Along with the Samsung SCH-u620, this is one of two phones that you can watch Live TV on using V CAST Mobile TV. That’s live TV on your cell phone, broadcast like regular TV using a technology called FLO TV from a company called MediaFLO, a subsidiary of QUALCOMM. Of the two phones, this is the superior model and not only because of its unique (in the U.S. at least) swivel T-bar screen that swings 45 degrees perpendicular from the phone’s body from portrait to landscape mode, but because it has a slightly larger screen that gives a tad-bit better TV picture. The VX9400 also runs TV longer and offers slightly speedier EV-DO service. At $199.99 US with the usual contract stipulations and rebates, it’s also $50 more expensive.
Features and Design
Before we get to the VX9400, here is a brief explanation about V CAST Mobile TV. As noted, this is broadcast TV — you have to pull up a small antenna to ensure decent service. At this writing, V CAST Mobile TV service is available in the following cities:
Albuquerque, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Colorado Springs, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City (MO), Las Vegas, Lincoln (NE), Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Omaha, Orlando, Palm Springs, Portland (OR), Richmond, Seattle, Spokane, Topeka, Tucson, Wichita. It’s also unofficially available in New York City; service will be official when wiring on Long Island is finished sometime in the next few weeks.
V CAST Mobile TV offers eight channels: CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, Fox, MTV, NBC, NBC News and Nickelodeon. These are mostly special channels of content from these networks; CBS, Fox and NBC offer soap opera and prime time programming simultaneous with the real thing, but fill what would be local time with repeats of national shows. For instance, you can catch David Letterman or CSI during the hours when your local CBS station is showing syndicated or local programming such as the news. Other channels offer a combination of simultaneous programming and special “mobile TV” programming.
Verizon is offering three V CAST Mobile TV plans: Simple ($13/month) includes Fox, NBC, NBC News and CBS. Basic ($15/month) includes all eight channels. Select ($25/month) bundles the TV channels with the V CAST V Pack which includes basic video clip downloads, mobile Web access, unlimited airtime and unlimited email.
While Verizon is currently offering eight channels, the system can handle up to 20. It’s a matter of MediaFLO building out the technology. Also, FLO TV will be coming to AT&T (nee Cingular), probably sometime in the fall. And no, it won’t be available on Apple’s iPhone, at least not in the initial go-round.
As for the phone itself, the VX9400 is the first T-bar phone in the U.S. Popular in Asia where they’ve had live TV (both terrestrial and satellite) for years, the 262K color TFT, 320 x 240-pixel screen swivels around from portrait to a more TV appropriate landscape mode for TV viewing. It’s also more comfortable and natural to hold while watching TV. While the image always remains widescreen, the program guide adjusts depending on the screen alignment.
There also are phone and Verizon Wireless features available only when the screen is swung out. Holding the phone in either hand, you can flip the spring-loaded screen up with your thumb (it’s slightly easier in the right hand since the screen swings up to the left), but you’ll need your other hand to bring it down.
Other than TV, the swung out screen gives you a more appropriate viewfinder for the integrated 1.3 MP camera.
The T-bar screen also presents some ergonomic idiosyncrasies, mostly for actual phone calls. You have to swing the screen out to dial a call which leaves the earpiece at an odd angle to the microphone. This is not a bad thing necessarily, it just feels weird. You can swing the screen back into portrait mode to continue the call; it’s just that the extra back steps the process which makes using the VX9400 as a phone awkward. And like other candybar and slider phones, the exposed screen is vulnerable to the elements and whatever you’ve got in your pocket or bag that can leave scratches or smudges.
With screen in portrait mode, the rectangular 4.04 x 1.93 x 0.73-inch, 4.06 ounce VX9400 looks like your standard slide-up phone. Underneath the screen are two soft menu keys; below these are a “clear” or back button on the left and a dedicated TV button on the right. Underneath these are the Send and End keys. In the center is the navigation array. On the left spine is the volume toggle and microphone key; on the right spine is the camera and speakerphone buttons including the microSD memory card slot. All of the front buttons are large and well-spaced. The side buttons are a bit small and the function icons a bit hard to make out. On the rear is the 1.3 MP camera lens, flash and self-portrait mirror.
With screen swung into landscape mode, the alphanumeric keypad is revealed. Etched characters on the keypad and control panel are unevenly backlit that makes it hard to read the tiny alpha characters on the number keys, making texting difficult. In a well-lit room, it’s actually easier to text once the backlight goes off.
In addition to TV, this is also a V CAST Music phone as well, and offers stereo Bluetooth. Curiously, you can only listen to music with Bluetooth headphones, not TV; for private TV listening, you have to use wired headphones.
(One solution for both V CAST Mobile TV phones: the Plantronics Pulsar 260 stereo Bluetooth earphones. Instead of compact headphones, these use a Bluetooth dongle that you plug the comfortable in-ear earphones into. When not using Bluetooth, the great-sounding phones can be used as regular 2.5mm wired earphones with an in-line mic.)
You also get the usual spate of PIM apps and tools — calendar, calculator, alarm clock, notepad, et al. Contact entries have room for three phone numbers, an email address, a picture and a distinctive ringtone.
Image Courtesy of LG Electronics
Hold down the dedicated TV button and pull up the telescoping TV-only antenna from the rear and a standard program grid appears on screen; vertically if you haven’t swung the screen out, horizontally if you have. You scroll through the grid up/down/left/right with the nav keys. Just hit select when you’ve highlighted what you want to watch, and a picture appears almost instantaneously. The left soft key gives you a “full screen,” and options menu that includes links to the program guide, program description, subscription info, upgrade check and even parental controls. Broadcasting is stalled when you scroll through these options. While watching, you can channel surf using the up/down keys and pause play via the OK key.
So how good is the picture? Darn good, especially compared to other clip and streaming video heretofore available on cell phones. The picture is surprisingly crisp and detailed with plenty of color and contrast, slightly superior to the Samsung in the latter two categories. Even sports events are watchable, depending on the side of the ball, of course. Basketball looked fine, but baseball and especially hockey may be difficult to follow. But then again not being able to watch at all is even worse.
And how good is the reception? Darn good, especially compared to other clip and streaming video heretofore available on cell phones. Unlike streaming video, there are no buffering issues and there are few burps in the signal. Every so often, a white identifying banner will appear along the bottom of the picture, but it soon quickly disappears. Even on a fast-moving train reception was fairly solid, with only the longest underpasses causing occasional bleeps.
When a call comes in, the TV or music cuts out and you are prompted to answer or ignore the call. Once the call is completed, you are returned to your previous programming. There is no DVR functionality — you will miss whatever is broadcast while you’re on the phone. If you were listening to music, which (obviously) is recorded, the player picks up from where it left off.
As a phone, other than the swing screen positioning, the VX9400 is excellent. Call quality is as crisp and clean as the TV picture with plenty of volume, but we suffered some minor ambient noise interference from the other end (i.e. a TV on in the background created some voice clipping). Ditto for ringtone. TV speaker sound sans headset also is full and thick, especially compared with the thin and scratchy sound from the Samsung, with enough volume to hear dialog distinctly in a quiet room.
The camera shutter is actually a bit too fast — the picture snaps almost as soon as you press the button. This means the camera is still moving slightly while the image is being captured, which results in blurry pictures, especially indoors. Indoor images also are a bit grainy, but with contrast and color on par with pictures from other 1.3 MP cameras. Outdoor pictures are spectacular, with true bright colors and deep contrast. It’s focal length is actually longer than the optics of the Samsung u620, meaning you’ll get more in the picture standing closer.
Getting pictures out of the camera is a challenge. Neither this phone nor the Samsung u620 let you transmit images from the camera to a PC via Bluetooth. Either you’ll have to settle for lower resolution MMS or emailed images, or you’ll have to pry the microSD card out and use a card reader.
Possibly the best thing about the VX9400 is the battery life, rated at 228 minutes (a little less than four hours) of talk time and 458 hours (a bit more than a week) in standby, both about average. But we got six hours of TV watching from a single charge, almost twice as much TV viewing time as we got on the Samsung SCH-u620.
The LG VX9400’s combination of unique design and surprisingly crisp TV quality and reception bodes well for this new category of phone. Even without the TV however, this is another superior phone from LG and Verizon.
• V CAST Mobile TV capable
• T-bar widescreen design
• Speedy EV-DO connections
• Stereo Bluetooth
• External microSD slot
• Long TV battery life
• No stereo Bluetooth for TV viewing
• Awkward screen geometry for phone calling
• Poor key backlighting