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New cell phone offers TV-to-go

The Baltimore Sun

Last week, I noted that for better or worse, it's quite possible to watch Desperate Housewives on your computer. This week, I'm happy to report that if you missed it on your TV or PC, you can catch Desperate Housewives on your cell phone.

That's what was playing the first time I turned on AT&T;'s new LG Vu, the company's sleek, flagship entry in the new world of small-screen television-to-go.

Like Verizon Wireless, which unveiled its television service in the fall, AT&T; has signed on with MediaFlo USA to provide real-time broadcasts to specially-equipped phones through MediaFlo's UHF network.

A $15 monthly Mobile TV subscription provides 10 channels of current and canned broadcasts of news, sports and entertainment programming from CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and PIX (movies from Sony's library).

Because they use different internal hardware and external frequencies, the TV broadcasts don't interfere with phone and data transmission in the 58 major markets where Mobile TV is available (Baltimore included). To receive real-time transmissions, you'll need a phone like the LG Vu, which has a UHF receiver and a screen big enough to display video that's worth the extra tariff.

The jet black case is 4.25 inches long, 2.2 inches wide and a half-inch thick. At slightly more than 3 ounces, it isn't the lightest phone on the market, but it won't weigh down a pocket or purse - and considering the gadgetry packed inside, it's a powerhouse.

Most of the external real estate is devoted to a sharp, 3-inch, touch-sensitive color display. There are a handful of physical buttons for volume, for locking the phone, and for accessing the main menu, but you'll do most navigating from the screen.

Slight vibration

The LG Vu provides force-feedback in the form of a slight vibration when you touch a virtual button or scroll bar. This is better than no feedback at all, but doesn't eliminate my main objection to touchscreens: You can't feel the buttons when you dial, so you have to look at the screen - even to answer a call.

If you insist on dialing when you're behind the wheel, take advantage of this phone's excellent voice command features instead of sneaking a peak while you poke at the screen.

This gets us back to the main reason for a touchscreen. A 6-inch, popup antenna puts the LG Vu into TV watching mode. Although my eyes may be a little old for anything more taxing than an hourly newscast on a 3-inch screen, the picture was bright and crisp indoors. Outside, even in the shade of an umbrella on our deck, the images were too washed out to be watchable. So don't expect to watch TV at the beach.

That said, reception was good. At work, I'm smack in the middle of a building designed from the ground up to discourage TV signals. Aside from occasional stutters, the signal was solid.

How useful is all this? It depends on how much of a TV junkie you are. If you expect to watch every major sporting event live at your desk, check some typical broadcast schedules online before you sign up - you may be disappointed.

Same for real-time soap operas. This is not a mobile version of the regular network feed, but one that's packaged specifically for the mobile service. If you're younger than 30, you'll find plenty of entertainment. The older you get, the less enchanted you'll feel.

A lot to like

Outside of Mobile TV, there's a lot to like about this little device, which also functions as a music player, camera and gateway to a full menu of Internet-based services for those willing to pay the freight.

I was particularly impressed by AT&T;'s Web browser. Although it lacked the two-finger sophistication of Apple's iPhone, the LG Vu's browser was orders of magnitude faster. That's because it runs on AT&T;'s state-of-the-art, 3G network, instead of the older and slower AT&T; Edge Network that the iPhone uses.

Scrolls well

The LG Vu browser was optimized for Web sites that offer scaled-down, mobile versions of their pages. But it also did a good job of scrolling across standard Web sites, thanks to the excellent touch sensitive screen.

Other functions, including e-mail, text messaging and 2-megapixel camera, are what you'd expect from a high-end superphone. The camera has no flash, a major omission, but the pictures I snapped were sharper than I expected. Video recordings were awful, as expected. Unlike the Verizon phone I carry every day, this one allows me to send a photo directly to an e-mail address - not just to another phone.

In addition to watching TV, browsing the Web, sending e-mail, texting and listening to music, I found a curious, nearly hidden function: If I pressed the right sequence of buttons, I could actually make phone calls, most of which were answered by other people. Although AT&T;'s network consistently ranks near the bottom in Consumer Reports' customer surveys, I had no problems with reception in my travels around Baltimore.

The main drawback to any of these these talented, multi-use gadgets is that they're designed to separate you from your money, however happily. So let's deal with that issue.

Phone is $300

The phone itself is $300 (after a $100 mail-in rebate) and requires one of those detestable two-year contracts. A standard 450-minute voice plan is $40 a month, while AT&T;'s Media Max bundle offers unlimited Internet, text message and prepackaged AT&T; video for $35 more. The standard, $15 Mobile TV package is $15 a month on top of that.

So, to take advantage of all these wonderful features, the LG Vu will set you back $90 a month before taxes, or at least $1,100 a year. Want Mobile XM radio? You can get that, too, for another $9 a month. Want mobile MySpace? That will cost you extra, as will access to the Internet Movie Database. Extra ringtones? Ka-ching. There are cheaper TV and Data packages, but you get the idea.

Bottom line: This is a well-conceived, compact multimedia phone for TV lovers who are willing to pay for premium services. For more information, visit www.wireless.att.com.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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