On Wednesday at CES I managed to spend some time in Sling Media’s booth, including a nice sit-down with Dave Zatz for a demo of the SlingCatcher and the new SlingPlayer 2.0, including the Clip+Sling functionality. See my previous posts on the Slingbox PRO-HD and SlingPlayer Mobile for Blackberry and the SlingModem, SlingCatcher, SlingLink Wireless, and SlingPlayer 2.0 announcements. Of all the things I saw at the show the products I’m most interested in for myself are Sling’s. I definitely plan to get both a Slingbox PRO-HD and a SlingCatcher for my own use.
I’m not the only one with an interest in Sling’s products, TiVo founder Mike Ramsay also dropped by for a demo while I was there. I also caught one of the Monsoon Multimedia executives getting a demo of Sling’s latest offerings. Monsoon produces the HAVA, a Slingbox competitor. Sling’s booth was really hopping, and was still busy when I passed by just before the end of the show on Thursday when most of the booths were quiet.
I’ll start with the odd-man-out, the Sling TR40 Digital-to-Analog Converter STB. I was a bit surprised to see it, since it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of Sling’s product line, but got a decent explanation. The TR40 was developed by EchoStar, which recently acquired Sling Media. While Sling has a retail presence and a strong retail brand name with consumers, EchoStar does not. Most consumers probably aren’t even familiar with the EchoStar name, and if they are they associate it with DISH Network. So EchoStar is planning to use the Sling brand name for some other consumer products, and the TR40 is the first of those. It sounds like EchoStar’s hardware business, at least the consumer focused products, will probably carry the Sling brand. But it remains to be seen just how the plans are fleshed out and which products end up under the Sling banner. You can see in the photos that the remote on display still carried the DISH Network brand, which would change before retail distribution.
The TR40 is one of the new raft of converter boxes to convert OTA ATSC signals to analog input for older televisions. It is a very simple box with a clean design. There is a single coax input and output as well as a composite video and stereo audio output set. The TR40 is notable because it will have a $39.99 MSRP, and with the $40 NTIA coupon the box is effectively free. Most of the other converter boxes have a $50-$70 MSRP, making them $10-$30 with the coupon. So the TR40 may be quite popular with those who need a converter box.
Getting into the things Sling is better known for, they had examples of all of their major hardware and software lines on display. In addition to the newly announced SlingPlayer Mobile for Blackberry, they were exhibiting a number of Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and Symbian phones running the SlingPlayer Mobile software. I asked about the iPhone, of course, as Blake Krikorian, Sling’s CEO, has made comments about it as a future SPM platform. Sling is looking at the iPhone, but is mainly waiting for Apple to release the promised SDK, which is due in February. Sling won’t really know what they can do with the iPhone (and iPod Touch, which will share the SDK) until the SDK is available for them to review.
I also asked Dave Zatz about the Google Android platform, both out of personal interest and because of the buzz around the platform. He said that developers have downloaded the early SDK that Google made available, but that it isn’t an official effort at this time. And, since Android is still a future platform that isn’t running on any phones today, the development efforts are rightfully focused on things like the Blackberry and expanding support to more devices using their existing platforms. And the iPhone would certainly take priority over Android development as a widely deployed platform.
And interesting thing about the Blackberry client, it is J2ME based, not a native application. I think that’s very interesting because there are other mobile platforms that support J2ME and it might make it easier to bring SPM to those platforms. But, even more than that, if Sling has SPM working on a Java platform, could they produce a browser-based Java client? Maybe accessing your Slingbox from any Java-supporting browser is in our future.
Sling also had the previously announced SlingModem on display. The SlingModem is basically a DOCSIS/EuroDOCSIS 2.0 cable modem and a Slingbox SOLO combined in one unit, though it lacks the SOLO’s pass-through connectors. It is really aimed at cable MSOs to offer to their subscribers as a value-added service. As I covered in my earlier post, Sling currently has no plans to sell the SlingModem at retail. They’re still pursuing deals with MSOs to offer the SlingModem via channel distribution, and you can see the ‘Your Logo Here’ box on the front the display unit. The idea is to make it easier for less technically savvy users. Since the Slingbox is part of the modem, there is no need to mess with router/firewall configurations to enable outside access. Though it would mean co-locating the cable modem with your video source.
Another new box on display was the Slingbox PRO-HD, which I’m personally quite excited about. Unlike the original Slingbox PRO or the Slingbox SOLO, which both accept component video input but down-sample to 640×480 for streaming, the PRO-HD will stream video up to 1080i. Additionally, for the first time on any Slingbox, the PRO-HD has a coax digital audio input to stream 5.1 audio as well. All other Slingboxes are limited to stereo audio input.
One thing about the Slingbox PRO-HD which wasn’t obvious until I saw the hardware is that it only supports three inputs, not four as with the old Slingbox PRO. The PRO has an internal NTSC/analog cable tuner, component video (via the HD Connect dongle), S-Video, and composite video, each with an associated audio input. The PRO-HD however has an internal digital tuner which supports ATSC/Clear-QAM as well as NTSC/analog cable, component video input with both the coax digital audio input and stereo analog audio, and S-Video and composite video inputs which share a single set of stereo audio input jacks. So the PRO-HD is designed to support an S-Video or a composite video source, and not both simultaneously as on the PRO. So the PRO-HD officially supports three inputs instead of the PRO’s four. There are tricks to support four devices – you could connect two devices to the S-Video and composite jacks, and use splitter cables to connect both the same audio input jacks. As long as only one device is feeding the PRO-HD at a time it should be fine. (The same trick can be used to support multiple devices on the classic Slingbox, the Slingbox AV, and the Slingbox SOLO.)
As a Slingbox PRO owner, I have to say I like the looks of the PRO-HD better as well. Not that I think the PRO is ugly or anything, but the PRO-HD looks more ‘serious’, for lack of a better word. I think it may reflect some maturing of the Slingbox design cues, and perhaps of the company in general as they grow. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.
Also on display is the revised SlingCatcher. It has been a bit of a long journey for the SlingCatcher so far. Announced at CES 2007 for a mid-2007 release, then delayed until fall, an FCC leak, a packaging leak, and finally being delayed until 2008. The SlingCatcher being exhibited this year has grown up a bit from the model originally introduced last year, and I think the wait will be worth it. In the demo Dave Zatz gave me the UI looked very polished and I was impressed by the features, as well as the SlingSync and SlingProjector software. I do think Sling could do a few things to improve the product, and I’ll talk about that below, but it is a solid product and I’m sure it will evolve even further.
The SlingCatcher supports a wide array of video and audio codecs, making it quite a powerful STB. While DivX isn’t listed in the official codec list, note that Xvid is there – and basically everything you need to support DivX is in place. In order to list DivX Sling would need to have the SlingCatcher certified. In other words, read between the lines and I bet DivX will work just fine, listed or not.
The SlingCatcher will receive content from three primary sources – a Slingbox, your PC, or the Internet, such as Clip+Sling content from Sling.com. You will also likely be able to access content from Sling’s content partners, such as CBS. They’re still talking about the possibility of other partners for movies and the like. Just as an example the SlingCatcher could act as a client for Netflix’s streaming service. And since it supports storage it could also be a client for download services like Akimbo or Amazon Unbox. I think we’ll hear more along these lines in the future.
Speaking of storage, when the SlingCatcher was exhibited at CES 2007 it was shown ‘docked’ on top of a Sling branded hard drive. At this time that drive is no longer in the plans. The SlingCatcher’s chassis still retains the design to sit on top of the drive, in case they offer it in the future, but for now it is intended for ‘bring your own storage’. (I have an idea for that docking design, see below.) The SlingCatcher will support any USB mass storage device formatted with FAT32. USB Flash drives, USB hard drives, PMPs which support a drive mode, whatever. So you can attach your storage device directly and access the media stored there.
To facilitate this, the SlingCatcher has two USB ports on the back. For many users one of those ports will probably have a SlingLink Wireless connected. The other port is then available for your USB storage device. You can size the storage to your needs, as large as you require.
The SlingCatcher comes with a remote which has a unique design. It looks a bit angular, but I can attest that it is comfortable to use. And because of the asymmetrical shape you always know that you’re holding it correctly. The buttons on the remote will be familiar to those who use the SlingPlayer software. The SlingCatcher remote is basically a hardware implementation of the default SlingPlayer controls. Dave told me that the SlingPlayer Mobile software team was involved in developing the SlingCatcher software. It is well designed and very easy to use, even a novice user should have no difficulty. You may note the ‘Scissor’ button on the remote. Right now that doesn’t do anything, but it is intended for future use with Clip+Sling on the SlingCatcher itself.
The SlingCatcher remote also controls your TV. I’m not sure if it is a learning remote or if it is limited to a predefined set of IR codes. I think it is a learning remote, but I’m waiting to hear back from Dave to be sure.
On the software side, Sling was showing three new products. SlingSync and SlingProjector come with the SlingCatcher and provide access to media on the PC via the SlingCatcher. SlingPlayer 2.0 is the next generation of the SlingPlayer software, with a new UI and many enhancements, including Clip+Sling.
SlingSync, as the name implies, is meant to synchronize content from the PC to the USB storage attached to the SlingCatcher. So you can have it keep media folders on your PC synchronized with the SlingCatcher so you can access you media immediately. It is fairly easy to grasp the functionality.
SlingProjector is a bit different, and it looks fairly impressive. Unlikely SlingSync, which copies your files to the local SlingCatcher storage, SlingProjector, as the name implies, ‘projects’ content from the PC to the SlingCatcher. It is very nifty, basically anything you can play on the PC you can project to the SlingCatcher. YouTube, Google Video, Hulu, video from network websites, even DVDs playing on your PC – project it to the SlingCatcher. The software has some intelligence and it can automatically recognize areas of the screen, so you can rapidly select the region of the screen with the video you want to project. And, if it isn’t perfect, you can select the ‘box’ and manually resize it as required. So say the video you’re watching is letterboxed, you can select just the viewable area and project only that – cropping off the letterboxing.
SlingPlayer 2.0 is an evolution of today’s SlingPlayer software. The new software adds a 60 minute local playback buffer which allows you to pause, rewind, and fast-forward the program locally. The UI has been spruced up and there are a number of updates, including an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) source from Zap2it.com (which is run by TMS, the same company that provides TiVo’s guide data). At this point a Slingbox with SlingPlayer 2.0 is a hair’s breadth from forming a DVR. All they need to do is add recording capability to SlingPlayer and they’d have a functioning DVR. I asked Dave about that, but Sling has no plans currently to add recording. Maybe at some point in the future. While it wouldn’t replace TiVo, I do think they should do it. And it is clear that not doing it is a deliberate choice, as everything is in place for it in 2.0 aside from allowing the buffer to be saved.
The most notable addition in SlingPlayer 2.0 is Clip+Sling. It has been incorporated into the player very well, and it is extremely easy to use. There is a ‘Scissor’ icon which triggers the Clip+Sling functionality. When you open this, it stops the video and opens a slider with a highlighted region. You can then drag the start and end of this region to fine tune the clip. The maximum length of the clip hasn’t been decided yet, though figures in the 5 to 10 minute range have been bantered around. Sling wants to make it long enough to be useful, but not too long as to invite the wrath of content owners. You’re not going to see something like 30 minute clips.
Once you have it selected, you’re prompted for some basic info, such as title and tags. Some of the fields, like the title, are handily pre-populated for you if the software knows them – such as if you’re streaming Live TV and the program is in the EPG. You can edit them of course, but it makes things easier if you don’t need to.
Once you’ve selected the clip and filled in the fields it is automatically encoded and uploaded to Sling.com. Once it is uploaded you’re able to share the link to the clip with friends, in blogs, etc. And Sling will have moderators working to organize uploaded content into categories and ‘channels’, to make it easy for others to find it. They’re really planning to foster a social aspect around Clip+Sling and Sling.com. The one thing that Sling.com doesn’t allow is YouTube-style embedding of content, right now it is only linking. I really hope they allow embedding, as it would be more useful for blogging about content. And that would encourage the use of Clip+Sling, which in turn could fuel the growth of the site. So I think it would be the right thing to do all-around.
On a different note, Dave clued me in on something interesting. In the DISH Network booth they had a ViP622 DISH PVR connected to a Slingbox, which isn’t too surprising. But what most people would probably not notice is that there were no IR blasters. And that wasn’t just a trade show blunder. Now that Sling is under the EchoStar roof one of the first cooperative efforts has been to enable network control of the DISH PVR from the Slingbox. Since both units can be connected to the network they can communicate that way instead of using the IR blasters. Dave said Sling is willing to work with other STB vendors, such as TiVo, to so the same. Of course, there is the small matter of the pending litigation between TiVo and EchoStar that will need to be settled before the two can really cooperate on developments.
Overall it was a fairly impressive showing from Sling this year, and 2008 should be an exciting year for them. I suspect there is even more in the works than has been announced to date. Personally I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the Slingbox PRO-HD and the SlingCatcher.
Now, looking at everything Sling was showing gave me a few ideas. One thing I’d love to see is a Slingbox PRO-HD combined with a SlingCatcher. While I want a Slingbox PRO-HD to connect to my TiVo Series3, and a SlingCatcher to access it from the bedroom, it would be nice to have a SlingCatcher with my main set as well, to access the content. And one less STB is always a good thing. So I do hope they release an all-in-one box.
I also wonder if the Slingbox PRO-HD has the internal wiring to act as a digital converter box. It has an ATSC tuner, and it has the physical analog video output ports, but I don’t know if it has the wiring to take that tuned ATSC signal and feed it out the analog ports. Probably not, but it is just an idle idea really.
One thing the SlingCatcher is missing, and I think this is a big gap, is streaming media from a PC. (Well, and any Mac support – but I have to believe that is coming.) SlingSync will copy content from the PC to storage on the SlingCatcher. SlingProjector will project content playing on the PC to the SlingCatcher. But if you have media on the PC, audio or video files, there is no way to access them – to stream them – immediately. You either have to copy them to the local storage or play them on the PC and project the PC’s media player output. I think they really need to give the SlingCatcher the ability to access network content – music, videos, and photos – across the network.
When they do this (and I do think it is when and not if, it just needs to be done) I hope they allow access to network shares without the need for any special software. That would allow viewing of content stored on a NAS, which are becoming increasingly common for home users. And it would also make it easier to access content from all manner of devices. Another good addition would be DLNA support as an increasing number of devices have it. With DLNA support the SlingCatcher could even act as a client for XStreamHD.
Something else that I think would be a clever addition – recognizing TiVo Desktop. Since TiVo Desktop can publish music, photos, and video, and there is a fairly significant installed base (and I bet a lot of SlingCatcher customers will be TiVo owners), it would be very nifty if the SlingCatcher just automagically recognized the existing TiVo Desktop media. And since the protocol format is published and open, it should be quite possible. There is no need to work with TiVo, you just need to recognize the Bonjour server publication and support the TiVo Server HTTP/XML protocol. Even if they don’t make a big deal out of it, it would be a sweet Easter Egg of a feature to plug-in your SlingCatcher and find your existing published media waiting to be accessed.
The next logical step would be to make the SlingCatcher a TiVo Multi-Room Viewing or TiVoToGo client. To be able to copy content directly from a TiVo to the SlingCatcher, so it could access as a ‘thin’ client instead of needing a TiVo in the second room. However, since MRV and TTG are encrypted, Sling would need to work with TiVo to support this – and see the above comment about the lawsuit needing to be resolved first. Sure, the TTG protection has been cracked by 3rd parties in software like TiVo Decode, and Sling could technically use that work to support it without TiVo’s help, but that’s hairy legal territory. And it would probably sour any potential relationship between the companies, which is the important issue in the longer term. But it would still be a fantastic feature, so I hope the lawsuit is settled soon and they can get past it to work together.
And I had an idea for a piece of hardware. You know how I said the SlingCatcher was designed to sit on top of the Sling-branded drive, which has been dropped from the current plans? And how the SlingCatcher has two USB ports – one which may have a SlingLink Wireless, and the other storage? Well, the latter is a little inconvenient for attaching other devices. Say you have the SlingLink Wireless and a USB hard drive attached, you’ll have to disconnect one of them (probably the drive) to attach another USB device to access the content. During the demo Dave mentioned using a USB card reader to access digital photos from a digital camera, or attaching the camera directly via USB, which seems like a great idea. But not only will many users have to unplug something first, but the ports are on the back of the unit, making them harder to access.
That’s where the drive design comes in. Sling should recycle the hardware design work they did for the drive. They already have the design for it, making a nice base for the SlingCatcher to sit on top of so that it looks like one slick unit. It is a shame to waste. But I understand not wanting to deal with selling a drive, especially as USB storage devices proliferate and come down in price. So here’s what I suggest – recycle the overall design as a memory card reader and USB hub!
Take the same basic design and put a multi-format card reader on the *front* – Compact Flash, MMC/SD, MemoryStick, etc. Multi-format card readers are dirt cheap these days, even at retail, and I’m sure Sling could acquire a module wholesale for peanuts. Take the shape developed for the drive and leave the drive out. Put in the card reader so that the slots are on the front, along with a couple of USB ports for easy access from other devices. And put a couple of USB ports on the back as well, for permanently attached storage (since the base would be connected to one of the two USB ports on the SlingCatcher, and keeping the other one for the SlingLink Wireless). There you go – instantly increasing the usefulness of the SlingCatcher as a media access STB. And it is pretty much a hollow plastic shell with simple components – a USB hub and a card reader – so it shouldn’t cost much to produce, comparatively. C’mon Sling, you know it is a good idea.
OK, that’s enough out of me – for now.