Review: Slingbox M1 Has Wi-Fi, Lower Price


Echostar subsidiary Sling Media last month unveiled Slingbox M1, its least expensive solution yet for "placeshifting" HD television, DVR and media-player content to any device with an internet connection and a browser.

Slingbox M1 lists for $149, half the price of its higher-end flagship SlingTV, which was called Slingbox 500 when we reviewed it last month. Slingbox M1 replaces the Slingbox 350, a $200 box with similar capabilities minus Wi-Fi.

We set up the M1 using Sling's new desktop client app and a MacBook Pro. New versions of the Android and iOS apps also can perform the setup; we tested only the Android app and can confirm that claim. More on this later. As in prior models, setup involves the simple steps of selecting the cable provider and connection method (Ethernet or dual-band Wi-Fi). Once out of the box and plugged into our test monitor, total time to set up the Sling M1 was about 10 minutes.

[Related: Review: Slingbox Now Fit For The Boardroom]

Like all Slingboxes, the M1 connects in-line between the set-top box and the TV or monitor and streams everything coming into its inputs. The M1 provides component and composite inputs and outputs, either of which can be viewed at a time. We'd have preferred HDMI ports, but cable companies sometimes digitally protect HDMI output from third-party streaming, so component is the only universal interface that also carries HD.

Further improvements in today's Slingboxes include IR emitters that are built into the cabinet, eliminating the need in most cases for external emitters (and their wires). External emitters are included, too, for installations that are incompatible with internal ones. IR emitters allow the emulated remote control in the SlingPlayer app to control the STB remotely.

Developers at Sling also have been hard at work on the Slingplayer app for Mac OS X and for Windows, which offer identical features and are both still free. Firstly, the desktop client works over the internet. Prior versions worked only on a LAN, with web viewing implemented through a browser plug-in. The native client has three new viewing modes. The standard view presents the content side-by-side with tabs for the guide and settings for network, input and preferences (where the window can be forced atop others).

Resizing this window automatically shifts to Full Window mode, which scales the picture and adds or removes controls to match the window size. Full Video mode fills the screen with video and blanks all controls. Double-clicking the window toggles between full video and full window in its former size. The new client is better in every way except one: the Windows version no longer queues the video stream. The older client recorded an hour of video, permitting the stream to be paused, rewound and fast-forwarded. The Mac version never had this capability; now neither does and newer Slingboxes are not compatible with older client software.

SlingMedia also has updated its apps for Android, iPad and iPhone and reduced them from $30 to a more reasonable $15. Unfortunately, Slingplayer for iPhone is a separate purchase from Slingplayer for iPad. The same applies to Slingplayer for Android. We tested the latest beta, version 2.10.1, and found a stable, feature-rich app that's far more intuitive, usable and worthy of the cost. It launched more quickly than prior versions and worked well over Wi-Fi and 4G connections with minimal command lag.

Most notable on first glance is that swiping up or down while playing content changes the channel, and swiping left or right brings up a list of recent channels. All on-screen controls are now implemented in a transparent layer, so the picture is never quite out of sight. In the channel guide, swiping upward or downward advances or deprecates the channel numbers; swiping from right or left changes the time. Tapping on a program switches to that channel; long-pressing a program sets a reminder for it. Channels displayed in the guide can be filtered by HD and favorite, the latter permitting customized channel lists with just a few taps.

Tapping on the remote icon invokes remote-control functions placed along the right- and left-hand edges of the screen. This allows more content to be viewed than the top-and-bottom arrangement of prior versions and is more aligned with thumb control. Tapping on the screen brings up a bottom bar with buttons for guide, screen quality settings and input sources, plus aspect-ratio and zoom buttons that instantly adjust the view. A share button will post a screenshot and comment to Facebook, useful for alerting co-workers, for example, that new content is available. Our one criticism of the Android mobile client is that it doesn't operate in the background; switching to any other app disconnects it from the Slingbox.

In all, the Slingbox M1 is a solid solution with numerous applications for content placeshifting in the enterprise. With its reduced price, solution providers now have a simple, low-cost means to deploy content playback from a single location to virtually anywhere in the world.

PUBLISHED AUG. 13, 2014