Not everyone is ready to completely cut the cable company cord. Sure, you can stream a ton of shows and movies on-demand through such subscription services as Netflix and HBO Now, or even get live TV over the Internet through Sling TV — but what if you just want to watch the TV signal you already get when you're away from your living room?
Slingbox beams your home TV signal to anywhere you have an Internet connection. The $200 M2 is its latest model. Unlike placeshifting options through DVRs or live streaming like Sling TV, it doesn't limit what you can watch: If you can see it on your TV, you can stream it to your computer or phone — including live sports. But the M2 provides few improvements over the previous version and it costs more.
Instead of streaming from an online content provider such as Netflix does on a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, Slingbox "placeshifts" your video by pushing the signal from your cable or satellite box over the Internet. You then access the feed from your computer or mobile device via Slingbox's app.
At 7 x 4 x 1.8 inches, the Slingbox M2 is big compared with other streaming boxes, such as the Roku 3 (3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches). It's the same size as the Slingbox M1, the model it replaces. In fact, the M2 is nearly identical to the M1.
On the back, the M2 features component (separate red, green and blue cables) input for up to 1080p output or composite for standard definition, as well as left-right stereo audio. But it lacks HDMI, which could become an issue in the future, as more devices eschew component connections.
The M2 connects to the Internet by 802.11n Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable. Ethernet will provide a more consistent signal, though I didn’t have trouble with quality over Wi-Fi.
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The unit changes the channel or performs other functions on your TV box through a built-in IR transmitter. If your TV receiver box is behind a cabinet or in a place that blocks the IR signal, Slingbox includes a separate IR transmitter that you can use to get around obstacles.
Since the Slingbox mirrors what's showing on the TV box it's connected to, you will see exactly what is currently on the TV. And if you use the app to change the channel remotely, it changes the channel at home, too. Only one person can watch a Slingbox feed at a time.
Setup is relatively easy, and the Slingbox site features plenty of how-to guides and videos. If you run into trouble, Slingbox offers live video assistance through Skype — one of the new additions that comes with the M2.
The M2 connects to your cable or satellite box, not your TV. I connected to a TiVo Roamio Pro combo cable box-DVR via component cable. (Slingbox actually works with many video sources — you could hook it up to a Blu-ray player — but it's most useful when connected to cable or satellite TV.)
You complete setup through SlingPlayer software, available for Mac and PC, as well as iOS, Android, Fire Tablet and Phone, and Windows Phone and Windows 8 or 10. On mobile devices, SlingPlayer Free includes ads; you pay $15 through an in-app purchase to get rid of the ads. The upgrade is applied to all apps on your account. This is another new touch; previously you had to pay $15 for each device that ran the mobile app.
After the SlingPlayer software detected the M2, it walked me through connecting the unit to the Internet and asked for details about our TV provider so it could populate its built-in program guide. It also tested the virtual remote to make sure I could control the functions of the TiVo. Setup took less than 30 minutes.
You can watch the feed from your TV box through the Slingbox website, SlingPlayer Desktop software and SlingPlayer app for mobile devices.
As with the M1, the Web and desktop versions of SlingPlayer offer the best ease-of-use and video quality. Type in a channel number, click the Channel Up/Down arrows, or use the SlingPlayer guide to find a show you want to watch. Click the show in the guide, and the command is relayed to your TV. You'll experience a slight delay as the Slingbox sends the information through its IR transmitter. It's not instantaneous as if you were changing channels on your cable or satellite box at home, but the delay is tolerable — about 2 to 3 seconds.
I found the M2 video quality to be good in most cases, but it depends on your Internet connection speed at home, as well as how good your signal is on the receiving end. A few times the stream began getting blocky and then sharpened after it had time to buffer. I experienced the most issues when I tried to watch full screen on my computer at home.
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The mobile apps performed well for playback — I was impressed by the quality of the picture even over LTE when I watched the North Carolina-South Carolina college football game on ESPN — but changing the channel and selecting a recorded program were more difficult on the small screen.
In addition to watching on a mobile device, you can use SlingPlayer with streaming boxes such as the Roku, Chromecast and Apple TV. On Roku, you download the free Slingbox channel, start playback on your mobile device and transfer it to the Roku. SlingPlayer also includes AirPlay support within the iOS app for pushing video content to an Apple TV — just touch the AirPlay button and select an Apple TV to see the video on a larger screen.
In the year since Slingbox last updated its units, the streaming video landscape has evolved — and the M2 hasn't done much to keep up with the competition. In addition to cable and satellite providers offering apps that allow you to stream live TV to a set-top box or a mobile device, Sling TV charges just $20 a month for live-streaming TV, including ESPN. TiVo and DISH DVRs also allow you to placeshift your recordings. SlingPlayer isn't the only option anymore.
The advantage the M2 offers over others is that there's no monthly fee and absolutely no restrictions on what you can watch — Sling TV, TiVo and DISH options may black out shows based on broadcaster restrictions. If you run into those restrictions frequently, the M2 may be a good choice for you.