Sling Media's range of Slingboxes are the answer to a problem that many people don't even know exists. But if you're one of the people who want to watch TV on a mobile phone or laptop either in the UK or while you're travelling, it's likely the company has a product that will appeal to you.
The concept is simple. For around £200, the Sling Media Slingbox Pro-HD plugs into your home-entertainment system and streams video to a laptop or mobile phone either in your house, or outside it.
The Slingbox Pro-HD has component and composite-video inputs, and loop-through outputs. There are digital-audio inputs and outputs, too, which is good to see.
You also get an infrared (IR) blaster with the Slingbox Pro-HD. This enables you to control a huge amount of set-top boxes like Sky+ and Virgin+HD. That's also pretty cool, because it means you can access catch-up TV services and recordings stored on your PVR hard drive.
In terms of its inputs, we have to say, the Slingbox Pro-HD is nearly perfect. The chink in its armour, however, has to be the lack of an HDMI input. Of course, using HDMI and removing the copy protection -- as Sling would have to do -- would be breaking the rules. So, for that reason, the company hasn't included one. We think it's a shame, and with set-top boxes often omitting component HD outputs these days, you'll be stuck with standard-definition content from these devices.
The Slingbox Pro-HD also has a built-in DVB-T tuner, which means it can tune into Freeview services, and send those directly. We love this feature, and it was by far the part of the system we used most.
Set-up and problems
Setting up the Slingbox Pro-HD was reasonably easy. We found the Web interface simple, but not very responsive or speedy. Getting set up didn't take long, though. Once the Pro-HD was tuned in and had found our external devices, we were happy.
What wasn't so pleasing were the problems we had getting the Slingbox Pro-HD to talk to devices outside. We're laying the blame in a 50/50 proportion here. Half gets laid on the Slingbox itself, which doesn't seem able to deliver on its promise of auto-configuring our router. The other half gets placed at the feet of D-Link, who make our craptacular router, which crashed every time we ran the Slingbox set-up.
Eventually, we got the two working together by manually opening ports on our firewall. This wasn't a problem for us, but it will be a put-off for the less technically minded. If you have the same issue, we'd suggest manually opening the correct port on your firewall, then running the Slingbox set-up again. It was this that got us up and running in the end. To give them credit, Slingbox support was excellent in helping us resolve this problem.
Three ways to watch
Flexibility is the key here, and the Slingbox Pro-HD is very flexible. If you've got a Web browser -- Internet Explorer or Firefox -- you can watch video from your Slingbox via the slingbox.com website.
There's also a desktop client, which you can download for free from the Sling website. We like this option, because it's more responsive than the webpage. But we're old school, and the differences between the website-streaming and the separate software are very minimal. The software does have better display options, like 'always on top', which make it more useful if you want to do something else while watching TV.
The third and most exciting option is to use the Sling mobile application. We'll talk about this in more detail below, but it suffices to say, it's one of the major selling points of this product.
Mobile apps for almost every platform
The downside of Sling's mobile app is that it isn't free. Not only is it not free, at £20, it's also not all that cheap. There are versions available for Android, iOS, Blackberry and Symbian handsets, in the relevant app stores for those devices.
Our testing was done on Android, and we have to say, we were impressed by how it performed. We liked the picture quality, which almost certainly benefited from being downscaled to the smaller phone screen. On Wi-Fi, in the same house as the Slingbox, we found the image to be smooth and sufficiently detailed. This isn't the sort of picture quality you'd get with a podcast or video stored on your device, but it's watchable and the sound is clear.
3G streaming is also possible, but we found the frame rate was far too low to be especially useful. Using your data allowance for video is also a fool's errand, as it's extremely likely to bankrupt you financially too.
We loved the picture quality of the Slingbox on the mobile phone. Using it on a PC with a decent monitor was a less impressive experience. When watching locally, on our home network, the picture suffered from artefacts that gave items with a solid edge a rather nasty torn look.
Detail, however, was adequate, as was the sound quality. We wouldn't suggest a Slingbox as a great way to move video from your main AV system onto a full-size TV, though, as the quality won't be sufficient.
When HD really isn't HD
The Slingbox Pro-HD does support high definition, but there are simply too many caveats to deem it useful. The first problem is that the built-in Freeview tuner doesn't support DVB-T2, which means you can't get HD channels directly from the box.
There is, however, a component input on the Sling, which can support 1080i video. But there's a problem here, too -- namely that Sky and Virgin have removed component outputs from their hardware. Even if you felt tempted to try using a Blu-ray player with your Sling, you probably won't get proper HD out of these unprotected outputs.
If you managed to overcome all these problems, almost no home broadband has the upload speed needed to make it practical to send HD over the Net. Virgin has up to 5Mbps uploads, and BT Infinity claims "up to 10Mbps", both of which are fast enough to have a decent go at HD, but they're also in only a modest percentage of homes.
So HD is slightly pointless here at the moment. That's not to say that will always be the case, but without an HD tuner or HDMI-input support, we can't see this being a huge selling point.
There's a lot to like about the Sling Media Slingbox Pro-HD. For moving your TV service from home to anywhere else, it's brilliant. We found ourselves using the mobile app at home when we either didn't want a TV on, or there wasn't a TV available. Out of the home, it's really only worth connecting to your Slingbox if you're on a Wi-Fi network. 3G streaming does work, but it's not great quality -- the frame rate is especially low -- and it will eat through your data allowance in no time at all.
If you travel often, or just want a more flexible way to watch TV at home, the Slingbox Pro-HD is a good option. For £50 less, however, the Slingbox Pro does everything this model does.
Note: This review replaces an old version that was based on the US iteration of this hardware. This updated appraisal is of the UK hardware, which adds a DVB-T tuner and also takes the mobile application into account.
Edited by Emma Bayly