Like the Sling Media Slingbox, Sony's LocationFree products enable viewers to view and control TV channels from their home cable or satellite boxes on any broadband-connected PC, be it elsewhere in the home or anywhere in the world. In fact, Sony's first LocationFree products--the LF-X1 and the LF-X5--were available a year before Slingbox's summer 2005 debut, but they were hobbled by high prices, the need for proprietary viewing hardware, and a steep learning curve when it came to installation and setup. The company followed up with the improved LF-PK1, a simplified Base Station that let users watch TV with a PC software client or on the Sony PSP (so long as it was in range of a Wi-Fi signal), but that $350 device remained more expensive and harder to use than the Slingbox, which had since undergone a number of substantive firmware and software upgrades.
But Sony has gone back to the drawing board and come up with a new iteration of the LocationFree TV hardware: the LF-B20 ($250) and the LF-B10 ($200). Both new Base Stations equal the basic features of the latest second-generation Slingbox models: the ability to control one or two A/V sources--a cable or satellite box plus a DVD player or DVR, for instance--that are connected via composite or S-Video inputs. Moreover, like the latest Slingbox models, the new LocationFree boxes boast updated chipsets that can utilize H.264 AVC video encoding (the same efficient video compression used by the video iPod, as opposed to the older MPEG-2 version found on previous LocationFree boxes). Additionally, the LF-B20 includes a feature you won't find on any Slingbox model to date: built-in 802.11a/b/g wireless. That means--unlike the Slingbox and the otherwise identical LF-B10--the LF-B20 can interface with a home network via Wi-Fi without the need to connect an Ethernet cable.
Furthermore, Sony is expanding the ways in which you can watch LocationFree streams. Currently, the video from existing and future LocationFree Base Stations can be viewed on any broadband-connected Windows PC (using Sony's included software); any Mac OS X machine (using software from I-O Data); the Sony PSP (just upgrade to the latest firmware, version 2.50 or later); or even one of the original LocationFree LCD tablets, such as the aforementioned LF-X1. The company is also working with Japanese software developer Access, owner of the Palm operating system, to develop a Windows Mobile client for handhelds and smart phones. And a forthcoming companion product promises to beam LocationFree signals to other TVs in the house. (Viewing software also has been announced for the Sony Ericsson P990, but it's unclear when and where it will be available and whether the software will work on other Symbian-powered smart phones as well.)
Before you can get to any of that streaming-TV goodness, of course, you have to set up the box. From afar, the Base Station could be easily mistaken for a miniature version of the PlayStation 2. In fact, like the PS2, it's designed to sit either horizontally or, with the included plastic stand, vertically. At 7.88 inches high by 1.88 wide by 5 deep (when mounted vertically), the LocationFree BaseStation occupies no more space than three standard DVD cases. The front face of the minimalist black box has a smattering of green status LEDs, along with a power switch, a Setup mode button (for use during the initial configuration), and a reset switch. As always, though, the back panel is where the action is. There are two A/V inputs. The first includes S-Video (in addition to composite) and stereo audio inputs, along with a duplicate set of pass-through outputs. The second is composite A/V only, and lacks the corresponding outputs. There's also an Ethernet port for a wired network connection; the wireless antenna is internal. Last but not least, there are two infrared (IR) blaster ports--although the Base Station ships with only one single-headed blaster.
Setting up the LF-B20 is a two-step process: you need to get it connected to your network (which involves installing the included software on a PC), and you need to connect the A/V cables to the video source or sources. For the networking setup, you're offered two wireless options: using the LF-B20 as a wireless client or using it as a wireless access point. Client mode means the LF-B20 can wirelessly connect only to your wireless router--which is great if you don't have an Ethernet connection near your TV. Access point mode, on the other hand, lets you use the LF-B20 as a point of entry to your network for any other Wi-Fi device (laptop, handheld, PSP, DS, what have you)--but to do so, it requires a wired connection to the router. In other words, the wireless functionality is an either/or proposition--connect wirelessly to your router, or to your PC/PSP, but not both simultaneously. That doesn't make the LF-B20 different from any other access point or router you'd buy--just don't buy it expecting it to work as a wireless bridge.
Because of those advanced wireless capabilities, the LF-B20's networking hookup is more challenging than that of the Slingbox. (Remember, if you don't have a need for wireless connectivity, you can save $50 and go for the wired-only LF-B10.) A quick-start guide poster is included to cover the basics, but it includes a rather poorly thought-out flow chart that's almost certain to confuse all but the most knowledgeable home-networking gurus. (Another caveat: if you intend to use it in client mode, you'll need to run a wired networking connection during setup.) During the process, you'll need to install the included LocationFree Player software, which includes a setup wizard. The software wizard is a bit easier to follow than the quick-start poster, but it requires you to enter a Web browser at one point to adjust some settings on the LF-B20--similar to the browser-based interfaces found on most wireless routers. If you slow down and follow the printed and software instructions step-by-step, you just might make it through. By comparison, if you have a UPnP router, the setup options on the Slingbox are a lot smoother and user-friendly, possibly because the Slingbox lacks built-in wireless.
During the setup process, you'll also need to connect the LF-B20 to a video source or two. Doing so is no more difficult than hooking up a VCR or a DVD recorder. We appreciated the pass-through outputs, which let the LF-B20 sit innocuously in the chain between our cable box and the A/V receiver, without the need for splitters or monopolizing precious S-Video outputs. The most likely video source for the LF-B20 is a cable or satellite set-top box, which will let you watch the full range of your live TV options. The LocationFree TV products lack the built-in analog TV tuner found on the Slingbox Tuner, Slingbox Pro, and Hava Wireless, so it's critical that your box has composite or S-Video outputs (all digital set-top boxes--and most analog ones--will). You choose the make and model of your set-top box or other video source from an onscreen list so the B20 can send the right codes via the IR blaster, which you need to string to the front of your cable/satellite box. Here, Sony has included two very cool options. The system can autodetect the brand of your set-top box if you point and "shoot" your remote into a small IR receiver on the LF-B20's front panel when instructed to do so (it correctly determined that we had a Scientific Atlanta box). And, if you have a brand that's not in the database, you can have the LF-B20 "learn" the main commands from any remote and map them to corresponding keys on the onscreen remote on your PC.