gadg-et-oid [gaj-it-oid]


1. having the characteristics or form of a gadget;
resembling a mechanical contrivance or device.

SlingBox SOLO And SlingBox PRO Reviewed

It’s a very rare occasion that I am so impressed with a product I have purchased that I decide it deserves a review. The SlingBox SOLO is one such product and the SlingBox PRO is it’s bigger brother.

I found myself in PC World last weekend trying to decide if I should pay any of their absurd premiums for some computer components I wanted to sling the way of my neglected HTPC when I happened across a particular, dare I say ugly, device. It was a SlingBox Classic, a brave and bold design if I might say so myself; appearing to be 3 white, verbosely labeled, light up computer keyboard keys connected together. Why the SlingBox Classic was chosen as the choice of display model in PC World eludes me but beneath it nestled the decidedly more attractive SlingBox SOLO and SlingBox PRO.

Now, I had heard about the SlingBox before but had never really looked into it that much, standing at PC World with money to burn made me pick up both boxes, compare, become highly intrigued and eventually decide to purchase the SlingBox SOLO so that my partner could “sling” our Sky+ upstairs to her laptop.

My discovery of and positive experience with the SlingBox SOLO lead me to contact Sling Media’s PRs about the PRO version which I had opted not to buy so I could produce a more complete review. Sure enough they supported my endeavor and a SlingBox PRO arrived on my desk in a matter of days.

Armed with both a SlingBox PRO and SlingBox SOLO hooked up to my home network and streaming Sky+ upstairs as I type it’s time to get down to the “nitty-gritty” and give you the low down on these fantastic devices.

The first thing that hit me upon opening the SOLO and subsequently the PRO versions of the SlingBox is just how much the way they are packaged reminds me of Apple. It’s clear that Sling Media aspire to an Apple level of design and simplicity and because their product is inherently more simple than a personal computer they manage this goal very effectively.

Everything from the design, the packaging, the set-up process and the software is excellent. Both the PRO and SOLO took mere minutes to setup and as no install CD is included you’re prompted download the latest software and firmware from the get go so everything is up to date. CDs included with hardware these days are almost always out of date at time of purchase, so excluding an install disk is something I very strongly support, it’s marginally environmentally friendly too!

Sling Media don’t seem to have arrived at a particular design aesthetic. The SlingBox Classic, SOLO and PRO are all markedly difficult. Whilst they are all vaguely trapezoid shaped devices the Classic has an ugly computer keyboard theme, the SOLO is absolutely beautiful and the PRO is just… well… weird. The PRO is basically a red oblong suspended inside a translucent outer shell that gives it the appearance of some bizarre confectionary. I still can’t decide if I love it or hate it, but it’s definitely the marmite of consumer electronics when it comes to looks.

Setting Up

I had earnestly unboxed the SlingBox SOLO long before I arrived home (I wasn’t driving) and immediately set about hooking it up between my Sky+ box.

The supplied SCART -> Composite/RCA adaptor proved useful for this as the Sky+ box lacks component outputs, I then hooked the composite cable included between the Sky+ box and SlingBox SOLO and grabbed another composite cable to hook the SlingBox up to my television.

The lack of a second composite cable and SCART adaptor in the box will likely be a problem for any less technical users. Sling Media clearly assume that the cable you’re using to connect your video source to your TV will still be used to connect your SlingBox to your TV. However if you’re using a SCART connection between your TV and video source you must replace this with the SCART adaptor and composite cable, as the SlingBox has no SCART output this leaves you needing another SCART adaptor and composite cable to connect the box to your TV. If you have composite inputs on your TV this means you’ll be left needing only one extra cable. “Sling” another adaptor and cable in the box, please?

The next step was to connect the supplied IR transmitter to the SlingBox SOLO and place the ends on top of and beneath the Sky+ box, at the front, in line with the IR receiver. Sadly the IR transmitter is as ugly as sin, being a pair of indiscrete black things that attach to the video source. A single gloss finish black bar placed below the Sky+ box would have looked better in my opinion but if you’re spending enough time away from your TV (or actually watching TV and not admiring your gear) to warrant a SlingBox purchase you’re probably not that bothered how sexy your A/V equipment looks.

Hooking the SlingBox up my router was the last step, and a network cable was supplied to do this. Actually, plugging it in to the mains was the last step but I suspect most people expect that!

Downloading and installing the SlingPlayer software was a breeze. I simply had to type in the URL provided in the very brief documentation, download the file, and, as a Mac user, do the simple drag-n-drop install procedure that immediately places the application in an obscure folder with no prompt to place a shortcut in the dock. That’s a complaint I have with Mac OSX, sorry, it had to be said.

After using Spotlight to find SlingPlayer and subsequently running it I was greeted with a setup wizard that had miraculously already found my newly installed SlingBox and was already showing the video source streaming to my laptop. The wizard guided me step-by-step through the process of updating firmware, identifying my video source, testing the IR remote functionality, exposing the SlingBox to the internet and assigning it a name, password and admin password. There’s really not a lot to say about this process, it’s absurdly quick, simple and fluid and had me watching TV even before it had finished. You can’t complain about that!

Setting up the SlingBox PRO was a similar affair, only this time I used the one supplied composite cable to connect it to the SlingBox SOLO and then the existing cable between my SOLO and my TV to connect the PRO to the TV. Yes. You can daisy chain SlingBoxes so that they all use the same video source, and this is something that you might even consider doing as one SlingBox can only ever stream to a single viewer at any given time; this is to prevent you broadcasting your television over the internet. It’s important to remember that the SlingBox is a placeshifting device and not a broadcast device. Still it would be nice to allow two or three viewers on LAN only, but this is technically difficult and somewhat of a grey area in a world of proxy servers and VPNs that could easily defeat such security. Of course the person actually in front of the TV your SlingBox is hooked up to can watch whatever is being slung so it’s not too bad!

The SlingBox PRO one-ups the SlingBox SOLO by including a built in analogue/digital freeview TV tuner that essentially gives it a second source to stream from. This is extremely useful if you want to sling freeview because you can sling from the built in tuner and watch whatever you want with the SlingBox without disturbing your external video source.

Once the SlingBox wizard is complete for your external input you simply fire it up again and set up the tuner as another video source, choosing analogue/freeview, scanning channels, omitting any channels that the tuner can’t obtain by un-checking them from a preview list and saving your settings. Once set up switching between your external source and the SlingBox Pro’s internal tuner is a breeze.

One small issue I have with the SlingBox PRO tuner, which I believe could be fixed with a future iteration of Sling Player, is that once you have set up the tuner as another video source the virtual remote you get whilst watching it isn’t the friendly list of named channels you will find in the wizard but rather a nasty numerical remote that demands you know the number for every channel you want to watch or manually insert each channel into the shortcuts box at the bottom of the SlingPlayer window.

Whilst I had never tried or considered the SlingBox I have attempted other methods of sending TV upstairs; namely a wireless A/V broadcast solution that conflicted with my WIFI network and resulted in interference that made it unwatchable. The SlingBox completely avoids any conflict by using your existing network infrastructure to stream your television, rather than its own. Alas neither the SlingBox SOLO or SlingBox PRO boast an integrated WIFI connection which is somewhat peculiar in a day and age where almost everything is wirelessly connected, but it’s fairly trivial to hook a SlingBox up to a wireless router with its wired ethernet connection and wirelessly send television to your laptop.

SlingMedia claim that WIFI support is not included in SlingBoxes due to the fact they are often located amongst A/V equipment; a location that is not optimal for WIFI. This may be true but both the Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii include WIFI and are likely to be located in the same place.

SlingMedia do offer their own solution to wirelessly linking your SlingBox to your home router in the form of the SlingLink, using wires. The SlingLink is a pair of boxes that use your house mains as the wires to link between them. It would be nice to locate this functionality INSIDE the SlingBox PRO and SOLO if not WIFI, so customers need only buy one SlingLink box to complete the setup. There are only so many little boxes and mains adaptors I can put up with in any one setup! Also the SlingLink will set you back £60 to £70. Ouch.

Geeking Out

Armed with two SlingBoxes there were couple of things I couldn’t resist trying. I wont go into too much depth:

It’s also possible to control and watch multiple devices remotely with just one SlingBox. There’s an interesting article on controlling multiple devices with a SlingBox here.

You can even “Sling” the outputs of games consoles such as the Xbox 360 although due to the latency on the SlingBox feed you will not be able to effectively play games and, of course, your wireless controller would be slightly out of range when you’re on holiday.

I started my wireless slinging on a traditional 54mbit wireless LAN and encountered some performance issues until I turned off the “High Quality” option. The resulting picture was still watchable and stable. However further issues with my somewhat dated wireless router caused me to splash on a G/N compatible one. I got our MacBook Pros set up and running at 130mbit wireless and was treated to “High Quality” slinging with none of the issues I had encountered before, in addition to slightly more responsive remote control. Suffice to say; if you’re going to Sling wirelessly you’re not going to need to upgrade your wireless infrastructure but you might want to for best results.

Beyond LAN

Whilst the SlingBox is a fantastic solution for streaming almost any video source anywhere in the home via your existing network it doesn’t stop there. Both the SlingBox PRO and SlingBox SOLO can stream the very same video over the internet to Windows and Mac OSX based computers anywhere in the world. If you have a good enough internet connection, coupled with broadband wherever you happen to be staying you can watch your home television whilst on holiday and not miss out on your weekly dose of Neighbours, Lost, House or whatever else you enjoy watching.

And if that’s not impressive enough you can also get SlingPlayer Mobile for an extra £20 or so. You install this on your mobile phone and can watch your television anywhere on that. Of course most mobile phones don’t have terribly good data connections so it’s unlikely you’ll be doing this outside of WIFI coverage but if you’re TV addicted enough you can stretch to squeezing a little extra viewing time in whilst on the bog.

I tested SlingPlayer Mobile outside of the house using the SlingBox PRO and had absolutely no problems getting connected. I opted to use to find my external IP address and used that in the SlingPlayer Mobile settings along with the port number and password I had chosen to get started.

Once set up I simply established a data connection on my phone with HSDPA/3g and was watching TV in no time. Not entirely convinced that the SlingBox wasn’t using some trickery to beam TV short range to my mobile (at this time I was still in the house) I took it out with me for the day and connected via HSDPA in a restaurant (it was only a Wagamama) resulting in some impressively watchable television complete with the ability to bring up my Sky+ TV guide. I could almost see myself chewing through a large portion of my monthly data allowance watching rubbish on my mobile phone but fortunately for my wallet I’m not a big TV consumer and bought the SlingBox to satiate my other halves desire to watch Neighbors when I’m monopolizing the television.

Wrapping Up

I have a short wish list for either a future or current SlingBox, I have a feeling we’ll never get support for more than one viewer considering the technical difficulties and the legal complications but the rest are certainly doable.

Despite the above wish list the SlingBox PRO and SlingBox SOLO are both absolutely fantastic products with an extremely impressive standard of quality and simplicity that far exceeds any similar products I’ve had the (dis-)pleasure to use. Sling Media prove that you don’t have to be a consumer electronics giant to produce a well rounded, properly polished product backed up by excellent software. If only more manufacturers would follow their example. Yes, Archos. I’m looking at you.

And, at that, I think I’ll have to draw the review to a close. My SlingBox SOLO is slinging Mitchel And Web to the upstairs television and has completely annihilated my concentration!

Friday, March 28th, 2008, Home Entertainment.