Sling Media’s Slingbox has generated mucho buzz with its ability to let you watch TV anywhere you have access to your network or the Internet. The latest incarnation of Sony’s LocationFree TV, model LF-X11, does the Slingbox one better: It comes with a 12.1-inch, battery-powered, Wi-Fi enabled, touch-screen LCD.
As with the Slingbox, you can connect LocationFree TV to a set-top box, DVR, DVD player, or any similar device and stream audio and video output over your home network (in MPEG-2 format) or over the Internet (in MPEG-4 format) to any online PC. And like the Slingbox, you can use its built-in analog tuner to watch TV, or you can control remote devices by sending commands back over the network to an infrared blaster.
But where the Slingbox provides just one composite-video input and one pair of stereo audio inputs, LocationFree TV’s base station is equipped with two of each (unfortunately, it lamely matches the Slingbox by having just one S-Video input.) And Sony’s infrared blaster can control two devices, using independent onscreen remote controls. You’d have to buy two Slingboxes to pull that off. LocationFree TV’s base station can also operate as an 802.11a/b/g wireless access point, and it can stream audio and video to a handheld PSP. The Slingbox can’t do either.
We don’t mean to beat up on the Slingbox, but the two devices do invite comparison. And for that matter, the Slingbox has a few of its own advantages: You can install its player software on as many PCs as you like (Sony stupidly expects you to pay $30 for each PC after the first); it should soon support Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, enabling you to watch TV on a whole mess of handheld devices other than the PSP; and it costs about $100 less than the LocationFree Player Pak (which sells for $350 and doesn’t include the display).
But let’s get back to the LocationFree TV’s wicked-cool LCD, which is practically a thin-client PC. While it’s no substitute for a laptop, it does have a convenient handle, a built-in stand with 120-degrees of movement, a wired Ethernet port, a Memory Stick port, and a USB 1.1 port (that Sony has unfortunately crippled so that it recognizes only USB keyboards).
You use a stylus on the touch screen to navigate a basic operating system, tab-based web browser, email client, drawing program, and onscreen remote controls. The software is highly integrated: You can capture anything displayed on the screen, load it (or any other digital image) into the drawing program, edit and annotate it, and then attach it to an email and send it over your network. We were amazed to discover that we could teach the LocationFree’s IR blasters to emulate any other remote simply by pointing the remote at the LCD and mapping its buttons using the stylus and touch screen. Good thing, too, because the device’s firmware harbors a skimpy collection of preprogrammed codes.
The 800x600 LCD is bright and lusciously vibrant, even when viewed off axis. With the backlight at maximum, we managed to squeeze out two hours and one minute of use with the software, watching live TV and streaming content from our DVR. You can stretch the battery by dimming the backlight; a spare battery will set you back a princely $150. Wireless range was surprisingly good: We enjoyed reception in every location inside a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot home and were able to wander up to 50 feet out into the yard.
If all you’re looking for is a device for streaming video over the Internet, you don’t need a Wi-Fi access point, and you don’t care about the LCD or streaming video to a PSP, the cheaper Slingbox is a better value. But if you want the ultimate streaming-TV solution, there’s nothing quite like the LocationFree TV’s portable display.
Month Reviewed: May 2006
+ STREAMING VIDEO: Very cool portable LCD; streams video to a PSP; excellent wireless range.
- STREAMING TOXINS: Software requires a separate license for each PC; limited collection of remote-control codes.