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VCAST TV SHOWS PROMISE

Despite Verizon Wireless’ attempt to downplay the launch of its Vcast Mobile TV service, the availability of the streaming TV service in the Denver area forced-and I do mean forced-a quick trip to the mall so we could check out the new offering.
Verizon Wireless launched the service March 1, but did nothing to promote the news-an odd departure from the carrier’s standard promotional efforts. The service runs over Qualcomm Inc.’s MediaFLO network.
The saleswoman at a Denver Verizon Wireless store said the store had received shipments of the initial Vcast Mobile TV handset-Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.’s U620-last week, and was given the go-ahead to begin selling the device by early afternoon on March 1. The phone is a regular slider-style handset, which means a good-sized screen hiding a rather cramped keypad underneath.
But the magic happened when I launched the handset’s retractable antenna-with the push of a button that sports an outline of a TV with rabbit ears sprouting from the top.
The basic service offers CBS, Fox, NBC, NBC News, Comedy Central, ESPN, MTV and Nickelodeon, and presents a channel guide similar to cable or satellite television services. Once selected, channels were rendered within a second or two and the sound synched up perfectly with the video. The full-screen option expanded the picture horizontally, making it easier to watch.
The service’s picture quality was definitely a step above today’s mobile television offerings, including the streaming services from companies like MobiTV and the downloadable clips from Verizon Wireless’ own Vcast video service. There was very little buffering, though the oddly placed and seemingly easy-to-damage antenna definitely improved reception once extended.
Similar to early satellite television services, the Vcast mobile TV channels are not optimized for local markets. In the Denver area, only a handful of shows on Comedy Central and MSNBC were in synch with what was on live television. With those shows, there was between a five-second delay for MSNBC and about a one-minute delay for Comedy Central. For the other channels, the show selection seemed to be a strange loop of offerings that were either primetime shows from the night before or regular daytime programming shown in a modified loop. The shows were presented in their entirety.
Commercials were also rendered differently depending on the channel. CBS and Fox showed what appeared to be the regular commercials that played during the episodes; commercials on the NBC channels were replaced with short news clips from NBC2Go and NBC Mobile.
On Comedy Central, the channel’s standard commercials were replaced with a loop of commercials touting Comedy Central shows as well as and commercials for Red Bull and Sony Corp.’s Playstation 3 and PSP.
ESPN showed a variety of its in-house ads featuring sports figures interacting with ESPN personalities.
MTV and Nickelodeon seemed to eschew commercials for promotions of other shows on the stations.
Integration of the mobile TV service with the handset’s traditional voice capabilities was also impressive. If a call was placed to the handset while in a mobile TV session, a message would pop up on the screen indicating the incoming call and give the option to answer or ignore. Once a call finished, a screen popped up asking if the user wanted to resume the mobile TV session. The session would not resume where it was left off before the call, but it did resume almost instantly.
The phone also sported a slightly different user interface than the standard Verizon Wireless UI. Instead of Verizon Wireless’ tabbed screens, the phone featured a UI similar to Samsung’s horizontal options menu. The phone also sprouted a pair of stereo speakers on the top that provided decent sound quality. Headphones would be mandatory for public settings.
Battery life was hard to gauge, but an hour of constant streaming dropped the battery indicator about one-fourth.
Overall, the channels selection was limited and the show schedules were a bit out of whack, but the performance of the service was impressive. Combined with Verizon Wireless’ rather aggressive pricing of the service, the Vcast Mobile TV offering could have some legs.

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