Review: Verizon Wireless and Modeo's Cell-Phone TV Services

Watching TV on a cell phone usually involves either downloading short video clips or tuning into a live feed of cable channels that approximates radio more than television, the "moving picture" stuttering along in fits and starts.

Now, two rival services are taking a different approach: broadcasting video to your phone from wireless networks separately from those that handle calls.

Both show early promise, at least relative to the jitter-fest that's the current state of cell TV.

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Verizon Wireless struck first in early March with the launch of V Cast Mobile TV, a 24-hour broadcast of eight channels from major networks.

The other service, Modeo, is not yet available to the public, but has been running a trial in the New York City area that I've been testing for the past month.

Judging from a brief glimpse at Verizon's service during a trade show this week in Florida, it's not a leap to say that, beyond differing channel lineups, Modeo and V Cast will look roughly identical to most users, though their underlying technologies are different.

Let's say right up front that Modeo's technology works better and more consistently than any cell TV I've seen before, and there's little reason to suspect that Verizon's service, powered by Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM), doesn't perform at the same level.

The picture quality on the cell screen, though not perfect, hums along well enough that voices match up with their talking heads on most TV shows and newscasts.

But sports, and any other action footage, is still shaky.

The handset, built for Modeo by High Tech Computer Corp. of Taiwan, seems to possess enough processing power inside to keep the picture from freezing up.

This is key, as even the latest high-end cell phones can't seem to grapple with the demands of video playback with any consistency.

Samsung's BlackJack, for example, downloads video clips in a flash from AT&T Inc.'s (T) Cingular Wireless high-speed network, but often sputters through playback.

Part of the problem is that device operating systems are being asked to juggle a growing number of tasks, from e-mail to music and picture-taking, and none as yet are up to the challenge.

Notably, the Modeo handset is no better when it comes to functions other than live TV, as it runs on Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) cumbersome Mobile Windows platform.

That means, as with other Windows smart phones, the Modeo handset's screen freezes as you navigate the menus, occasionally getting stuck and requiring a reboot.

But when it came to watching TV, the same Modeo handset performed without the constant stumbles into operating system limbo. Battery life was also impressive, providing more than three hours of continuous TV on a single charge.

The video wasn't perfect, though. For starters, while the frame rate approaches broadcast quality, the "approaches" part becomes quite evident when you're watching sports, especially hockey and auto racing.

Let's just say that objects traveling at 200 miles per hour seemed to jump around the track during the Daytona 500.

Reception, depending on where you live and work, can also be a problem.

Although Modeo has blanketed the New York City area with 65 wireless transmitters, many atop skyscrapers, my home happened to sit in a network deadspot, and so there was no reception whatsoever.

While that may not sound like such a tragedy, given that most people have full-size regular TV to watch at home, I would have been less forgiving if I were a paying customer.

For a monthly fee, I'd think most people would like to be able to use the service where they spend the most time, including home.

Both Modeo and V Cast suffer slight delays on channel changes, but the wait isn't horrible. Modeo says it will cut the delay to less than two seconds.

Perhaps the most notable difference between Modeo and V Cast was the channel guide.

I can't imagine it'll be hard to fix, but Modeo's guide featured tiny uniform type with little more than boxes to set different channels and listings apart.

Thanks to just a little color and bold lettering, V Cast's was far easier to scan.

In terms of screens, the first two V Cast handsets offer a nice widescreen option.

The display on the VX 9400 from LG Electronics Co. swivels to a horizontal position, while the SCH-u620 from Samsung Electronics Co. can be held sideways.

Both have a pull-out antenna, whereas the Modeo's is internal.

While the novelty of cell TV is obvious, it's hard to figure whether consumers will see enough value in this type of service to pay $10 or more a month to get it.

It's easy to dismiss the notion of watching TV on a tiny cell screen, and yet the wireless industry has pursued this technology as manifest mobile destiny.

The Watchman portable TV from Sony Corp. (SNE) never caught on as well as did its music-only cousin, the Walkman. But to be fair, the Watchman was a standalone device — and you couldn't call people with it.

By contrast, the cell phone is already entrenched as a worthy expense and daily appendage. So now that cell TV is here, we'll see if the industry knows more about us than we'd care to think.