Sling Anything to the TV
The original Slingbox achieved fame by taking the video output from a set-top or other home theater box and “slinging” it to the owner’s PC (or cell phone) across the Internet. The SlingCatcher takes an alternate tack by grabbing video playing on the network’s PC and “slinging it” to the home theater setup in the living room. This is a lot more impressive than what you might think and could be the media-moving technology best suited for your home.
The SlingCatcher arrived last October and now retails for $199.99. Is it worth the price? Honestly, this isn't something you'd recommend to your grandmother. As we'll see, proper use requires a fair bit of interaction on the computer side. It's not plug-n-play simple. However, if you're a mid- to high-level user who's comfortable with concepts like screen capturing and transcoding media, then the SlingCatcher might be for you.
Imagine you want to show friends not only a final home movie but also how you went about editing that movie. The SlingCatcher can help. Want to send iTunes video to your TV without investing in an Apple TV or a second PC? Sling has got you covered. This is a very flexible product limited only by your imagination...and one or two feature omissions.
Initial Update, Router Trouble
When you first connect and turn on the SlingCatcher, you are guided through a Welcome setup routine. Select your desired display resolution, then the SlingCatcher will launch into an update routine. For us, this was tricky and required some tech support from Sling Media. The device refused to take a DHCP address from our Verizon FiOS Actiontec router and the SlingCatcher won’t allow you to input manual network settings until completing an initial DHCP connection—which is a design drawback, in our opinion. However, we plugged a D-Link DIR-655 router into our Actiontec router and then connected the SlingCatcher into the D-Link, which solved the problem. This is not the first such problem we’ve faced with the FiOS router. According to Verizon, a newer router from Westec is being rolled out, so inquire about this with Verizon if you’re in this particular situation. Other DSL and cable Internet routers shouldn’t have this problem.
Installation and Settings
After downloading and installing its updates, the SlingCatcher asks you to accept its usage terms. This done, you then launch into a little tutorial video with some basics on how to use the SlingCatcher and its remote. From here, you click to enter the main menu, where you’ll find four area options: SlingPlayer, My Media, SlingProjector, and Settings. You may want to make Settings your first stop. While the SlingCatcher correctly determined our TV’s native resolution, it defaulted to stereo audio output for our coax SPDIF connection. To change this, we selected Audio > Audio Output > Surround Sound (5.1). Then we backed up one step and played the audio test, which is a handy feature for those unaccustomed to adding home theater components.
Things took an odd turn when we went to add our USB storage devices. When we plugged in our WD PassPort, Sling’s user interface told us it was unsupported. This turned out to be because the PassPort is formatted with NTFS, which is a file system the SlingCatcher doesn’t recognize. To solve such issues, Sling Media has a utility called SlingSync that is part of Sling’s desktop software download. SlingSync will not only reformat a drive with the Sling-friendly FAT32 file system—which we didn’t do because that would have destroyed our PassPort’s WD Sync configuration—but it will also transcode a wide range of file formats into formats compatible with the SlingCatcher. To do this, you simply have SlingSync scan your desired media folders to index the contents. Compatible files will be shown with a green dot next to them. Files needing conversion show up with a yellow dot. Simply highlight these and hit the Convert button. (You can also multiple-select files and batch transcode them by hitting Convert All.) When SlingSync is finished, you won’t see the file name change, but each file will now have a green dot next to it. Just hit the Transfer button and select your USB storage drive as the target. If you get serious about using the SlingCatcher, we’d recommend exclusively using SlingSync to load your USB drive with files to avoid unintentional headaches.
SlingCatcher’s search interface could be better. Navigate to the search bar and you’ll pop into an odd, single-column on-screen keyboard rather than the usual QWERTY design. With enough characters entered, press the OPT button on the remote to show search results. Highlight the desired file, then hit the right arrow to access commands for Play, Info, Add, and Delete. The Info box isn’t totally sensitive to the file type. For instance, info on an MP3 will still show a line for “resolution,” although audio files, of course, don’t have anything to do with “resolution.”
Sling Keeps It Spartan
We were a little disappointed that, in the middle of listening to a selected MP3 file, the on-screen visualization was simply a boring, slow-moving animation of Sling’s logo. Also, hitting the remote’s Sling button (Sling’s version of the Home button or the green button under MCE) causes the song to stop playing. Most other media players continue playing the chosen track in the background until another audio or video item is selected. Some might find it strange that the message along the left of the home screen says to press the Sling button “to return to video.” I guess SlingCatcher’s designers couldn’t imagine people using it for music.
Projecting to the TV
The key feature of the SlingCatcher is its SlingProjector capability. Like SlingSync, SlingProjector is also part of Sling’s download package for the computer. When you run SlingProjector, you can either select an active video window or the entire screen to beam in real-time to the SlingCatcher. We recommend the former since this option involves the streaming of a lot less bandwidth. You select the window by running the SlingProjector tool, which will plant a little, circular panel on your desktop, then by selecting the left button on the panel. As you move your mouse around, you’ll start to see an outline snap around the panels under the mouse. When you’ve outlined your target video window, left-click it and the outline will turn blue. Audio will instantly be rerouted from the PC speakers down to the home theater. Head back to your TV and check it out.
Stretching Is Bad For You
Without your having to even touch a button, the SlingCatcher has already started playing the selected screen window and redirected audio output from the PC speakers to the home theater. We tested with a video podcast of CNBC’s "Fast Money" show played through iTunes. As our source window was stretched beyond its native size, the image on the PC looked blocky—hence, so did the image on our TV. For best results, make sure you keep projected windows at their native size.
Blistering Bit Rates!
Pressing the Mode button on the remote brings up a bar along the bottom of the screen confirming that the stream is active. It also brings up a readout of the current streaming bit rate. While watching this blocky podcast, the SlingCatcher reported a stream bandwidth of around 290 Kbps, give or take 5 Kbps. That’s not much more than the 200+ Kbps we observed when the PC was paused on a black screen. However, when we switched to a 1080-resolution trailer for "Terminator 2," the stream skyrocketed to between 6,500 and 7,000 Kbps. The highest numbers we saw barely topped 9,000 Kbps. (No wonder Sling advises you to have a minimum sustained LAN connection of 5 Mbps.) At this data rate, the results were spectacular. The quality was only slightly less clear than when watching native HD television. Colors were vibrant, sharpness was excellent, and the audio was perfect. Every once in a while, a dropped frame told us that we were watching a recording rather than live, but it was still stunning. Note that if you leave overlaid objects on a projected window, such as Sling’s own Projector icon, they get “slinged” to the TV, too.
Beware of System Limitations
On a positive note, we found that Sling’s remote control gave us control over the application running on the computer. While our trailer was running in Windows Media Player, we could pause and rewind it. We could even restart the video after stopping it, which was great. However, once we started messing with the playback, the stream’s bit rate plummeted to under 1,000 Kbps. This didn’t affect the audio, but video playback dropped to seemingly only one or two frames per second. Further study revealed this to be a problem on our PC. With several apps already open, playing the HD trailer put our CPU (Intel Q6600) utilization at around 25%. Starting SlingProjector doubled this to roughly 50% with peaks pushing 60%. Under this load, video playback on an Nvidia Quadro NVS 440—built for multi-monitor support, not blistering graphics and video performance—suffered, sometimes dropping to a stream well under 300 Kbps and stopping to buffer frequently. We quickly learned with the SlingCatcher that what you see on the PC is what you get on the TV. You may want to limit your computer’s workload while you run SlingProjector.
Different Apps, Different Results
We found additional weirdness in iTunes when we played a teaser for Katy Perry’s “Hot n Cold” video. The image shown on our TV stretched to fill the screen, although the iTunes store window did not. The next time we played it, the video didn’t stretch, but when we used Sling’s remote to pause playback, it wouldn’t resume. When we paused iTunes on the PC and hit Pause on the remote, the video restarted. These inconsistencies are annoying. SlingProjector seems to prefer WMP, which performed without a hitch.
Not Your Usual Media Box
As a basic media player for common media formats, the SlingCatcher is overkill and underpowered at the same time. We were amazed to find that the device didn’t even acknowledge the presence of photos on our USB drive—the SlingCatcher user interface doesn’t have an area for displaying photos. Music works well and videos are fine if you use SlingSync (although we did encounter one MPEG-1 file that the software wouldn’t transcode). Overall, though, we had to admit over time that SlingSync did a tremendous job in taming and organizing our far-flung, non-photo media collection, so we weren’t always lamenting, “Ugh! Why won’t that file play on the TV?” Additionally, if you want to create a slideshow on the PC and sling it to the TV, you’re golden. The beauty of the SlingCatcher is that you’re not limited to conventional media files. If you want to relay TV content from a Slingbox or even use the SlingCatcher to let friends observe your gaming skills on the big screen, this is the product to pick. It’s not super simple like the WD TV HD, nor is it as robust as a device like D-Link’s or TiVo’s set-tops. The SlingCatcher is an application projector first and a music/video adapter second. If you’re handy with PC applets and feel like this usage model suits your life, then the SlingCatcher is a great product.