Ever, since I got my first Slingbox Classic back in 2006 (right in time for the Football World Cup at that time), I was thrilled by Sling Media's easy-to-use place-shift technology which allowed to stream your linear home TV and recorded TV shows to a PC or smartphone anywhere in the world. And since I'm travelling quite a bit, I'm still thrilled to have access to my live TV, recordings and DVDs, doesn't matter where I'm or was: from Angola, to Spain, to the UK to Uzbekistan to the U.S. I was and still am able to watch live soccer matches, watch the latest news or just a good movie or TV show; without taking care or rights restrictions and availability of Internet streams.
However, it was time, for several reasons, for a new Slingbox, after I used the original Slinbox Classic, the Slingbox Pro and the Slingbox Solo for such a long time. All were great boxes at their time but as the world moved forward, also Sling Media moved on and some of Sling Media's latest services aren't supporting the old Slingboxes anymore - unfortunately. Furthermore, with the recent hardware upgrade of my Windows 7 Media Center, the new one has finally HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) output. Therefore I was looking for something easier to connect and wire, without converting signals, and the Slingbox 500 is (so far) the only one which supports HDMI input. Sure, the 500 isn't that brand new anymore; it was announced, together with the Slingbox 350, back in autumn last year. But unfortunately neither the one nor the other made to Europe so far which was the reason why I had to import it from the U.S. now (got it from Amazon.com for US$ 299). And the price is and was my biggest concern; 300 bucks for a place-shifter? You better watch a lot of TV to get the return of invest but well, I'm kind of addicted and therefore I decided to import one; without really knowing if it works in Europe and Germany.
So what's the highlights and differences to prior models? As said, the Slingbox 500 is the first and so far only Slingbox which supports HDMI in and out. Furthermore it's the first and only Slingbox which is able to make the required Internet connection through WiFi. Last but not least it features two new services called "SlingSync" and "SlingProjector" which let's you backup your smartphone photos to an attached USB stick and allows to show your smartphone photos on the connected TV (more about this later).
With the Slingbox 500, Sling Media has given up its well known and unique "Toblerone" kind of trapeze design but the Slingbox 500 comes in a totally new and somehow weird looking design:
On the front, it still features the typical LEDs which informs about power and network status and if someone is connected to the box. And beside being 1080p HDMI enabled, the Slingbox also features the typical Composite and and Component inputs (S-Video was left now) and Sling Media is really stressing it (also during the setup) that, due to certain and possible HDMI HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) restrictions, it's recommended to use one of the analogue signals as a fallback; just in case that a broadcaster isn't allowing the HDMI transmission of the video and audio signal to the Slingbox 500. Therefore, the Slingbox 500 is unfortunately also not supporting HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) which means the 500 can't control attached sources like a Media Center or PVR through the HDMI cable but it's instead featuring an IR blaster again, which is this time inbuilt; but a second - pyramid shaped - emitter comes in the box, just in case your Slingbox isn't put in front or your source device. Last but not least, the Slingbox 500 comes with an infrared remote control which is pretty much useless, except if your connect the Slingbox via WiFi. Then it's used for the initial setup and helps you to select the WiFi network and allows you to input the WLAN key.
Wiring the Slingbox 500 is pretty straight forward. HDMI cable from the Media in, HDMI cable to the flat screen out, LAN cable in, power cord in and maybe plugging in the IR emitter, that's it. Right after turning on the 500, it installed a firmware upgrade which added further features but took unbelievable long (however, in the change log it's said that this firmware update will help to speed-up future firmware updates). After the update was done, the on-screen menu guided me through the installation process where I had to select my country (only Canada and the U.S. were available), where I had to input my ZIP code (took one from Redmond) and had to select my cable operator (something I left blank since I'm not using a U.S. cable operator). Then I had to chose the input type (HDMI) and the device (in this case a Microsoft Windows 7 Media Center even if - as I figured out later - I have to use the Media Center 2005 instead to make the IR commands working) and I was pretty much done.
Interesting enough, neither the Slingbox 350 nor the Slingbox 500 are supporting the SlingPlayer software for Windows and MacOS anymore but to watch your Slingbox, you have to use Sling Media's Watch site instead. While this isn't a deal breaker at all, it's an interesting and sad move since I always prefer dedicated apps. And while we are talking about apps, for sure (and thankfully) the Android, iOS and Windows Phone apps are still supported, allowing you to watch your home TV on your mobile devices as well.
However, there's a real difference between watching the Slingbox signal on a PC or Mac and a mobile device: Full HD is only supported on PCs but not on mobile devices. Which doesn't look like a problem at all becomes inconvenient if you want to connect your mobile device to a TV (as I often do with my Android devices by using a MHL cable connection) since you don't get full HD resolution (especially if we are talking about devices like a HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 which have full HD 1080p screens). Nevertheless, even if it's not full HD, I never had such a clear and brilliant picture with all my Slingboxes before as I have now with the Slingbox 500. Since my Windows Media Center is receiving the live TV signal via DVB-T, the input is already digital. With my old Slingboxes, this signal was converted to an analogue video output and then transmitted to the Slingbox which digitized it again. As you might expect, there was a noteable loss in quality. With the new HDMI connection, the digital TV signal stays digital - end to end - and the result is a way sharper and crisper picture.
On the left: Slingbox 500 (high quality) via HDMI; on the right: Slingbox Pro (high quality) via Composite
As you can see above, the difference is really noticeable! Both screenshots were done with a HTC One (using HSPA), which features a full HD 1080p display. The difference looks even more dramatic on a PC in a home network (actual screen sizes were reduced):
On the left: Slingbox 500 (high quality) via HDMI; on the right: Slingbox Pro (high quality) via Composite
The quality improvement alone is already worth the HDMI input, especially if a Notebook is connected to, for instance, hotel TV screen and since most modern laptops support HDMI out as well today, there shouldn't be a loss in quality at all.
Furthermore, and another benefit is the fact, that the Slingbox 500 works pretty good with the::unwired's SlingPlayer RT site I've created some time ago. While Sling Media's Watch site requires a browser plugin, the different plugins aren't available for Microsoft's Windows RT operating system as used, for instance, for the Microsoft Surface RT. Nevertheless, Sling Media is offering a Flash-based SlingPlayer which works fine with Windows RT. When I created the site, it also used to work with my Slingbox Solo but stopped later. Looks like, Sling Media has somehow given up to support the Solo but the 500 is working at least again. Thanks to the battery runtime of the Surface RT, it's the perfect device to watch a Slingbox stream and I'm quite happy that it's working again.
As initially mentioned, the Slingbox 500 also comes with two other features, the so called "SlingSync" and "SlingProjector". SlingSync is a pretty much non-techie way to backup/copy photos and videos from a smartphone to a plugged-in USB stick. However, SlingProjector is even more interesting since it allows to show photos and videos, stored on the smartphone, on the big screen home TV.
It's similar to DLNA your TV might already support, HTC's Media Link (HD) or a simple MHL-HDMI connection.
Sure, in today's world nearly everything is also available straight from the Internet. Most German broadcasters have live streams of their linear TV offers, including media centers for catch-up and there are even further alternatives like Zattoo which is also broadcasting linear TV as IPTV. However, many live streams or media center contents aren't available if you left the country of origin and offers like Zattoo often show local channels if you are in a foreign country; as just happened to me when I was in Spain where Zattoo showed me Spanish channels instead of my Germans. Other offers, for instance from operators, often allow in-home pace-shifting only but as soon as you are leaving your home, the content isn't available anymore. The Slingbox technology by itself comes over these limitations and allows you watch whatever is available at home, it's also available wherever you are - as long as you have a Internet connection.
The biggest risk for me was to import a Slingbox 500 to Germany, without really knowing if it works here or not. I haven't found reasons why it shouldn't but you know, sometimes it's about the details. As a matter of fact I haven't found any problems why it shouldn't work here; it is working and that's the good news! Sure, I wish it would also come with an antenna input but if it would have one, most likely it wouldn't work here anyway since the U.S. aren't supporting the DVB-x standards, as used in Europe (C for cable, S for satellite and T for terrestrial antenna). However, the 1080p full HD HDMI input from my Media Center works as expected and since I'm not subscribed to any pay TV channels (like Sky), I haven't faced any problems with HDCP but all channels are available from the Slingbox 500. And the HDMI support was the initial reason to get one! A beautiful "side-effect" is the picture quality which comes through the digital HDMI connection. I told you, I've never seen mobile TV better and it can easily compete with official broadcaster streams!
The question is if the US$ 300 are worth the money, or not. It's hard to say; if you are travelling a lot, it might be worth. If you stay at home most of the time, it might not be worth since there are much cheaper Slingboxes available as alternatives. Unfortunately is the 500 the only one with HDMI and WiFi and while I'm neither in need of WiFi support nor using it, for many of you it could be a very useful addition. However, full 1080p HDMI is simply brilliant but I'm still not sure if it's really worth of Sling Media's price increase. Nevertheless, thankfully the picture quality is noticeable better and therefore is the 500 giving me the feeling I did everything right with my purchase decission.
Like all my other Slingboxes before, the Slingbox 500 is only serving my home media and TV to my Notebooks and mobile devices, it's neither cooking coffee nor is it making money for me. However, it's entertaining me, doesn't matter where in the world I am; and now even in HD (welcome to 2013). Sometimes this alone is much more than we can expect.
Cheers ~ Arne