Mobile Digital TV: Coming to a Small Screen Near You
Despite all the hype about televisions' being turned off in droves in favor of Hulu and YouTube, live TV remains easily the most popular entertainment medium (just look at the ratings for American Idol or CSI). Still, in an effort to reach the iPhone generation, the broadcast industry is pushing Mobile Digital Television (Mobile DTV), a technology that lets you watch TV programming while you walk in a park or ride in a car barreling down a highway.
I took several Mobile DTV gizmos for a test drive and was impressed by the technology's video quality, plus its versatility in integrating with a wide array of devices.
The Mobile Digital Television Era Arrives
The Mobile DTV broadcasting standard comes from the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). Industry observers expect a slew of Mobile DTV-compliant products, from cell phones to laptops, to emerge this year. In my tests, I tried three Mobile DTV prototype devices: a portable DVD player, a cell phone, and a credit-card-size tuner for playing Mobile DTV on devices such as the Apple iPad and various RIM BlackBerrys via Wi-Fi retransmission.
The Mobile Digital TV era actually dawned last year, when U.S. television stations switched from analog to digital broadcasts. The move to digital broadcasting freed up wireless spectrum for TV stations, allowing them to offer subchannels designed specifically for in-transit viewers. Those channels broadcast in a standard-definition, wide-screen format optimized for smaller screens. As a result, local affiliates can broadcast the same programming to homes and to mobile devices simultaneously.
Best of all, Mobile DTV (like regular over-the-air broadcasts) is free. By late spring, according to the Open Mobile Video Coalition trade group, some 30 stations will be broadcasting in the new format. Among the stations in this pioneer group are seven in the Washington, D.C., area, including the region's NBC affiliate. Another 700 or more U.S. stations (out of the roughly 1600 local broadcasters overall) plan to offer Mobile DTV broadcasts by the end of 2010, the OMVC says.
New Hardware Needed
Inevitably, the new standards demand new hardware with new tuners to pull in the broadcasts. But Mobile DTV tuners are so inexpensive that they don't significantly raise the price of a handset. In contrast, satellite-based television systems-such as MediaFlo TV, designed for car backseats-have been around for years, but require professional installation of bulky, expensive (up to several thousand dollars, not counting the monthly subscription fee) hardware in an SUV or minivan. Furthermore, the picture attainable on mobile satellite systems tends to break up in urban environments.
Since Mobile DTV tuners are small enough to fit into a cell phone, manufacturers can put them in many different portable devices. The three prototype Mobile DTV products I tested were an LG portable TV/DVD player, an LG KB770 cell phone, and a Valups Mobile DTV Wi-Fi Receiver. In the New York metropolitan area, the only test channel available at the time of my hands-on review (February) was one operated by ION Media Networks. The test station's content consisted of rebroadcasted children's programming and CNBC news, and ION warned me that the channel's transmitter was less than ideally located. Nevertheless, I was surprisingly entertained.
I could view uninterrupted programs on the LG smartphone as I walked down the street, or on the LG DVD player as I rode in the backseat of a car. The credit-card-size Valups Wi-Fi adapter tuned in to the test channel at a restaurant and displayed it on my iPod Touch well enough to keep my daughter happily diverted.
Like broadcasts from regular television stations, Mobile DTV channel broadcasts have a limited range. In the case of the New York test station (WPXN), I could receive a signal only within a radius of about 10 miles from the broadcast tower. When Mobile DTV stations go live, however, reception supposedly will be possible even at distances of 20 to 40 miles. This is welcome news for travelers who find themselves delayed in airport lounges, though passengers whiling away time on long car trips will still have to change channels repeatedly.
Mobile DTV's main rival is the Qualcomm-backed Flo TV service. Flo TV is available on several smartphones (the $200 LG Arena, for example) and on the $250 Flo TV Personal Television. But the service costs $10 to $14 per month (depending on the device and the carrier), it delivers fewer than 20 nationwide channels, and the channels are available only in metropolitan areas. That's because Flo TV relies on its own network of transmission towers to broadcast programming in some of the space that was left vacant when television stations switched from analog to digital. Consequently, even though Flo TV programming is nationwide, the network itself is not. In the hinterland, you'll lose the signal.
Eventually, we may see devices that support both Mobile DTV and Flo TV. Both LG and Samsung have demonstrated cell phones with Mobile DTV, and both offer handsets than can receive Flo TV. Much depends on what cell phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon decide to do, since they control which handsets work on their networks; currently, both companies charge a substantial fee for cellular-network-based video, and free Mobile DTV could cut into their revenue from that source. Meanwhile, some Mobile DTV broadcasters are looking at the possibility of offering additional for-pay channels that could induce wireless carriers to add Mobile DTV to their handsets.
No matter what the cell phone situation for Mobile DTV looks like a year from now, tuners are slated to appear in many products over the next eight months. Dell has already announced plans to market a netbook with Mobile DTV; and Panasonic and a number of other major consumer electronics companies have voiced support for the standard.
When finished products reach store shelves this summer, we'll let you know how they fare in formal testing.
How Three Mobile DTV Prototypes Fared in Real-World Tests
We examined three prototype devices--a mobile digital TV, a smartphone, and a Wi-Fi receiver--to see how they would handle mobile DTV transmissions under everyday conditions. Here's what we found.
LG Mobile Digital Television With DVD Playback
As any parent can attest, DVDs aren't enough to keep some kids entertained. So the addition of a Mobile DTV tuner may be just what LG's portable player needs to stand out from the scores of inexpensive portable disc players on the market. And if its features don't do the trick, its price certainly will: When the glossy black clamshell player debuts this summer, it will list for about $249-roughly double what some competing DVD-only players cost.
The player comes equipped with a 7-inch, widescreen (16:9) LCD, which flips open and then can sit at an angle on a separate hinged arm to achieve an ideal viewing position. It has the standard array of DVD playback controls on the right side, as well as a volume wheel, two headphone mini-jacks, an audio/video output, and DC power connections on the right edge.
On the left side, neatly tucked away next to the USB port, is a pull-out, telescoping silver antenna for receiving Mobile DTV broadcasts. You use a Mode button on the left side of the screen to switch between discs and the TV receiver. The tuner automatically scans for available stations in the vicinity and then provides you with an electronic program guide that you can consult when making a selection.
When I tested it from a location that had a clear sight line to the Empire State Building (where the test station's transmitter is located), the LG receiver pulled in a clean picture. I saw no pixelation or jumpy images, and audio was crisp. The Mobile DTV format, in fact, works with a resolution of 416 by 240, which is good enough for screen sizes up to 7 inches.
Still, of the three prototypes I tested, the LG player was usually the first device to lose the broadcast as I moved out of range-say, 20 feet or so inside an office building. And though the battery lasted well beyond 3.5 hours playing DVDs and CDs, it regularly ran out of power after just over 2 hours of watching Mobile DTV broadcasts. LG says that a receiver chip made to draw less power should be ready for the player by the time you read this.
LG KB770 Smartphone
As a proof-of-concept handset, the LG KB770 demonstrates that Mobile DTV may be best suited to cell phones. Available in Europe, where customers can already tune in to DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting-Terrestrial) stations, this prototype was adapted to receive Mobile DTV, and in general it did an excellent job.
The smartphone itself has a 3-inch, 400-by-240-pixel touchscreen and is outfitted with two cameras: a 3-megapixel still camera and a small, 15-frames-per-second video camera. The handset also has the usual array of smartphone features: a microSD slot, stereo Bluetooth, and a multimedia player.
To prepare the smartphone for Mobile DTV reception, you pull out the device's telescoping antenna and press the on-screen TV button. The phone automatically switches to widescreen landscape mode and scans for nearby channels. Among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, it managed to maintain a stable picture-certainly better than that of mobile satellite systems. The picture occasionally jumped in crosstown traffic, but I didn't find that too distracting. Just don't expect to follow the puck if you use the KB770 to watch a hockey game.
The prototype lasted for more than 2 hours of TV viewing on one charge. LG hasn't announced a carrier for the phone yet, so prices for hardware-plus-service-contract plans remain to be determined.
Valups Mobile DTV Wi-Fi Receiver
If you don't want to buy a new phone or portable device just so you can watch Mobile DTV channels, the Valups receiver represents a convenient $99 alternative to the LG devices. This wireless, credit-card-size unit has a single power button and three lights (to indicate battery use, TV reception, and Wi-Fi). To get Mobile DTV channels, owners download a free Valups app to their iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android handset. (It will work with an iPad, too.) I tested it with an iPod Touch.
I did sometimes have to restart the receiver's prerelease software, but otherwise the unit worked without a hitch. After downloading the software, you select the Wi-Fi TV network entry from the list of available Wi-Fi networks; you then see a list of available stations. Picture quality depends on the device you use.
I put the Valups Wi-Fi receiver in a front window, where reception was available, and then watched TV on my iPod Touch back in the office-where neither the LG portable DVD player nor the LG smartphone could pull in a television signal.
Originally introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show as the "Tivit," the Valups receiver should go on sale this spring.