Up until a week and a half ago, I had never used a Slingbox. And after testing the newest model, I’m not convinced I need one.
Slingbox, for those who don’t know, is a box that connects to your cable box at home and lets you watch remote streams of that live or DVR’ed TV content while you’re away. It’s made by Sling Media, which is owned by EchoStar Communications.
I’ve heard many Slingbox-saved-the-day stories from consumers, including my boss Walt Mossberg, who years ago relied on his Slingbox to watch Red Sox games while he was traveling in Japan. (Yes, he’s that big a Sox fan.) In fact, a lot of these Sling stories involve can’t-miss sporting events, like the World Cup soccer games earlier this month.
But personally, when I am away from the cable box at home, I get by with webcasts, streaming video services and downloadable content. Even Twitter, in a way, has started to fulfill my need for real-time updates during sports.
Put it this way: The first Slingbox was introduced back in 2005. Since then, a lot of new options have emerged for consuming TV content, even if it’s not through traditional cable or broadcast feeds.
So I was curious whether the newest version of the Slingbox, the $150 Slingbox M1, would be worth it for a consumer like me. In short, it’s not; the set-up for me was almost comically complicated, partly because the cable box I have at home isn’t very Sling-friendly, and I didn’t have the burning need to watch much TV on Sling while I was traveling last week.
That said, I recognize there are likely some die-hard Sling fans out there who really love their Slingboxes and are curious about what the new one has to offer. So if you’re not in my shoes, and you don’t have the same cable box I have — a brand-new, Arris-made Xfinity X1 box from Comcast — then the M1 has some appealing features.
For one, the $150 Slingbox M1 has the lowest price point of any Slingbox, though it’s still more expensive than boxes like Apple TV and Roku (which, to be clear, are set-top boxes that stream Internet video; not cable boxes or cable box attachments). Most notably, the new Slingbox now has dual-band Wi-Fi capabilities, which means it no longer requires an ethernet cable connection (one less wire!). It’s also supposed to be faster, and Sling’s mobile apps have been tweaked to allow for more of a “second-screen” experience, which I’ll get into.
Sling promises a fast and easy set up — 10 minutes or less — but this was not the case for me. This is partly due to the fact that there are several set-top boxes and hubs and a spaghetti-like pile of wires around our entertainment console at home. There could be a family of small trolls living under there and I would not know it.
But you also have to identify your cable box make and model as part of the Sling set-up online. In my case I knew the cable box was made by Arris, but Sling’s website listed three Arris models in a drop-down menu and I had no idea which one was mine. So I dug around for the Comcast paperwork, which had been stashed in a liquor cabinet in a flash of brilliant foresight. A couple of phone calls later, and it turns out you don’t need the Arris model number; you can just identify the model as “X1.”
It also turned out that I couldn’t connect the Slingbox M1 to my cable box and get a video feed without first obtaining a composite cable that wasn’t included in the box (in full disclosure, the company later supplied me with this extra composite cable; the Sling M1 comes with standard component cables).
Even with the boxes finally connected, my Slingbox M1 feed was entirely in standard definition, with no option for HD. Again, this is because of limitations around my particular cable box. So for me, the quality of video was never really that good.
Sling offers apps on Macs, PCs, iPhone, iPad and Android devices. I ended up accessing Sling mostly on a Mac laptop and on my iPhone, but unfortunately, the Mac app has a couple of bugs. One small annoyance, for example, is that you can’t just change the channel on the app’s virtual remote; instead, you punch in the channel you want, and then have to hit “OK” on the virtual remote. Sling says it’s aware of such bugs and that fixes are in the works.
Here’s an example of when I found the Slingbox M1 incredibly useful this week while I was traveling: I was stuck in a TV-less office during the time CNBC (our Re/code media partners) had a sit-down video interview with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. I fired up the Sling app on my desktop, logged into my account and was able to watch the interview.
Here’s an example of the Slingbox M1 being just another box crowding the shelves at home: Before bed at night I would open up the Sling app on my iPhone, browse through the channels and ultimately irritate my boyfriend, who was on the couch at home trying to catch up on “Game of Thrones.” You see, whoever is using the Sling app can change channels on the home cable box, and vice versa, even if someone at home is in the middle of watching something. I have yet to watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones.” I closed the Sling app.
The Slingbox M1 has other worthwhile features that I tested briefly. For example, another way to watch Sling content is to “cast” the feed from your Sling desktop or mobile app to another TV screen, using a Roku, Chromecast or Apple TV box.
That’s not exactly new, but what is new is the ability to close that mobile app — let’s say you wanted to check email or use other apps on your phone — and the Sling content will keep playing on the TV you’ve “casted” it to.
But, again, unless I really wanted to watch that live cable TV feed, I would likely use that same Roku or Apple TV to stream one of the many video apps offered through the Web.
So while the Slingbox M1 has some new features, the value proposition with Sling is still the same: It’s good for hardcore sports fans and special occasions. Overall, it feels like the world has moved on since 2005.