Gadget Showdown: Sling Media Slingbox vs. Sony LocationFree TV

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There is a lot of excitement about devices that let you watch your own TV programming while you're traveling around the country, and even abroad. I've written about Sling Media's Slingbox and Sony's LocationFree TV in the past, but I never got a chance to test them side by side. Now that Sling has introduced a mobile-phone version of its SlingPlayer, and Sony has introduced compatibility with Windows laptops and its popular PSP game system, I felt it was high time for a showdown.

Setting up the Slingbox is easy. I plugged my cable box, a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD with built-in DVR, into the Slingbox, then connected that to my TV and my home network via Ethernet. (There are many ways to do this; fortunately, Sling has many useful accessories, such as the $100 SlingLink which make it not-so-painful.) After everything was plugged in, I ran a simple software installer on my PC.

Within minutes, my own TV programming was bounced at roughly 1200 kilobits per second from the Slingbox through my home network and out via Wi-Fi to my HP laptop. Video appeared smooth and watchable. I especially like the video-adjustment wizard that ensures that the picture on the SlingPlayer is halfway decent.

In order to simulate being on the road, I connected a Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess card to my laptop, and dialed up to the carrier's highspeed mobile network. Connecting to the Internet via cellular modem, I was still able to pull up the cable box in my home, even though we could have been a continent apart. Connecting remotely did cost a lot of bandwidth however: at 300 Kbps, South Park and The Colbert Report were watchable, but game highlights from a Tino Martinez retrospective on the Yankees' YES network were wracked with digital blur.

Sling newest addition is its SlingPlayer Mobile software for PDA phones ($30, but there’s a free trial). Using Sprint's UTStarcom PPC 6700, operating on a highspeed data network similar to Verizon's, I could pull up the cable box — live shows and ones I had already recorded. My only complaint is that the virtual remote control gets in the way of the on-screen program guide, so you can't see what you're trying to select. My clumsy solution was to keep toggling the remote on and off.

Sony's LocationFree LF-PK1 connects to a cable box and home network much like a Slingbox. It can take two video sources plus a cable straight from the wall, but unlike Slingbox, it doesn't come with enough wires to do a basic cable-box setup. The software setup was also a little more complicated, though in fairness I did configure everything in a short while.

By the time I was testing the Sony, YES was airing a Yankees-Red Sox game. Connecting through my local network, the video was smooth enough. However, the color was pretty bad; there was weird ghosting on the screen, like an underdone psychedelic effect. And there was no video-adjustment wizard to help me out. When I switched over to the Verizon Wireless EVDO card, the viewing was terrible. I couldn't read the score at the top of the screen, or recognize the face of a single player.

My biggest complaint was that the LocationFree’s virtual on-screen remote didn’t have the right buttons to control my cable box. There was no List button, so I could not access a single show that I had recorded earlier. Also noticeably absent were the back-skip and live-TV buttons. My viewing options were basically limited to live TV.

The bright side was that I was able to connect the PSP directly to the LocationFree unit wirelessly, with no setup whatsoever. The viewing was smooth and beautiful. The color issues were gone completely, though my problems with the remote buttons remained.

I understand why people are excited about this phenomenon. However, as the migration to high-definition TVs and cable boxes speeds up, these products must evolve fast. I made the mistake of trying to play an HD broadcast, and everything froze. It's a paradox, because the earliest of adopters probably already watch a lot of HDTV. To put it bluntly: if you're recording the current season of Sopranos or 24 on a high-def cable DVR, you'll have to record it simultaneously in standard definition to watch it on Sony's LocationFree TV or the snazzier Slingbox from Sling Media.