Review: Sling Media Slingbox 500

UPDATE, 12:00PM Friday, October 19: This review was changed to clarify the level of video quality over component cables, and the available streaming media types from a USB drive.

When was the last time you watched live TV? Save for sports, most of us DVR, stream, and even occasionally rent what we want to watch. The whole concept of “appointment television” died right around the time Lost ended its run.

And yet the Sling Media Slingbox still exists, offering traveling couch potatoes the chance to stream their home TV feed to their laptop, tablet, smartphone, or other connected device. Neat? Sure. Essential? These days, not so much.

Like its predecessors, the new Slingbox 500 sits between your cable box or DVR and your TV. There, it intercepts live signals and “slings” them across the interwebs to wherever you happen to be: Tokyo, Tallahassee, or even just the conference room at the office.

If you’re a sports nut who routinely misses home games because they’re not broadcast where you are, this is the next best thing to having Scotty beam you back to your living room. The downside: Just like in your living room, whoever’s actually at home has to watch what you’re watching. Doesn’t matter if your DVR has multiple tuners; the Slingbox delivers only one output. And you control that.

The 500 resembles a Blu-ray player that’s been squashed at opposite corners. It’s a distinctive design, but not very practical: Forget stacking another component on top of it. More to the point, why is it so big? Given the hockey-puck proportions of streamers like the Apple TV and Roku box, the 500 seems downright mammoth. Even the TiVo Stream, which accomplishes much the same thing as the Slingbox (but only with TiVos, natch), is a fraction of the size.

A funky design isn’t the only thing that separates this Slingbox from its forebears. The 500 can stream full 1080p video, and it’s the first model with built-in Wi-Fi and HDMI connectivity. Unfortunately, you’ll probably also need to run component-video cables from your DVR to the box, as many broadcasters prohibit streaming via HDMI. And the component cables do stream up to 1080p.

Arguably, these features should have bowed years ago, but better late than never. After installing the Slingbox between my TiVo Premiere and my TV and running through a quick remote-powered setup, I found myself slinging both live and recorded shows to my laptop, iPad, and iPhone 4S. The picture and sound quality were consistently superb, regardless of whether my mobile device was connected to a Wi-Fi or 3G network. But paying $15 per iOS SlingPlayer app (it’s not universal) left a rotten taste in my mouth.

A forthcoming update will let you access media stored on a USB drive, which can plug into the Slingbox’s backside, and stream videos from your Android or iOS device to your TV (only photos can be streamed right now). While that adds some much-needed value to the proposition, you can already accomplish the latter with a much cheaper Apple TV or Roku.

Ultimately, the Slingbox remains the ultimate tool for folks who want the experience of watching live TV at home when they’re not at home. And the 500 represents the best of the Slingbox breed to date, offering all the features fans have been wanting and even a few nifty extras. But the price seems out of whack relative to its capabilities, especially in this age of on-demand everything. For this to be worth your $300, you’d better really like sports.

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