Sony LF-V30 LocationFree TV review:

Sony LF-V30 LocationFree TV

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 log in from 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. (Note that the LF-V30 can accept high-def (720p/1080i) video, but it downconverts it for streaming.)

On the Windows viewing software, Sony has made a few notable improvements. The onscreen software "remote" had all of the important keys for our DVR (including the all-important "list" function), and the template can now be updated, so you can add more customized keys for anything that's missing. Sony also says that remote "skins" are available--so the onscreen remote mirrors the familiar look and feel of your device's remote--but we couldn't seem to get that function to work.

Prefer to watch your TV shows on a device other than your PC? LocationFree products are theoretically supported on Macs and Windows Mobile devices, but there are a variety of caveats. For the Mac, you'll need to invest in viewing software from Taxan (aka IO-Data) to do so; we didn't have a copy on hand, so we didn't test it. But according to the company's Web site, the client isn't even verified to work with the LF-V30. Likewise, Access (the company that owns the rights to the Palm OS) offers the NetFront LocationFree Player for Pocket PC ($20)--but compatibility is limited to Windows Mobile 5.0 and 2003 Second Edition devices, and the company has "no plan to support Windows Mobile 6." On the brighter side, any PSP with the latest firmware is ready to go: you'll just need to pair the PSP with the LF-V30 first (follow the onscreen instructions on the PSP to do so). Once it's paired up, you should be able to access and control the LF-V30 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 squarish confines of a standard 4:3 monitor or a wider 16:9 viewing space, as found on a PSP.

Even if you stick with Windows, installing a player is something of an annoyance. The included software has a license, of course, but you can use that only on one machine. Each additional Windows PC will require another license (software key) at a cost of $30. So, if you want to view your home TV programming on more than one computer--say, your personal laptop and your work PC--you're going to have to shell out more money. (Sony VAIO owners, at least, get a freebie; the LocationFree software comes preinstalled on those PCs as of summer 2007.)

Compare that software rigmarole to the Slingbox experience. Sling offers freely downloadable Windows and Mac versions, so you can install the viewing client on as many computers as you want for no additional charge. (Only one can log on at any given time, but it's still a huge advantage.) As long as you have the Slingbox serial number and password, you can effectively download and install the software and watch your home TV from any computer in the world, without being bogged down paying additional fees. And while Sling also charges for its mobile software clients, each of them--for Palm OS, Windows Mobile, and Symbian smartphones--are updated much more frequently, and the downloads and customer support documents are all in one convenient place: Sling's Web site. Likewise, if you have a problem with any of them, you deal with Sling's customer service--not a third party.

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-V30 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.

In the final analysis, the LocationFree LF-V30 is an incremental improvement over the preceding LF-B20 model. If wireless connectivity is a must, or you're a heavy PSP user, the LF-V30 is the box for you. But everyone else will be better served by a Slingbox, which offers easier setup and installation, a better software client, and solid support for far more devices, including Macs and Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian smartphones.

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