Verizon's nifty new TV phone lacks beef

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October 11, 2007|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

You're yawning through a boring meeting when you suddenly notice a guy three seats away who's trying hard not to stare at the cell phone he's holding under the table.

Is he checking e-mail? Maybe - but now he might also be watching As The World Turns.

In yet another step toward the convergence of everything electronic, Verizon Wireless has launched its VCast Mobile TV service in the Baltimore and Washington markets.

This is a pretty cool trick: Even the much-worshiped Apple iPhone can't get real-time TV broadcasts. Having tried Mobile TV for a week, I can report that the quality of the video is remarkable for such a small screen. If there were only a bit more beef on the broadcast menu, I might even be tempted to pay the $15 a month Verizon is asking for the service.

But first things first.

One must, of course, buy a new phone to receive Verizon Mobile TV. That's because the system requires a new type of internal receiver. The model I tried, the LG VX9400, costs $200 after a $50 rebate and requires the usual, odious two-year service contract. The cheapest alternative is a more conventional Samsung SCH-u620 at $99.

The LG unit has one of the oddest screen-and-keypad designs I've seen. But if you can work with the unusual layout, this nifty gadget can also browse the mobile Web, play MP3 music files, take 1.3 mega-pixel photos, access Verizon's video-on-demand service, accept commands by voice and Bluetooth wireless remote, and help you find your way with a GPS mapping service. It will even make phone calls.

Although it looks like a normal flip phone at first glance, the LG's 1.5-inch screen surprises by swiveling 90 degrees to form a "T" with the phone body. This provides a display with a standard TV aspect ratio and exposes a smallish set of number keys. Unlike the arrangement of most cell phones, this puts the numbers at the top and the navigation buttons at the bottom, which invites more mistakes than a standard keypad does. But most folks will get used to it.

A button with a TV icon switches the LG from phone mode to broadcast, bringing up a cable-style on-screen schedule. Using the navigation keys, you can scroll through the schedule up to two days ahead, or highlight a program to call up a synopsis or start watching. Once a show is playing, you can change channels with the navigation keys in about two seconds.

The display was remarkably sharp and bright under all but intense sunlight, although there was some pixelation and image breakup when the signal became weak. The most pleasing scenes involve small groups or close-ups. But there's only so much you can do with a 1.5-inch screen, so action shows with zoomed out scenes, travelogues and long views of sporting events are hard to make out.

In our building, the TV signal also tended to break up more as I moved away from a windowed wall - more so than the phone signal. I couldn't get TV at all in our main news conference room, close to the middle of the building. If you have "dead" rooms like this at work, you might have to suffer meetings without benefit of surreptitious TV.

The sound was generally audible through the external speaker, which projects out of the back of the phone. But for the sake of quality and courtesy you should use a headphone in TV or music mode. In fact, given the nature of this gadget, a set of earphones should have been included.

Those quibbles aside, Verizon's Mobile TV offerings leave something to be desired. They're not just repackaged local broadcasts or cable channels, which would have been a much better deal. Instead they're customized versions of network and cable programs provided by an outfit called MediaFlo, a subsidiary of Qualcomm, the giant mobile equipment maker.

Qualcomm's engineers developed this particular brand of Mobile TV technology, which enables the transmission of multiple channels without clogging either cellular phone or wireless broadband networks.

The scheme requires specialized internal phone hardware and a network of local UHF broadcast transmitters that's separate from Verizon's cell towers (or those of other carriers, such as AT&T, who plan to offer the service).

In fact, the internal MediaFlo chip that receives the broadcast requires its own antenna, which pulls out and extends about 6 inches from the top of the phone.

Our "local" broadcast area encompasses Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington and their suburbs. But gaps undoubtedly exist, so if you buy the phone, make sure you can return it if it doesn't work where you plan to use it.

Although Verizon offers Mobile TV in the major markets of 25 states, the broadcast service isn't contiguous. In fact, most of the country doesn't have it, a failing that prevents Mobile TV from being a great kid's companion on a long trip.

Verizon offers three TV plans: $13 a month for four channels; $15 a month for eight channels and $25 a month for all TV channels, plus VCast video and mobile Web service.

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