Slingbox M1 review – it’s a TV streamer, but not as you know it
The Slingbox M1 is not your everyday TV streamer. Instead of delivering catch-up content from multiple sources direct to your TV, the Slingbox allows you to take control of an existing cable or satellite box remotely and stream its content to your laptop, tablet or smartphone. See also: The 10 best Chromecast apps
It sounds exciting at first. A thing you’d want to do, just because. But why else would you want to do this – if you’re not in a position to splash £129 just for the sake of it?
Well, there are a few applications. If you’re the type who hoards recordings of movies on your set-top box, for instance, the Slingbox M1 provides a way of accessing these recordings quickly and easily from any device, anywhere on the planet.
It’s also useful for live sports: if you want to watch the big match while you’re away, it should offer a better way of doing it than trawling the internet for a dodgy stream. And if you’re desperate to catch something on live TV before your Twitter stream gets clogged with spoilers, it’s good for that too.
Slingbox M1 review: the internet of Slings
Setting it up is simple enough: plug the M1 into the video and audio outputs of your set-top box, and connect the outputs on the Slingbox to the corresponding inputs on your TV. This allows the box to intercept the signal, encode it ready for streaming, and pipe it over the internet, or your local network, to your laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Video connections are made via composite or component cables (HDMI won’t work due to HDCP restrictions), the box connects to the internet via dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi or Ethernet, and control over your box is provided via an IR blaster integrated into the rear of the Slingbox itself. (The box ships with an extender you can stick directly to the front of your set-top box if the integrated transmitter doesn’t work with your setup.)
Once you’ve set up an account on Sling’s website you’re good to go. Sling provides apps for all the major mobile operating systems, including a Modern app for Windows. These apps even support Google Cast, so you can send that content directly to your TV via a Chromecast. The simplest way to connect to your Slingbox, however, is to install either the Windows or OS X desktop app.
In general, the system works well. I hooked up the Slingbox M1 to an ageing Virgin Media HD box and found streaming from my house in north-east London to my parents’ place in Wimbledon Park was reasonably stable, and quality surprisingly high. I did experience the occasional bout of buffering, and sometimes the quality dropped, but by and large the stream was perfectly watchable.
The Slingbox M1 will stream at up to 1080p if you’re using component connections (with composite connections the resolution is limited to standard definition). Just bear in mind that the quality it delivers in real-world use will vary depending on the speed of the connection, in particular at the upload end.
In the test above, my uplink speed was 3Mbits/sec, though, so it clearly doesn’t need a huge amount of bandwidth. However, it stands to reason that if your broadband connection isn’t reliable or speedy enough, the Slingbox M1 isn’t for you.
The remote-control aspect of the system is more hit and miss. In order to change channels, or browse your recordings, Slingbox’s software provides a virtual, onscreen remote control, which mimics not only the layout, but the exact appearance of your set-top box’s remote control.
This means it’s pretty easy to get to grips with; on my box, however, I found it terribly unresponsive. Clicking buttons to navigate around often resulted in a lag of between three and four seconds before that action was reflected onscreen. This makes browsing long lists of recordings or the programme guide a real pain, and fast-forwarding through the ads feels a little like playing pin the tail on the donkey.
More irksome than this, however, is Sling’s policy on pricing. The box itself isn’t cheap to start with. At £129, it’s more than four times the price of a Chromecast, but worse is that you have to pay for the apps on top. They’re not cheap, either, at around £11 each. And while the Windows and OS X desktop software is free, it hosts irritating ads when the app’s not full-screen.
Slingbox M1 review: verdict
All of which is a shame, because the hardware does the job as well as can be expected. Remote control is a touch laggy, but given a fast-enough internet connection, picture quality is perfectly acceptable.
If you’re already paying for a comprehensive cable or satellite TV service, it’s a great way of making the most of that subscription, and it may be the only way for die-hard sports fans to get their fix when travelling.
If you’re tempted by the Slingbox M1, however, I’d advise you ask yourself one key question before you splash out: “How often would I use it?” The answer is likely to be not enough to justify spending £129.