It was worth the wait. But is it worth the price? It's been nearly two years since Sling Media announced the SlingCatcher, an ambitious set-top box that's designed to do three things. The coolest feature is the ability to project any video you may be watching on your laptop wirelessly to your big-screen TV (iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube--you name it). You can also play media files stored on a USB drive plugged into the SlingCatcher. Last but not least, if you're a Slingbox owner, this device lets you access your live TV and DVR content on another TV in your house or from the road.
The SlingProjector feature is particularly impressive, especially since other companies such as PC2TV have tried and failed to pull of this type of feat. And the SlingCatcher doesn't lock you into specific content providers, which Apple TV ($229) and the Netflix Player by Roku ($99) do. Despite the SlingCatcher's versatility, however, $299 is a bit steep--the company had originally estimated a cost of less than $200--and we wish it had built-in Wi-Fi. Additionally, the SlingCatcher doesn't yet support high-def streaming from its high-end Slingbox Pro-HD, 64-bit Windows or Macs. But even with these caveats, early adopters with deep pockets will be excited to own this device.
Design and Remote Control
The SlingCatcher is a sleek black box that will take up very little room in your entertainment center (it's about half as long as the Slingbox Pro-HD) and it should blend in well the rest of your A/V gear. On the front are two LED indicators for power and network connectivity, and on the box you'll find a plethora of input connections, including HDMI, component, composite, and S-Video. You'll also find two USB ports (for plugging in a flash drive or hard drive to play video and music stored on those devices) and an Ethernet port.
The included remote control is littered with buttons and even includes some buttons that don't do anything yet. For example, one button with a scissor icon, though its functionality has not yet been assigned. Otherwise, the remote looks like a cable remote, and with good reason; when accessing a Slingbox, you can change channels as if you were using your regular remote with the number buttons, pull up your home TV's cable guide, record your favorite shows remotely, and watch or fast-forward through DVR content. In other words, this hardware remote mirrors the software-based one in the SlingPlayer desktop software.
The button you'll use most often is the Sling button, which brings you back to the main menu. Overall, the interface you'll see on your TV is attractive and straightfoward.
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We were up and running with the SlingCatcher within about 20 minutes. Setting up the hardware is simple. You plug the box into your TV (HDMI is easiest), connect it to a free Ethernet port on your router, and then plug in the AC adapter.
Next you'll want to install the SlingProjector software on your PC. Keep in mind that you can't use any old laptop; the minimum requirement is a notebook powered by a 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 1GB of RAM for Vista (512MB for XP). Also keep in mind that the SlingCatcher is incompatible with Macs, at least for now. And you can't use a Windows PC that runs 64-bit Vista or XP; we found that out the hard way when using an HP Pavilion dv3510nr.
You don't need to do anything to play content stored on a USB drive, but you will need to enter your Sling.com account username and password if you want to be able to access your Slingbox remotely, as well as the password for your Slingbox itself. This process was a bit slow and tedious via the remote control.
SlingProjector is the wow feature of this device. Once you fire up the software on your notebook, click Connect in the middle of the compact utility. From there you can either project the entire screen of your PC (which is not recommended for video but is fine for, say, surfing the Web) or project a window. The latter option will yield the best results for streaming video. In some cases, the software was smart enough to recognize the size of the video window automatically when he hovered our cursor over it but in others we had to draw a box around the part of the window we wanted to project.
Within a few seconds you'll see and hear whatever you were watching on your notebook on your big-screen TV. We noticed that there was a delay of several seconds, but it wasn't too distracting. Video quality overall was good on our 34-inch Philips Ambilight set when we used a Samsung Q310 and Toshiba Tecra R10, but the experience varied considerably based on the content source. For example, when we streamed an HD episode of Fringe from Fox on Demand, the picture was quite clear and the action was smooth. One onlooker commented that the stream was DVR-quality, and the video barely stuttered when an unsuspecting victim was attacked by a swarm of killer butterflies.
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We were also pleased with the results when we streamed a 720p episode of Lost from ABC.com. Although the video was a bit sluggish at first and we noticed some artifacts in a darker scene, within about a minute the picture improved. In fact, we nearly forgot that we weren't watching live TV as we watched a helicopter sped away from an exploding ship.
On the other hand, a standard-definition episode of Scrubs streamed from the same site looked awful on our set; the video was jerky and nearly unwatchable. Even videos from SlingMedia's own new video portal, Sling.com, were less than stellar. (As of press time, Sling.com didn't have any 720p content.) An episode of 30 Rock looked pixelated, and the action wasn't very smooth--yet the same episode looked better when we streamed it from partner site Hulu.com.
Although it's certainly possible to stream DVD from your notebook to your TV via the SlingCatcher, we were a bit disappointed in the results. An episode from season two of Heroes exhibited excellent detail and color saturation, but we noticed a lot of skipping in the audio and video.
Video isn't the only thing worth streaming. We enjoyed watching a photo slideshow from Flickr.com on our TV, even if the five-second delay was a bit annoying.
Plug and Play with USB
We consider it more of a bonus feature than a compelling reason to buy the SlingCatcher, but many will appreciate this device's ability to play music and videos stored on a USB drive. It's called My Media mode. All you have to do is plug your storage device into the back of the SlingCatcher, and it will start scanning the drive for media content. (Be patient, it can take a while for a drive to be recognized.) You use the remote to find and play media files.
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We played a handful of video files and music tracks on our tests, and the SlingCatcher performed well--when it could recognize the files. An AVI episode of Heroes (349MB, 132 Kbps) stored on a Western Digital Passport portable hard drive looked and sounded nearly as good as a DVD, as did the movie The Departed (801MB, 96 Kbps), an AVI file that we played from a SanDisk USB flash drive.
The box promises robust format support, including WMV, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264, and Xvid video. However, when we plugged in another USB flash drive with a WMV file, MOV file, MP4 file, and an AVI file, the SlingCatcher would play only the WMV file. With the other three files we received an error message saying that the file wasn't supported. Sling Media will soon release SlingSync transcoding software so that you'll be able to play basically anything except DRM-protected files.
On the audio front, the SlingCatcher supports MP2, MP3, WMA, AAC, and AC3. Note, however, that you can't play DRM-protected content from a USB drive (though they can be played through your PC with SlingProjector), and the SlingCatcher doesn't display photos in My Media mode. Sling Media will likely support photos in the near future with an update.
Music playback was decent on our tests, but for now we wouldn't recommend the SlingCatcher as a music-playing device for two reasons: it doesn't support album art and you can't create playlists. That is, you must manually select each song you want to play. These issues should also be addressed with a firmware update.
Accessing Your Slingbox Remotely
One of the most asked-for features from Slingbox customers has been the ability to watch their home TV and DVR content via the Slingbox on another TV, as opposed to just on a laptop's or cell phone's smaller screen. The SlingCatcher answers that call by allowing you to stream video to another room in the house, provided that you have a wired connection to your home network in that room. Because this set-top lacks integrated Wi-Fi, you'll likely need an accessory like the SlingLink Turbo ($79), which uses your home's electrical wiring to transmit the Ethernet signal from your router to wherever your SlingCatcher is installed.
When we tested the SlingCatcher on our home network, accessing our Slingbox was easy. After the initial setup, all you have to do is enter your Slingbox password to start watching live or recorded programs. Despite the fact that the SlingCatcher doesn't yet support high-definition streaming using the Slingbox Pro-HD, the video and audio quality was exceptional when streaming from the living room to a standard-def, 27-inch TV in our bedroom. Being able to play a recorded episode of The Daily Show in a room with a cable box and no DVR was certainly cool. The audio was slightly out of sync with the video initially, but overall we were impressed.
On our second test we connected our SlingCatcher in our Manhattan office to a 32-inch Samsung LCD TV via HDMI. So in this case we were streaming our home cable TV feed and DVR content from a Scientific Atlanta box over the Web. This scenario was designed to mimic streaming in a remote location like a hotel room or vacation home. As we expected, the audio and video quality was mediocre, except when we were watching live or recorded HD content. The difference between CNN and a high-def episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was huge. Channel change times using the remote control was snappier than we expected (just a few seconds).
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We had no problems accessing our list of recorded shows and playing them remotely with the SlingCatcher's remote. We also like that when you exit full-screen playback to go to the main menu that your Slingbox' picture remains open in a small window. Just keep in mind that just like when you use your notebook to access your Slingbox at home to watch live TV that anyone at home will lose control over the set you're occupying.
The bottom line here is that the SlingCatcher is a good solution for place-shifting TV in your house to another TV or to a TV when you're at a vacation home or at a hotel for more than a few days.
As it stands now, the SlingCatcher is an innovative product with much potential, and we love how easy it is to stream premium and user-generated video content from your notebook straight to your TV. The lack of Wi-Fi is a major inconvenience, but assuming Sling Media addresses some of the other complaints we have with promised firmware upgrades, including high-def streaming via the Slingbox Pro-HD, Mac support, and adding music-playlist support and photo playback in MyMedia mode, the SlingCatcher will become an even better media-playback device.
The one feature we'd like to see added to the SlingCatcher is the ability to watch Internet video directly on the device itself--without the need for projecting from a PC. First up will be Sling.com (which includes content from Hulu), although there's no timetable for its integration. It would be nice to see other content providers like Netflix added to the mix as well. The price is nothing to sneeze at, but Sling Media has once again raised the bar for digital entertainment.