Magazine

Television That's Going Places


I admit it: I like baseball more than classical music. So when my wife and I recently attended a concert by our local symphony, I snuck out at intermission to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers' last-gasp effort in the National League playoffs. Tuning into the Fox Sports TV channel on one of Sprint's (FON) Samsung Multimedia cell phones, I watched the highlights of how the Dodgers had escaped elimination (at least for one more day).

I can't imagine too many other occasions when I'd watch the tube on a tiny screen while I'm out and about. But the electronics industry is releasing a stream of handheld devices to deliver entertainment to folks on the go. Samsung, IRiver, and Creative (CREAF) offer portable gizmos that use Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows XP Media Center software to record and play TV shows and movies. Sprint and AT&T (T) have phones with more than 20 cable-TV channels, including MSNBC, Fox Sports, and Discovery. There's a big gee-whiz factor here. But only hard-core TV and movie addicts -- or those who travel a lot -- are likely to find that they can't live without such toys.

There's no question that the technology is impressive and promises to get better down the road. For $9.95 a month, both Sprint and AT&T offer "live" TV feeds (there's a few seconds' delay) from MobiTV (mobitv.com), which streams TV signals over the Net. Sprint offers MobiTV on several phones, including lower-priced models; AT&T offers it on two, from Motorola (MOT) and Nokia. (NOK) Both providers also require you to pay up to $25 a month for data service to watch the tube. The TV picture isn't great -- there are stops and starts, lengthy freezes, and problems syncing voice with picture. Because the picture is streamed at lower speeds than normal TV, talking heads on MSNBC's post-debate show were nearly impossible to follow, and baseball players on ABC News Now sometimes froze in mid-swing. MobiTV says faster streaming speeds will help solve the problems.

Small Scale

Those phones may be fine for train commuters and folks stuck in airports. But airplane travelers or kids in the backseat will probably prefer portable media players, which are basically iPods for video. Most of them come with up to seven hours of battery life and a 20-gigabyte hard drive -- enough, companies say, to store at least 40 hours of video. All display crisp digital pictures. One big liability: You're watching on screens no bigger than four inches.

In addition, recording can be a hassle. Creative's $500 Zen Portable Media Center, like other Microsoft-sanctioned models, requires you to download or copy files from a PC with a TV card. That's a pain for most of us who haven't yet embraced Microsoft's convergence of TV and computer. Far easier to me are the $549 Archos AV400 and the $449 RCA Lyra Audio/Video Jukebox, both of which allow you to record shows directly from either the TV or your PC. Unfortunately, TV taping is in real time, meaning an hour show takes an hour to record. Of the two, the Archos is clearly superior -- lighter, easier to navigate, and it comes with a remote that allows you to schedule recording. You can also can record DVDs, although you can't transfer them to another device.

I never got used to dealing with a tiny screen and earphones. And in fact, there are alternatives: You can buy a portable DVD player for about half the price -- or just leave TV for the den.

Review By Ronald Grover


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