Believe it or not, but the new Slingbox 350 is actually the first from Sling Media that looks like, well, a box. The lightweight plastic device has a texture reminiscent of China's Birds Nest Olympic stadium, with a predictable array of connections on the back side. Like the last-gen Slingbox Solo, which the 350 replaces, the unit has component HD inputs, an IR output and uses an external power supply. There's also a composite analog video input, but the S-Video from the Solo is missing -- understandably so, as that standard has fallen out of favor. Up front there are minimal LED indicators including one for power, another for network connectivity and finally Sling's upside-down "U" that lets you know when someone is using it. The biggest notable differences here, compared to the Solo, are the addition of an integrated IR blaster and the ability to actually stream in HD -- while the Solo had HD inputs, it down-converted to standard definition before encoding the video to be streamed.
In contrast, the Slingbox 500 is not a box, but rather, some amorphous shape we're pretty sure we never covered in high school geometry. Other than the fact you can't stack anything on top of it, we sort of like the way it looks, even though the plastic is very prone to gathering fingerprints. The input and output selection is similar to what you'll find on the 350, with the biggest difference being that the LED lights actually dance around a bit while it is streaming video. Also, the 500 adds an HDMI input and output to the mix -- these aren't very useful now, but more on that later. Oh, there is one thing that might be of interest to those who live in homes that aren't well-wired. The Slingbox 500 features built-in WiFi of the 802.11a/b/g/n, 2.4/5GHz variety -- something that, honestly, the 350 should come with as well. One feature you might miss from the last-gen Pro-HD, though, is the internal tuner. We weren't really upset about the lack of S-Video interface, but we do lament the inability to watch HD via ATSC or QAM, as on the previous model.
Last thing: the 500 actually comes with a remote. That's right, the Slingbox is no longer just a place-shifter; you can use the remote to access content on the TV to which the Slingbox is connected. The simple remote is small with only a smattering of essential buttons, and doesn't include controls for the TV's volume or power. In brief, the box is going to be upgraded to provide access to content stored on a USB-attached drive, as well as content from other sources like, perhaps, Netflix or Hulu. For now, though, it can use the new SlingProjector feature to view photos from iOS or Android devices, but we're told SlingProjector will be expanded to include video in the coming weeks. The bottom line for now is that the remote is mostly just used during the optional TV-based setup (not optional if you choose to use WiFi), but there is a lot of potential here.
Like most Slingboxes before it, the 350 and 500 perform a man-in-the-middle attack on your content. You unplug your set-top box, or any other video source, from your TV and plug it into the Slingbox. From there, you connect the Slingbox's outputs to your TV. Since both the 350 and the 500 have an integrated IR blaster, it can easily control your source without any extra wires or connection, as long as the two are near each other. If you do wish to separate them, you can use the included IR blaster by plugging it into the back of the Slingbox and attaching the emitter to the front of your source. The actual configuration, done via a web app by navigating to a URL, is pretty painless. The 500 offers optional on-screen setup using the included remote, but, as we said earlier, it's actually required if you plan to use WiFi. Since the Slingbox works from inside or outside your home network, you do have to open a few ports on your firewall. If you have UPnP enabled on your router, which is typically a bad idea security-wise, the wizard will automatically do what needs to be done -- both worked without a problem in our testing. The only thing left is setting your source, location and provider.
The success of HDMI in the home theater is indisputable, but if you want to use the Slingbox, you better not be opposed to the old red, green and blue. The quick-start guide for the 500 recommends connecting both HDMI and component video and for good reason. We tested with a TiVo Premiere and it downright refused to stream video at all via HDMI thanks to HDCP. To be fair, we know this isn't Sling Media's fault, but from a practical standpoint the HDMI input on the Slingbox 500 is almost completely useless. The HDMI output on the other hand can be used to display content in 1080p from future sources, but as it stands now, it isn't exactly useful either. The good news is that most set-top boxes don't have a problem outputting HD via component and HDMI at the same time, but since the component video spec doesn't support 1080p, officially, the Slingbox has to convert 1080i to 1080p for streaming.
Just be glad that the content industry hasn't figured out a way to put Sling Media out of business permanently.
No matter which Slingbox you choose, you're going to use the same software. Your client choices are plentiful, but only the new web browser version is included for free. We had little trouble setting up either box and watching 1080p HD from Internet Explorer, Chrome (PC) or Safari. The guide makes it easy to find what's on by browsing or searching. There are a few new features like the ability to receive programming reminders and invite guests to use your Slingbox (still limited to a single simultaneous connection), but overall, it is the same Slingbox client experience you love, or hate. Of all the new features, we're mostly disappointed by the lack of a sports-specific perspective. By that, we mean we believe there is no more compelling use-case for a Slingbox then watching your favorite team perform when you'd otherwise be predisposed or downright unavailable -- we've been known to keep an eye on NFL playoffs during CES, for example. Quick and easy access to live events currently available would be a big first step, but why not throw up some scores with one-tap access to stream the game? The other big miss, in our eyes, is the reliance on IR. In these days of HDMI-CEC, IP control, DLNA and everything else out there in the world of control, relying on the slow IR with its one-way nature spells a missed opportunity for tighter and more responsive integration with sources.
We weren't able to try out every SlingPlayer client, but at $15 a pop, we suspect you'll limit the diversity of your devices as well. Despite updates to the iPhone SlingPlayer client for the new hardware and added features, it isn't optimized for the new iPhone's larger display, which results in black boxes on all four sides on 16:9 content. AirPlay mode is there, but all the streaming is limited for 720p on iOS. You can only watch in landscape, which is fine, and if you prefer, you can lock the screen and just listen. The biggest quirk, though, is the complete lack of resume -- if, say, you need to quickly switch over and reply to an email. A close second is the fact that the guide doesn't ever remember where we last were and instead always displays Channel 3 at the top.
Sling Media's adaptive streaming technology has never disappointed us and these new boxes are no exception. We tested them in an office, at home and on the go and found that they made the best out of whatever throughput was available. Using LTE on a smartphone, the quality was smooth at 5 Mbps. Dropping below 1 Mbps does significantly degrade the quality, however. It helps that our maximum upload throughput was 25 Mbps, and that we were well-connected while testing on the go. If we have one complaint about quality, it would be that we wish the optimization process were faster. Starting up a stream can take more than a few seconds before things smooth out.
The new software feature that really impressed us is the ability to easily share your Slingbox with friends. You can enable this by navigating to "Users" under "Settings" in the web player and adding your buddy's email address. They'll receive an email with a link to accept the invitation, which requires them to register and log in to Slingbox.com. From here, your Slingbox will show up with any other Slingbox they have access to until you remove their access. Of course, only one person can stream from a given Slingbox at a time, and while the real owner's active session can't be disrupted by a guest, the primary user can interrupt a friend at any time. This is far better than simply sharing your Slingbox.com login credentials, but requiring your friends to register on Slingbox.com is less than ideal. Still, we can't say we have a better idea on how to control access while at the same time opening the service a little.
After waiting four years for the followup to the Slingbox Solo and Pro-HD we're glad there are fresh Slingboxes on the market, but in 2012 the 350 and 500 feel like half-hearted attempts on Sling's part. The best news here is that you can now stream 1080p HD for the price of the old, SD-only Slingbox Solo -- although it's only 720p for the non-browser-based SlingPlayers. The 500 has WiFi, which is nice, but we wonder why the 350 doesn't. The 500 will also soon be updated with support for USB-attached storage, which is compelling. Even so, we can't think of much practical use for the 500's new SlingProjector feature, which lets you send photos (and soon, video) from your mobile device to your TV -- provided you're on the same WiFi network. The killer app would've been a built-in SlingCatcher, allowing the 500 to play a place-shifted stream from another 500.
What's more, the price of the Slingboxes are almost the same as they were back then, but you can still stream just one program at a time, and they still connect to the DVR over a slow, one-way IR connection. That means the Slingbox still can't ask the DVR what recordings are stored on it. And why not add the ability to place-shift radio stations? Perhaps with future updates, the Slingbox 500 will grow into more than just a media streamer with WiFi. For the time being, though, we'd recommend you go with a Slingbox 350, pick up a $15 SlingPlayer app for your mobile device and be glad that the content industry hasn't figured out a way to put Sling Media out of business permanently.