Coming Soon: Mobile Couch Potatoes
In an age of monster plasma screens, the idea of watching television on the tiny display of a wireless phone seems odd. But cell phone video has already found an audience in some markets, notably Korea and Japan. Now, with better networks and handsets, it's coming to the U.S. -- and the surprise is that it can be fun.
This is especially true with V CAST service from Verizon Wireless. It's based on Verizon's superfast BroadbandAccess network, which is available in 30 metropolitan areas and will roll out to most other major markets by the end of the year. A typical "program" on V CAST is a clip of two minutes or less. Offerings include news from CNN, sports from ESPN, and weather from AccuWeather. You can watch miscellaneous movie trailers and other entertainment briefs, including an assortment of Sesame Street clips. There's even original programming, most notably 24: Conspiracy, a mobile spin-off of Fox's hit suspense series, 24. V CAST is billed as a $15 surcharge on a voice plan. There are also extra-cost services, including NBA TV and nascar.com to go, sold by the clip, and a variety of games.
I tried V CAST on an LG VX8000 ($200 with a two-year service contract). At a bit under 4 oz., it's bulkier than many high-end phones but has a 2-in. diagonal display. Since the display is much higher than it is wide when the phone is held normally, you have to rotate the handset 90 degrees to watch a full-size video image. The service uses the first phone technology capable of delivering video that approaches broadcast-TV quality, albeit on a small screen. One triumph is that when people are speaking onscreen, the audio is in reasonably close sync with the video -- still rare on phone-based TV. The phone also includes a 1.3-megapixel camera that can take stills or 15-second videos.
A DRAWBACK OF THE VX8000 and V CAST is the awkward controls for video. Just getting to a listing of 24: Conspiracy episodes and other shows took 14 clicks of various buttons. But once you're in the right menu, the phone takes advantage of the fast network to load clips with minimal delay. Verizon offers two other V CAST phones, the Samsung A890 and the Audiovox CDM8940: Both cost $250 with a service plan.
Verizon's network deserves much of the credit for V CAST's superior performance -- a point that became apparent when I compared V CAST with Sprint (FON ) TV. Sprint and Verizon rely on similar wireless technology from Qualcomm (QCOM ). But V CAST uses a new version, called 1xEVDO, that can consistently transmit at 300 kilobits per second, while Sprint's older 1xRTT service runs at 50 to 60 kb/sec. Sprint is installing an EVDO network and plans to begin service later this year.
The Sanyo (SANYY ) MM-5600 ($249 with activation) that I used for Sprint's video service is a bit smaller than Verizon's LG but comes with similar specifications. While its display is about the same size, it doesn't offer a full-screen mode, so the video images aren't a lot bigger than a postage stamp. And even at that smaller size, which requires less data, the pictures were less sharp and a lot jerkier than on V CAST.
Sprint's phone menus are easy to use, but its pricing is a lot more complicated than Verizon's. The Sprint TV package, which the company calls basic cable for your phone, costs $10 above a voice plan and includes news and sports from ABC (DIS ), Fox, and NBC (GE ). Then there's an assortment of premium programming, mostly $5 a month, featuring CNN, Music Choice videos, and a miscellany of original content called mFlix, including two minutes of an animated frog telling dreadful jokes.
To achieve commercial success, mobile-video services need a network at least as good as Verizon's EVDO and more compelling content. That's likely to happen. But even the current offerings can be appealing. I wish I'd had a phone that showed Sesame Street when my kids were little.
For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here