The Sony LocationFree lets you watch TV programmes being shown at your house remotely via the Internet, just like the Slingbox. In other words, you can watch whatever programmes are being shown on your home television from anywhere in the world on an Internet-connected laptop. The LocationFree was beaten to market by the Slingbox, but Sony hopes its brand muscle, plus the LocationFree's ability to send TV to the Sony PSP handheld console, will give it the edge over its rival.
The LocationFree base station has an understated look about it. The device is 178mm high by 45mm wide and 126mm deep, so it's around the same size as a chunky hardback book. It's mostly black, except for half of the front panel, which is finished in a brushed silver effect. This panel has a power button and a set of four LED lights, each with their own creamy, almost pink-coloured text labelling. They show the status of the wireless, network, audio-visual status and setup modes. On the whole, the LocationFree doesn't have as daring a look as the Slingbox, but it will fit in with most existing AV setups without being obtrusive.
Configuring the device is very easy. All that's required is to connect it to the mains, then to your network using a LAN cable (Wi-Fi is also possible thanks to an integrated 802.11b/g adaptor, but you'll need a wireless bridge if you use a router), then to your television or set-top box via the bundled Scart adaptor. An infrared 'blaster' cable is included, which connects to the back of the LocationFree and over the IR receiver of your set-top box. This lets you replicate the functions of your existing remote control from anywhere in the world.
To use the LocationFree you simply install the accompanying LocationFree Player software on a PC, connect to the Internet and log into the base station at your home. The LocationFree can also be used with a Sony PSP, via Wi-Fi, and Sony also plans to release a special LocationFree TV package including a standalone 12-inch Wi-Fi-enabled display. Watching TV via the Sony PSP is probably the most satisfying of the three viewing options as the small size of the screen makes video quality appear superior.
The LocationFree has just two component video inputs, whereas the Slingbox has coaxial, S-video and composite. Most users will get by with the Sony device's standard inputs, but a larger choice of input/output options would have been preferable. Sony has also skimped on the number of cables included in the package. You get a single component/Scart cable and adaptor, but you'll have to buy another if you intend to connect a second device (like a DVD or VHS player).
Sony has opted not to include a TV tuner inside the LocationFree, so you'll need to connect it to an existing television or set-top box to stream movies to remote devices. The lack of an integrated tuner means that when you change TV channels remotely, you're also changing the channel on your set top box or television at home. This could annoy anyone who's watching TV at your home at the same time as you are watching it remotely. By contrast, the Slingbox's integrated analogue-Freeview TV tuner lets users at home watch the oridinary television or set-top box while you watch TV via the Slingbox's integrated tuner.
Whereas the Slingbox has its much-touted Slingstream technology -- a system that analyses network conditions and adjusts the stream quality accordingly -- the LocationFree works differently. The mechanics of the system are beyond the scope of this review, but whereas the Slingbox tends to subtly decrease the speed of the video playback to avoid dropped frames, the LocationFree drops entire frames, leading to choppy playback during adverse network conditions. This can be more annoying than decreased playback speed in some cases.
We found further drawbacks in the LocationFree's networking capabilities. It has an integrated Wi-Fi adaptor, but it's not possible to connect the LocationFree wirelessly to a router. Instead, you'll have to snake an Ethernet cable between the LocationFree and your router -- which isn't ideal if your router is in another room. And unlike the Slingbox, you can't use a Homeplug-certified powerline adaptor, which lets you setup a home network using your existing mains wiring.
Another major issue with LocationFree is that Sony charges for each copy of the software. You get one copy of the LocationFree Player in the box, but if you want to install it on a second PC you'll need to buy an additional copy at a cost of £19.99. You can install the Slingbox player on as many devices as you like. You can unregister the first PC and register a new one using the same licence key, but you'll need to be physically present at home to run the initial setup on the base station.
Finally, the LocationFree is too expensive, particularly when looked at alongside it's most direct competitor. It was originally launched at £350, but in light of Slingbox's far more reasonable £179, Sony has dropped the price to £229. This is a step in the right direction, but it's still £50 more than the Slingbox.
The LocationFree has plenty going for it. Its design means it won't look out of place next to your existing AV equipment, and it works with the Sony PSP, and it comes in retail packs that include a portable display. Unfortunately, its price and relative lack of input/output options mean we find it hard to recommend over the Slingbox.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide