It's been 10 years since Sling Media was founded, and here we stand with the fifth-generation Slingbox, the M1. Like all Slingboxes before it, the M1 can stream live and DVRed programs to your mobile devices, but this time, it's $150, making it the least expensive model yet. In particular, it's $30 cheaper than its predecessor and boasts the same feature set, but with the addition of built-in WiFi, so you don't need to park the box next to an Ethernet jack. So do the price cut and built-in WiFi make it a more worthwhile purchase? Let's find out.
Hardware and setup
At 1.7 x 7 x 4.3 inches the M1 is slightly smaller than the Slingbox 350 it replaces. The notification lights and connections are almost the same too, with the M1 dropping the USB port and picking up a WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) button around back. The power and "someone is streaming something" LEDs are exactly the same, though the network indicator will now light up for either wired or wireless connections. This time, though, the crazy texture is gone, replaced with a glossy black plastic. Overall, the design feels like a step down from the 350.
The WPS button can, of course, be used to facilitate the super-easy WiFi Protected Setup, but also serves to kick off the wireless setup via the app for those who don't use WPS. Basically, you hold down the WPS button until the network LED blinks and then launch the app to follow the prompts until you enter your SSID. Aside from just getting the connection info from your phone -- if that's even possible -- it couldn't be simpler. For those of you who've embraced the post-PC-era idea, you'll be thrilled to know this is the first Slingbox you can set up using the mobile app.
Like the previous generation of Slingboxes, the M1 has an integrated IR emitter that can control your set-top box as long as it's within a line of sight, and also includes a 3.5mm jack for an included external IR emitter. While there's no doubt that IR is the only truly universal way to control set-top boxes, there are other methods. I really wish Sling would add control via IP to the devices that support it (TiVo and DirecTV). At the very least, this would be more responsive and reliable than IR, but it could also mean two-way control. This could bring the M1 more in line with the way Sling streaming works when integrated into a Dish Network DVR -- so you can browse a list of recordings via the app instead of relying on streaming the DVR interface and sending button presses to navigate.
I'd be remiss if I didn't take the time to explain why the omission of HDMI on the M1 isn't a big deal, because it isn't. While HDMI is the de facto standard of home theater video interconnects today, it isn't well-suited for a Slingbox because it's usually encrypted. Assuming Sling could even obtain a license from the folks who control HDCP, it'd without a doubt come with strings attached -- strings, I imagine, you wouldn't like. So as long as HD set-top boxes output both HDMI and component simultaneously, I won't miss the DRM-laden input on our Slingbox -- the analog sunset is bound to eventually rain on your parade there.
The only other component limitation worth mentioning is that while the M1 will stream 1080p video, the component video specification doesn't officially support it. But considering no major broadcaster in the US broadcasts 1080p, this also isn't a real problem. Plus, I found the quality of the M1's de-interlacer sufficient, so really, the lack of HDMI and native 1080p sources is a non-issue.
The big deal here is that the PC and Mac desktop clients are back, but first, some bad news: The desktop client is the only free app. So, if you'd like to stream content to your iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire tablets, Android, Windows Phone or Windows 8 (modern UI) it's still going to cost you $15 (per platform). Windows and Windows Phone 8 support is coming too, according to Sling's website.
The other bad news -- depending on your perspective -- is that the M1 isn't supported by the Slingbox.com web viewer. That's not something I'd miss, but surely there's someone out there who will. At launch, Sling also said you can now stream content to your Apple TV or Roku via the mobile app, and use them as the remote (no on-screen controls), but a support article on Slingbox.com indicates this functionality will also be coming to the Chromecast. This isn't a completely new feature, but the ability to do a "full handoff" so you don't have to keep the app open is a welcome change.
The picture quality still starts out low, and ramping up to a high-quality feed still takes longer than I'd like, but I continue to be impressed by the quality of Sling Media's adaptive bit-rate technology. Its ability to adjust the quality depending on the available bandwidth (from audio only up to high-quality 1080p) is very much appreciated and something I wish every streaming device could match. On WiFi, I saw between 1,885 and 3,685 Kbps to my iPhone 5s, while the connection via AT&T LTE only peaked at 1,052 Kbps (the Slingbox was connected to the internet via a 75/35 FiOS connection). In either case, the video and audio quality was almost always watchable during my testing, which means the M1 lives up to the Sling name when it comes to streaming quality.
The desktop client is indeed back and it's about time. There are three views: standard, full window and full video. Full video is like any other full-screen app -- no borders, no menus; just video from edge to edge like a TV. Standard and full window are both "windows" smaller than the full screen, with the difference being that standard includes a guide on the side to make it easier to find the channel you'd like to watch. Ultimately, the desktop app is just a SlingPlayer app, but since it's one that doesn't require a web browser and works like a real application, that's enough in my book.
There is one change I've been waiting for -- and continue to wait for -- and that's an easier way to watch sports. I firmly believe the best use case for a Slingbox is watching out-of-market sporting events while traveling, and for some time now, I've been bemoaning the lack of software to make this easier. Something like TiVo's What to Watch Now sports filter, Media Center's Sports lounge or a mobile version of the SlingTV's UI with stats and scores from Thuuz would be perfect. Instead of taking you to live TV or the typical grid guide when launching a SlingPlayer app, it'd take you to a list of scores (or just a list of games, for those who dislike spoilers), with streaming access to a game just a tap away.
Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, WatchESPN; the list of streaming options today goes on and on. None of them require an upfront cost or installation. But each of these has a different selection of content, and none of them offer the same selection of live sports programming that traditional cable and satellite TV packages do. The proliferation of live sports streams online is on the rise, but it still has a relatively limited selection. It's also plagued by regional blackouts, and the adaptive streaming is pretty unreliable -- the streams can stop completely, instead of just degrading in low-throughput situations.
While sports fans are the least likely to cut the cord, most others still pay for traditional TV and about half have a DVR. And even if you do already have a cable box, Sling could enhance the experience by allowing you to stream content you already paid for. The Dish Hopper and the TiVo Roamio both bake in place shifting, with Dish using Sling's technology and TiVo fans wishing the Roamio did too (read our Roamio review to see what I mean). Ultimately, Sling continues to offer a unique product that's almost as useful as it was 10 years ago, before all these other streaming options were available.
It's been two years since we reviewed the previous-generation Slingbox and not much has changed. WiFi is included now and the price is lower, but our main complaints are still unaddressed -- upfront cost, non-sports-optimized view, IR control only and having to pay for each of the mobile apps. Of course, none of that diminishes the value of the Slingbox, even at a time when there's no shortage of video-streaming options. The reality is that even 10 years after Sling Media was founded, the primary limitation in video streaming is content licensing; as it happens, the Slingbox isn't bound by such things. So, in an age when Aereo is considered a copyright violation, I'm glad there's still a Slingbox. Because despite the relatively high price, when it comes to streaming content you already paid for, particularly live sports, the Slingbox is still your best bet.