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There's something comforting about having a TV on. Whether at the doctor's office, the airport, or your uncle Ned's, the passive kind of boredom-breaking entertainment television provides is without equal.
Very different from the experience of loading up an iPod or Zune with half-hour episode of your favorite prime time sagas, the FLO TV personal television viewer gives all-you-can-watch access to around 16 popular channels for a flat monthly fee of $14.99.
The FLO TV device will set you back around $199--a price that includes 6 months of free subscription TV service. FLO TV is about as close as you can get to replicating the at-home TV experience on a portable device and will appeal to TV fanatics who've fantasized about having a small television they can watch at work or commuting on the bus
That said, casual TV fans who only care about a handful of specific shows will be better served by an a la carte portable video product, such as the iPod Touch or Zune HD. The iPod and Zune are priced comparably to the FLO TV, offer dozens of additional features, and have the capability of playing content on demand.
Measuring 3 inches tall by 4.4 inches wide and just a half inch thick, the FLO TV comes across as a slightly bulky cousin to the iPod Touch. Like the Touch, the FLO TV includes a 3.5-inch capacitive touch-screen display, along with a front-facing home button, a 3.5mm headphone jack off to the side, and a rocker switch for adjusting volume.
A few design details help distinguish the FLO TV from its peers. The back of the device includes a hinged black flap that acts as a kickstand for hands-free viewing. A small pair of integrated stereo speakers is also included on the back of the device, and they deliver significantly louder audio than the iPod Touch's speaker or even speakers on larger devices, such as the Archos 5.
On the top edge of the FLO TV, you'll find a button that acts as a battery life indicator, as well as a similar-looking button for turning the device on and off. On the right edge, along with a headphone jack and volume buttons, you'll find a dedicated mute button and a micro-USB port for charging the device over USB or the included power adapter.
For better or worse, the FLO TV does just one thing: TV. Without internal memory, there's no way for it to play your MP3s, show off photos, or even play your personally purchased video files. The FLO TV simply acts as a tuner and screen for the FLO TV subscription television service.
Fortunately, the FLO TV service is pretty cool. The service has only one package, which currently offers around 16 channels, including ABC, CBS, ESPN, NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox, Fox News, TLC, Nickelodeon, MTV, MTV Tr3s, Disney, Comedy Central, CNN, Adult Swim, and FLO's own 2.FLO channel. Pressing the button on the front of the device brings up a channel guide, where you can flip through broadcasts, select the particular show you want to watch, or schedule a reminder for an upcoming show. (Editors' note: CNET is a subsidiary of CBS.)
There's no pause button, no recording, and no on-demand services here; you just tune in and see what you get. It's also worth knowing that the channels aren't identical to the live broadcast you'd find on a conventional TV. Mostly, you're getting the best of what any one channel has to offer, but repurposed for the day time. A primetime show like "Heroes" or a late night talk show may play in the middle of the day. A full program guide is available on the FLO TV Web site.
For parents worried about their children viewing inappropriate content on the FLO TV, a control panel in the upper right corner of the program guide allows you to lock out mature shows. Once set, the parental controls will prompt you to set a four-digit security code for any additional changes.
The FLO TV behaves like an abbreviated form of your home television in most ways, but there are a few key differences worth keeping in mind. For instance, there's no closed captioning available on FLO TV programming. Also, don't expect to see any local broadcasts, including local news or public television affiliates.
If you're a stickler for video quality, the FLO TV will be a disappointment. The screen's 320x240-pixel video resolution rarely dazzles, and the streaming digital resolution fluctuates, even while standing still. We also weren't thrilled with the screen's poor viewing angles (particularly when tilted down) and the overall screen brightness is conservative. We also noticed that the screen would occasionally dim into a sleep mode when left alone to play on our desk. We understand the usefulness of sleep modes for conserving battery power, but unfortunately, there's no way to adjust or disable the sleep mode timer in the system settings menu. The only way we found to disable the sleep mode was to keep the FLO TV plugged into its charger.
For all our complaints about the FLO TV's video quality (especially when compared with the iPod Touch or Zune HD), the device does have one big attribute in its favor: reception. Because the FLO TV signal utilizes the retired UHF TV spectrum, the typical issues we have with Wi-Fi or cellular reception vanish. Whether at our desk or in a moving car, the FLO TV reception remained consistent (though never perfect) while trekking around the San Francisco Bay Area. For an approximation of what coverage is like in your particular area, an interactive map is available on the FLO TV Web site.
One place you can't use the FLO TV, however, is onboard an airplane. We imagine subway commuters may have issues, as well. Granted, you can't please everyone, but situations such as these serve to illustrate why multipurpose devices such as the iPod, Zune, or PSP are typically a better bet for portable entertainment.
The manufacturer estimates the FLO TV's internal battery will last for around 5 hours of viewing. If you're not out and about, you can use the wall charger or a USB connection to your computer to keep the FLO TV powered on continuously.