With the Slingbox Pro HD, Sling Media has created a version of its pioneering "place-shifting" device that lets you view high-definition video in high definition, remotely.
Like previous Slingbox devices, such as the Slingbox Solo and the Slingbox Pro, the Slingbox Pro HD works by streaming video from a cable TV box, digital video recorder, or other home video source through the Slingbox unit, and then displaying the video footage on your network- or internet-connected Windows laptop.
(Software for playing high-def content is not yet available for Macs or for mobile devices that support standard-definition streams).
But to have any hope of successfully using the Slingbox Pro HD to stream high-def video, you'll need an HD video source, robust broadband (at least 1.5Mbps upstream and downstream, according to Sling Media). and a decent Windows PC. And even then, you might be disappointed.
We tried out a Slingbox Pro HD and a late beta of the required (and free) new player software, SlingPlayer 2.0, on two laptops - an HP Pavilion tx1219us and a Lenovo ThinkPad x61 - as well as on an older Dell desktop.
Installation and setup of the Slingbox Pro HD to work with a Comcast/Motorola HD DVR went fairly smoothly. We used the included manual and SlingPlayer setup assistant, although we had to access online help to obtain configuration settings for my router.
The Slingbox Pro HD has inputs for component and composite video, coaxial, and both analogue and digital audio. It also has a built-in ATSC digital TV tuner. The Pro HD's infrared cable splits four ways, so you can place one IR transmitter on each device you hook up and wish to control.
We first tested how well the Slingbox Pro HD worked on an internal home network, with both ethernet and draft-802.11n Wi-Fi on the uncrowded 5GHz band.
We used the laptops to watch both live and recorded high-def programs from my Comcast box. On the HP notebook, playback was pretty darn good: the images looked terrific and significantly sharper than standard-def footage.
On the ThinkPad, our experience was less satisfactory. The A/V stream would start out well, but both the audio and video feeds began stuttering after a few minutes. Sling Media's tech support eventually figured out a way to smooth out the video by having us shut down a synching app that was running in the background, but we never figured out how to get the audio to stop skipping.
Because our test DSL service tops out at about 750kbps upstream - not enough to support remote delivery of HD content - we reinstalled the Slingbox at the home of a friend who has cable broadband (which does meet the HD bandwidth requirement).
Again, we were unable to configure the router automatically for remote access, but Sling Media's tech support guided me to an external site that offered configuration instructions for that particular router.
Back at the office on our internal wired network, we watched the high-def stream on the HP notebook and on the older Dell desktop. Playback wasn't perfect - you could see dropped frames throughout, and a few skips of a few seconds each - but most of the time it was acceptable.
The player software incorporates some other improvements over previous versions, including a built-in program guide. Unfortunately, the guide did not list all of the available channels on my cable service - for example, the Sci-Fi Channel was completely missing.
We were able to exercise complete control over our HD box at home with a virtual replica of its remote in the player software.
We would consider getting a Slingbox Pro HD if we were confident of having access to reliable, high-bandwidth broadband in places where we expected to watch remotely - and if we didn't insist on flawless performance. Otherwise, the Slingbox Pro HD's predecessors provide similar functionality for standard-definition streams.