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It's a sad reality: Every once in a while a couch potato must turn off the tube and leave the couch. Until recently there were few TV options for the potato-on-the-go. Battery-powered portable televisions provide only snowy broadcast images, and portable video players from the likes of Creative Technology (CREAF) require the hassle of downloading video manually from a computer.

Verizon Communications (VZ) is changing all that. On Feb. 1 it rolled out its own mobile TV service, called V CAST, which lets users watch TV from their cell phones in 30 U.S. metro areas for about $15 a month. Currently it is available on three models: the LG Electronics VX-8000, the Samsung SCH-a890, and the UTStarcom (UTSI) CDM-8940.

WAIT AND SEE

For a new service, V CAST offers impressive content. Users can stream minutes-long news reports from NBC and CNN (TWX), sports highlights from ESPNews and Fox (NWS), stock market updates, city-specific weather reports, movie trailers, even short clips from the previous night's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central (VIA). One note of caution, though: Getting these goodies isn't as simple as turning on the tube. It takes 30 to 90 seconds to summon a clip -- a considerable amount of time given that most videos last only a minute or two.

So if you're willing to wait for all those short clips to load, which is the phone to wait with? The most alluring by far is the Samsung. It's the lightest, feels great in the hand, and has a slick-looking menu, with screens that use 3D computer animation. It also boasts a 1.3 megapixel camera with a clever track-wheel design.

But looks, as we know, are only skin deep. In head-to-head races to access the V CAST network, the Samsung was a slowpoke. While the other two brought up the V CAST menu after about 30 seconds, the Samsung consistently took 10 to 20 seconds longer, and sometimes a full 60 seconds. Also, the Samsung doesn't have the MP3 capability the others do.

UTStarcom's model moves faster and also boasts the slimmest profile of the bunch. One of its most attractive features is a tiny flash-memory card that loads into the side, letting you install dozens of MP3s into the phone. But it has a few design clunkers: Sound control, in particular, is difficult. While a V CAST from ESPNews plays through the headset, music from the game Tetris will blare out of the phone's speakers even with the headset plugged in. It's a crapshoot which features will keep quiet -- a drawback in crowded areas.

That leaves a clear favorite: the LG. It's the ugly duckling of the bunch, a bit bulky and boxy. But its interface is easy to use, it accesses V CAST quickly, and it has a big, bright screen -- all important when you are using a multimedia phone chock-full of features.

And the LG is loaded with much more than television capability. Its austere menu screen makes messaging a breeze. You can record your own ringtones. And the LG also has the technology to play MP3s, though Verizon won't offer wireless music downloads until later this year.

V CAST service is still in its early stages, and it will be exciting to see what new programming Verizon rounds up, especially as connection speeds get faster. So far, the minute-long "shows" designed especially for V CAST are pretty low-budget. 24: Conspiracy -- a version of the Fox program 24 -- has a series of one-minute episodes about a national security crisis. They're about as ridiculous as they sound. It's hard to get into the story when you know the world will be safe again after the length of a long coffee break. Still, these phones are a taste of what's ahead. TV on the go is becoming a reality.

By Burt Helm


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