I've often thought that the worst business to be in these days is wire and cord manufacturing. First phones went cordless. Then mice and keyboards -- followed in short order by entire home computer networks.
Now, consumer-electronics companies want to turn televisions into wireless gizmos. The trend began in Japan, and for the past few weeks, I've been test-driving the first model to hit U.S. shores, Sharp's (SHCAY) Wireless Aquos. Here's how it works: Connect your cable and up to three other video sources -- DVD, TiVo (TIVO), and the like -- to the Wireless Aquos base station. Turn it on, switch on the separate 15-inch LCD screen, and just like that, you're watching wireless TV. No settings to futz with. It just works.
THE DESIGN IS NOVEL, even elegant. The base station is an unobtrusive slab about 10 inches square and two-and-a-half inches deep. The screen looks like it was inspired by Mickey Mouse, with two ear-like speakers on either side. When you're ready to go mobile, unplug the charger from the side of the screen, grab the sturdy handle to remove it from its stand, and you're off. At 12 pounds it's not too hefty to tote around the house. And a built-in easel steadies the screen, so you can set it up on a patio table or kitchen counter.
The screen has a lithium-ion battery that lasts for three hours if you are willing to watch in the darkest, energy-saving mode. Bump up the brightness and you lose about an hour of battery life. That means you might catch two-thirds of a baseball game out on the patio. But for the last few innings, you'd need to dash inside.
This is a minor hassle, compared with a bigger shortcoming. Bluntly put, the Wireless Aquos isn't very good at being wireless. The base station transmits its signal to the screen using early Wi-Fi technology known as 802.11b. That seems an odd choice because the newer flavor of Wi-Fi, 802.11g, zips signals more quickly and at a slightly longer range. Sharp's literature claims that the monitor will work up to 50 feet from the base station. But in my house, images would freeze in as little as 25 feet. You can tweak the settings for longer distances -- more easily than on a PC Wi-Fi network -- but I was only able to eke out a few more feet.
One of the challenges with Wi-Fi is that it uses the same frequency as some cordless telephones and microwave ovens. So an ill-timed phone call or food run in the kitchen can cut the signal from the base station. Sharp says a new generation of Wireless Aquos will be ready next year with a more advanced wireless transmission technology. But for now, at a suggested retail price of $1,799, it seems expensive and underpowered.
By next year, Sharp will be up against the 800-pound gorilla in this business, Sony (SNE). Its LocationFree TV should hit U.S. stores in a few months and will boast several advantages over the Wireless Aquos. The smaller 12-inch screen only weighs about 5 lbs. It works in three wireless modes, including 802.11g, which, in a recent demo, let the signal travel about 100 feet. (We were unable to try it in a real home.) And the screen doubles as an Internet terminal with a touch-panel that you can control with either your finger, a stylus, or an on-screen QWERTY keyboard. Because it has a much richer feature set than the Wireless Aquos, Sony's $1,500 device may also be a bigger pain to set up.
But the worst thing about wireless TV -- or maybe for some folks it's the best -- is the sheer decadence. I took the screen onto my back deck to catch Tour de France highlights one night with my sons. I felt guilty, and it wasn't a good, guilty pleasure. There was something unnerving about switching channels while birds chirped in a nearby tree. After a few weeks, I realized that I like to watch TV on the couch in my living room -- and guess what? I already have a TV there. It has an inviting 30-inch screen, the picture is always crystal clear, and the power never cuts out. Maybe there's some life left in the wire and cord business.
Stephen H. Wildstrom is on vacation.
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By Jay Greene