- Improved boot-up and response timesGenerally intuitive interfaceGood video quality
- More expensive than most other appsVideo temporarily freezes up upon each inputSome controls not intuitively labeled
Let's assume you're a first-time SlingBox user, just like us before writing this review. In brief, the physical installation simply involved plugging the AV cables (included) into the SlingBox and our set-top box (a Philips Freeview box, to be precise), then taping a couple of IR emitters onto the front of our set-top box, and finally hooking the SlingBox up to our router (via a couple of SlingLink ethernet wall-plug bridges as our router was too far away). We then installed the free desktop SlingPlayer software to configure the SlingBox -- you need to choose the IR profile that works on your set-top box, as well as assigning your account email address and a couple of passwords. The only trouble we initially ran into was that our original no-frills Freeview box wasn't listed on SlingPlayer's IR code database, and since the SlingBox couldn't be trained using our own remote control, we had to procure a compatible Freeview box.
Now, back to the Android mobile app. At first launch, obviously you'd need to put in your Sling Media account credentials, and then the app will let you choose one of the SlingBoxes associated with your account -- don't be alarmed, since each box only allows one live connection. With everything typed in, launching the app in the future would prompt an automatic connection (you can always log out in settings if necessary). If all goes well, you'll be greeted by your usual TV display as well as SlingPlayer's four groups of buttons: "DVR," "D-Pad," Keypad" and "Misc," all accessible from the top bar. These are rather self-explanatory and are very similar to the ones on the iOS version, although there are areas where one version does better. For example, the iOS version's keypad and D-pad are rather intrusive to the eye, whereas the Android version's still leave you some clear viewing space; on the other hand, the Android version's "Misc" category is rather unintuitive with all the text-only buttons, while the iOS version offers pages of graphical buttons instead. What put the crown on the green robot were the start-up and response times, just as Sling Media promised us -- on our Nexus One and Dell Streak, it took about four to six seconds before the video stream showed up over WiFi, whereas on our iPhone 4 it took about eight to twelve seconds; the response time was similarly halved on the Android devices.
In terms of picture and audio quality, we saw no differences between the two app flavors -- it's no high-definition, but video stream over WiFi and non-congested 3G were equally as pleasant to watch and listen to. To see how bad the video could get, we took our Nexus One to central London on Sunday evening -- the horrid picture quality reminded us of the early 3G video calls, but the audio was good enough for us to keep up with the soccer commentary. If you must know, we counted a stream delay of at least three seconds over WiFi, and it'd obviously be greater over 3G, but that shouldn't concern most users. What really got on our nerves, though, was the video stream freezing up after every single button input -- imagine trying to adjust the box's volume or just browsing through the program guide. Strangely, the iOS app suffered from the same problem, so perhaps this was universal bug. Here's hoping that Sling Media can sort this out in the near future.
We applaud Sling Media for making its mobile app available across such vast range of platforms. While we've only had the chance to play with the iOS version and Android version, the latter newbie was almost as intuitive and was as stable. Sure, there are no breakthrough features here, but the point is now you can benefit from the same option on the numerous Android devices, and not to mention the snappier performance over the iOS version. As for justifying the $29.99 price tag, it'll really depend on how often you watch TV, as well as the number of functionalities you get on your set-top box. In our case, we could only use the app to watch live TV, but had our SlingBox been connected to a DVR, it would mean that we could've also used the app to remotely record a show, or even stream a recorded show from our library instead of relying on video-hosting sites (and some might be blocked in certain countries or premises, anyway). In that sense, it's safe to say that SlingPlayer Mobile is well worth the price for TV addicts that are often on the move, and not to mention that it's a great way to cure your homesickness while abroad -- just make sure you're not on data roaming while watching re-runs of Top Gear.