TV. If you've got an Android device with the SlingPlayer software, you can do the same with the Roku. You're giving up the ability to use that phone or tablet while you're streaming to the TV, so multi-taskers should be warned.
If you really want your TV to access your Slingbox without an intermediary device, you can investigate Roku and Apple TV's wildly less popular competition: the WD TV Live and the NetGear NeoTV. Both offer a lineup that looks a lot like Roku's and they are both reasonably priced. If you've got a Slingbox back home and a communal TV in a remote location, a box that'll show your games without a phone seems like a wise investment.
Slingbox really does offer live TV anywhere as long as you've got a Internet connection. I've had one up and running for two months and I've tested it from thousands of miles away, both in the USA and from the UK. It really does work beautifully once you understand the technical limitations described above. During the winter storms in the South, I lost access for a few days, but that's because the power was out at my house. Once the power came back on, the Slingbox rebooted and reconnected to the Internet. I did have one issue: my wi-fi network and my Internet modem got out of sync the way they do once or twice a year. Once I got that sorted out, I had to reconnect the Slingbox to the wi-fi network via the setup screens. That's not the Slingbox's fault but, if you're buying one for yourself, you might want to teach someone back home how to make the setup work. It really is as easy as I described up top, so don't let that caveat stop you.
Who Needs One
DISH customers may think that a lot of this sounds like things that are built into their devices. That's because DISH now owns Slingbox and has incorporated a lot of the technology into their controversial Hopper services. You might not need a Slingbox (especially if you can use your DISH services from anywhere in the world).
TV networks are starting to get the message from their customers and things have loosened up a lot here in the States. You can now access a lot more TV content online if you can sign in as a customer of one of the big cable or satellite providers. Not all networks work with all providers (which can be frustrating), but you can now watch ESPN, TBS, TNT, TCM, Cartoon Network live on a mobile device. Even ABC works live for customers in some markets. Fox, USA, A&E, Comedy Central and a lot of other networks stream on-demand for logged-in customers. NBC and CBS stream for free (even though CBS holds up most of their shows for a week after airing). You can buy streaming packages from the NBA, MLB, NHL and the NFL that allow you to watch out-of-market games but those run at least $100/year. If you can keep track of that complicated array of options, you might be able to cobble together some reasonable approximation of your home viewing experience.
That only works in the States, though. Once you leave the USA, almost all of those streaming deals are eliminated or severely restricted. You can get the yearly packages from the major sports leagues overseas, but once you've bought packages that will let you watch the Bulls, the Cubs (or the White Sox) and the Bears, you've already exceeded the cost of a Slingbox.
The Slingbox 350
What's the difference between the 350 and 500 models? The 350 requires an Ethernet connection, so if your cable/satellite box isn't close to your Internet modem, that's going to be a non-starter. A wired Ethernet connection is going to be more stable and reliable than a wi-fi connection, but that's not really going to be practical for a lot of people these days and the wi-fi connection on the 500 has been really stable. The 500 also has an active USB port that will allow you to connect a hard drive if you've got a large collection of video that you've procured from the Internet. The 500's remote control allows you to access that content on your home TV, along with the Blockbuster On Demand movie rentals and the DishWorld international programming service. Those are relatively off-topic additions for a device that's devoted to off-site streaming, but those services might be useful to someone who doesn't like their current provider's offerings.
If you've got a family membered stationed away from home and you've got a TV box that won't be missed when it's getting used by a Slingbox, one of these devices could be a great gift and an amazing alternative to a 500th viewing of the Old School DVD that's been sitting in the FOB player for the past five years.
Slingbox is 100% legal but still kind of an outlaw product that lets you use programming you've paid for in ways that the networks don't want to allow (yet). They've managed to take a complicated technical task (highjacking a cable signal and diverting it over the Internet) and make it relatively painless for regular people. If you go in understanding all of the cautions and limitations described above, the Slingbox combined with a DVR is by far the best way to remotely keep up with Game of Thrones, the NBA playoffs or even just some back episodes of Yard Crashers.