As the number of mobile devices in our house increased, our reliance on them also increased. Both me and my wife barely touch our PCs anymore (maybe when we do a quick Age of Empires III showdown on our home network, but with two kids, those days are fewer and long in between).
Our family also cut the cable cord quite a while ago, when the Dish Network wanted to increase our bill yet again. While we don’t have a full fledged cable subscription anymore, having Internet service from Time Warner comes with some perks, most notable the free included digital local channels (clear QAM), PBS and a bunch of other free channels as well including NBC sports.As part of my TV watching setup, I am using my Windows Media Center 7 as a local DVR, a number of XBOX 360 consoles as DVR clients to access the live/recorded TV around the house and the only thing missing would be the access of the same channels live and mobile, both from around the house and during my daily 1.5 hours train commute, via my tablet/smartphone over a 3G connections. What to do?
Well, let me tell you I have long searched for a cheap/good software only streaming solution since I already have my MCE server chugging quietly 24/7. I tried ORB and several other solutions that claim to be able to stream Live TV over the internet, but all the solutions found share one major caveat – they don’t work with digital TV tuners. Why? I have no idea, but that’s the way it is. I started to look around and the only reasonable priced solution came from Sling Media (now belonging to Dish Network) and their Slingbox Pro-HD SB300-100, their only model with an embedded ATSC/NTSC/QAM tuner. I built an entire ecosystem around it, streaming to PC, notebooks, iPhone / iPad / Nook Color / HP TouchPad running Android CM7, HTC Vivid and Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket both on my home network and away, and the result of this comprehensive experience is detailed in this review.
1. Slingbox Pro-HD box content
- Slingbox PRO-HD
- Quick Start Guide
- AC Adapter (100-240V, 50-60Hz)
- Ethernet Cable
- Coaxial Cable
- Composite AV Cable
- Component Video Cable
- Remote Control IR Cable
- S-Video Cable
- Stereo Audio Cable
2. Network Speed Requirements for smooth streaming
As you can imagine, depending on your usage, the speed requirements for your network might be considerable. While any decent WiFi router should work fine inside your home network, if you intend to stream on the Internet (ex watch Live TV via your smartphone and tablet), your UPLOAD speed is where the bottleneck is. Suffice to say that any reasonable 3G network will cover the SD/mobile viewing, but for HD, both your upload speed and cell connection speed should be AT LEAST 1.5Mbps. If your speed is not what is expected, you will be disappointed.
3. Slingbox Pro-HD Installation
Sling Pro-HD has a good set of inputs both standard and high definition. The standard definition inputs include S-video input/output and composite video together with stereo audio input /output as well, if you need pass-trough. The high definition inputs include component input/output (limited to 1080i), stereo sound and also digital coax S/PDIF. Notably, the box doesn’t have any HDMI inputs and no 1080p capable inputs either so in order to stream from a 1080p output, you’ll have to limit it to 1080i. A cable/antenna input and one output are available as well.
While the lack of HDMI inputs is certainly annoying, in my setup this wasn’t an impediment, since the only input I am really using is the ATSC/NTSC/QAM tuner coax input. The box also provides IR output in case you need to control your DVR or DVD video player.
On the hardware side, the installation is quite painless. Just plug-in the cables (power, Ethernet and video) and you are good to go. Everything is quite a no-brainer.
This is where things are getting trickier. To access your Slingbox, you’ll need to create an account at the company’s website. The initial software setup has to be performed from inside your home network since at this point Slingbox is not visible outside yet. The whole process is rather painless but for the initial setup and the subsequent PC usage, you’ll need to use the good (or not so) old Internet Explorer, since Sling Media is using an ActiveX client.
Alternatively, you can try Firefox and they do have a Sling add-on. Unfortunately, he newer Firefox versions are not compatible with the Sling add-on anymore, but even in this case, you can find some work-arounds. Install Firefox Add-on Compatibility Reporter and the Sling ad-on will work again, at least in some cases.
Chrome – unfortunately there is no solution to use Sling is Google Chrome yet. There are some reports about a Sling Flash client, but nothing official yet.
Once you create an account, install the proper client on the PC, you will be able to register your new Slingbox to your account. If you are among the lucky owners of a Disn Network VIP 922 Sling Enabled DVR, you’ll be able to add that one as well (my account still kept the info since when I was still a Dish network subscriber, a couple of years back). The only additional step you’ll need to perform is to actually have your Slingbox Pro-HD search for channels, a process that can take as long as 20 minutes.
4. SlingPlayer streaming clients
Before going into details, one major complaint: The price for various SlingPlayer clients is quite hefty, $30 each and unfortunately Sling Media “wisely” decided to launch and sell separate versions for tablets and smartphones, so you’ll have to cough up $30 each time. Really annoying, especially if you have several different devices.
SlingPlayer client for PC
The only Sling client that is actually free is the PC one. You’ll need Internet Explorer (up to 9) and a dedicated ActiveX add-on. Firefox also works, with various workarounds. Chrome users are unfortunately out of luck, but Safari also works in both 32 and 64 bit flavors.
SlingPlayer Client for Android
This is the standard player that you will get if you have anything less than Honeycomb. The feature set is quite slim and it doesn’t feature a guide. Not optimized for high definition. This is also the player that works (quite well) on the CyanogenMod 7 loaded on Nook Color and HP TouchPad. Everything looks much worse than iPhone version.
SlingPlayer Client for Android Tablets (Honeycomb)
The Honeycomb optimized SlingPlayer client supports both Guide and HD streaming. Feature set, it is similar with the iPad app.
Works well, although no HD streaming. Necessary rant – Why don’t they combine the iPhone/iPad apps instead of asking you to pay two times the hefty price? Typical greed…
User Interface wise, the iPhone app is much more feature rich than the one for Android, including a guide.
The best implementation of the SlingPlayer client in my opinion. Smooth user interface, optimized for HD streaming (which it plays flawlessly) and of course, Guide.
Windows Phone 7
The UI is fast and smooth, typical to the WP7 phones, also somewhat similar to Android. It also features a guide.
Google TV 2(Upcoming), also available on BlackBerry, Palm OS, and Symbian.
What do you know, starting with Google TV version 2 based on Android Honeycomb, there will be a Sling client for this platform as well. I’ll post my impressions once my Logitech Revue gets updated to Honeycomb.
5. Sling Pro-HD streaming performance
Before we begin discussing the streaming performance, it is important to note that you can only have one streaming client connected to the Slingbox at one time. We won’t go into details about why that is, suffice to say all the consumer streaming boxes I have seen, starting with the venerable Sony LocationFree and ending with the newer Vulkano family made by Monsoon Multimedia only allow one connection. The software/hardware inside the box would have to be significantly more complex to allow multi-streams adding to the overall cost. It is also doubtful that most of the internet connections found in an average household would offer a good enough experience.
If your network speed is fast enough (see the speed requirements for streaming), the whole streaming process is flawless. I have tested live TV streaming on every mobile device I own (and I do own quite a lot) and with the proper connection, there is a joy to watch. The best experience beside the PC is by using tablets, with SlingPlayer working in HD on both Apple iPad and various Honeycomb tablets as well. I really have no reason to complain at all.
Slingbox Pro-HD is one of the very few methods of streaming SD & HD video on mobile devices, especially since Sony discontinued their LocationFree player. With a solid support for most modern mobile platforms (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) and an embedded NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuner, it covers pretty much most of your streaming needs. Slingbox Pro-HD is also cable of controlling your DVD/DVR boxes through its software remote control and infrared output so you can take your recorded movies on the road as well. The only major annoyance is the relatively high price and the certainly high price for various mobile streaming clients. However, if you want to enjoy Live TV on the road, this is for now the way to go.
- good streaming quality if you have the bandwidth
- excellent client support for most mobile platforms including iOS, Android and Windows Phone
- IR output to control your DVD/DVR while away
- no 1080p inputs
- no HDMI inputs
- fairly expensive main unit
- definitely expensive streaming clients
I can see several improvements that could be made to the Sling clients – one of them would be an audio only mode if you are not interested in the video and want to save the bandwidth.