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Wireless cable. What a concept! As we increasingly take our media with us, access anywhere has become a near birthright. One laggard has been free mobile DTV. Even if that system, still in its infancy, becomes widespread, cable channels like ESPN and Comedy Central aren’t likely to migratte to free TV. That’s why the pay service Flo TV, broadcast in 112 cities around the country, may appeal to certain types of viewers.
As eager as I was to get my hands on a Flo TV Personal Television, I didn’t expect much in the way of reception. So, I was pleasantly surprised when 17 channels appeared loud and clear: in the office, on the streets of Manhattan, at home, on a city bus, on the railroad in New Jersey (see picture below), and traveling 60 miles an hour on the Grand Central Parkway and over the RFK Bridge. (My wife and dog watched a movie as I kept my eyes on the road.) Locations where I wasn’t able to get a signal were pretty much limited to those you'd expect – like in the subway.
Before you can watch CNBC’s Money Honey or the latest episode of Lost, you must activate service, which costs less than $10 a month based on a pre-paid promotional 1-year subscription plan. (Other plans are available.) Actually, you first insert the Li-ion battery, conveniently pre-charged, though I found getting the battery compartment opened and closed awkward. Further charging can be done with the included USB cable that connects to the supplied AC adapter or a USB port on a computer. (There’s no data exchange with a computer despite the 4 Gigabytes of storage in Flo TV that remains unused for now.) Also in the box are earphones with a set of bud pads, Quick Start guide, and polishing cloth. A rubberized stand folds out from the bottom of the TV so that you can adjust the screen to stand at an angle between about 15- and 89 degrees for watching TV hands-free.
Slightly larger than an iPod Touch, a Flo TV receiver incorporates a 320 x 240 pixel (QVGA) touchscreen. The antenna is internal, and except for an earphone jack and the mini-USB jack for power, there are no inputs or outputs. The only physical buttons are for a battery indicator (up to four green LEDs or one red LED appears) and power switch along the top edge; volume and mute along the right edge; and an electronic program guide (EPG) launcher to the right of the screen.
The first thing you see when powering up the 5.5-ounce TV is this warning: “Do not use this device or view screen while driving a vehicle or operating machinery. Use only when you can safely focus on watching this screen.” I touched the onscreen button to agree.
Then, I was greeted by a barker channel – samples of programs you’d receive once you activate service interspersed by prompting to call Flo TV now. Once I did it took only a few minutes to unlock the other channels. The EPG listed all the channels, but it wasn’t until the next day that the grid filled up with show titles and descriptions.
You can touch the screen to see what you’re watching or the EPG button to see what else is on. Sliding your finger up or down the guide matrix reveals the adjacent channels. Tap a title, and the channel changes. If the program hasn’t yet started, you can set a reminder. Later, as I walked along Broadway with Flo TV in my shirt pocket, the device began to vibrate. It was one minute before the hour, and Flash Forward was about to start.
There’s a quick change option in the settings menu that lets you change channels by simply sliding your finger up or down the screen. Unfortunately, sliding the TV into your shirt pocket also changes the channel.
Mainly, though, I found the device well designed and easy to use. An ambient light sensor adjusts the brightness automatically. The volume was automatically regulated when I switched between the built-in stereo speakers and earphones and back. Flo TV puts battery standby time at up to 300 hours and usage at up to 5 hours.
The program schedule offered by Flo TV isn’t what you’d expect. Except for CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel, you’re never sure whether you’ll be tuning into a simulcast of what’s being seen via cable and satellite TV or a repackaged program mix. So, for example, on a Thursday night NBC simulcast 30 Rock but not The Office. While NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News were presented at 6:30 pm, ABC World News was missing. You can watch The Today Show as it occurs but don’t be surprised when it’s followed by the most recent Tonight Show with Jay Leno. One thing I got used to was being able to watch first run episodes of my favorite series – new in the sense that they had premiered that week and were being repeated throughout the week. I caught up with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report over the weekend.
The Flo TV channel lineup includes ABC Mobile, CBS Mobile, Fox Mobile, NBC 2Go, MSNBC, Comedy Central, ESPN Mobile, MTV, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, CNBC, Fox News Channel, CNN Mobile, TLC, Crackle (movies), and Adult Swim Mobile (cartoons). That pretty much covers kids to news junkies to sports fans. Just keep in mind that you can’t always get what you want and 17 channels pales by comparison to the hundreds available via your cable or satellite operator. Also, there is no closed captioning and, if you’ve been spoiled by your DVR, prepare to be frustrated by the inability to pause or play something you just missed. Still, some of those repeated prime time series are presented with fewer commercials. One reason is that Flo TV is a national service, so you won’t see insertions from a local station. ABC Mobile filled out the rest of an hour with a Jimmy Kimmel Live! segment.
As for the inaccessible storage in my Flo TV Personal Television, a spokesman said that in the near future it could be used to accept customized content indicated by preferences you make on an Internet-linked computer. Then, the Flo TV service would broadcast on-demand-type programs in the middle of the night, which would be saved for later viewing.
If you’re a TV junkie like I am, Flo TV is the perfect way to keep your eyeballs glued to the small screen, I mean really small screen. When I placed Flo TV at the base of my 50-inch plasma, I could hardly see it from the couch. Up close and personal, though, it’s a different story. Flo TV makes time fly especially while commuting or waiting for your plane (and the Airport Channel doesn’t do it for you.) Just make sure you’re not driving or walking along busy sidewalks while watching.