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.
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.