No movable feast for portable TV

Consumers are scooping up cheap portable televisions even as a new standard stands to improve broadcast reception on the go.

Ross Rubin
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, where he analyzes the adoption of consumer technology, and also publishes commentary at his blog, Techspressive.com. Previously, Ross was executive director and principal analyst at The NPD Group and vice president and chief research fellow at Jupiter Research.
Ross Rubin
3 min read

When the U.S. federal government closed the curtain on analog broadcasts last June, one set of screens that forever embraced a slumber of white noise was analog handheld TVs such as the Sony Watchman. The already modest popularity of these products waned as their broadcast system reached its end. Furthermore, their usefulness could not be prolonged as was the case for millions of analog TV sets connected to cable or satellite set-tops or paired with a converter box offered through the federal coupon program.

Eviant portable TV
Eviant's portable TV Eviant

It was not long, though, before a new crop of digital televisions rose to take their place. Hailing from lesser-known companies such as Evizen, Viore, and Eviant and often touting 7-inch displays, these TVs can tap into a slightly wider array of free over-the-air broadcasts just like home TVs receiving over-the-air signals. Consumers have embraced these inexpensive sets that regularly sell for less than $100. According to NPD's Retail Tracking Service, sales of digital TVs with 7-inch screens have grown more than sevenfold in the past year.

There's a catch, though. The ATSC standard that these TVs use was not designed to support products in motion such as rear-seat video systems, digital music players, and cell phones. Moving these small sets just a bit can disrupt their reception. Though the TVs may continue to work indefinitely, their technology may be a practical dead end. Beginning later this year, local broadcast stations will begin testing a new version of the ATSC digital broadcasting standard that can work with mobile devices. Unlike the FLO TV Personal TV that debuted earlier this year, the stations will be free to view, supported by ads. However, just like the regular broadcast system, it won't include content from cable networks such as ESPN, MTV, Bravo, and Fox News Channel. Some of these networks are available on FLO TV.

Tivizen's iPhone app
Tivizen's iPhone app Valups

But those who have bought the stationary portable sets shouldn't feel too much buyer's remorse. The new mobile digital broadcasts probably won't be available nationally until sometime in 2011. Products are being held up as broadcasters work with the FCC to ensure that the new standard complies with regulations, including a few that were clearly written without mobile digital television in mind.

Unlike at the dawn of the Watchman, there are now a host of portable screens consumers have embraced in the millions, including notebook PC, portable DVD players, portable navigation devices, portable media players and, of course, cell phones. However, free mobile broadcasts may be slower to come to cell phones because carriers would rather have customers pay for live TV via a subscription service such as FLO TV or MobiTV.

One of the most novel ideas around mobile DTV is a product called Tivizen. The small receiver can send free over-the-air DTV to practically any product that supports Wi-Fi and which can download a dedicated app. In fact, the Tivizen app for iPhone is already available in Apple's iTunes app store, but the hardware is not yet available due to some last-minute regulatory concerns. Ironically, though, while this new age of over-the-air mobile DTV may be accessible to do-it-all notebooks and cell phones, there seems to be little interest in producing a dedicated portable TV device. What was once a lack of demand for diminutive displays has been replaced by oversupply.