These days, voice is the tip of the iceberg. Carriers are always -- and we do mean always -- looking for crafty ways to boost their average revenue per user, and with everyone and their brother offering an unlimited voice plan at this point, it's about data and value-add services more than it ever has been before. To that end, Verizon and AT&T have embraced MediaFLO as a way to keep their subscribers entertained on the road to the tune of a few extra bucks per month. AT&T's service, simply christened Mobile TV, has just launched with a pair of devices from Samsung and LG; naturally, we wanted to know whether the phones were worth the $199 and $299 AT&T's asking, respectively -- but perhaps more importantly, we had to figure out whether the service was worth sucking another $15 a month out of our already-strained wallets.
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Hands-on with the LG Vu, Samsung Access, and AT&T Mobile TV
The Samsung Access
Considered AT&T Mobile TV's entry level device, the Access still ain't cheap at $199 after rebates have been applied. For that price, you get a fairly awkward-looking candybar with a measly 1.3 megapixel camera, though the landscape QVGA display (more on that in a moment), microSD slot, HSDPA, and stereo Bluetooth support are always nice to have.
For some reason, we'd expected the Access to be dwarfed by the Vu, but that's simply not the case -- it's actually taller, wider, and very nearly as thick. We can't emphasize this enough: it's not an attractive phone. It almost seems as though the handset was designed by two or three departments with completely different design goals; on the one hand, you have the mirrored keypads, then on the other hand you have matte black plastic that gives the Access a decidedly cheap look, and to top it all off the phone's bisected across its front with a black bar that serves no apparent purpose.
That being said, it's plenty functional, and we were smitten by the brightness and quality of the display. It seems as though AT&T said "hey guys, we're showcasing our new mobile TV service here, let's do this right" when it came time to discuss the screen's specifications. Call quality could've been marginally better, though it was plenty loud both through the earpiece and the speakerphone -- we imagine AT&T also had some input here, since you want to be able to hear your TV shows.
The LG Vu
A huge new service launch like mobile TV naturally demands a glamor device. For Verizon, that was initially the VX9400, which was later dethroned by the Voyager -- and for AT&T, it's the Vu (notice the LG trend here?). The $299 on-contract price is a bit hard to swallow, but one look at the thing and it's hard to deny the phone's place near the top of AT&T's dumbphone selection, mobile TV or otherwise.
Anyone familiar with LG's touch interface on the Prada or Viewty series will feel right at home with the Vu. We wish the Vu had carried over the Viewty's 5 megapixel autofocus camera with xenon flash, but if we concentrate on the front half of the device, it's tricky to tell the difference.
Our first reaction to the touchscreen was "hey, not bad," but over time, problems cropped up. Bottom line, it's not as sensitive as it could be -- on one occasion we had to mash the "TV" icon on the home screen four frickin' times to get the app to launch, for example -- though we suspect the trouble is with the processor trying to catch up, not the physical sensitivity of the display itself. Another issue is with the placement of the loudspeaker: when the Vu is left to chill on a hard, level surface, the loudspeaker gets muted into near silence. We imagine owners will have to get used to setting their babies face-down for that reason, and you can pretty much forget watching TV in that position unless you're a lip reader.
AT&T Mobile TV
So now, it's on to the million-dollar question of the hour: is AT&T Mobile TV worth it? Well, that all depends. Though AT&T comes to the table with a strong lineup of channels like ESPN, Comedy Central, and the PIX movie channel, that's counterbalanced by the fact that 11 channels is still positively anemic, no matter how strong those 11 channels may be. By contrast, MobiTV -- which is also available on these devices -- has several times that number of channels available, and it's much easier for them to add additional content because they don't need to multicast all of their channels simultaneously on dedicated bandwidth the way MediaFLO is forced to.
On the flip side, Mobile TV changes channels much quicker and its dedicated interface is much slicker and friendlier to use than MobiTV's, not to mention that the picture quality is far superior. That's not to say you can't see the occasional pixellation, but in general, the resolution's much better -- a Good Thing when you're dealing with devices with such beautiful displays.
So say you've already decided you're going to take the plunge (hey, it's only $15 a month, right?). There's another question on your mind, then: which of these bad boys is the better viewing device? The answer might not be as obvious as you think.
We're sure everyone (ourselves included) went into this mess thinking that the Vu was going to steal that crown, but surprisingly, the two actually finish neck and neck. It turns out that the Vu's greatest strength -- its larger display -- is also its biggest weakness, because the limits of MediaFLO's quality become much more obvious. We also found ourselves distracted by the pillar boxing that occurs on the Vu, since Mobile TV is viewed in landscape mode and the programming is 4:3, not widescreen. Finally, we realized that we had a much easier time controlling the service using the Access' physical keys instead of through the Vu's touchscreen, possibly because the Access' design is more akin to an actual TV and physical remote control. That's not to say the Vu isn't a great phone -- it's definitely been thrust into AT&T's elite -- but if mobile TV is priority number one, we'd recommend everyone give the Access a closer look than they may have otherwise considered doing.
So, is Mobile TV going on our bills next month? For the novelty factor, we'll consider it -- just as soon as we get a few smartphones in the arsenal. Chop chop, AT&T.