First Look: Battle of the TV Place-Shifting Devices
TV used to be so simple. You sat down on the couch, grabbed the remote control, and watched your favorite shows when they were broadcast.
Today, it's anything but simple. You have HDTVs and LCDs and the DVRs, which let you shift when you watch TV. As if all that wasn't enough, now you also have place-shifting devices: gadgets that let you watch your TV even if you're not in the same room--or building--as the TV. I looked at two new place-shifting devices, the HAVA Wireless HD from Monsoon Multimedia and the LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station from Sony's LocationFree TV product line. Both products offer some excellent features, but overall, I preferred the HAVA Wireless HD.
Both gadgets are also similar to Slingbox's popular place-shifting device. Like the Slingbox, the HAVA Wireless HD and the LF-B20 both let you watch your TV from any Internet-connected computer, and even some portable devices. All of the place-shifting devices work in a similar way, via a hardware component that you attach to your TV and video source and then connect to your home network. They also include a software component that you must install on your PC in order to connect to the TV and watch the video. The ease of setup, however, varies.
Much like the new Slingbox AV, which I recently reviewed, the HAVA Wireless HD was a snap to install. It is slightly larger than the sleek Slingbox--the HAVA is about the size of a large textbook--but it doesn't feel as sturdy as the Slingbox. I connected the HAVA to my TiVo Series2 DVR via S-Video and composite audio. What's nice about the HAVA (and the Sony device as well) is that it has built-in wireless capabilities--unlike the Slingbox. The Slingbox must be connected to your router via an ethernet port, which was problematic for me because my router and TV reside on different floors in my house. The HAVA was able to connect to my router wirelessly. Within minutes, the device was set up, and my TV was connected to my PC.
Connecting the Sony LocationFree TV took longer. The LFB-20 base station is slim and by far the sleekest-looking of the three place-shifting devices I looked at. This black unit is about the size of a paperback book and comes with a base that lets you stand it up perpendicularly. It fit in nicely with my TV setup.
Even though the device is wireless, I first had to connect it to my router via ethernet to set it up. That process was quick; connecting it to my TV was considerably more complicated. The quick-start guide that accompanied the product contained so many diagrams and arrows that it was difficult to follow. The text directions that it offered were incomplete, and the illustrations were too small to be helpful. After incorrectly connecting the LFB-20 to my TiVo the first time, I gave up and called Sony's excellent toll-free customer service line. The gentleman on the phone walked me through the process of installing the product step-by-step, and soon enough, it was working.
Let Your TV Play
The software (on CD) that comes with both the HAVA and the LFB-20 is what lets you watch the content of your TV on your PC. Both applications were simple to use; both CDs included a wizard that took just a few minutes to install and fine-tune the programs. Once the software is installed, you can connect to your HAVA or Sony device, whether it's on your current network, or over the Internet. The software will find the device automatically on your network; to connect via the Internet, you need to know the name and password of the device, and the software will find it for you.
Both apps show a large video screen and a remote control for changing the channel and otherwise controlling your TV remotely. One major drawback, though: Unlike Slingbox's SlingPlayer, neither the HAVA PC Player nor the Sony LocationFree Player shows an exact replica of your TV's remote control. SlingPlayer uses skins that allow you to see, for example, your TiVo remote on the screen. This makes it easy to do things like scroll through and playback your stored recordings and schedule future recordings. Both the HAVA PC Player and LocationFree Player show an industrialized-looking, very basic remote that offers most of the same functions, just without the familiarity of the SlingPlayer remote. HAVA says it will be adding skins in a future version of the software.
The HAVA PC Player software does offer some features that both of the other apps don't have, however. It allows you to record TV content directly to your PC's hard drive from within the application. You can also schedule recordings and play back previously recorded content from your hard drive. HAVA PC Player also offers excellent video quality; I found it to be the most consistent of all three applications, especially when the video windows were expanded to full-screen size.
Sony's device does offer a unique feature: It lets you connect to your TV from your PlayStation Portable. The PSP guides you through the set-up process, which takes just a few minutes. Video looks surprisingly good on the handheld's 4.3-inch screen.
Overall, though, I preferred the HAVA Wireless HD. Both products cost $249, but the HAVA is easier to set up and offered better video quality. (Though the HAVA Wireless HD is currently available only from the company's Web site, Monsoon is considering deals with OEMs to make it available in retail stores.) Still, the Sony LocationFree TV is a solid choice, especially if you already own a PSP.
HAVA Wireless HD
This TV place-shifter is simple to set up, easy to use, and offers excellent video quality.
Current prices (if available)
Sony LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station
Connecting this place-shifting device to your TV can be a challenge, but once connected, it's easy to use.
Current prices (if available)