In some ways, you've got to feel a little sympathetic for Sony. The company effectively invented the placeshifting concept--the ability to stream TV programming from your living room to another device via the Internet--in 2004, only to see it co-opted by smaller upstart Sling Media a year later. The latter company's Slingbox series of products have become the industry leader, popular enough for the start-up to be purchased by Dish Network parent EchoStar for a cool $380 million.
But Sony has stayed in the game, releasing follow-up products that that have attempted to challenge Sling's dominance. The latest such device is the LF-V30, the first LocationFree TV product to be released since the products were transferred under the rubric of Sony's PC-centric VAIO division. The LF-V30 ($250 list) adds compatibility for HD component video and has full pass-through inputs and outputs for two separate video sources. But otherwise, there's no big improvement over last year's LF-B20.
As a result, the LF-V30's flaws are even more glaring in comparison to the comparable Slingbox models, the Slingbox Pro and the Slingbox Solo. Sony's setup process still ranges from mildly to excessively frustrating--especially if you go wireless--and the viewing software and control options get the job done, but just don't offer the same degree of ease and intuitive design found on the Sling counterpart. As such, the LocationFree LF-V30 is really only commendable over a Slingbox to those who will use its two distinguishing features: the ability to stream video to a PSP, and the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi network.
About the size of a hardcover book, the all-black LocationFree TV LF-V30 could be mistaken for a somewhat fat wireless router--understandable, because that's pretty much what it is. Like Sony's PlayStation game consoles, it can be mounted horizontally or vertically (a snap-on plastic base is included). 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 and component, the latter of which can handle high-def signals. 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-V30 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 AV cables to the video source (or sources). For the networking setup, you're offered two wireless options: using the LF-V30 as a wireless client or using it as a wireless access point. Client mode means the LF-V30 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-V30 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-V30 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-V30's networking hookup is more challenging than that of the Slingbox. Sony says the LF-V30 quick start guide is improved over last year's LF-B20 model, but the average user will still find it to be something of a challenge. (Another caveat: if you intend to use the LF-V30 in client mode, you'll need to run a wired networking connection during setup--unless you're using the Vista-optimized setup software instead.) 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 guide, but it requires you to enter a Web browser at one point to adjust some settings on the LF-V30--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.
During the setup process, you'll also need to connect the LF-V30 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-V30 sit innocuously in the chain between our cable box and the AV receiver, without the need for splitters or monopolizing precious S-Video and component outputs. The most likely video source for the LF-V30 is a cable or satellite set-top box, which will let you watch the full range of your live TV options. You choose the make and model of your set-top box or other video source from an onscreen list so the V30 can send the right codes via the IR blaster, which you need to string to the front of said 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-V30'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-V30 "learn" the main commands from any remote and map them to corresponding keys on the onscreen remote on your PC.