Review: Can the Slingbox Pro-HD stream HD video to Starbucks? (Verdict: depends)

Sling Media just started shipping the Slingbox Pro-HD, and DVICE has its gadget-loving hands all over it. We've been fans of Slingboxes since the beginning, relishing their ability to stream home video sources like cable or satellite TV (even DVR'd programs) anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. As you might expect from the name, the Pro-HD adds high-def video to the Slingbox experience, and it really works. Mostly.

But HD isn't the only upgrade. The new Slingbox also throws in a new program guide and DVR-like abilities such as pausing and rewinding. For our test, we graded the Slingbox in three ways: streaming HD video (both at home and to a remote location), the new program guide, and its DVR abilities. Click Continue for all the details.

1a. Slinging HD at Home
The greatest thrill of this $300 box is hooking it up to an HD source (1080i) such as a TiVo Series3 HD personal video recorder, and then playing your HD recordings at full resolution on a PC in another room in your home. We loaded the new Sling Player 2.0 software that comes with the Pro-HD on three PCs here on our network. Two of them could smoothly play nice-looking HD with the audio perfectly synced.

The oldest PC, a 2.13GHz Pentium M laptop from three years ago, stumbled on the HD playback, while a desktop machine with a pair of old Xeon processors played it with only a few dropped frames, as did a year-old HP laptop running Vista on a dual-core Athlon 64 TK-55 processor at 1.8GHz. Even over a Wi-Fi connection (802.11g), the HP laptop nailed it.
Grade: A–

1b. Slinging HD on the Road
On a quick excursion to Starbucks, we tapped the Slingbox from afar, and our luck wasn't as good. Its performance was more like Slingboxes of old, capable of smooth playback only with a blocky 320 x 240-pixel picture — not exactly sharp and crisp. However, it did make a valiant attempt to play HD, but our home network's outgoing 1 Mbps signal wasn't quite up to it.

If you can upload at 1.5 Mbps (still a rarity in the techno-backwater that is the U.S.), you're golden for remote HD slinging, but the best we could do from our test facility to the local Starbucks was around 800kbps, so that wasn't going to make the HD grade. Your mileage may vary, but this is only going to get better as broadband speeds increase.
Grade: B

2. Pausing and Rewinding
Another neat trick of this new Slingbox is its TiVo-like ability to buffer an hour of video, letting you pause, rewind, and fast forward. It works well, but keep in mind that the buffering is done on your PC and not by the Slingbox, so you'll need to pay close attention to Sling's system requirements.
Grade: A

3. Slingbox Program Guide
The third piece of newness is the free program guide you get with the Sling Player 2.0 software, showing what's on in your area. Click on a show, and the channel changes. The guide still has some rough edges. For instance, it can't list digital broadcast stations when you're using a TiVo, but Sling tells us a software update will soon fix that.
Grade: B–

The Slingbox Pro-HD works extremely well, especially if you have a fast upload speed with your broadband connection. Within a network, it's sweet HD all the way, perfect for plugging a laptop into a bedroom TV and watching that HD TiVo while reclining in the sack. We like the Slingbox Pro-HD, and will appreciate it even more if we can get our hands on more bandwidth. If you want to watch TV all over your house in the best quality, it's well worth your $300.
Overall Grade: B+

Sling Media Slingbox Pro-HD