LocationFree hardware has been available in Japan and America for a while, nominally in the form of a base station and a separate portable LCD tablet, but this UK debut dispenses with the latter, opting for PC and PSP hook-up instead.
The idea is, essentially, the same as Sling Media's Slingbox; attach the box to your internet router at home and access streamed video anywhere in the world on a laptop or Sony's own PlayStation Portable. However, there are some restrictions to the ideal concept of 'place-shifting' video, not least that you can only watch the footage if you're in a wi-fi hotspot or hotwired into a broadband connection.
Although the concepts are similar, there are differences. Unlike the Slingbox (with its basic DVB-T Freeview tuner), the LF-PK1 needs to be connected to a separate video source, such as a Sky, cable or Freeview set-top box. Only a composite video feed can be streamed. In contrast, the Slingbox has an S-video input. Unless you're streaming at a high rate on your local network, though, chances are you won't notice any difference over the composite input.
Connectivity is simple but effective. Two sets of composite video and analogue stereo inputs are supplied, for switching between separate sources, such as an STB and a DVD player, plus a LAN port and a remote blaster socket.
The latter is for a supplied IR transmitter that you stick somewhere in front of your sources' IR receivers and the LAN connection is to plug it into your, hopefully, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) internet router. However, in a remarkable bout of consumer unfriendliness, no CAT5 cable is included in the pack. With the base station requiring wired-hook-up to the router, it's an annoying omission akin to giving a kid a Christmas present without any batteries.
Once the base station is connected (utilising complicated port forwarding techniques if your router isn't UPnP) you have to install the supplied software on a PC (either laptop for free roaming or desktop). Although the LF-PK1 can 'register' up to four separate devices - PC, PSP or Sony's LocationFree-enabled portable TV - the software only gives you license to install it on one PC.
This means very little to those planning on using a PSP to log in, as the latest build of its firmware (2.71) has the front-end as standard, but PC-owners who want to place-shift to a laptop and, say, a bedroom computer will have to buy an additional copy of the user interface for £20 apiece.
Unfortunately, to my opinion, the software isn't really worth an extra 20 quid a pop. It boasts a library of remote control codes to command connected kit, yet I couldn't get it to work with HomeChoice or a Philips DVB-T set-top box, the former of which is actually manufactured by, ahem, Sony. And other than those two, scanning through the list, the rest of the library seems rather stingy.
This problem is being addressed by Sony, which has pledged to release software upgrades that will include other remote codes. It's worth checking out the LocationFree-specifi c website at http://products.sel.sony.com/ locationfreetv to fi nd out if the changes have been implemented.
Regardless of these caveats, though, what's most important is its AV performance. So just how good is LocationFree as a video delivery system?
Sonically it doesn't disappoint. No matter what bandwidth you use at home and what you've managed to connect to elsewhere, functional stereo is offered with few audio foibles. However, its pictures do not compare. Using the automatic, variable bitrate setting (there are five in all) there are times when the images resemble a scene from Legoland.
All too often the signal suffers from blockiness, artefacts and generally breaks up. Things improve remarkably when forced into its highest bitrate but that requires a high speed broadband connection (over 300kbps) at home and away, otherwise the images stutter. There's no doubt that if this were a Head2Head with the Slingbox, the rival would win hands down in performance (as well as, almost, every other way really).
It's all a bit of a shame really. I love the PSP and was eagerly anticipating LocationFree to arrive on these shores. But with it's catalogue of frustrations and flaws, it's hard to see the LF-PK1 as anything more than a pre-production tester. If it's place-shifting to a PC you're after, the Slingbox does it so much better and for £50 less. If it's to a PSP, it's probably worth waiting for second-generation kit.