FLO TV’s Personal Television Is Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

I like the idea of a portable TV, a handheld device that you can take with you wherever you are and watch the shows that you want, when you want. And I think that FLO TV is heading in that direction with its mobile TV network. But the company’s Personal Television, a dedicated mobile TV device, has to deliver a lot if it’s going to convince people to carry yet another device in their pockets. Right now, at least, the Personal Television isn’t convincing me that it’s worth its weight, as it suffers from reception that’s more a miss than a hit, a limited selection of content, and a price that’s just too high.

FLO TV launched the Personal Television late last year, but the company has been providing mobile TV service via cell phones for a couple of years now. FLO TV service is delivered over a dedicated mobile TV network; it doesn’t piggyback on existing 3G networks used by cellular carriers. The company says this allows it to deliver a higher-quality television experience, one that is more like the TV-watching experience that people are used to having at home.

But using the Personal Television did not quite live up to that standard, even though the $200 device makes a great first impression. It’s small (4.5 inches wide by 3.1 inches tall by .5 inches thick); at first glance you could mistake it for a portable GPS. It features a 3.5-inch touch screen for watching TV, and a neat little kickstand that flips out for propping it up on a table or desk. 

The Personal Television relies on FLO TV’s service for content, and the service is a bit expensive for what it delivers: it costs $14.99 per month (though you do get six months of free service when you purchase the device). FLO TV delivers about 15 channels to the Personal Television, including ABC Mobile, CBS Mobile, NBC 2Go, ESPN Mobile TV, FOX Mobile, FOX News Channel, MSNBC, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, among others.

Some of the content is simulcast with what the networks are broadcasting to regular old TVs. If you turn on CBS Mobile at 11:30 at night, for example, you’ll see David Letterman. But some of the content is also “timeshifted,” according to FLO TV. Letterman’s show, for example, is shown again the day after it airs at 11:30 am, so that people can watch it on their lunch break.

The timeshifting serves a couple of purposes. One, it fills gaps that might occur because FLO TV does not broadcast your local programming, like the news you might see at noon every day. It also allows you to watch programs that you’d miss because the Personal Television does not offer any DVR-type recording features, nor does it offer access to any sort of on-demand library — yet. FLO TV says on demand features are likely to be added to future products.

The absence of a DVR and an on-demand library is not a deal breaker for me. But the poor reception I often experienced when testing the Personal Television would be. According to FLO TV’s coverage map, I live in an area with relatively good service. Yet, in some areas of my house, reception ranged from poor to nonexistent. Programs often looked pixelated and smeared, and sometimes the video froze up completely while waiting for a signal.

Reception did improve when I moved around the house, and got even better when I drove to a neighboring town to test the device. At its best, the picture looked as crisp and clear as anything you’d see on a standard definition TV. The 3.5-inch screen can feel small, though, so expect to squint if you’re trying to make out the text in a news report, for example.

The Personal Television is FLO TV’s first dedicated device, and the company says it does not consider itself a “device company,” but rather a company committed to bringing the experience of mobile TV to consumers. To that end, FLO TV is currently working on both an in-car TV system and an iPhone add-on.

The Personal Television is hampered by its high price and mixed reception, but it could also benefit from more programming. I think the idea behind it has promise, though, and I’m very interested to see how well the iPhone add-on works when it’s available later this year. Using a device I already own to watch TV on the go could be a lot more convenient — and affordable — than purchasing an additional device just for that luxury.