Shifty Devices

TV addicts have been time-shifting since the analog days of the VCR, but ask them if they know how to place-shift, and you're likely to get blank stares. The newest disruptive technology - disruptive, that is, for broadcasters, cable companies, sports cartels, and Hollywood's pay-per-play lobbyists - is a component that reads the analog A/V outputs from a cable box, satellite receiver, or camcorder but especially a DVR, so that recorded programs or live channels can be streamed over your home network to another room or transmitted to a computer or Smartphone in a remote location via the Internet. A pass-through connection also sends the signals on to your TV, so you can watch programs as usual from your primary sofa - unless another person watching from the remote screen clicks their virtual remote and changes the channel. Now, that's disruptive! But it's far more likely that this wouldn't happen because no one would be home.

The Short Form
A very capable, though somewhat complex, product from the company that first introduced video place-shifting. Price: $250
• Two sets of A/V inputs for remote switching between different source components • Embedded Wi-Fi • Sleek design • Streams video to Sony PSP players
• Steep learning curve • Needlessly complex menus
Key Features
• Built-in 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi compatibility • Ability to tweak video and audio bit rates and prioritize frame rate versus resolution • Inputs: component- and S-video, 2 composite-video and stereo audio • Outputs (pass-through): component- and S-video, composite-video and stereo audio • Other jacks: 1 Ethernet, 2 IR blaster • 2 1/2 x 8 x 5 in (vertical orientation, W x H x D); 1 1/4 lb :: 866-925-7669

Some refer to this new way of watching TV as place-shifting; others, space-shifting or location-free viewing. Whatever you call it, the end result is just as liberating as time-shifting. It offers a way to keep an eye on home team games, local news, and that TV series you record but never have time to watch while you're away from home. Using a place-shifting device in cahoots with a time-shifter is also a one-two punch against hefty pay-per-view charges in hotel rooms, or as a way to leverage a single cable subscription even while away at your vacation home.

The prerequisites are a home network for in-home viewing, a broadband Internet connection for away viewing, and a desktop or notebook computer.

I installed three place-shifters for this roundup: Sony's monolithic-looking LocationFree LF-V30, Sling Media's trapezoidal Slingbox Solo, and Monsoon Multimedia's curved-in Hava Titanium HD WIFI. Although there are differences, all three basically work the same way. You attach cables between the analog audio and video outputs of your cable or satellite DVR or TiVo and the place-shifter base station (none of the place-shifters provide digital audio or HDMI ports), which compresses a live channel or recorded show into an MPEG format - generally MPEG-4 - and transmits it through your home network or the Internet. Next, you load player software on a computer to receive and view shows. When you click on a graphic depiction of the source component's remote on your computer's screen, signals get relayed to the base station and its IR emitter cable, which sticks to the front of your cable or satellite box or TiVo. This effectively gives you the same controls that you'd have pointing the real remote from your couch.

Sony LocationFree LF-V30

LocationFree TV on the road: At 6:30 p.m., NBC Nightly News is received in New York but shifted live to a hotel at 3:30 p.m. Las Vegas time. Too bad the hotel's Internet connection kept going down.
The place-shifting category was brought to market by Sony, which demonstrated the first LocationFree base station in 2004. The LocationFree brand has continued to evolve, and the latest model, the sleeker LF-V30, includes built-in Wi-Fi connectivity and both component-video inputs and outputs. Also the Location-Free player software now comes with Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) handhelds and is preloaded on all new Sony Vaio computers.

Setup The LF-V30 has the most comprehensive selection of inputs and outputs of the three place-shifters reviewed here. While this gives you the greatest flexibility for remote switching between two independent A/V sources (each with its own video, audio, and IR control), a shifter newbie may find the Sony's receiver-like back panel a bit daunting. A stand for upright placement of the LocationFree base station is included, along with an IR emitter, standard composite-video/stereo cables, an Ethernet cable, and a CD-ROM with the LocationFree player software.

I connected a component-video cable and the included stereo audio cable between my Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR and the LF-V30. After attaching the supplied Ethernet cable to my 4-port wired/wireless 802.11g-type router, I also attached a Canon miniDV camcorder to a second set of A/V inputs. I next placed the IR blaster in front of the cable box. Upon powering up, an LED on the front panel indicated that the LF-V30 had found my network. At this point, I installed software from the included CD-ROM on a wireless notebook computer temporarily planted on the coffee table in front of my couch across from my big-screen TV.

To configure the virtual remote control, the setup wizard prompted me to point my DVR's remote at the LF-V30, which brought up nine possible remotes on my computer screen. The last was meant for use with my cable box DVR - and sure enough, clicking on the graphic produced a compatible remote. As I discovered, though, the remote inconveniently required that I choose one of three modes: Play for DVR functions, Menu for guide info, and 10-key to change the channel. No such mode selection was necessary with my real DVR remote. Sony's technical support e-mailed me the software for the correct remote, and once installed, mode selection was eliminated.

Performance As I would come to appreciate with all three place-shifters, there's a vast difference in playback quality between streaming within a home network versus over the Internet to a remote computer. The former exhibited full-screen DVD quality whether connected by Ethernet cable or 802.11g Wi-Fi; the latter, VHS quality or less at full screen. Although they could accept a high-def input, none of the place-shifters delivered a high-definition picture to my computer, even over a wired home network. However, with that particular setup the picture looked very sharp, and hiccups were few and far between with a high-def channel as the source.

Having positioned my notebook's 15-inch screen on the table in front of my 50-inch plasma, it was simple to compare the picture quality once I got used to the smaller screen's several-second latency. I first watched Who's Harry Crumb? from the Universal HD Channel on both the big screen and my notebook. After adjusting the aspect ratio to widescreen using the LocationFree software, I accepted its default bit rate and was very pleased to see full 30 frames-per-second (fps) action reproduced on my computer without picture artifacts or audio glitches. I could also carry Harry around my apartment without any loss in quality.

Place-shifting to my parents' broadband-connected home in New Jersey, I was able to use my notebook to enjoy everything available to me on my home DVR. I switched to the video-camera input and spied my wife as she sat on the sofa. (Actually, she knew I was watching, since I already had her on the phone.) There was a 7-second delay between when she said she was raising her hand and when I saw it move, but the video looked pretty close to 30 fps.

A few weeks later, I accessed the LF-V30 in order to jump time zones for a live broadcast of NBC Nightly News from my broadband-enabled hotel room in Las Vegas. ( See "Where's Brian?".) I successfully used my notebook to change channels just as the local news was ending. (Was it really that warm in New York in January?) Nightly News began, but the picture soon went dark, and I had to click the reconnect button. It played in fits and starts, and I had to reconnect again. I soon realized that I was at the mercy of my hotel's overloaded broadband connection.

I generally accepted the system's default bit rates for the programs I watched, though the software lets you prioritize picture resolution or frame rate during playback. (It would have been helpful if genre menus could indicate the best settings for head-talkers on The NewsHour versus ball-kickers at the Super Bowl.) I was able to call up a screen showing the selected video and audio bit rates, but the labels and numbers overlapped, making a mess of the readout (video should be streaming at close to 3 megabits per second [Mbps] on a typical home network, according to a LocationFree TV spokesman). Different screen resolutions were tried, but I was unable to solve my non-readable bit-rate problem.

Incidentally, although you can have up to eight client devices (including PCs and Sony PSPs) registered to one Location-Free base station, only one client at a time can connect and receive the stream. If one person is viewing and another one tries to connect, the interloper will get a message saying the base station is in use. Due to its unique serial key, you can install the software that came with the V30 on only one PC. You can, however, download a free version that can be installed on an unlimited number of PCs.

Bottom Line Since this is the only one of the three place-shifters allowing A/V switching between two source components, the LF-V30 is probably the best choice for someone who wants to, say, follow a basketball game from their computer in a room lacking a TV (or from anywhere else in the world) and at the same time keep an eye and ear on a sleeping baby from a video camera connected to the base station. An embedded Wi-Fi antenna, which in turn can be used as an access point for other devices, makes the LF-V30 a good choice for anyone with a wireless network (the device is compatible with 802.11a and 802.11g networks). And when you get tired playing games on your PSP, using it to access your DVR via the LF-V30 should rank high up on the scale of cool.