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Sony LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station (wireless) review: Sony LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station (wireless)

Sony LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station (wireless)

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John Falcone
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John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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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.

6.9

Sony LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station (wireless)

The Good

Streams video sources, including live TV, to any broadband-connected Windows PC, Mac, or PSP in the world; no host PC or monthly charges required; built-in wireless networking includes the ability to act as a full-service access point for your home network; controls most cable and satellite boxes and DVRs; lets you "learn" remote codes for nonsupported devices and functions, just like a universal remote; includes full connectivity (with one set of pass-through outputs) for controlling two A/V sources.

The Bad

Convoluted setup and installation; software remote support should be expanded and improved; Mac software clients--and additional Windows PC clients--cost extra; Windows Mobile client announced but not yet released.

The Bottom Line

Sony's improved third-generation LocationFree TV product includes several cool features--including wireless connectivity, PSP compatibility, and remote control customization--but setup headaches and software limitations keep it from being a true Slingbox killer.
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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.

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.

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.

6.9

Sony LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station (wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 7
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