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REVIEW: Sling Media SlingCatcher for SlingBoxes and Internet TV
Posted by Arne Hess - on Friday, 19.06.09 - 17:00:37 CET under 08 - Reviews - Viewed 17576x
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Sling Media's SlingCatcher is the counterpart for the company's Slingboxes (see our previous reviews of the Slingbox Classic here, the Slingbox Pro here and the Slingbox Solo here) which Sling Media introduced back in 2005. For the use of the Slingbox, Sling Media initially developed a PC software called SlingPlayer - which was later released in a mobile version as well - and this software provides access to a remote Slingbox to watch TV on a PC, Mac or smartphone. And while the SlingPlayer was a software only, the SlingCatcher is another hardware product from Sling Media which acts as a counterpart to the Slingbox and includes the SlingPlayer software as well to bring the SlingStream back to every connectable TV. Thanks to the SlingCatcher's on-screen interface and remote control, Slingboxes can now be remote controlled, straight from the couch and without any further use of PCs.

Furthermore, the SlingCatcher can be used as a universal media player by bringing Internet videos from a PC or personal media from USB stick or hard drive to the TV as well.

Sling Media's SlingCatcher includes everything which is needed to start straight out the box:

  • SlingCatcher Hardware
  • Remote Control & 2 AAA Batteries
  • Composite Video & Analog Audio Cable
  • SCART Adapter
  • Ethernet Cable
  • Power Adapter

The SlingCatcher includes a full complement of standard definition outputs including S-Video and Composite Video plus high definition outputs (Component Video and HDMI) to ensure compatibility with virtually every TV. The SlingCatcher can also output video signals that work with televisions worldwide (NTSC, PAL, SECAM, HDMI 720p/1080i):

The hardware remote control makes remote controlling a connected Slingbox, DVD player or DVR/HDD recorder (like a Windows Media Center) even more convenient:

Also the remote control is programmable and can control important functions of the TV or stereo/home theater receiver.

To make the SlingCater working the following is needed as well:

  • A (wired) home network - If the SlingCatcher is used within your home on a second TV
  • A broadband Internet connection - To upstream from the Slingbox to a remote location like hotels or vacation homes
  • Sling.com Account - Used to connect to a remote Slingbox

Unlike access to a Slingbox, which can also be accessed through a direct IP connection, the SlingCatcher needs a free Sling.com account where used Slingboxes have to be registered with. This Sling.com account is used during the SlingCatcher setup and ensures that the SlingCatcher can find and connect to the Slingbox. After the account details are entered, the SlingCatcher is more less configured and ready to use.
The first SlingCatcher menu provides access to all available and at Sling.com registered Slingboxes, allows to playback local media from USB hard disks or sticks or to mirror the PC screen on the connected TV as well as providing access to a settings menu to fine tune the SlingCatcher:


SlingPlayer
The SlingPlayer function allows to place-shift a TV signal from a remote Slingbox to the SlingCatcher and it doesn't matter if the Slingbox is within the same network (for instance a home LAN) or accessed from an external network (e.g. the Internet).
After a connection to the Slingbox is established, the SlingCatcher either shows the TV signal directly or gives access to the remote device (e.g. a Microsoft Media Center (as used bellow) or a DVR). Furthermore, the stream quality can be optimized and adopted by changing the SlingPlayer resolution or audio channel. Also, if a Slingbox is connected to several input sources, it's possible to switch between the available input sources:


In this example, a Microsoft Windows Vista Media Center is used as the input source and the SlingCatcher gives full access to the Media Center menu:

Depending on the network quality, the stream is better or worse. Within a home network, a stream can reach up to 3000 Kbps or more while a remote access always depends from the remote downstream and home upstream quality:

Basically, the SlingCatcher is able to do everything the SlingPlayer software does on a PC, Mac or smartphone. However, the charm of the SlingCatcher is that it is connected to a TV and therefore watching place-shifted TV is much more enjoyable. Nevertheless, the used SlingPlayer version is closer to Sling Media's SlingPlayer 1.x than 2.x since it lacks time-shift and other functionalities.

My Media
If the SlingCatcher is already connected to a TV, why not using it for more than just allowing place-shifting a TV signal? That's exactly what the Sling Media engineers thought as well and therefore Sling Media added two USB 2.0 ports. These ports can be used with USB hard disks or USB sticks and allow to play media files from the connected USB device. For instance it's possible to convert a DVD, put it on a USB HDD or stick and watch it on the SlingCatcher connected TV. The SlingCatcher supports a wide range of audio, video and file formats:

  • Video: WMV, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264, Xvid
  • Audio: MP2, MP3, WMA, AAC, AC3
  • File formats: .avi, .vob, .ifo, .ps, .ts, .mpg, .wmv, .asf, .mov, .mp4,.m4v, .mp3, .wma, .mp4a, .m4a, .wav

As soon as a USB device is plugged-in, the SlingCatcher scans for media files and lists them after:


After a media file is selected, the SlingCatcher on screen menu provides further information, like length of the video and from here it can be played on the TV screen:

The My Media functionality is definitely a useful addition to the SlingCatcher since it allows to play locally available content in addition to remote available content.

SlingProjector
Last but not least, Sling Media's SlingCatcher includes a new product called SlingProjector. SlingProjector is a free software which has to be installed on a PC and allows to display any region of a connected PC screen on the TV. This can be used for watching an ever increasing amount of Internet videos like clips from YouTube or internet TV. However, the SlingCatcher isn't directly connecting Web sites but used the SlingProjector software simply mirrors the PC screen on a TV. Therefore, a piece of free software needs to be installed on the used PC and Sling Media recommends that a "high performance PC" is used for best results. Furthermore, the SlingProjector software cannot access remote PCs but a local PC only and requires a consistent 5 Mbps network connection.

After the SlingProjector software is installed and started on the PC, SlingProjector can be selected on the SlingCatcher. The software will automatically find the right PC and connects to it:

Depending on the selection, it will either start to display the full PC screen or a certain window or region:


Now, a Web page - for instance YouTube - can be opened on the PC's Web browser to display the content of the page - for instance a video - on the TV screen:

But again, the used PC has to be really powerful. For instance a Netbook has already problems to display streams on its own display and therefore such underpowered PCs aren't good enough to be used with the SlingProjector.

Final Conclusion

The SlingCatcher is a great enhancement for Slingboxes, at least under certain circumstances, and while it could also be used as a stand-alone device for local media playback and access to Internet videos, it definitely brings most joy if used with a Slingbox.
What I can see where the SlingCatcher makes most sense are three scenarios: Home use on a second TV, expats and heavy travelers:

  • Home Use on a second TV: It could definitely makes sense to use the SlingCatcher at home on a second TV, for instance in the bed room and while this scenario is less interesting for place-shift TV, a SlingCatcher is the right device to provide access to TV-recordings or a DVD player in the living room. Therefore the SlingCatcher gives access to a central place where all TV and media files might be stored (e.g. a Windows Media Center or a DVR).
  • Expats: Expats and vacation home owners can enjoy home TV, even abroad.
  • Heavy Travelers: Can also enjoy home TV while traveling abroad.

I, for instance, have to travel heavily from time to time which means I live in hotel rooms from Monday to Friday for weeks or even months. In the past, I always appreciated the use of my Slingbox since it gave me live access to my home TV, my TV recordings or DVD collection. However, in most cases I had to watch this on either my Notebook/Netbook or on my smartphone, even if all of my hotel rooms were equipped with a TV. Some of this TVs had VGA inputs and therefore I was able to connect my Notebook to the TV but than I always had to stand-up if I wanted to switch the TV channel or pause a video playback. Sure, since I'm using a Vista Media Center, which also has WebGuide installed, I controlled my live TV and video playback from my smartphone (see my previous column "THOUGHT: How to remote control your Slingbox connected MCE from your Pocket PC" here) but again - this requires a Microsoft Vista Media Center PC (Windows 7 isn't supported anymore) which isn't widely used today and it needs a TV which supports VGA input. Therefore I often wished I had the SlingCatcher with me to make watching TV even more convenient.
Same happens for expats or vacation home owners abroad. After my very first Slingbox Classic review I got a good amount of feedback from expats and vacation home owners since both groups wanted to use the Slingbox to get local TV at home and in most cases it worked for both. Now, since both groups live in their apartments anywhere abroad, it makes sense for them to use a SlingCatcher to watch TV on their own TVs instead of watching home TV on a PC.

Sure, the TV quality depends on the up- and downstream and for a good experience, and I recommend an upstream of at least 1024 Kbps (unfortunately not widely offered by DSL providers) and an even higher downstream. But if up- and downstream are broad enough, it's a real pleasure to watch place-shifted TV on a SlingCatcher connected TV.
The remote control also works perfect with all the different DVRs and tuner I've tested it with and it never failed - as long as the device is officially supported by the Slingbox.

The local media playback option is a nice to have. I wouldn't miss it if it would be left but since it's there, it's definitely useful.

About the SlingProjector functionality I have some mixed feelings: Sure, it's a great idea to be able to play videos on a PC and to display the output on a TV but this requires definitely a high performance PC, as recommended by Sling Media as well. I've tested it on a couple of PCs and at the end of the day you better have a Centrino Core 2 Duo or better PC to make it really useable.

What I really miss are two other features: Wireless LAN support and an embedded Web browser! While I see many reasons why the SlingCatcher doesn't includes an embedded WiFi module, at least it would be good if it could support USB WiFi (and even better Mobile Broadband) sticks to make it independent from LAN cables. Since many hotels only offer WiFi these days, a Notebook or WiFi router is required to use the SlingCatcher in WiFi environments.
Furthermore I would love to see an embedded Web browser. Since the SlingCatcher has to be connected to the Internet anyway, it would be an interesting enhancement. And if the IR port would be Microsoft eHome compatible, you even could use it with Microsoft's infrared keyboard.

Anyway, all together the SlingCatcher - as it is available today - is a great piece of easy to use technology and it makes it even easier to place-shift your TV across cities, countries or even continents!

Sling Media's SlingCatcher is available in many countries from Sling Media or selected retail partners.

Cheers ~ Arne


 
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