Katherine Boehret

Testing TV on Your Cellphone

Just when you think technology has turned you into the laziest person possible, another invention comes along to cater to your every whim. This week, I tested just such an invention and a dream come true for the ultimate TV fanatic: television on your cellphone.

MobiTV, from MobiTV Inc., www.mobitv.com, gives people a way to watch television on their cellphones.

MobiTV, from MobiTV Inc., www.mobitv.com, gives people a way to watch television on their cellphones.

For lovers of portable video, the arguments in favor of TV on phones are speed and convenience. Rather than waiting to download movies, video podcasts and TV shows to a computer and then to transfer them to a portable player like an iPod, some would rather see current, live content streamed onto the device they already carry — their cellphone — whenever they want, wherever they are.

Live TV on cellphones isn’t new. We first tested it in 2004. But it was awful then, choppy and almost unviewable, because the cellular networks were too slow and the phones were too wimpy. So I decided to try it again.

Many cellphones are capable of displaying streamed television using built-in services, but few people are aware of these capabilities and not every phone will work as well as the next. The best results are delivered on devices with good quality screens that can retrieve and display the content using high-speed networks.

I used a mobile content-streaming service called MobiTV on three phones serviced by two carriers, Sprint Nextel Corp. and AT&T Inc.’s Cingular Wireless, watching a variety of shows on screens smaller than the palm of my hand. Monthly usage for watching cellphone TV with these two carriers costs about $25 and $30, respectively, on top of your voice plan. MobiTV is compatible with more than 150 handsets, offering roughly 40 channels — about half of which show live content like that found on your home TV.

All in all, MobiTV offers a fun and simple solution for people seeking TV on the run. High-quality images appeared on screen just moments after I opened the MobiTV application and an on-screen guide labeled each channel. TLC, ESPN, The Discovery Channel, The Oxygen Network and major news channels are entertaining enough. And though my eyes hurt after 30 minutes of watching such a small screen, I only ran into a few other snafus: on-screen images disappearing while audio continued, certain channels cutting out and lips moving out of sync with audio. In more cases than not, these instances were rare or corrected themselves in seconds.

Other carriers offer video clips that might easily be confused with MobiTV Inc.’s technology. Verizon Wireless, for example, offers its V Cast service. But V Cast requires that you download clips onto your device. Sprint and Cingular also offer video-on-demand options. But the MobiTV service streams content onto your phone, showing it just about a minute later than the same content on live TV.

If you don’t use Sprint or Cingular and you’d like to download MobiTV to your standard cellphone, or to your Palm or Windows Mobile smart phone, you can do so through third-party vendors like Handango.com; these options can be found on www.mobitv.com. Vendors charge about $10 a month on top of any data charges that you might owe your carrier.

MobiTV's service includes a channel guide.

MobiTV’s service includes a channel guide.

Sprint and Cingular encourage you to buy an unlimited monthly data plan in addition to your voice plan if you’ll be watching TV on your cellphone. Sprint calls its live-TV service Sprint TV Live — though it’s really MobiTV beneath the covers — and offers TV-inclusive data plans for $15, $20 or $25. These return 8, 13 and 25 channels respectively. Sprint’s exclusive content includes the NFL network. To further confuse matters, you can also buy stand-alone Sprint TV Live on top of those three data plans; it costs about $10 monthly. Cingular charges users about $20 for its unlimited data plan plus $10 for MobiTV usage. This carrier keeps the MobiTV name.

MobiTV worked relatively the same way on all three handsets with both carriers: two Windows Mobile devices, the Sprint PPC-6700 and Cingular 8525, and a basic cellphone, Samsung Electronics Co.’s SGH-A707 with Cingular’s 3G network. In my tests, MobiTV came pre-loaded on the devices, letting me simply select it from a list to start watching streaming content.

On the Cingular 8525, a smart phone running the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system, I browsed through a guide until I found The Oxygen Network. The Isaac Mizrahi Show, not a favorite of mine, was just ending. It was followed by a quirky game show called “Can You Tell?”

MobiTV streams two types of programs: Live and Made for Mobile. Live shows are like those on your regular TV though slightly delayed and with different commercials in the local ad slots. I watched MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” using MobiTV and my regular TV, and an interview with Mia Farrow started about a minute earlier on my TV than it did on my mobile device.

Made for Mobile channels include special MobiTV content, such as music-video channels, or content for certain channels that MobiTV stitches together to show in a better format for mobile. The latter is the case with ESPN; in 15 minutes, I watched clips about football, Nascar, baseball, boxing and basketball with only a few quick commercials. In these snippets, however, lips weren’t synched with the audio.

I often opted to view content in full-screen mode, which, in 10 seconds, alters the image to take over the whole screen in horizontal view. A few times, while watching full-screen view, my on-screen content froze and had to restart in the regular view.

MobiTV says that using its service to watch programs saps battery at a rate equal to that of voice calls.

People who use digital video recorders at home to pause or rewind live TV will be disappointed to find you can’t do that with MobiTV. The company is hoping to offer these capabilities in the future. But because of the smaller screen, you probably won’t want to watch your mobile screen for as long as you would a regular TV, reducing the need to pause and rewind.

MobiTV’s services will never replace your home-entertainment center experience. But the ability to watch TV on your phone is a great way to stay plugged into news and entertainment. Just be sure that you’re using a fast network and a generously sized screen.

– Edited by Walter S. Mossberg


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