TV to Go
Wireless carriers want to put CNN, ESPN and Jon Stewart on your cell phone. Our expert does some channel surfing.
(MONEY Magazine) – Does the idea of being away from the television on game day give you the shakes? When you come home, do you--even before you put down your keys--reach for the remote? If you're somewhat like this (or even anything like this), you're in luck: The three biggest wireless carriers in the country--Cingular, Sprint and Verizon Wireless--have incorporated video programming into their mobile-phone service.
Video has long been the final frontier for cell phones. Sure, for years there's been voice, and text, and (incredibly slow-loading, almost-useless) Internet capabilities, but displaying a moving picture used to be something that was done either poorly or not at all. Video has taken so long to show up because wireless carriers had to beef up their networks, since television footage does to bandwidth what Brando did to buffets. Now that the various high-speed wireless networks are in place, it's possible to deliver decent-quality images to handsets and other devices.
Or almost decent. Like anything connected with cell phones, service rarely approaches flawless. Your TV at home displays video at a rate of 30 frames per second--mobile video is half that at best, so even when things are working perfectly, it's not the same as watching Lost in the den. Then there's the matter of cropped signals and poor image quality due to where you are and what kind of interference may be present. If everything's operating as planned, finding something to watch is similar to using an iPod menu. By selecting from a list of channels, you either plug into a live feed of cable and broadcast content that's been repurposed for mobile viewing (as is the case with the MobiTV service offered by Cingular and Sprint) or select from a menu of pre-recorded short video clips that are updated throughout the day (which is how Verizon's V Cast service works). In both cases, content comes from existing broadcast and cable channels such as NBC, CNN, ESPN and Fox Sports.
But is any of this stuff worth watching? Well, in the case of the live TV services, much of the content is similar to what you get at home, so it's as good (or as bad) as that. The video-on-demand services, such as V Cast, are best when it comes to news programming, as they are updated regularly throughout the day. NBC Mobile's NBC News Update, for example, is great: One of a rotating crew of anchors covers three stories, tosses it to a correspondent for a business headline or some other topic and then wraps it up, all in about three minutes. There are additional feature stories you can select to watch (for example, consumer-tip segments such as "Ask Asa"), as well as special reports that have a series of stories on a single topic, such as the recent hurricanes or the shape of the Supreme Court. Not bad if you're stuck on the commuter train home and have nothing to do.
Of course, none of these services come for free. For starters, you probably have to upgrade your phone. To get wireless video, you're going to need to pay $100 or more for a higher-end handset than a voice-only model (many come with additional features such as cameras and Bluetooth). Then there's the matter of paying extra fees on top of your calling plan, which can add another $10 to $20 to your monthly bill.
I spent about a week with video-capable handsets from the three major carriers, and while there was a clear winner (read on to find out who), it should be said that some carriers are upgrading their networks to faster speeds. So it pays to be patient if you don't want to switch just yet--what was a dog in this test could be radically improved in the next 12 months. Below, what each carrier currently offers and whether or not you should be tuning in.
CINGULAR WIRELESS MobiTV from Cingular $10 a month
• CONTENT Much of Cingular's content comes from third-party provider MobiTV, which bundles NBC Mobile, MLB.com, Fox Sports, ESPN, TLC, the Discovery Channel, ABC News, CNet, C-Span and others.
• BOTTOM LINE The amount of content is impressive, but the trouble is that Cingular's network currently can't reliably deliver it, and the phones can't handle it. What you end up with is a hard-to-hear, harder-to-watch blurred slide show. Cingular is in the process of upgrading its network to handle larger amounts of data traffic, so even what's on now will look better in a few months, provided you buy the right handset.
SPRINT PCS Vision You combine multiple services at $4 to $10 a month each
• CONTENT The most content-rich choice, Sprint offers the same MobiTV package Cingular has (billed as Sprint TV Live), as well as clips from the Weather Channel, E Entertainment, Cartoon Network and more, plus six music services.
• BOTTOM LINE Video quality is so-so. Even worse are the constant dropped connections and hiccups during playback. Audio channels came in fine--not quite as good as FM radio, but still providing a fairly steady stream of music from the likes of Van Halen and Dire Straits. À la carte pricing for each service can add up--a full plate of multimedia services can run you around $20 a month.
VERIZON WIRELESS V Cast $15 a month
• CONTENT Clips from NBC, CNN, MarketWatch and AccuWeather.com, plus Fox Sports and ESPN, all updated throughout the day. Other sources: The Daily Show and Sesame Street.
• BOTTOM LINE V Cast is the best of the three services so far. Click on the name of a clip (say, four minutes of Jon Stewart discussing evolution) and in seconds, there it is. The video looks good, and the sound is both clear and perfectly synchronized to the image (not a common thing with this technology). Overall, mobile video isn't quite ready for prime time, but if you must see TV wherever you go, Verizon's service is the only one worth tuning in to.