To date, the SlingPlayer viewing software has let owners of the Slingbox watch their home TV on a Windows PC, a Mac, or a Windows Mobile device anywhere in the world they have a broadband connection available. Symbian smartphone software is already available in Europe, and Palm software has just been announced. Those software players will soon be joined by a hardware option in the form of the recently announced SlingCatcher, due to hit stores in mid-2007 for under $200.
We knew the general details of the SlingCatcher based on Sling Media'searlier this week, but this morning we were able to get some hands-on quality time with a working prototype of the device. It delivers two main functions: SlingPlayer for TV and SlingProjector. SlingPlayer for TV is exactly that: it lets you watch the same placeshifted video you can tap into with the software SlingPlayers, but on the expanse of a big-screen TV. So, if you want to watch any programs you recorded on the living room DVR (which would be attached to the Slingbox transmitter), you can stream them to the bedroom TV (connected to the SlingCatcher). On an average home network, the SlingCatcher should be able to deliver full-screen, 30 frame-per-second video at excellent quality. And while the demo unit wasn't nearly a final product, video quality was indeed solid and eminently watchable--more or less on a par with the quality you'd get from an analog cable TV channel. There's no reason the SlingCatcher can't work outside the home either--to stream your home cable or satellite box to your vacation home or hotel room, for instance--but bandwidth limitations will mean degraded picture quality.
Like the software SlingPlayers, the SlingCatcher will let you have complete control over the remote device as well: it will be shipped with its own remote control that will be able to be mapped to the key functions of various source devices, such as DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players. In the meantime, Sling was using a generic universal remote for the demo, and we were able to flip channels without a problem, though--as with all streaming devices--there is a delay because of the encoding buffer. One other note of interest: the SlingCatcher should work with all Slingbox models, including the original Slingbox Classic.
The second big feature of the SlingCatcher doesn't even require a Slingbox source. SlingProjector is software you run on your computer that lets you mirror anything and everything on the PC screen to your TV. Because it works independently of file formats and codecs, there shouldn't be any annoying caveats and limitations for media types--if you can see and hear it on the computer, you can see and hear it on the TV. We were able to watch a few YouTube clips and watch a PowerPoint presentation, but there's no reason you couldn't "project" an iTunes playlist, a Flickr slideshow, or any other multimedia content, from a 30-second clip to a full-length movie. The caveats: the SlingProjector software is a one-way "push" from the PC, so you can't select files or access the PC-based media from the SlingCatcher--you need to do it from the computer. Also, you get exactly what's on the PC screen--including IM and e-mail pop-ups and the like. (SlingProjector was running on a Windows PC, but a Mac version is on the horizon as well.)
The SlingCatcher hardware packs a lot of features into its tiny frame. It's small enough to be mounted behind a flat-panel TV, but it offers the entire range of A/V outputs: composite, S-Video, component, and HDMI, along with analog stereo and digital coaxial outs. Sling recommends using the wired Ethernet connection for best results, but the Catcher will also be the first of the company's products to employ Wi-Fi networking as well. Rounding out the back panel are two USB ports. To that end, company reps showcased a hard drive module that snaps on to the SlingCatcher, but they remained vague as to what sort of functionality it would add--though it's a safe bet that some sort of local media storage is in the cards.
All in all, SlingCatcher and its two headline features--SlingPlayer for TV and SlingProjector--look to further expand the Sling experience. The company continues to be the couch potato's best friend, letting you watch your home TV virtually anywhere and anytime, and with SlingProjector, it's letting users go beyond the TV to the wider world of digital media.
We'll have a more thorough hands-on review of the SlingCatcher as soon as it becomes available later in 2007.