Earlier this week, while perusing my local electronics store, I ran across Sling Media’s SlingCatcher, a set-top box that works with the company’s Slingbox. The two work together to stream your home cable and DVR content over a network or the web to be viewed on another TV in your house or across the world. But the SlingCatcher has a few other notable features.
I’ve be seriously considering the Roku Box as an alternative to cable tv, but I want something that will give me Hulu and Youtube on my LCD TV, as well as Netflix.
This is, essentially, what the SlingCatcher does. But, instead of getting the stream straight from Youtube, it gets it as a redirect from your PC.
Through a program called the SlingProjector, you are able to redirect any video source from your PC. You can do this with full screen video, a window or a section of a window, such as an embedded flash player.
The SlingCatcher connects to your network via Ethernet for streaming and no-fuss firmware updates. In addition, the device has HDMI, s-video, component and composite outputs, as well two USB ports for playing content directly off of an external drive at up to 1080i resolutions.
The unit itself is compact and fanless, so it beats the the extremely loud Xbox 360 as a media player there. While it did get warm to the touch, it wasn’t much over the 100F mark.
I don’t own a Slingbox, so I wasn’t able to test it’s ability to receive a stream. But I did notice that the specs say Box-to-Catcher resolution is limited to standard-def.
The SlingCatcher worked great as a straight up media player. I popped in a 2 gig USB stick, found my media, and got it playing in no time. The interface was intuitive and the bundled remote was easy to use.
I’ll admit though that I didn’t get to test out a wide variety if formats. I had planned to do so using it’s ability to connect to a shared drive over the network. I could not, however, get this to work.
The SlingCatcher uses Samba to connect to shared drives and folders, but, according to a several forum posts I found, this doesn’t work out of the box with Vista or Windows 7. I tried some Group Policy changes to fix the issue to no avail. It may work better with a stand-alone Network-Attached Storage device, but I couldn’t test this.
I am happy to report, however, that the SlingProjector software works quite well. It was a quick download from the manufacturor website and installed smoothly.
The software’s wigdet allows you to switch between modes at a single mouse click or hotkey press. When choosing Windowed mode it will automatically select the video content and start streaming to the TV right away. If there are transport controls that don’t auto-hide you may need to adjust the selection box, but this is a simple drag-and-drop affair.
The SlingCatcher lags a few seconds behind the original source, but the software has a clever solution to this. It mutes your PC’s audio as soon as it starts to Project and blanks the monitor. This makes it sitting down to watch you shows that much more simple.
This was a problem with Netflix though. As soon as the software blanked the PC’s monitor the image coming from the SlingCatcher froze. I think this is because Netflix now uses Silverlight instead of Flash for it’s player. So i had to disable that feature and manually shut off the monitor. Not a huge problem, but a bit annoying.
This biggest problem I encountered with this piece of hardware though, was the horsepower required to use the SlingProjector software. I had absolutely no issue running it on my desktop PC. It’s modern videocard, ample RAM, and dual cores achieved smooth playback with even hi-res content. But my notebook, with integrated graphics, 2gigs of ram and 1.6gig dual core processor, chugged badly, even with a small YouTube window.
I had imagined sitting on the couch, cuing up the Simpsons, and not having to get up from the couch. I was disappointed that I’d be tied to my desktop machine. Furthermore, I was sad to discover that my girlfriends old desktop PC fared just as poorly.
So the SlingCatcher is very close to what I want. The ability to pull down any Internet video source as well as USB media and (theoretically) network shared drives is great. I just wish Sling Media could come up with away to do this independent of my notebooks processing power. If only it had some way of determining the video stream’s source and pulling it down directly from the server, I’d be really happy. As it is though, I think I’ll just have to wait until Roku makes deals with Hulu and Youtube.