The LG VX9400: Mobile TV Done Right
The Good: Incredibly intuitive, with its large swivel screen and a dedicated TV button
The Bad: The mobile TV service itself is spotty
The Bottom Line: A great phone, a great application—for a service that still needs work
Missed Prison Break on TV last night? No problem, if you have one of the new mobile TV phones just hitting the U.S. market. Available in Japan and South Korea for some time, these new phones, which are able to catch live television broadcasts, first made their way into the U.S. in March, when Verizon Wireless began offering its V Cast Mobile TV service, starting at $13 a month.
Today, Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon (VZ) and Vodafone (VOD), offers two TV phones—one from Samsung, the other from LG. I tested the LG VX9400. And in three words, I loved it.
I've been impressed with LG phone design for some time. LG's Chocolate, introduced last year, was the first music phone to get it right, combining an MP3 player with a cell phone in a way that made for an intuitive user experience. Likewise, the LG VX9400 is a perfect TV phone. Cool and intuitive, it will shape the look and features for generations of TV phones to come. (In future reviews, we will look at other TV phones just hitting the U.S. market.)
Selling at Verizon Wireless stores for $199.99 after a $50 rebate with a new two-year contract, the VX9400 is much more than a TV phone, of course. It comes with a 1.3-megapixel camera with flash, a removable microSD memory slot, a speakerphone button, and a bunch of other nifty bells and whistles (it's hearing-aid compatible, for example). But most people will likely buy it for the TV functionality.
The ogling starts with the device's unusual form factor. The phone is a tiny (4 oz.) candy-bar-style device with a swivel screen. When you turn the screen, which is 4 in. by 1.93 in. by 0.73 in., the phone begins to look like a tiny monitor on a skinny leg. Oddly, it immediately reminded me of a living-room TV. The form factor made me immediately comfortable with the idea of watching television shows on this phone.
The phone is so easy to use, I didn't need a manual. The VX9400 has a dedicated TV button, with an old-fashioned TV set pictured on it. Pressing it will take you to a TV Guide-like lineup of up to eight channels, including CBS, Fox, Comedy Central, and NBC (more channels are to come, on a subscription basis). You can see a schedule of shows that runs several days ahead. You simply scroll up and down the guide to pick shows to watch (and when you're giving the phone to your kid, you can easily enable parental controls and block off some programs). Channel switching is, in my experience, as fast or faster than switching channels on the home TV. The phone has volume controls on the side and a headphone jack for easy listening.
Finding the Sweet Spot
The channels are courtesy of Verizon's mobile TV service provider—Qualcomm's (QCOM) MediaFlo—which owns and operates a network separate from cellular to broadcast the shows onto cell phones (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/1/07, "Wireless Rivals Primed for Mobile TV"). Because of MediaFlo's partnership arrangements, many of the programs broadcast today are shows that appeared in prime time yesterday, so you might have seen them already. Alas, you also have to watch commercials, inserted by the networks. The phone has no digital-recording, TiVo-like feature.
When MediaFlo worked, it worked well. In fact, it was truly awesome. The video quality was razor-sharp. Audio and video were in sync. There was no video frame delay. The image was so good, my eyes didn't get tired from watching. Having tested video clips on a number of previous-generation cell phones, I can tell you that the experience of watching mobile TV is so much better on this phone, it doesn't compare.
But here's the big bummer: MediaFlo's coverage in Portland, Ore., where I live, is spotty because the network is still under construction. It was so spotty that I was reminded of how horrible cell-phone coverage was in the early days. At my home, the phone couldn't catch the MediaFlo signal at all. So I started driving around my neighborhood (folks, don't drive and watch TV). About half a mile from my house, the phone began picking up the stations, but only broken-up audio—the screen was still dark. Then, after another 100 feet, frozen video began showing up. Another traffic light, and suddenly the video became perfect—for about 100 feet. Then, it became fuzzy again.
MediaFlo is a new network that's still being built out. But I have no doubt the coverage will improve—or Qualcomm's rivals will grab its customers (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/4/07, "Introducing the Future of Mobile TV"). I didn't experience a lot of the problems I was bracing myself for, such as short battery life (after all, video applications are notoriously power-hungry). The VX9400 allows for up to 3.8 hours of use, and up to 19 days of standby time. I loved the phone and the application. Now, if only the service would shape up.