Slingbox PRO hands-on

So we've had a Slingbox Pro kickin' around the joint for a couple weeks now, one of the three new Slingboxen released late last month; we figured it was time to let you know whether it was worth plunking down for, especially if you are already a current owner. So let's get on with it.

The Pro, much like the classic Slingbox, features an analog cable input, as well as an S-Video input. But unlike the previous Slingbox, the Pro features an analog cable passthrough (thanks!), as well as composite and S-Video ins (and their respective passthroughs, as well). Of course, the Pro in the title less likely comes from all those standard def inputs, and more likely from the long awaited HD support the unit now features. There are just two catches, though. First: it's not HDMI -- which we can live with. Second: to use the high def, you have to pay another $50 for the dongle, bringing your price up to $300 total. Read on for the full review.

So yes, finally your Slingbox can actually take advantage of that high def tuner (or DVR) you've got sitting in your living room console. Wonderful, fantastic -- unless you want to output in HDMI. Now, we don't see a super pressing need to use HDMI for our television watching needs. Unless we missed the memo, it isn't like there are any 1080p broadcasts causing us to really wish we had that digital input for, and let's face it, how many STV devices exclusively feature DVI compared to the amount which use component, but may also feature DVI? Unless you were planning on hooking this thing up to your Kaleidescape, upon which you've somehow managed to rip some HD DVD or Blu-ray movies or something, you really shouldn't be concerned with the HDMI. Plus, then Sling would have to get all icky on us with HDCP and stuff, which would make the device basically worthless anyway -- you think Blu-ray or HD DVD is going to allow your Slingbox Pro to access that content stream? Fat chance. More below.

But, if you want to use analog high def (component) with your Pro, you have to buy the $50 component dongle -- so that $250 price tag is now $300. Yeah, we think it's pretty silly too, since if you're buying the Pro, we'd pretty much expect you'd be getting the "pro" features and the "pro" experience out of box, even if they had to bump the price to $275 to do it. Then, to make things even sillier, Sling's component dongle input is actually an HDMI connector (yes, we tested plugging an HDMI cable into it), and it's labeled "HD." Again, it absolutely does not accept HDMI input, but the uninformed consumer might buy for the wrong reason and then drive him/herself crazy wondering why their HDMI cable isn't producing a signal when plugged into their Slingbox. It's a painful mistake, and we're still wondering why it was made. That said, if you're 100% clear on the fact that no, it won't take your HDMI signal, and yes, if you want high def you have to pay another $50 for a dongle, then you won't get stung.

What each of the new three Slingboxen does.

Note, the Palm sticker before we peeled ours off!

That's how many times the F-bomb got dropped by The Dude during Engadget fav The Big Lebowski. No kiddin'.

Adapter + Ethernet cable.

Thoughtfully included RCA cables, two coax, one coax splitter, one S-Video, and, of course, the IR blaster.

The box!

Flipped over like a turtle.

So the rest of the device is pretty straight forward. Ethernet port, power input, IR port, etc. The chassis feels like kinda cheap plastic -- especially compared to the Tuner and AV, which both have very nice metal bodies -- but besides the unboxing experience (which should never be understated!) you're not really going to notice very often just how plasticy your Slingbox Pro really feels.

The software setup experience was, well, a little painful. Unlike previous Slingbox setups, the version we used (v1.4) had a very difficult time finding our box on our local network, and required some restarts. We eventually got it working, and had zero problems thereafter. The new player's video quality looks great, especially coming off a high def source, but the audio to the set was cut by between 25-35% on the passthrough, requiring jacking up the volume while watching television. In the house (on WiFi) we were getting a good 4Mbps, significantly better throughput than the previous Slingbox was capable of -- and still not near the maximum 6Mbps the Pro is capable of producing. (We're chalking that lost 2Mbps up to the WiFi.) Sorry our pic of the new Slingplayer above couldn't grab the video stream -- Windows just refused to allow it, no matter how many screencap apps we tried. But you'll notice that it's streaming there at about 3Mbps, and maxed out on a 1280 x 768 display looked very decent.

The mobile Slingplayer client was, as always, seamless, and we were streaming widescreen video even on our crap-ass EDGE T-Mobile service in San Francisco with relative ease. So yeah, it's fair to say the Slingbox Pro is a welcome addition to our home theater rig; the high def support and higher bitrates are most welcome. The $250 price ain't to shabby, but whenthe original Slingbox can now be had for a full $100 less, you have to remember you're looking at additional port passthroughs, higher bitrates, and HD support. Yes, we're still feeling a tad stung by the extra $50 though, but what the hell, since when was high def anything super cheap?

P.S. -We're going to give them a pass in our review on the lack of out of box Symbian and Mac support, as their packaging suggests it should have. We all know by now it was a scheduling flub, and they didn't make their product release deadlines by the time the packaging was put through. But we will say this: we've had a copy of the Mac Slingplayer client kicking around here as well, and it's good. Like, really, really good. Way simpler to get rolling with than the PC client (no kidding, right?), and rock solid thus far. What's more, they've more or less carried over all the interface menus, options, and what have you, so the learning curve is very low for Windows users. Expect it this month, Slingboxers.