Hands on: Slingbox PRO-HD

Unless you're someone who spends a lot of time Slinging content from your high-def TV to a computer elsewhere on your home network, you're not likely to see a whole lot of reason to upgrade - at least not quite yet - to the new $299 Slingbox PRO-HD, which began shipping today.

Unless you're someone who spends a lot of time Slinging content from your high-def TV to a computer elsewhere on your home network, you're not likely to see a whole lot of reason to upgrade - at least not quite yet - to the new $299 Slingbox PRO-HD, which began shipping today.

[Quick Slingbox 101, for the uninitiated: The Slingbox is a remarkably simple-to-use gadget that you connect to your TV, and which then allows you to watch whatever content you could watch on your TV from any computer, or a variety of smartphones, from anywhere in the world.]

The PRO-HD is the first Slingbox that is capable of outputting HD content (until now, some models could take in an HD signal, but none could spit one out). The problem is, unless you have a big upstream pipe - like FIOS, or enhanced cable modem service - you won't have enough bandwidth to transmit that HD signal anywhere beyond your home network (the company says you'll need a minimum of 1.5Mbps upstream to view HD content remotely). So, for the vast majority of us, Slinging to a hotel room 3,000 miles away won't look much different than it does today.

So for now, the only way to appreciate the benefits of slinging an HD source is by watching it on a device that's already sitting on your home network. Now that's not to say it's not still useful - since the PRO-HD has a built-in tuner, you can plug in multiple HD sources, say both a satellite box and an over-the-air ATSC/QAM signal. And yes, if you get HD in your home, chances are you have ATSC/QAM and don't even realize it -- just trying plugging the cable that normally runs into your settop box straight into the PRO-HD and see what happens. If you get a signal, just get your self a 99-cent splitter from Radio Shack, and presto, two HD signals in one.

In other words, one person can watch cable or satellite on the living room set, while someone else watches a separate over-the-air HD channel on their laptop in the bedroom - no more fighting over what show to watch.

But, in order to appreciate the full potential of the PRO-HD, one needs to look ahead to the launch of the SlingCatcher, which is expected to hit the market in October ($299, available for pre-order from Sling, Amazon, and others). The SlingCatcher can be connected to another TV and then, yes, "catch" a sling from the first set. What the heck does that mean, you ask? Let's say you have an HD DVR in your living room, and a second HD set in your bedroom. If you were to connect a SlingCatcher to your bedroom set, you would be able to watch all of the same HD programming - both live and recorded - that you could if you were sitting in your living room.

And the difference in quality between a non-HD Slingcatcher is quite noticeable. And even if not true HD, still close enough for most folks to be perfectly content. Here are some head-to-head photos I took, comparing the output from the original Slingbox Classic to the Slingbox PRO-HD. Note that while the screengrabs don't show the full picture - the difference is more noticeable when viewing actual moving images (go figure, huh?)

 Screengrab from Slingbox Classic (click to enlarge)

 

 

Sling PRO-HD screengrab

 Screengrab from Slingbox PRO-HD (click to enlarge)

 Other thoughts and observations...

Every hardware manufacturer in the business should take a look at the Slingbox installation process - it continues to be the best in class. The fact that it's harder to explain what exactly a Slingbox does than it is to set one up is a tremendous feat. Even if you're unlucky enough to have to go through manually configuring your router to work with your Slingbox (most set-ups won't require this), the installer shows step-by-step images of what your specific router's configuration software looks like, what fields need to get filled out, and with what values. It's not much of a stretch to say my mother could hook one of these up (sorry Mom!)

If you're a current Slingbox owner and don't have any plans to rush our and  buy a PRO-HD, you should still download the new Slingplayer 2.0 software. The new player features an integrated channel guide, and adds a buffer that enables you to pause, rewind, and fast forward from within the Sling interface. These two enhancements remove two of the only odious steps of Slingdom - navigating the channel guide on your settop box remotely, and trying to time your clicks when fast forwarding and rewinding, both of which obviously take longer remotely then they do when you're sitting in front of your TV set.

My bottom line? Today, the PRO-HD is a really nice product that the majority of folks won't find too much use for just yet. But, assuming the oft-delayed SlingCatcher actually makes its debut, as expected, next month, we're talking a sum that will be worth way more than the value of their parts.

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