I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Slingbox for some time. I love it when it works and, well, I hate it when it doesn’t. The reason previous Slingbox models would not work for me have to do with HDMI, HDCP (High-Bandwidith Digital Copy Protection) or SOC (Selectable Output Control) protection schemes. Content providers change these schemes as a course of business.. I’ve worked with I don’t know how many Slingbox techs to keep my system up and running, but the folks at Slingbox are somewhat at the mercy of the content providers who own the set top boxes. I’ll talk more on that later. Suffice it to say that when I saw that the Slingbox 500 had HDMI connections I thought this might finally solve my ongoing problem. Sad to say it did not.
Let me offer some context here. My TV set up is as follows. Comcast is my cable provider. From the Comcast box I run HDMI into a Sony Home Theatre setup for audio and then HDMI from there to the TV set. A part of my problem with the previous (and now the new) Slingbox is that the Sony Home Theatre device does not have in and out component connections. Doing some research, I’m guessing I”m not alone here. Previous editions of the Slingbox did not work with HDMI at all. There were no HDMI connectors on the hardware, so I always had to do some sort of work-around to use the Slingbox PRO HD and earlier models. Believe it or not, with some help from Slingbox techs, I was able to make things work. I won’t comment on the rat’s nest of cables that this left me with other to say that it gives new definition to metaphor of a rat’s nest.
The setup above all worked well until either Comcast or the Slingbox folks pushed an update through. Then I’d have to start all over again. This would happen about once every 3 months or so, and of course if Comcast is the one pushing the update, then you never know it is happening until things just change.
What I had hoped would be the case with the Slingbox 500, is that I could avoid all of this with the new HDMI connections. I was wrong and this is where you need to examine your existing AV setup before deciding to make a purchase. Yes, the new Slingbox 500 has HDMI connections, but as the Slingbox website and the setup instructions will tell you the Sling folks recommend that you use both component and HDMI connections simultaneously. Why? Because the copy protection schemes can change at any moment and cause the HDMI connection to fail.
After setting up the Slingbox 500 on Sunday (yeah, I picked one up the first day) I quickly discovered that there was a problem and Monday night I spent some time on the phone with Slingbox tech support. The end result in my case is that I either need to disconnect my Home Theatre device from my TV, or replace it with one that has Component in and out in order to use the new Slingbox 500. This would require and enable me to forgo HDMI entirely throughout the chain. My belief is that my Cable Box from Comcast comes with SOC preventing the Slingbox from working with both HDMI and Component connections. In fact, the Sliingbox site says that if you have a SOC set top box, you must use Component cables only. I tried to check with Comcast on this to see if there was another set top box available but, as you can probably imagine, I met with some pretty stiff resistance before I got a firm “no.”
Personally, I’m not keen on either option open to me, so I’ll probably be returning the Slingbox 500 this weekend. This is a disappointment because when I had previous Slingboxes working I really enjoyed being able to place shift my TV viewing to various parts of my house, or on my porch. I also enjoyed being able to watch my home TV at work on occasion.
The folks behind Slingbox make no secret that HDMI protection schemes are an issue. The Slingbox talking point on HDMI and digital copy protection is that they can’t control what the set top providers do and that licensing HDMI is too expensive. I can understand that to a degree. It has been quite some time since we’ve seen an update to the Slingbox hardware. During that time, Slingmedia has shifted their focus and a part of their new thrust is to enable you to hook up a drive to a USB port, and view pictures and home video. I’m sure there was a considerable investment there. From my perspective, I’d rather have seen Slingmedia use that investment to work through some of these digital copyright schemes. The alphabet soup that is HDMI, HDCP and SOC isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and if the Slingbox folks want to stay relevant in the long term, they’ll need to adapt.
I also think they would be well served in their marketing and on their website to be more specific about this. Yes, you can find the info on the website. But I would hazard a guess that many buyers don’t check out that info until after they have a problem in the setup. On the spec sheet it would be nice to see an asterisk that warns that not all set top boxes or AV setups will work, or a link that takes you to the page about HDMI and copy protection.
As I said, I’m a fan of the Slingbox hardware and service. If it works well with your existing system or you’re prepared to make some changes, it is an excellent way to view content from your TV in another location. But I think users contemplating picking up a new Slingbox 500 would be well advised to thoroughly read through the documentation on the website and to check out what their current AV system is capable of.