Flo TV Personal Television PTV 350

The $200 Flo TV Personal Television is designed for tuning in the Qualcomm-developed Flo TV service, also available via some cell phones (Flo TV is working with accessory company mophie to create the Juice Pack TV, a sleeve for the iPhone and the iPod touch that will add Flo TV support as well). Flo TV is designed for people on the move, so they can keep watching CNN or ESPN while walking down the street or rolling down the highway.

Service for the Personal Television currently includes 15 channels of nationwide programming, including live broadcasts of CNN, Comedy Central, Disney, and ESPN, and mobile versions of ABC, CBS, and NBC. The company says that its network can accommodate 20 channels, so it still has a little room for growth. You receive six months of free Flo TV service when buy the PTV 350; thereafter, the subscription is $15 per month.

[Note that software updates to the PTV 350 must be performed by connecting it to a computer via USB. Starting with software version 1.1, the process works on Macs and Windows PC. If you have a unit with 1.0 software, you'll need to update it to 1.1 using a PC--after that, you can use a Mac for future updates.]

The device's 3.5-inch touchscreen displays broadcasts in 320-by-240-pixel resolution. Measuring 4.4 inches by 3 inches by 0.5 inch and weighing 5.4 ounces, the PTV 350 is slightly larger than a deck of cards. It comes with built-in stereo speakers, a mini headphone jack, and a flip-down adjustable stand for positioning the set at a stable viewing angle. A button on the left side of the screen opens the electronic program guide, which zips through the listings at the swipe of a finger. The built-in antenna helps keep the package neat and tidy.

Watching TV on the go with the PTV 350 was a simple matter. In New York City, neither skyscrapers nor inclement weather interrupted the Flo TV signals. In fact, unlike with competitors such as the forthcoming Mobile Digital TV, I could continue watching programs on the television in elevators, offices, and apartments all over town.

Things went began to go awry a few miles outside the city, however. The Flo TV signal began dropping out as I traveled north on the Hutchinson Parkway out of the Bronx, and it completely quit about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan. Reception kicked back in as I drove in and around Hartford, Connecticut; but there was no service at all in western Massachusetts and Vermont.

Flo TV's terrestrial network is independent of the cellular network and is a broadcast system rather than a two-way communications network. Consequently it won't work on commercial airline flights. On the other hand, the network will never become overloaded either.

Flo TV's existing network can reach over 200 million people in the United States and covers the largest 20 markets in the country, the company says. But there are still lots of gaps between cities.

For several of the stations that I tuned in, Flo TV delivered the same programming simultaneously available on cable for regular TV sets. However, Late Night with David Letterman is rebroadcast during the day for people who missed it the night before; and Flo TV doesn't have broadcasting rights to show NFL games (for example) on the service.

Just as when you watch video on an iPhone or similar device, the set's small screen and middling image quality dominate the experience. Picture quality was certainly adequate for news and animated shows; and surprisingly, the PTV 350 delivered a soccer match broadcast on ESPN with enough clarity that I could follow the ball and discern that one of the goalies was sporting a mohawk. Still, the green of the playing field looked blotchy, and the picture suffered from intermittent pixelation.

In my tests, the built-in speakers produced enough volume to overcome city and highway road noise. The set's battery lasted well beyond its rated 5-hour life, supplying power for better than 6 hours of viewing on a single charge.

Macworld's buying advice

The Personal Television PTV 350 is Flo TV's first direct-to-consumer device. The service is also available on select AT&T and Verizon phones (for about $10 a month), with some variation in available channels, and on Audiovox systems for cars--in such forms as Chrysler's $629 DVD entertainment system option (which includes a one-year subscription to Flo TV). If you don't have one of these devices and you want to experience television on the go, the Personal Television is a good choice.

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