Sony LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak review: Sony LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak
Place-shifting TV is one of the new hot buzzwords in tech land, and Sony's LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak, which allows you to wirelessly stream live TV to your PC or PSP handheld game console, is Sony's answer to Sling Media's well-received Slingbox. Technically, Sony's line of LocationFree TV products (including the LF-X1) has been around longer than the Slingbox has, but it was slow to trickle into the North American market, and the LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak ($350 list) is the first to carry a more affordable price tag that puts in direct competition with the $250 Slingbox.
With a design that's reminiscent of a large cable modem, the Sony LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak is a simple box that attaches to your TV's cable or satellite box or any other video source such as a DVD player. The box has built-in Wi-Fi, but it's for LocationFree clients only--you'll have to set up the system with a wired Ethernet connection to your home network.
Setup was relatively straightforward (an instructional DVD is included along with a single poster-size instruction document), though it wasn't totally hassle-free--we did run into some trouble because we didn't realize at first that the box we had was running on older firmware that needed to be upgraded. After some digging around in the menus, we discovered the Upgrade option, and things went fairly smoothly after that. It's also important to make sure that if you're using the LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak with a PSP, you'll need to confirm that your PSP is running on the latest available firmware for optimal performance.
The Sony's LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak offers two sets of A/V inputs, one of which also includes S-Video and an RF coaxial input (an analog TV tuner). You can toggle between two video sources, but the included IR blaster can control only one (such as a cable or satellite box, a TiVo, or a DVD player), so you'll need to plan your setup with care. We connected the LF-PK1 to our Scientific Atlantic Explorer 8300 cable box/DVR via S-Video and the standard composite audio inputs and outputs. Once the LF-PK1 was set up on the network, we installed and launched the viewing application on a laptop PC and hit the play button. Lo and behold, we were watching our cable TV programming--on our PC's screen in the next room. After closing out the viewing application on the laptop--you can't watch on two client devices at once--we next launched the LocationFree icon on our PSP (it's a main menu option once you upgrade to the latest firmware) and selected the LF-PK1 access point from the choices available. Again, we got a picture of live TV and were able to change channels using the virtual onscreen remote on the PSP; you use the PSP's buttons to navigate and select buttons on the remote.
It's worth noting that when you're streaming within your house, you have to select the LF-PK1 rather than another wireless access point on your LAN, or else you can't stream wirelessly. However, when you're outside your home, you simply log into any accessible Wi-Fi network to start streaming. Oddly, when we attempted to stream via a neighbor's open wireless network from our home, it didn't work; we had to use the LF-PK1 as our entry point. Another important caveat is that the video sources are completely under the control of anyone using the software--so if you log in from work and change the channel or start playing back a prerecorded show, anyone sitting on the sofa at home is forced to watch your new viewing choice as well.
As for video quality, the Sony LF-PK1's picture looks significantly better when you're streaming within the boundaries of your home network. At home, we were able to stream at the maximum rate--the least amount of compression--and the picture and sound, except during peak broadband usage in the evening, was mostly smooth and glitch-free. However, when we streamed to our PSP at work, we had to increase the compression rate, resulting in a less sharp picture, in order to get a smooth stream. Of course, picture quality is largely dependent on how good both your upstream (at home) and downstream (whatever Wi-Fi network you access) are. We did notice that when we upgraded the firmware on the PSP to the most recent version, which featured some tweaks to the LocationFree application, picture quality improved slightly and we seemed to experience fewer dropouts. The virtual remote also seemed slightly more responsive. In other words, LocationFree is really a work in progress, and we expect to see it continually improve with time, just as the Slingbox has with each software upgrade.
That said, at the time of this writing, we feel Slingbox offers a better overall experience than LocationFree TV. The gap is relatively small, but when we streamed live TV to a remotely located PC (a laptop), the picture seemed smoother, and clicking the Slingbox's virtual remote yielded a quicker channel change on our box at home. Also--very importantly--Sony hasn't quite got its remote act together. We couldn't just key in our cable box's model number and load the correct remote codes. We ended up selecting a more generic Scientific Atlantic box and were unable to get access to our Explorer 8300's DVR functionality. With the Slingbox, we could, though it did require a little tinkering to get the correct remote code. Also, we had trouble keying in any channels higher than 99--which is a problem on a digital system with three- and four-digit channels.
In short, the Slingbox is a better and cheaper option for streaming to a remote PC, and the company has shown beta versions of Mac and Windows Mobile clients as well. However, if you're looking to stream live TV to your PSP from wherever you have access to a Wi-Fi connection, the Sony LF-PK1 LocationFree Player Pak is your only option. The good news is that it works--and works pretty well--and it is getting better. We only wish Sony would lower its price by $100. In due time, we expect it will.