|Mobile TV Wherever You Go |
By LAUREN GOODE
Twenty-five years ago, the phrase "portable TV" was an oxymoron. The first TV in my memory was a huge wooden box that sat on the living room floor and could only swivel a little, with a good strong push.
But now television content is offered on a variety of portable mobile devices, from cell phones to iPads. Some of this is available through downloading or streaming web video; other content is transmitted just like TV, via one signal to many devices simultaneously.
That's where Qualcomm's FLO Personal Television comes in, which aims to offer "real" TV on the go.
FLO TV's service, which transmits mobile feeds of broadcast content, has been offered on mobile phone partners since 2007. Now, the company has launched its own pocket-sized TV device, the FLO PTV 350.
The device itself costs $199 and comes with a basic four-channel package that includes the major networks: CBS Mobile, ABC Mobile, Fox Mobile, and NBC2Go. An extra $15 a month – or $150 for a year – will get you 16 channels including the four major networks, as well as cable channels like MTV, CNN and Comedy Central.
The PTV 350 is not as sleek as an iPhone; it has the square look of a portable navigation device. At 3 by 4 inches, it's solid but lightweight, and it fit easily in my bag. You hold it upright to view the 3.5-inch touch screen. (The PTV does not come with a case; you can purchase one from outside retailers like Amazon.com for $15 to $40.)
The PTV has power, volume, and channel buttons on the top and side of the device. It comes with an external headphone jack for when you don't want to annoy other people with the audio. There were scan lines as I swiped through channels on the touchscreen, but once I selected a channel, the picture was clear.
I took the PTV with me to Manhattan's Highline Park one sunny Saturday afternoon. It was fun to catch World Cup highlights and CNBC while I was away from a real TV set. But I found it difficult to get engrossed in an entire program on the PTV while out in public. Also, in full sunlight, I couldn't see the screen that well.
Despite the small screen, the FLO PTV compared favorably to watching videos via the Web on the iPad. Although the iPad is a larger, slicker device, the videos I watched paused frequently to buffer, and when I was watching videos on the iPad in direct sunlight, it powered off after about 15 minutes due to the high temperature outside. I didn't have that problem with the PTV; the battery lasted six hours and never shut off while I was watching.
On the other hand, the FLO PTV's signal wasn't as robust as some cell phone signals. I got good reception in the city, but lost service completely in a remote part of the suburbs.
Also, the channels offered on FLO TV are special mobile versions of networks, so the program lineups aren't exactly the same as what's on regular TV.
One afternoon I compared the ESPN channel on the FLO PTV with the ESPN Mobile content through MobiTV on an iPhone, while watching ESPN on a TV set. The ESPN on PTV showed a repeat of the Germany vs. Ghana World Cup game. The other two showed news highlights.
FLO TV does offer a programming guide so consumers can see what's on.
A spokeswoman for FLO confirmed there's no guarantee that consumers will see the same content on the PTV that they'll see on regular TV, and said it's up to the content providers, such as the networks, to decide what's going to be allowed on the mobile stream. However, all 64 World Cup games are available live on ESPN Mobile and FLO TV, and the spokeswoman said the opening game (South Africa vs. Mexico) was FLO TV's most-watched sports telecast ever, and the third highest-rated event after the Michael Jackson memorial service and President Obama's inauguration.
Since I was unable to get a signal on the subway, I thought the ability to store videos and music on the PTV might be a good feature. But it's not possible yet. The PTV has 4GB of onboard memory, but it's part of a software launch that won't be available until later this year. And even then, it won't be compatible with iTunes initially.
So is FLO TV worth it? Mobile television is a great idea in theory. But in practice, FLO TV fails on its main potential selling point of allowing you to watch TV on the go. Since it doesn't offer the same content as regular TV, and it doesn't work in many locations, it kind of defeats the purpose of a portable television.
Write to Lauren Goode at Lauren.Goode@dowjones.com