Dialed In: Do You Watch TV on Your Cell Phone?

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Cingular Video

Sunday nights, The Sopranos. Tuesday nights, House. Wednesday nights, Lost. I don't consider myself a die-hard fan of these shows, but I do enjoy watching them. With Cingular Video, I can view snippets of these shows--and others--on my cell phone.

Watching TV on a cell phone is not like turning on your TV and catching whatever's on. Many of the video clips from Cingular Video (and competing services such as Sprint Power Vision and Verizon Wireless V Cast) are repackaged material from television and cable networks that are presented on a mobile platform. You download short clips, not entire episodes. I imagine that letting subscribers watch shows of 30 minutes or longer would clog the carrier's broadband network, plus quickly deplete phone batteries.

Samsung ZX10

To use Cingular Video, you need a handset that supports the carrier's broadband-level 3G network, UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System). The current choices are LG Electronics' CU320 and Samsung's ZX10. You also have to be in an area with Cingular's 3G service. Currently it's available in the following U.S. cities: Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Tacoma, and Washington, D.C.

Nice Idea--But Does It Work?

I tested Cingular Video on both the LG and the Samsung handsets and got similar performance around my house in San Francisco. Depending on the signal strength, a video clip took 45 seconds to a few minutes to transfer. The process involved downloading the information, buffering the data, and streaming the video to the phone. And like any kind of data transfer on cell phones, I occasionally ran into download glitches where the transmission didn't go through and I'd have to start over.

Once the file transfer is complete, the video begins playing. The clips range in length from less then 2 minutes long to almost 4 minutes. The video quality ranged from choppy to reasonably smooth. Although it wasn't perfect, it was good enough overall. Audio quality is another story: The phones delivered enough volume, but both sounded awful when I turned it up to the maximum level. The sound was muffled and distorted. Another drawback: If you receive an incoming call during video playback, it's routed straight to voice mail.

Launching the video service was a snap, thanks to a dedicated key on each phone. The CV home page displays featured shows; for example, my test phones had CNN, HBO Mobile Preview, and Access Hollywood on the initial page. To find other shows and channels, I had to click through layers of options. For example, to view a clip from Lost, House, or Desperate Housewives, I started at the CV home page, selected "TV to Go," then "Primetime," and then watched a clip from a previous episode or a trailer for an upcoming episode. One way to eliminate numerous clicks is to customize the CV home page by adding frequently watched shows.

If primetime isn't your thing, you can choose shows in other CV categories, including late-night talk shows (such as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno), daytime shows (such as The View), and cartoons (including selections from Adult Swim). Sports fans can watch highlights and clips of reports from ESPN, Fox Sports, and Fuel TV, as well as seasonal highlights of events like the NCAA Championships and NASCAR Racing. You can also catch the latest news from CNN, Fox News, and NBC News, and weather reports from The Weather Channel. I like the way NBC Mobile organizes its content, categorizing it by type: Features and Interviews, Entertainment News, Movie Reviews, and Lifestyle (which includes topics like tax tips, auto reviews, and wine tasting). Subscribers also have access to a few movie trailers from iFilm.

What It Costs

Cingular Video's pricing structure (and those of competing entertainment services) is very similar to a cable TV subscription. To get the video service, you pay $20 per month in addition to any other Cingular calling plan. This fee gives you access to a limited number of shows from Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney, ESPN, Fox, iFilm, NBC, and The Weather Channel. Watching clips of HBO shows--including Deadwood, Sex and the City, and The Sopranos--costs an extra $5 per month. You can also subscribe to HBO Mobile Family for $3 per month. Music Choice (music videos, artist interviews, and so on) costs $0.99 per video for a 24-hour period or $5 per month.

LG Electronics CU320

Along with the service, you also need special equipment. The LG CU320 and the Samsung ZX10 each cost $150 with a two-year Cingular service agreement. The handsets both have a 1.3-megapixel camera, a MicroSD card slot, and a speaker phone. They differ in style, though: The CU320 sports a slider design and the ZX10 is a clam-shell phone. The LG phone is bigger and has a larger screen than the Samsung, which made watching videos on the LG more enjoyable. I like the ZX10's compact size and tactile numeric keypad, however. The CU320's dial pad feels flat and slippery.

Cingular plans to add two more handsets, the Nokia 6282 and the LG CU500, to its lineup of UMTS-capable phones later this spring. The company also says it will expand its 3G service to other U.S. cities this year. Cingular is the third nationwide carrier to use its broadband-level 3G network for entertainment services. Verizon was the first out the door with its 3G EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) network, plus the V Cast service. Sprint followed with its own EvDO network and the Power Vision data plan.

So, is Cingular Video worth the cost? Personally, I'm not enough of a television fanatic to view snippets of my favorite shows while I'm on a commuter train or just passing time. Cingular Video's HBO extras are nice to have, but they won't turn me into a TV-on-my-cell-phone junkie. And for the price I'd pay for TV on my phone, I'd rather put the money toward an HBO subscription with my cable TV provider.

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