But in an age when iTunes and other services allow one to download just the shows they want for a small fee, not all of Personal TV's limitations are so charming. Like other wireless products, it won't work on underground trains or planes, and there's no way to record video, or even perform tricks less objectionable to copyright holders such as pause or instant replay. Fortunately, the Personal TV's screen is quite watchable outdoors. And, unlike the analog portable TVs of yore and the digital portable TVs that will come to market in 2010, FLO TV is a subscription service. The company includes six months of free service with the device, but then it is $15 per month, the same rate that AT&T charges for the service on its handsets that support it. And unlike in shows downloaded from iTunes, there are plenty of commercials.
But for the price, you get access to a significant selection of programming that would require a pay TV subscription at home, including Fox News Channel, CNBC, MSNBC, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, ESPN, MTV, and Comedy Central. FLO TV also programs a channel with a range of seasonal programming and specials. And while there is no recording capability, FLO TV offers the next best thing, which is time-shifted
programming; watching during the day will enable you to catch up on some primetime and late-night programming instead of being confined to the latest output from the Oprah factory or the judge du jour show.
FLO TV's service quality has benefitted greatly from the spectrum capacity to which it now has access, but it still sometimes stutters and pixelates. It seems particularly vulnerable when the channel guide is invoked or it is moved. But overall the quality, convenience and breadth of FLO TV's content make the Personal TV a contender for those who want a simple way to be casually entertained on the go and would trade the exactness of selecting the shows they want for the expedience of having about a dozen broadcast and popular cable channels on tap. And for for now it's one of the few mobile options for delivering live video of news and sports.
For a dedicated device, Personal TV's unique combination of time-shifted and premium programming addresses a void at a time when free over-the-air broadcast is in transition between now obsolete portable analog TVs from Sony and Casio and a new generation of mobile digital televisions based on the mobile ATSC standard that should launch next year. Both that standard and FLO TV also have a bevy of screens to target beyond cell phones, including notebook PCs, portable DVD players, digital media players and rear-seat in-vehicle systems. For now, though, Personal TV provides a simple, programmed experience for those willing to shoulder what will often be a second TV subscription.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.