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 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.
But the third time may well be the charm for the Sony. On paper, at least, the latest LocationFree offerings offer a compelling mix of features and value, including some that trump the Slingbox. Both new Base Stations equal the Slingbox's ability to control one or two devices (a cable or satellite box plus a DVD player or DVR, for instance) that are connected via composite or S-Video inputs. But 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), and the LF-B20 incorporates 802.11a/b/g wireless, so--unlike the Slingbox and the otherwise identical LF-B10--it can interface with a home network via Wi-Fi without the need to connect an Ethernet cable. Moreover, 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 software); Mac OS X machine (using software from I-O Data); Sony PSP (just upgrade to the latest 2.50 or later firmware); 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. But the introduction of the TV Box is a notable addition: the hardware client 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.
If you're keeping score, the Slingbox can stream to software clients on all things Windows (PCs running Windows 2000 and XP, plus Windows Mobile PDAs and smart phones), and a long-delayed Mac client should finally be available before the end of 2006 (CNET's seen a working beta, and yes--it's a universal binary that works on older PowerPC and newer Intel OS X Macs). Slingbox beats the Sony offerings on price: it's available online for between $150 and $200, though you'll need to pay $30 extra for the Windows Mobile software--but the built-in wireless on the LF-B20, the TV Box client, and the PSP viewer are intriguing and worthwhile upgrades that Slingbox can't currently match. (When asked if the PlayStation 3 could act as a LocationFree TV client, Sony's answer was a curt "no comment.")
Of course, we have yet to actually test the latest incarnation of LocationFree TV, so it remains to be seen if it can approach the ease of setup, smooth operation, and overall polish found with the current iteration of Sling's software and firmware. Moreover, it's a safe bet that the Slingbox team won't take Sony's challenge sitting down. But the increased competition in the "placeshifting" market is certainly great news for consumers, who are getting more choices at more affordable prices.
CNET will have a full review of the LocationFree LF-B10 and LF-B20 Base Stations and the TV Box client as soon as they're available.