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Summary:

I’ve come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as the perfect set-top box. But I’m happy to report that Sling Media‘s SlingCatcher comes closer than most. The $300 SlingCatcher connects to your TV and plays back video files from various sources, […]

I’ve come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as the perfect set-top box. But I’m happy to report that Sling Media‘s SlingCatcher comes closer than most.

slingcatcher3The $300 SlingCatcher connects to your TV and plays back video files from various sources, including your PC, a USB drive, or one of Sling Media’s Slingboxes. Setting it up is simple: Connect it to your TV (via HDMI, composite, component, or S-Video), connect it to your network via Ethernet, and plug it in. If your TV is not in the same room as your router, you’ll want a set of Sling Links: These extend the reach of your network over your powerlines. They’re simple to use (and a much better option that snaking a 100-meter Ethernet cord throughout your house), but they start at $80.

Where some set-top boxes link to your PC and let you access the video files remotely, the SlingCatcher takes a different tactic. You install an app called SlingProjector onto any PC on the same network (Windows only, so Mac users are out of luck), which displays any active video content on your PC onto your TV.

Overall, it’s pretty slick. You can choose to display the whole screen or only the video window, and file compatibility is not an issue: If the file plays on your PC, you can see it on your TV. Video quality ranged from decent to excellent; a high-definition movie I had downloaded to my laptop looked to be pretty close to HD quality when viewed on a 19-inch HDTV. Watching TV shows from NBC.com and ABC.com was more hit or miss; the video was sometimes jerky.

The SlingProjector approach does have one downside: Unless you’re right in front of the PC, your access to the video controls is limited. Sling says the SlingCatcher’s remote control will let you control a standard video player like Windows Media Player or VLC, but I wasn’t able to get it to work when using VLC. If I wanted to stop or start the video, I had to do so on my computer. Your access to controls when watching a video online also is limited. You can set your mouse cursor over a button on your computer screen, and then can push the OK button on the SlingCatcher remote to “send mouse clicks” to your PC. This works well when you only need to make minor adjustments or want to click one button such as a play/pause. I found it easiest to use a laptop in the same room, so I didn’t have to trek back and forth to a desktop in another room to select new videos.

If you have video that’s saved to your PC, you can transfer it to a USB drive and plug that into the back of the SlingCatcher. The device automatically finds the compatible files and lists them in a neatly organized menu for playback. If you have a file that’s not compatible, Sling’s upcoming SlingSync desktop app will convert it for you. SlingSync, which is expected to be available in the next few weeks, scans designated folders for video files, converts them, and transfers them to a connected USB drive.

I found video quality improved dramatically when watching video files this way. HD content looked stunning. The only downside is finding a USB drive with enough storage space to hold your HD content. One additional, albeit minor complaint: The player doesn’t remember where you leave off while watching a file.

I tested the SlingCatcher’s ability to connect to two Slingboxes: One was based in San Francisco, the other in Las Vegas. (I’m in Boston.) Quality was all over the place. Some stations looked good, while others were downright awful, with video that often looked pixelated, and the audio was frequently out of sync with the action on the screen. I had much better luck connecting to these same Slingboxes when I tested Sling.com.

The SlingCatcher is one of the best options I’ve seen for viewing PC-based content on your TV. I wish the price was lower (or that the Sling Links were included), and I’d also like to see better quality from Web-based video sources. But, hey, I know you can’t have everything. Not yet, anyway.

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