Apple TV vs. Roku vs. SlingBox

April 16, 2009

NOTE: This post is nearly four years old but continues to get traffic, enjoy the read, though I shut down comments years ago because of spam, sorry. In the meantime, please check out my book, Digital Disruption, published Feb 2013 at forr.com/DDbook.

Original post:

This is now the third post I’ve written where I’ve confessed that some unscheduled downtime for health reasons proved to be a marvelous excuse to lay on the couch and watch a lot of TV shows and movies. In my case, I can also claim it’s research because I have to try out all the gadgets in my video setup, which keep changing thanks to upgrades. So in my most recent (and hopefully final) hiatus, I spent some quality time with the Apple TV (hacked to include Boxee), the Roku (recently enhanced with Amazon Unbox capability), and the SlingBox + SlingCatcher combination. Some thoughts:

  • Apple TV still doesn’t float my boat. I did an extensive post on this some weeks back lamenting the fact that this box doesn’t do more than it does because despite repeated attempts to give it a break, I still only find it handy for two things: 1) watching movie previews (which I’m a sucker for, especially anticipating the summer releases), and 2) watching Hulu thanks to Boxee. Now that Boxee has added Pandora streaming — brilliant move, guys — it’s even that much more interesting to me. I personally believe this “hobby” — as Jobs and others at Apple keep calling this product — is headed for the trash pile unless it finds a way to stream ad-supported video and then builds an iPhone-like app store to allow 3rd party development for the box.
  • Roku + Unbox doesn’t do much for me. I’ve written extensively about Roku’s sucker punch, its $99 Netflix box that is so easy to use that it is flying off of Roku’s shelves. And I was genuinely interested in the Amazon Unbox upgrade that happened a few weeks back because I wanted to see how well it was integrated into the experience. The integration is smooth and elegant. However, I found myself questioning the value of the addition. At my fingertips I have 3 ways to get movies on demand: my cable system, Apple TV, and my Roku + Amazon. And they all have similar problems — it’s hard to navigate that many movies effectively unless you’re looking for an obvious choice like the Dark Knight. Though I will admit I used the Roku the most of the three boxes, 99% of it was spent trawling through our queue of 150 Netflix Watch Instantly titles. The fruit: I strongly recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a haunting and poignant true tale of a man who suffered a massive stroke that left him with only the use of one eye. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest Netflix Watch Instantly option. While there, do everything you can to avoid Sphere, yet another Sharon Stone movie you don’t need to see.
  • SlingBox + SlingCatcher. The SlingCatcher is a loaner from the people at Sling. I’ve used a demo before and was fully aware of its features, but there is something to be said for having it in your home for an extended visit. Here’s what I learned: 1) the people at Sling can do more with video quality over limited bandwidth than anyone I’ve dealt with. I’ve always been impressed with the SlingPlayer’s ability to give me great quality video over wireless connections at home or on the road. But the SlingCatcher has to do one more thing, it has to be able to sling portions of your computer screen to the SlingCatcher. I fully expected the quality of this experience to be subpar. Uh-huh. It’s remarkable. Take a standard size Hulu window, tell your SlingCatcher you want to sling the video to your TV screen and boom, in a few seconds you’re watching full-screen web video from your computer on your TV with no wires attached. Genius. It’s also relatively impractical, however, so as much as I was thrilled to do it, I haven’t done it spontaneously.

By spontaneous, I mean, when I say to myself, “Hmm, I want to watch some video,” the three responses my brain offers are: the PC, the DVR, and the Roku Box, in that order (the DVR follows the PC because with six children, the competition for the DVR is pretty intense). The others don’t come into it unless I’m trying to test something or my first three options are occupied. Lately, I’ve started supplementing that list with some DVR cheating via SlingBox (no need for SlingCatcher), where I can use my PC to snoop in on the DVR while the kids play the Wii or watch a Blues Clues DVD.

I pay close attention to that spontaneous response because it’s the beginning of a habit that will eventually form.

My habits will form differently than yours (you probably don’t have six wonderful children to shape your environment as I do), so it’s not important what my habits are or even what yours are, but what they are in aggregate. To that end, I will keep surveying our fellow citizens to see what habits are emerging. In the meantime, what early habits and preferences are emerging in your life?

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SlingCatcher – the first true cable-killer

October 9, 2008

If you follow the video space, you have been waiting for Sling Media’s SlingCatcher for more than a year now. First announced at CES of 2007, it was hard to tell whether the SlingCatcher was going to be more Apple TV or more SlingBox. It was reannounced at CES of 2008, and now it has finally arrived.

My verdict: This baby was worth the wait.

Sling CEO Blake Krikorian came by the office to demo the box a few weeks back. I was surprised he made the trip out to Boston just to demo the unit. Until I saw the demo. That’s when I realized why: in this case, seeing really is believing.

The SlingCatcher looks like the rest of the Sling family

No, it’s not the Darth Vaderesque unit itself that impresses. It’s the fact that this is the first over-the-top (OTT) set top box that can compete directly with cable. As I’ve recently written, the whole OTT set top category is very challenged. If you have a DVR and a DVD player, you have the killer combination that gives you access to and control over most of what you want to watch. Why get a box like this?

The SlingCatcher answers that question. As I wrote in my OTT ranking report, the number one thing that these boxes need to do to stand a chance is call CBS.com, ABC.com, and Hulu.com and set up deals for content distribution (sorry, CW, I, uh, didn’t have room to include you). With those deals in place, any OTT box would jump light years ahead of the pack and provide the first serious threat to cable at a time when people are already starting to consider cutting the cable cord.

The SlingCatcher does one better: If you have a computer in your home, you can use the SlingProjector software to sling anything from your computer to your TV without Sling having to cut a deal. And as you know, you can find just about everything you like, ad-supported, on your computer these days — prime time shows, classic episodes, even more and more movies (see recent Netflix-Starz deal). For everything else — by which I mean HBO — there’s iTunes, which, guess what, you can also sling to the TV.

For the increasing number of people who watch video on their laptops at home, this is a content boon that is not only rich, but elegant. The SlingProjector software can automatically identify the video image on your screen, so you don’t have to worry about PC menus or the taskbar showing up on your TV. Want to zoom in on just a portion of the screen? Go ahead. Want to play an online game on the big screen? You’re not limited to slinging just video.

Yeah, it’s that innovative. and yeah, this is going to change the game. At $299 (look for it on Amazon), the Catcher is not for everyone, even though it’s cheaper than putting an extra PC in the living room. But the real point is that this SlingCatcher system is ripe to be plucked from the box and embedded in TVs, DVD players, and even game consoles (Wii, anyone?). I expect the phone to be ringing at Sling once Samsung, Philips, and LG figure that out.