One of the “hot new things” of this and next year is the ability to watch TV from locations other than the home. A variety of companies are launching new products, services, and even Web sites, all designed to enable you to view TV shows from wherever you are, whenever you want it. Even Sony believes this market is hot enough to launch a new category of devices, called LocationFree TVs. Over the past week, I’ve had the chance to use Sony’s new LocationFree TV (the LF-X1 model, with the 12.1″ screen) to watch TV wirelessly in and out of my home, with mixed results.
In my opinion, the easiest part of setup was the physical connections. The box and connectors were clearly labeled “AV input” and “network”, and used all standard cables. The base station allows you to connect two different devices, such as a satellite receiver and a DVD player, but I chose to just use my DirecTV-TiVo unit. My first moment of disappointment in the experience was when I realized that the unit did not come with any cables (other than power and the infrared emitter). For fifteen hundred dollars, you’d think Sony could include some simple cables. Thankfully, being the kind of guy I am, I went to my storage closet to pull out everything I’d need.
I connected the output of my TiVo to the AV1 input on the base station, and then connected the AV output from the base station to my AV receiver. The only other connection to the TiVo unit was the IR blaster, which is used to send outgoing infrared (remote control) signals to the TiVo. Setting up the network is likely the big stumbling block for most people. Even though the device offers wireless TV in the home, if you want to watch your LocationFree TV from out of the house, you must be hard-wired into the unit from your home network. Luckily I have Ethernet access near my stereo setup, otherwise I’d have hit a bit of a snag.
Next, I powered everything up, and turned on the LCD screen. In typical consumer electronics style, I was shown a menu with seven main options (TV/Video, Web, E-mail, Album, Basic, Monitor, Base Station), plus a “back” and “exit” button. At this point, I really think Sony would benefit from a “setup wizard” to guide the user through the setup process. I clicked on “TV/Video” to start, where I had three new choices: Channel Settings, Remote Settings, Picture/Sound. Hmmm. As a person who is very familiar with these devices and technologies, I knew to continue to setup the Remote, but I have a feeling that a lot of users would already be quite frustrated by this point.
Within the Remote Settings option I was able to configure the IR blaster, using a fairly intuitive screen, and when I was done I encountered another major usability flaw in the Sony user interface (or GUI). At the end of the setup, rather than have a satisfying “OK” button in the middle of the screen, I had to hunt around to find a small “back” button hidden in the bottom left corner. In fact, at no point anywhere in the settings menus does the device ever inform you that everything is set up, or you are done. You must click “exit” from the settings menu to start watching TV, even the first time you use the device.
The bottom line: If you are not comfortable hooking up a VCR or a DVD player, you will have trouble with the base station. The LCD setup screens will probably leave you fairly frustrated, but with enough trial and error (and consulting the manual), you’ll probably figure it out eventually. Overall, I felt it was an unnecessarily complex setup process.
The in-home experience of the LocationFree TV was, for the most part, quite enjoyable. The video signal quality was better than good enough to enjoy (screenshots are below), and the device performed as I was hoping it would. I had a few issues with range in-home, as there were times when the screen would go blank and it would display an error that I was out of range of the base station. Unfortunately, this happened sometimes when I was as close as 5 feet away, so I believe other factors (possibly the microwave, cordless phone, or something else?) that disrupted the signal, although these occurrences were not too frequent. The process of fine-tuning some of the AV and networking settings were very unpleasant, but you are able to configure the device to use specified frequencies or channels if you have the know-how.
The battery life of the unit was around 90 minutes, which was quite disappointing, because it meant I had to carry the power adapter from room to room. Aside from that, both my wife and I found ourselves using the LocationFree TV throughout our apartment. One big perk for me involved using the unit during a bright day when I wasn’t really able to watch my projector.
The device has several pre-designed control layouts for interacting with external devices, such as my DirecTV-TiVo. The “DVR” menu has controls to replicate most of the buttons on the remote. When you tap on the LCD screen, a control pane appears to the right of the TV viewing area. Tapping on any control sends the IR signal from the base station to the external device, which then reacts as if you had pressed the remote control. While most of the controls I needed to use my TiVo were present, the ones I found myself needing the most was the page up/down buttons for browsing lists of shows. The most conspicuous missing buttons were the lack of channel numbers, a very bizarre element to leave out. It made manual channel changing impossible, and since I don’t often like to browse the 200+ channels I receive, I really only used the device to watch pre-recorded shows.
Controlling the TiVo was a bit tricky, since there was a 5 second latency between pushing a button and seeing the result. I typically overshot most fast-forwarding by about 45 seconds and had to hit the “replay” button many times to get to the right spot. Frustrating, but I can’t see much of a way around this issue.
The single worst experience about the GUI for TV viewing was figuring out how to get rid of the controls pane once it appears. First I tried tapping in the TV area, since that’s how it appeared in the first place. No luck. Next, I tried all sorts of other areas in the top region of the screen, which were all apparently dead spots. After a long while, I realized the “X” in the upper right corner of the pane, which “closed” the controls window.
This to me represents the consistent flaw in product design for “converged” devices – PC GUI metaphors (such as “back” or closing windows) need to be constantly reevaluated before used in different environments, especially touch-screen or 10-foot-GUI situations.
The bottom line: Better than expected picture quality throughout the home, but short battery life and intermittent connectivity issues put a big damper on the value. Again, user interfaces need a lot of clean-up to make the experience satisfactory.
A big part of the product’s appeal is the ability to use the LCD screen from any wireless LAN or wifi hotspot and watch (and control) your TV. As much as the in-home quality exceeded my expectations, the out-of-home quality was so bad, I can only use one word to describe it: unwatchable.
First, the process of configuring Internet (WAN) access to the device was definitely not something for the average consumer. If you have never before set up port forwarding, dynamic DNS, or static IP addresses, you will not, under any circumstances, be able to get this thing running. That said, if you are familiar with such terms, aside from the incredibly clumsy and frustrating UI, the setup process was fairly straightforward. Also, selecting and connecting to a wireless network from the LCD unit was pretty simple.
Once setup, however, figuring out how to watch over the Internet was a bit confusing. From the TV GUI, you have to start by clicking a “NetAV” button at the bottom of the screen. After that, the screen displays “connecting”, “authenticating”, then “buffering” alerts, until the TV streaming begins. The first time I tried, this took about 45 seconds, and then a partial screen image appeared, followed by a bit of audio, then just a still image. About 30 seconds later, I got another frame or two of the picture, with a smattering of audio, then nothing again.
I proceeded to click the “rate” button, which displayed a dialog giving options from 1 to 5, and a poorly worded warning that switching to/from “level 1” requires a reconnect. Not sure what this meant, I tried level 3. A few seconds later I was treated to a few more video frames, and the audio signal became nearly stable. I dropped the quality to level 2, which wasn’t much better. Expecting the worst, I switched to level 1. The unit disconnected, reconnected, re-authenticated, and re-buffered, and then displayed the TV equivalent of Atari 2600 video quality.
The bottom line: It just doesn’t work. I ended up trying multiple wifi hot-spots or wireless networks, and could never find a single viable connection, despite having 384Kbps upstream from my DSL line (which is better than the average DSL installation provides). I cannot, at all, recommend using the LocationFree TV outside the home.
In addition to being a TV, the LCD screen also offers Web browsing, email, photo album, and, of course, painting, capabilities. I’m not quite sure what the paint feature is for, other than for people who are so bored with TV and the Internet that they feel the need to express themselves artistically. I’m not going to spend more time on the paint feature – it’s silly and frivolous, and my hunch is that some engineer said “You know, I could easily build a paint feature” and with the traditional consumer electronics manufacturer mentality of “ooh, more features means better products,” tah-dah, we have LocationFree Paint. You can see my drawing below. For $5 on PayPal, I’ll send you a signed copy.
The email application is pretty run-of-the mill, and works about the same as any typical Web-based email program. The interface includes an onscreen keyboard (image below), which included a few shortcut keys like “www.”, “.com”, and “http://”. Wow, I thought, some actual GUI design work! Of course, they forgot to have a mechanism for you to indicate you are actually done typing; you actually push a button labeled “close” to enter the text you have typed. I think I’d rather stick to gmail, and use the Web browser interface.
The Web browser is robust enough for a “lite” application, although no replacement for a full-featured browser. The Flash player worked for the few sites I tried it out, and all Web sites I viewed worked as expected. The UI included a convenient tabbed interface, which leaves me stunned that Sony beat Microsoft to include this in their browser. All-in-all, the browser was good enough to use for most Web surfing needs, but the onscreen keyboard remains the biggest drawback. As a Canadian, I did like the shortcut for “.ca”, although I would love to see Sony let the user customize their shortcuts.
The photo album feature lets you browse photos or watch slideshows. You can easily combine this feature with the handy “screen capture” button (which is how I generated all the images for this review, by the way) to grab images from your favorite shows. Naturally, as a Sony device, the LCD unit has a memory stick slot, although copying images to/from a memory stick was a little more painful than it should be. Also, while it took about 6 hard-to-follow steps, I was able to email a still image directly from the photo album as an attachment.
The bottom line: I am mixed on all the fringe functionality. If I had no laptops, I think I’d appreciate the email/web browsing capabilities a lot more. I can see some use for the features, and they are fairly well implemented, but they should be regarded purely as extras.
As an in-home wireless flat-panel TV, it’s a great product.
As an out-of-home “location-free” TV, it fails miserably.
The product promises to “set you free to live beyond the living room” which it does to some degree, but definitely not with the ease and simplicity I would hope for. It’s very pricey, and has very limited capabilities.
For almost $1500, I think it is an absurd value proposition. If I want a mobile solution, I could buy a media center laptop, and get much more functionality and a much better GUI. If I want flat panel TVs in my home, I could buy THREE 15″ displays and put them around my home.
Fundamentally, even if it was much, much cheaper, I still think it’s a bizarre approach to solving the problem of portable TV access. Am I really supposed to carry this with me on business trips? It’s actually heavier than my laptop, with half the resolution, and none of the functionality.
With regards to enabling remote access to content, my recommendation right now is to wait. As I’ve stated in previous articles, I don’t think the various “portable media center” or “media to go” solutions are good ideas either, and there isn’t much else on the market just yet.
The bottom line: Save your $1500 for now, and wait for some more intuitive and natural solutions to getting your TV, location-free.