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.
Once you've got the software installed and everything connected, you should be able to view your cable/satellite box from your PC. You'll get a video window with basic controls, with the standalone onscreen remote on the side. If everything's gone according to plan, you'll have the same control over your set-top box whether you're in the next room or logging on from any broadband access point in the world. On a home network, you'll get higher speeds (in excess of 3Mbps) and a resulting better picture quality; the result can look quite good even when the window is maximized for full-screen viewing. When viewing over the Internet--which is to say, when you login any place outside of your home network--you'll be restricted by the upstream bandwidth of your broadband connection, so the visual fidelity takes a hit. But we still got a reasonably watchable picture, especially if we didn't blow it up to full-screen.
Prefer to watch your TV shows on another device besides your PC? As mentioned above, you can stream your programming to Macs, but you'll need to invest in I-O Data's viewing software to do so; we didn't have a copy on hand, so haven't tested the Mac client. Meanwhile, any PSP with the latest firmware is ready to go: you'll just need to pair the PSP with the LF-B20 first (follow on the onscreen instructions on the PSP to do so). Once it's paired up, you should be able to access and control the LF-B20 from the PSP just as easily as you would on a PC or a Mac. Both the PC and PSP viewing clients have multiple aspect-ratio options, so you can stretch, squash, and zoom the picture to fit the the squarish confines of a standard 4:3 monitor or a wider 16:9 viewing space, as found on a PSP.
Improvements notwithstanding, the latest iteration of the LocationFree TV platform still has its share of annoyances, and they're all the more pronounced when compared to corresponding conveniences on the Slingbox. First and foremost, the Slingbox Pro can accept--with the addition of a $50 dongle--four A/V sources, including HD component video, vs. just two on the LF-B20 (one S-Video or composite, a second composite only). Other shortcomings are more subtle. For instance, the onscreen remote for controlling our Scientific Atlanta DVR on the Sony covered the basics--changing channels and pausing and rewinding live TV--but it lacked the all-important List key for accessing our recorded programs. While we were able to use the Sony's learning function to add the List function, we had to create the entire remote from scratch--a lengthy process--because the Sony software wouldn't let us update existing remote templates. By comparison, the onscreen remote on the Slingbox software is an exact duplicate of our Scientific Atlanta remote, with all the same placement and functionality, including full DVR controls. Likewise, the actual software installation for the Slingbox is just easier: the Windows PC software client for the Slingplayer is available as a free download at Sling Media's Web site. That means anyone can download it at any time, and you can easily install it on as many PCs as you'd like; just have the Slingbox ID and password handy, and logging in is a cinch--be it on your work PC, home desktop, or even at a friend's house--so long as there's only one person logged in at a time, of course. The LocationFree player, by contrast, requires a unique "serial ID" to be matched to the LocationFree Base Station. That means you need to buy additional software clients for each PC on which you'd like to install it, at $29 a shot.
It's also worth mentioning some of the caveats that apply to all of these so-called placeshifting devices, including the Slingbox. Most importantly, the LF-B20 will monopolize whatever device--or devices--to which it's attached. That's no problem if the cable box in question is sitting in an empty house, and you're out on the road; it's a big problem if a family member is at home watching TV, and you decide to remotely change the channel. Secondly, the LocationFree TV products are only as good as the products they're connected to. Linking it to a TiVo/DVR gives you a lot more freedom to play back any programs you've already recorded, while a standard cable or satellite box provides access only to live TV--not very useful if nothing's on. Finally, the video quality is largely determined by the upstream broadband connection at the source; if your bandwidth isn't in the sweet spot (say, 350Kbps to 500Kbps), you'll get a lot of herky-jerky video.
On the brighter side, Sony has some interesting upgrades lined up for the LocationFree platform. In addition to the promised Windows Mobile client mentioned above, Sony is also pledging to deliver something that Slingbox can't yet match: a hardware client. The LF-BOX1 LocationFree TV Box ($230) is a receiver that can turn any TV in the house into a LocationFree viewer. It can receive signals from the LocationFree Base Station via Ethernet or wireless (802.11a/b/g) networking, and you can use an onscreen soft remote to access the full functionality of the source devices. And there's no reason that Sony couldn't eventually integrate the same sort of receiver into its PlayStation 3--although such functionality is nothing more than pure speculation at this point.
But that's the future, and this is now. As of this writing, we feel the Slingbox still delivers a better overall experience, thanks to a more streamlined setup process, superior software and streaming performance, and better device compatibility. But there's still a lot to like about the LF-B20: the built-in wireless, the lineup of supported devices (Windows PCs, PSPs, Macs), the remote control customization, and the sub-$250 price point. It's certainly a big improvement over the earlier LocationFree TV products, and there's no reason that it can't get better still with continued software and firmware upgrades.