- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Here in the U.S., consumers have grown used to gadgets that do just about everything: surf the Web, check e-mail, play games, download music and even relay driving directions.

But in one respect, they lag behind what’s available in other countries, because they can’t pick up free digital broadcasts the way TVs can.

A portable DVD player by LG Electronics Inc. is the first gadget available in the U.S. that does just that, though if TV broadcasters get their wish it will be followed by many phones, tablets, PCs and in-car entertainment systems.

My colleagues and I had a chance to play with LG’s player in two cities and found that while compelling, the technology has a way to go before it’s likely to win over mainstream consumers.

LG’s $249 mobile player doesn’t pick up the exact same signals that TVs do. Instead, they pick up a new “Mobile DTV” duplicate signal, which some broadcasters have added to their towers. Depending on where you are, you could get news, sports, weather and a prime-time lineup _ not to mention the commercials that accompany them.

Mobile DTV is available in 27 U.S. cities and counting, including major hubs such as New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta. It’s also in smaller cities such as Springfield, Mass. According to the Online Mobile Video Coalition, the group of broadcasters trying to help Mobile DTV catch on, the service is on track to expand to 60 cities this year.

The breadth of programming varies from city to city. The coalition says people should be able to find seven stations in Washington, for example, but just one in Denver. It expects more stations to be added nationwide in 2011.

For now, few gadgets can accept Mobile DTV signals. Although some phones sold in Japan, China, South Korea and Germany can play live TV for free, not a single one sold in the U.S. does.

That may be because, so far, few consumers seem interested in watching live TV on their phones. Qualcomm Inc. is shuttering its FLO TV service in 2011 after less than four years because not enough people signed up.

FLO TV’s example must be disheartening to TV broadcasters hoping to stay relevant in the age of the smart phone. But Mobile DTV has two advantages over the FLO TV model that could prove crucial: It’s free and it carries valuable local news and weather shows. FLO TV cost upward of $9 per month and had only national channels.

The Mobile DTV device I tested looks like an anachronism at a time gadgets are getting smaller and sleeker. Although it weighs less than a netbook at 2 pounds, LG’s Mobile DTV/DVD player has a stubby shape _ 2 inches thick when closed _ making it a less travel-friendly companion.

The player folds open like a laptop, but instead of a keyboard on the bottom half, there’s a pop-open DVD player with menu and playback controls next to it. The screen is smaller than a laptop’s, measuring 7 inches diagonally.

In testing around New York City, a colleague and I found just two stations, one carrying ION Television and one Spanish-language Telemundo affiliate. A colleague in Washington, meanwhile, found just one station, an NBC affiliate.

The picture was watchable but of a much lower resolution than you’d get on an actual TV. The frame rate is also lower, resulting in slight stutters when people move on-screen. I didn’t notice any hiccups in the audio while watching a nature documentary on DVD, but the sound frequently fell out of sync with the video when I watched live TV.

My coworker in Washington had better luck: She reported smooth video with few audio drop-outs.

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