Now via Verizon: You can watch television on 3 mobile phones

February 17, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

OVER THE NEXT few months, expect to see more people staring intently at their cell phones for minutes at a time, tapping their feet, oohing and aahing, and breaking into giggles from time to time.

If they're rude and don't wear headphones, you might be able to hear what has them so jacked up. If not, sneak up behind them and take a peek, or maybe just ask, and they'll be happy to show you.

They might be watching a CNN broadcast, or a minithriller based on the TV series 24, or a comedy clip from The Daily Show. It might be the highlights of an NBA game, the latest forecast from AccuWeather, a gossip segment from the E! Entertainment network, or a music video from VH1.

The key word here is video - the real thing - on a mobile phone. The medium is Verizon's V Cast service, which rolled out in major markets this month, along with three new phones that connect to it.

V Cast is the phone-based implementation of Verizon's third-generation (3G) wireless network, which can move data over the airwaves at near-broadband speeds. I tried out the Internet version last fall with a network adapter designed for business travelers with laptop computers, and it was impressive.

Using technology known as EV-DO, the network's ability to stream high-quality video is even more impressive. That is, as long as you like what's playing. The big question, once all the 20-something, early adopters hop on, is how many people really, really want to watch TV on a mobile phone.

The wireless industry obviously thinks it will find plenty of customers. Sprint and Cingular offer a video-enabled phone service known as MobiTV, but it operates at much lower bandwidth.

Verizon's V Cast, with a base fee of $15 a month on top of your cell-phone plan, is a lot closer to broadcast quality. And the company has signed up an impressive list of content providers - mostly aimed at a youthful market that whetted its appetite for cool on the first generation of camera phones.

I tried V Cast on the new LG VX8000, the least expensive of the three Verizon handsets introduced for the service. At $200 (after a $70 rebate), it's a good deal, considering everything that it does.

In addition to receiving video, the VX8000 includes a 1.3-megapixel digital camera that also can capture short videos. It can send text messages and e-mail, browse news reports on the Web and play a new generation of 3-D games. Although it's not designed as a PDA, its built-in software includes a calendar, calculator and notepad. It also makes phone calls, if anybody's interested.

At 3 3/4 inches tall, 2 inches wide and an inch deep in the folded position, the VX8000 is about 1/4 -inch larger in each dimension than the no-frills LG phone I use every day, and at just under 4 ounces, slightly heavier. Although it takes up more pocket space than my little phone, for a ham-handed guy like me, it's easier to grab. Smaller is not always better.

The extra real estate provides room for a slightly larger numeric keypad and a couple of new "soft" keys whose functions change with the application you're using. Unfortunately, the layout is still a little tight for my fingers, and I often found myself pressing the wrong key, which gets frustrating after a while.

The VX8000 lacks some high-end features found in other phones that double as digital toys - which is OK because it doesn't cost as much as they do, either.

For example, it can't store or play digital music files - a market that other phone makers are attacking aggressively. Nor can it be used as a modem to tap into Verizon's 3G digital data network - which would be a good example of double duty. Its Web browsing for news, sports and weather is also limited to one site that uses the stripped-down, Wide Area Protocol.

On the upside, the digital camera, with a 10x digital zoom and built in flash, makes photos that are much sharper and clearer than the first round of camera phones - even good enough for small prints. The grainy video capture is still more of a novelty than a useful feature - fun for friends to share but not much more.

What sets this phone apart is its superb, 2.1-inch liquid crystal display, which provides crisp, readable text, even with its smallest font. Download a V Cast video and good turns into astonishing. Considering the low pixel resolution of a screen this small, the VX 8000 produces surprising detail and smooth motion - a testament to LG's engineering and Verizon's transmission technology.

The video clips drew almost universal reactions of "amazing" and "cool" from friends and colleagues. They were even more impressed when I flipped the phone on its side, pressed a button, and showed a clip in full-screen mode. Even my long-suffering wife, who rolls her eyes whenever I show up with a new gadget, was impressed.

Now, before you get too excited, remember that great video here means great for a cell phone. This gadget won't replace your television anytime soon.

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