Slingbox Pro HD Connect
Near-HD place-shifting over your network and on the road
By Charlie White
One of the most important new features of the Slingbox Pro from Sling Media is its ability to handle HD signals from your video components at home, compressing them into a form that can be sent over the Internet to a remote PC or Smartphone on the road. As a companion piece to Stephen Schleicher's Slingbox Pro review, in this article we place-shift 720p HD video from a TiVo Series 3 PVR using Sling Media's optional HD Connect adapter ($50), hooked up to our Slingbox Pro.
The HD Connect adapter is a simple device. It's a video breakout box with component inputs and audio inputs on one side, and the same complement of outputs on the other side. This dongle is also hardwired to a cable that plugs into the back of the Slingbox Pro, using a connector that looks exactly like an HDMI plug. But it's not really an HDMI connector at all, which might be confusing for some users.
That's why Sling Media places a sticker over that input, labeling it HD and reminding users that it requires the HD Connect dongle to function. Shame on Sling Media for clipping users who want to partake of Slingbox Pro's best new feature an extra $50 for this simple dongle. Sure, some people won't need its HD functionality, but I think the company should have included the HD Connect anyway, because, after all, this is supposed to be the Slingbox "Pro." Anyone who is a professional remote TV watcher would certainly insist on the highest of resolutions, right? However, to be fair, Sling Media's reasoning was that to add the HD Connect's ten additional connections onto the back of the Slingbox Pro would have made it unwieldy and far too big.
In addition to this HD Connect dongle, you can connect three other devices to the Slingbox Pro at the same time, including any video device with composite or SVideo outputs. After plugging the HD Connect into the back of the Slingbox Pro, I attached my TiVo series 3 HD PVR's component outputs to the inputs of HD Connect, sending 720p HD video into the HD Connect and subsequently into the Slingbox Pro. At the same time, with the outputs on the HD Connect, I was able to pass through that component signal and connect it to a 720p-capable projector, with no noticeable loss of video quality.
|Here's what the HD Connect really looks like. Because the HD Connect lets you pass through a component video signal, you can still plug the component cables into your TV at the same time.|
Once you've connected this HD Connect dongle, the Slingbox Pro operates normally, allowing you to switch sources in the field and choose one of four video sources. That ability to connect four video sources to the Slingbox Pro may appeal to some, but I found myself only needing one of the inputs. Other than a set-top box or PVR, what other sources would you need? A DVD player? The only scenario I could think of where you might want to control a DVD player from the field would be if you had a DVD jukebox with lots of DVDs on board. Instead of that, I'd rather just rip the video files to my laptop and view them directly from there rather than going through all of this remote viewing gadgetry. But that's just me.
|The HD port is on the right.|
Anyway, how's the HD quality? It's remarkably good, even though the HD Connect dongle doesn't actually place 1080i or 720p on the Internet or network for your remote viewing. What it does is convert either 1080i or 720p video to 640x480, where the 640 part is anamorphically compressed (or squished, for lack of a better term). When you play it back, you can either view it in a 4x3 aspect ratio (that looks squished) with vertically-compressed results, or it stretches those 640 pixels back out to their 16x9-friendly 860 pixels, allowing you to look at excellent full screen near-HD video on any network-connected PC with sufficient bandwidth.
The Slingbox Pro scales the frame rate and quality according to the bandwidth you offer it, and if your broadband service provider doesn't allow you at least a consistent 256Kbps of upstream network speed, it's not going to be tolerable to watch it. When we used the HD Connect dongle on our internal network with excellent results, the signal was well above 1.2Mb per second, and looked quite sharp at near-HD quality.
There's a catch to all this, though. If you want to watch video within your own network, yes, you're able to see this 860x480 picture in all its glory. Especially on a high-resolution laptop monitor, it looks considerably better than sometimes-grainy regular Slingbox video. However, if you're in the field viewing the Slingbox over a typical Internet connection, the resolution is limited by Slingbox to 320x240, HD Connect or not. Sling Media figures that there's just not enough bandwidth to pass all of that signal from your home video equipment out onto the Internet. Even so, with HD Connect the quality is still higher, because when compressing video, the better signal you put in, the better it will look coming out. But even though the HD Connect gives you higher-quality video out in the field, it's nowhere near real HD.
Another place I saw improved video is using the SlingPlayer Mobile for Windows software ($30 after a 30-day free trial) on my Motorola Q Smartphone. Video never looks very good through the Slingbox on the Motorola Q, a quality issue that's more the fault of cellphone service providers than Sling Media. However, viewing video that originated as HD and then went through the Verizon network into a Motorola Q was better than the usual experience with this odd place-shifting method of watching TV in the field. In fact, I was able to almost enjoy a good portion of a Monday Night Football game on a Motorola Q, even though the football players looked like tiny ants on the 2.4-inch Motorola Q screen. That enjoyment was probably due to the fact that the audio remained fairly consistent even when the video wasn't.
Summing up, the Slingbox Pro HD Connect adapter works exactly as advertised, is easy to set up and gives you an improved look at HD sources from the field. Its quality is especially noticeable when you're receiving the remote signal through your own network, which could be quite handy if you'd like to watch some HDTV on your laptop in the bedroom when you're home theater HD equipment is located on the other side of the house. HD Connect gets the job done. If you already have a Slingbox Pro and HD video sources at home, it's well worth its $50 price. Highly recommended.