Slingbox was one of the original Internet TV pioneers, but not in the way that we have come to know Internet TV today, with all its rich, diverse, content. Instead, Slingbox launched in 2005 with the promise of using the Internet as a transport mechanism for what has become known as “place-shifting”—that is, taking your content from one place, like your living room TV, and sending it to a different place, typically your laptop or mobile phone, via the Internet. It sounds complex but it really is not. Slingbox has become a must-have device for mobile warriors, sports fans, sneaky folks wasting time at work, and anyone else wanting to tap into their local TV channels from anywhere they have Internet access.
Now a subsidiary of EchoStar Corporation
after a 2007 acquisition, Sling Media’s flagship product has been joined by a full range of AV products, including more recent offerings that tap into the Internet TV boom. There is the $179 Slingbox Solo which uses simple s-video and composite inputs to “sling” your TV content all over the world. Most people I know have moved over to the $299 Slingbox Pro-HD which combines the functions of the above unit, adds a digital tuner, and also provides HD video capture via component and digital audio inputs.
At CES, I had a firsthand glimpse at several new products that were recently introduced, or soon will be. The first is the SlingPlayer Mobile, which allows you to watch and control “slinged” content from several different BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian mobile phones. I didn’t see it in action, but the Sling Media PR director, Brian Jacquet, tells me that a version will be made available for the iPhone in the first half of this year. The iPhone version has several unique innovations, including an interface that takes advantage of the iPhone’s touch-screen (umm... don’t forget my BlackBerry Storm please).
Also, Sling Media made a big announcement and also a not-so-subtle shift in strategy when it unveiled the first SlingLoaded set-top-box manifested in Dish Network’s ViP 922 HD DVR box built by EchoStar (surprise!). Besides doing everything a Slingbox can do, the ViP 922 also features a multi-tuner DVR with up to 1,000 hours of recording time (and can connect to external hard drives for even more storage capacity) and a touchpad remote control that provides cursor-like navigation on a TV screen (take a quick video peak).
This announcement just makes too much sense for Sling. As with any successful new innovation, there comes a time when it becomes mainstream, and that is when it is best baked into other devices. Of course, as with TiVo and all the various DVR services from Comcast and the like, it is always a good idea to segment the market into the “basic offering”, which becomes a ubiquitous feature as part of another device, and the “high-end offering” which provides advanced capabilities and sex appeal as a stand-alone box. Mr. Jacquet assures me this will be the case with SlingBox, as they look to partner with all comers. I think this is a mature decision for the company and will help more consumers come to understand and appreciate this great technology. Look to see some of the major set-top box manufacturers announce their SlingLoaded capable units sometime this year.
Watch SlingMobile and SlingGuide demos.
The other products I had a chance to take a look at in Las Vegas include two new user interfaces from Sling Media. The first is the SlingGuide, which is a sleek new way for folks to control their Sling-enabled TV viewing experience. As the amount of TV choices we now have overwhelms the ability of any channel or menu-based interfaces, SlingGuide features a powerful search engine for finding what you want to watch. I know from my past lives in the IPTV space how important this is for average consumers, especially when combined with the complexity of DVR scheduling. SlingGuide is being launched on the ViP 922.
The other interface I have been following with keen interest (I will explain why in another post) is Sling’s new guide to Internet TV, its sling.com guide. Sling.com is a blended way to watch both Slinged content and Internet TV content through an integrated web-based interface. While it suffers from the same problem that AppleTV
has (remember the term “walled garden”?) in that the content is limited to what the Sling Media business development guys have had time to negotiate deals for, it is a good start. It has a hodge-podge of Internet TV content (TV shows and movies) from a variety of sources, including Hulu and CBS. In my limited tests, the quality looked only OK, and it was not clear whether it was any better than what you could find directly on Hulu. While it may not yet rival competitive offerings such as ZeeVee’s Zviewer
for pure Internet TV content aggregation and viewing, Sling.com seems like a fine way to interface with your remote Slingbox-connected TV with online content mixed in.
My final stop in the Sling Media booth had me looking at the much-anticipated, much-delayed $199 SlingCatcher, the company’s first real “watch Internet TV on your TV” box. In a nutshell, SlingCatcher does the opposite of what a SlingBox does. Instead of slinging content from your TV to an Internet-connected device, the SlingCatcher takes Internet, PC, USB, or other bits of content (including other Slingboxes) and allows you to receive it at your TV via the home network. In this sense, it is a competitor to AppleTV and Vudu and even more closely related to ZeeVee’s ZvBox. Because it can playback almost any content, like ZvBox, it offers the hope to break out of the walled gardens that limit what you can watch at your TV.
Play SlingCatcher CES demo.
SlingCatcher offers a variety of ways to connect to your TV, including HDMI, composite, component, or S-Video. However, it gets a little tricky if your TV is not in the same room as your router, requiring either long spans of Ethernet or “Sling Link” extenders that aren’t cheap.
To make Internet TV streaming possible, SlingCatcher requires a new “screen-scraping” application called SlingProjector be installed on your computer. This is what allows you to transmit anything your PC monitor can “see.” I wasn’t able to test it myself, but from what I saw the system seemed to work OK. You had the option to select only portions of the screen for playback on your TV or show the entire window. The video quality was not great, but it was unclear whether the choppiness and resolution problems were due to the source content, the Internet connection at CES, or the load on the PC processor required for SlingProjector to run. There were also two other potential problems that jumped out at me, one being that you need to be in front of your computer to have full control of SlingProjector and the other being that for many homes, consumers may find it easier to just directly connect a laptop to their HDTVs via an HDMI cable, thereby getting access to Internet TV sites like Hulu without the hassle.
All that being said, SlingCatcher looked like a decent first try by Sling Media. Brian Jacquet admitted the device is still a work in progress and will only get better over time. While it might not have the value and simplicity required of our everyday Trenders, it does show Sling Media is going in the right direction by embracing the full gamut of content that the Internet has to offer. And together with the rest of the new products I saw at CES, it shows that Sling Media is still alive and well as a subsidiary of EchoStar, and has the necessary funding and support to innovate and take risks.