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The iPhone effectively replaced digital cameras and GPS devices, and now Escort MobileTV extends its reach to portable televisions. The MobileTV accessory works with iPhones and iPads, letting them receive broadcast television signals from the Dyle television network.
The MobileTV, essentially identical to the previously reviewed Elgato EyeTV Mobile, is a blocky little device with a 30-pin iPhone connector on one end and an antenna on the other. Despite the 30-pin connector, Escort says it needs an iPhone 4 or newer, ruling out its use with earlier iPhones. Likewise, it will only work with the fourth-generation iPod Touch or newer, but supports all iPads. For newer iOS devices, it needs the 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter.
There is also a Mini-USB port for charging on the end of the MobileTV accessory, as the device relies on an internal battery. A red LED on the black device shows when it is charging.
Connected to an iPhone or iPad, it sits neatly in the connector, adding its minimal, approximately 2x2-inch bulk. Hooking it up through a Lightning adapter to a newer iOS device makes it stick out a bit farther, and the whole apparatus feels more prone to being knocked loose.
Free app required
By itself, the MobileTV accessory does not do anything, as it needs the IDTV app to show television broadcasts on an iOS device. This app is free from the App Store, and available for iPhone or iPad.
However, the MobileTV and the IDTV app may not be enough to turn your iOS device into a portable television. It also needs to be within the Dyle television network's coverage area. Dyle includes a convenient coverage map on its Web site, which also shows which channels are available in each area.
Never heard of the Dyle television network? This service retransmits existing television network programming as a digital signal for mobile devices. The MobileTV will receive programming only from Dyle, and is not able to pick up any other over-the-air broadcasts. Dyle promises to offer access to its network free of charge through 2013.
This means the MobileTV can only get the channels Dyle carries, which in the San Francisco Bay Area is limited to five. From our testing, that meant Fox affiliate KTVU, NBC affiliate KNTV, independent KICU, Telemundo affiliate KSTS, and Qubo affiliate KXPX. New York appears to be the biggest market with eight broadcasters, including MyTV, and three local independents.
After a couple of setup screens, the IDTV app scanned for available channels. On our first test, performed within our sixth-floor office, it only came up with four of the five available. During a second test, outside in San Francisco, it found only four again, although a different set of channels. Although the IDTV app saves the channels it finds, it does not automatically rescan for channels every time you start it up or change location. You will have to run a manual scan to find available channels in different areas.
The interface of the app makes it easy to skip through the available channels, either with arrow buttons or on an iOS menu wheel. IDTV has a TiVo-like function that lets you pause a program, rewind, or fast forward, depending on how it is saved in its buffer. The channel list function also shows current programs.
Using it to watch the available channels on an iPhone 5, we had better luck outside of the building. Inside, only two channels came through, and one lacked audio. Outside, we had all four picked up on our channel scan until the signal from one dropped out. Again, one of the channels lacked audio.
The video quality was good, although occasional interference caused digital artifacts on the display. The app defaulted to a wide-screen display, filling the iPhone 5's screen. On the settings menu, we could change the aspect ratio and choose closed-captioning options.
As mentioned above, this product appears to be all but identical to the Elgato EyeTV Mobile. Given that the Elgato product can currently be found for closer to $80, it's a better deal for anyone interested in the Escort.
Those wanting to use the iPad or iPhone as a TV viewing device can also opt for the Slingbox, which streams any video from a cable, satellite box, or DVR -- but pricing starts at $180, plus a steep $15 for viewing apps. Dish customers can opt for the Dish Hopper with Sling DVR (new for 2013), which includes the Slingbox functionality built-in -- and with free viewing apps, to boot. But that product only works for Dish satellite customers.
Beyond hardware, there's a boatload of online services -- Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriptions ($8/month each), pay-per-view services like iTunes, and Amazon Instant, which offers both. Any of these offer plenty of viewing choices if you're willing to pay for it, but none offer live streaming TV.
Those who already subscribe to cable or satellite can use one of the many "TV everywhere" apps from the service provider (Time Warner, DirecTV, etc.) or from the individual networks (HBO Go, Watch ESPN, and the like). But those require already being a paid cable or satellite subscriber.
Perhaps the closest "service" competitor to Escort MobileTV is Aereo, a service that streams live over-the-air TV to iOS devices for $8 per month. But there are two caveats: it's currently only available in New York City (though slated to expand to more cities later in 2013), and its legality is currently being determined in the courts. (Disclosure: CBS Corp., the parent corporation of CNET, is currently in active litigation as to the legality of the Aereo service and the Dish Hopper DVR; in order to prevent any real or perceived conflict of interest, we will not be reviewing them.)
Turning an iOS device into a television would be interesting if it could pick up all the programming in an area. As it is limited to the Dyle network, programming is fairly sparse, even in a big market like New York. If Dyle carries a network you like, and if you can get the signal where you want it, it does make for a convenient way to watch your programs without dragging around an entire portable television. Satisfying those requirements, the Escort MobileTV -- or its doppelganger, the Elgato EyeTV Mobile -- has value, especially considering there are no subscription fees to watch the programming. But if you want more programming options (including cable and on-demand TV), you should consider looking elsewhere.
Editors' note (January 31, 2013): This review has been updated to include comparisons to additional hardware and streaming competitors, including the nearly identical Elgato EyeTV Mobile.