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The Slingbox Solo supports HD video.
The Slingbox Solo rebroadcasts a TV feed to any Mac on a home network, freeing you from your living room couch. Using a Mac notebook, you can watch a cooking show in the kitchen, a gardening show in the backyard, or you can go to bed with Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The video quality looks good on a home network, and the Slingbox Solo even sends shows through the Internet if you’re traveling. Ultimately, the device succeeds—though it sometimes stutters.
The Slingbox Solo sits between the main household video source and your TV. The device splits that live video signal and simultaneously sends it to the TV and onto the network though Ethernet. A few Slingbox models include different video inputs; the Solo accepts S-Video, component, composite, and RCA audio, but not a direct coaxial cable.
We connected the Slingbox Solo via the component cable, pulling in the feed from an HD TiVo. We also plugged in the IR emitter and pointed it at the TiVo. The IR emitter emulates the traditional remote control, sending commands over the network to change channels and otherwise control video. (The Solo doesn’t record video, but can interface with a DVR.) Since the Solo includes presets to command the vast majority of set-top boxes, we just had to pick the manufacturer and model from a list.
Local network setup worked well, but the complexities in our atypical configuration prevented the Slingbox Solo from immediately broadcasting over the Internet. Using manual settings, we eventually got it working. Basically, the Slingbox sends a beacon to its own website that helps users connect even if their IP address changes. Typical firewall settings may block this feature.
The SlingPlayer software presents the video window and virtual remote control on your Mac. This easy-to-understand interface belies its complexity—we burrowed inside to find manual settings for video quality, but the main window never intimidates. It looks just like a TV picture next to your real-world remote control. The extra touches also impressed, like a “favorite channel” stripe to help us instantly change stations.
We tested the Slingbox Solo with a variety of HD and standard-definition shows. While the device transmits a maximum resolution of 640 by 480 pixels—about a quarter the size of a full HD signal—video looked crisp on our networked Macs. (HD users get a tiny boost in quality because of the better source material, but little real-world gain.) After an initial 10-second ramp-up while the Solo optimized the video settings, playback was usually smooth and glitch-free. Other than occasional stutters, the streaming video looked almost as good as it did on a standard-definition TV. That home network performance—over 802.11g Wi-Fi or Ethernet—worked best.
But Internet viewing surprised us in a good way. Most ISPs restrict upload speeds to a fraction of their advertised download rate, and the Slingbox Solo thrives on that upload stat. We watched shows away from home through the Internet, but our home connection could only upload at about 600Kbps. So while away, we could only stream video at that speed, and the resulting quality scaled down to fit that constraint. By comparison, the Slingbox Solo used about 10 times the bandwidth while sending shows over a local network.
Playing video on a smaller 320-by-240-pixel window, we saw a worse-than-VHS-quality picture. Chunky compression blurred moving footage. But we could still follow the action in football and basketball games, especially since the audio never stuttered even though the framerate did. Local-sports diehards will make do with the results, possibly even upgrading their ISP plan to watch hometown games while on the road.
The bottom line. The Slingbox Solo doesn’t change TV as much as the VCR or DVR, but it deserves that comparison. Video quality depends on network and Internet upload speeds, but it’s usually strong.
COMPANY: Sling Media
REQUIREMENTS: 800MHz G4 or later or Intel processor, Mac OS 10.3.9 or later, 512MB RAM, broadband Internet, set-top box or other video device
Video typically looks fluid over a home network. Works with most video devices. Passable video quality over the Internet with sufficient upload bandwidth. Universal binary.
Brief delay between sending IR commands and their effect. Occasional video stutters, even on home network.