Virgin Mobile Lobster 700TV
Pocket TV over digital radio
Review Portable TVs are evolving and moving into the digital age, not least with the help of 3G data streaming to push programming to mobile phones. However, Virgin has taken a different approach: a technology called DAB-IP. You might be familiar with DAB, which is a standard for digital radio, but what the heck does it have to do with telly?
Well, it's not as strange as it sounds. DAB is a digital system, so you can send pretty much any information via a DAB signal. This is something BT's Movio subsidiary has taken advantage of - it's added an IP layer to the DAB transmission. Jargon aside, it means it can be used to stream TV through to handsets or any suitably equipped receiver. And because it uses the same protocols as the internet, the same content can be streamed there too.
That said, there are some limitations. The DAB radio stations have priority, so there's less bandwidth available for the TV transmissions. It's lucky, in a way, that currently there are only four channels available: BBC One, ITV1, Channel 4 and E4. However, Channel 4 isn't transmitted live as the other three channels are.
Interestingly, the European Union is promoting mobile television and the intended frequency it wants to use is what is called the L band for DAB radio. This is a frequency that hasn't been used to date and the UK is looking at opening it up next year. However, this band requires more transmitters than the current technology, but the advantage is that the devices themselves can have built in powered antennae.
But let's take a closer look at today's handset. The Virgin Mobile Lobster 700TV is made by HTC, which is one of the most well-known Windows Mobile handset makers these days. The design is unique: the handset is asymmetrical, something you don't see often when it comes to mobile phones. Even the keypad is asymmetrical and one third is darker than the rest.
This might seem odd, but at least the colour differences are there for a reason. When you're using the TV application the 3 and 9 key works as channel up and down, while the 6 takes you back out to the channel menu. But before we get too involved with the TV functionality, let's continue with the feature tour.
Navigation is handled by a slightly odd shaped four-way rocker switch which has a button in the middle for making selections. On each side of the rocker key are four buttons: on the left are the Home and Call button, and on the right are the Back and End-call keys. Finally, just below the screen are two soft-menu buttons. All pretty normal for a Windows Mobile 5 device so far.
On the bit that protrudes to the right of the screen is a button labelled TV. It also doubles up as the 'red button' beloved of interactive TV fans. This allows you to access extra content via the built in web browser. Further up and somewhat to the back is the camera button. This launches the camera application - the Lobster 700TV has a flash-less 1.3 megapixel camera. The quality of pictures taken with the camera is rather lacklustre to put it kindly, but this is generally the case with most camera phones.
The left-hand side of the phone is home to a pair of volume keys. At the top is the power button and this also launches a profile menu, much as the power key on Nokia phones does. At the bottom is a 2.5mm headset socket and a mini USB port. Underneath the battery is a MicroSD card slot, although no memory card is supplied with the phone. However, with 64MB of RAM and 128MB of Flash memory, there's a fair amount of space available out of the box, compared to some other phones in the same class.
The screen is quite different to those I've seen on other Windows Mobile 5.0 phones, in as much as it has a protective plastic cover which makes it look like the screen is quite far back inside the phone. This does add some reflections, but it also protects the screen and makes it very easy to clean. The 2.2in QVGA (240 x 320) resolution screen is bright and easy to read and one of the better screens I've seen on a device this size, although it is limited to 65,536 colours.
Size-wise the Lobster 700TV is comparable to most smart phones, so don't expect to stick it in your shirt pocket unless you've got reinforced seams. It measures 11.1 x 5.8 x 2.4cm and weighs 140g so it's quite chunky, but not uncomfortably so.
The supplied headset is rather basic-looking, but the sound quality is surprisingly good and it's quite comfortable to use. There's an answer button as well as a volume control built into the microphone dongle, although this looks and feels quite cheap in comparison to some other phones' headset accessories.
Apart from the TV and radio application, there are no Virgin-specific applications on the handset, but it comes with the standard set of Windows Mobile 5 utilities. However, a CD in the box adds ClearVue, which is a file viewing package for various Office file formats as well as modem drivers so the phone can act as a dial-up modem for a laptop over Bluetooth.
Which takes us on to the connectivity part of the Lobster 700TV. This is not a 3G handset, so you'll have to rely on GPRS for data connectivity. Nor does it have Wi-Fi. It supports Bluetooth 1.2, but there's no mention of stereo headset support. If you travel abroad a lot you'll be glad to know that the Lobster 700TV is a tri-band GSM handset and works on 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz.
So what about the TV functionality? Well, having showed the Lobster 700TV to various colleagues and friends, most though it was OK, but no one would rush out to buy one. To be fair, for watching the news it works quite well, but it's not great for any serious TV watching due to the limited bandwidth available per channel. The biggest problem is fast moving or dark scenes, as you loose a lot of what's going on due to the high level of picture compression used. It's also nigh on impossible to get good reception on the train, and this goes both for TV and Radio.
The DAB radio is excellent though and it's easy to navigate, but again suffered from poor maintained reception on the train.
So far this is more of a novel idea than something with mass-market appeal, however, the solution behind the service is sound and once the L band becomes available, allowing for more bandwidth per channel, then this might just be the way to for mobile TV.
Cost-wise you have to fork out £199 for the Lobster 700TV on pre-pay and that gives you three months of TV viewing for free and after that all channels other than the Beeb's will cost £5 a month. It's free if you get it on a contract for £25 or more a month and then the TV viewing is free for the life of the contract.
The Virgin Lobster 700TV is a novel idea which will appeal to some. But the quality of the TV broadcasts just aren't quite good enough. As a phone the Lobster 700TV is comparable to many other Windows Mobile 5 devices, but it doesn't really stand out from the crowd. ®