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Mobile TV Goes Nowhere Fast

By Burt Helm


Reviews below)

Editor's Review


The Good Nice sound quality, a wide variety of news, sports highlights, and weather reports

The Bad Heavy and clumsy, and video downloads take too long

The Bottom Line Design flaws everywhere. If you want V Cast, try Verizon's other options

Mobile TV is finally here -- sort of. Starting on Feb. 1, Verizon Wireless began rolling out its new V Cast service, which lets users stream 1-minute video clips from several TV channels, download music videos and movie trailers, and play new "3D" video games, which Verizon says is on par with the graphics of a PlayStation One. V Cast costs an additional $15 a month, on top of whatever you're already paying for wireless service.

This week I tested one of the three phones that currently work with V Cast -- the UTStarcom/Audiovox CDM 8940, which was released on Feb. 1 and costs about $230 if you sign up for a two-year Verizon agreement and get a $70 rebate.

It's a bit bigger than most camera flip phones, measuring 3.4 inches by 1.8 inches by 1 inch, and it feels heavier. That isn't too surprising, since it comes jam-packed with features and add-ons, including a 1.3 megapixel camera/video recorder, a removable flash-memory card for loading pictures and MP3s, and a large amount of disk space -- on top of many of the usual cell-phone bells and whistles.

BATTERY DRAIN. For basic uses, the handset works well. Accessing your contact list follows the same format found on many Verizon phones, and it's easy to bring up the phonebook, send text messages, and perform other simple tasks. The number keys on the phone's face are big and easy to press, coverage is good, and when talking, the sound quality is well above average.

But you wouldn't consider this phone if you were interested in only basic features. However, beyond the straightforward action of dialing and talking on the phone, design problems show up everywhere.

First of all, the LCD display on the outside is so dark it's unreadable. It will light up when you push the volume button on the side, but this shouldn't be necessary. The memory-card slot on the side feels deceptively like a button, and I found myself pushing it constantly when trying to silence calls, or adjust the phone's volume, or see the outer LCD display (the volume button is very small and located on the other side).

The inner LCD display goes completely black after a very short period of inactivity, which is also a nuisance. I fiddled with the control panel to force it to stay on, only to find that the battery drained in a matter of five or six hours, especially when using the camera and video functions frequently.

ODD ANGLES. Little things like sound control also bug me. The makers of the phone I currently use, an LG VX6100, figured out an elegant solution to this problem a while ago. It's called "manner-mode." When I activate it, the phone doesn't ring or beep inappropriately. No need to set to vibrate or turn off the key sounds.

The Audiovox model doesn't have this, and even with a headset plugged in, it was a crapshoot whether the sound would come through both ear buds (as with video clips), only one earbud (voice calls), or just make noise out of the phone like the headset wasn't there (the video games).

Then there's the camera. Unlike most camera phones, where the lens is embedded in the flip-up part of the clamshell, the lens is in the back of the handset. Just snapping a picture straight ahead of you requires angling the phone up in an odd way that makes the LCD display hard to see. You have to crook your head just to see what you're taking a picture of. I found out later you can fix this by sliding the lens into an "up" position, but you have to move it back down when you're finished to close the lens cover. The whole process is clumsy and annoying.

RIDICULOUS SHOW. What about watching TV on the go? The video is surprisingly sharp, though the images don't move as smoothly as on regular TV. The sound is great with the headset, not so great without.

To its credit, Verizon has done a excellent job putting together content for the V Cast service. Each clip is between one and four minutes in length, and you can watch segments from the day's ESPN reports, news and interviews from NBC and Fox, and even bits from Sesame Street, the E! Channel, and last night's Daily Show from Comedy Central.

The shows designed especially for mobile TV, however, range from hokey to just plain weird. For instance, 24 Mobile, is designed to capture the excitement of Fox's hit thriller 24. Unlike the latter, which chronicles every hour of a 24-hour security crisis, the mobile version has minute-long episodes, which unfold into, yes, a 24-minute crisis. It's just as ridiculous as you would imagine.

NOVELTY VALUE. I was really looking forward to testing the TV part, and everyone at work wanted to see it. But accessing the TV segments proved difficult. Navigating the menus and loading a clip took a lot of waiting, and several times I found myself asking interested co-workers and friends to come back after I got it set up.

Once a clip was loaded, I had to wait for almost a minute for buffering. If I wanted to pause the clip -- more buffering. Rewind or fast-forward it -- even more buffering. Here I am, holding a bulky phone, waiting for a tiny streaming video to load. I'm in 1998.

It's fun to pick and choose specific sport or news highlights to watch, but most of the appeal is in the novelty. Verizon will need to speed up the slow load times, get even more TV content, and make some decent shows for cell phones before it's really worth paying for. What's certain: No matter how good V Cast gets, the UTStarcom/Audiovox CDM 8940 will not be the phone to watch it on.

Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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