Battery-powered portable LCD TVs are great for being entertained when on the go. They can also provide an invaluable lifeline during emergencies when electrical power is unavailable. However, the change from an analog broadcasting system to a digital one has rendered all older portable TVs obsolete. Makers have introduced digital replacements, but the nature of digital TV transmission makes real-world use a challenge.
Without getting too technical, digital signals have a different coverage footprint than analog ones. Because of that, you might not be able to get a TV signal, even if you were able to get one with your old analog portable TV. Even those who are relatively close to a transmitter might be out of luck if there are tall buildings, hills or other obstacles in the way.
In addition, while digital signals are easy to lock onto when you are in one place, a digital TV can have a hard time holding onto that lock if it is in motion. Although some retailers and manufacturers do note that digital portable TVs can't be expected to work properly while moving -- say in the back of a car -- we've seen plenty of comments from disappointed users who missed the warnings and found that out on their own.
Recognizing the issues -- and the opportunity to perhaps make over-the-air broadcasting more profitable -- the TV industry has developed a new standard -- dubbed ATSC M/H (ATSC Mobile/Handheld). It aims to make portable TVs more usable and reliable, and broadcasting has begun in certain markets. However, whether it's due to a lack of content, a lack of suitable receivers or changes in consumer behavior brought about by the availability of streaming media on smartphones and tablets, Mobile DTV has been slow to catch on.
But that doesn't mean that the TV industry is giving up. Two competing groups of broadcasters have announced plans to deliver Mobile DTV signals in 48 markets, serving two-thirds of U.S. homes, by the end of 2011, according to an article at TVNewsCheck.com. One group, the Mobile Content Venture (MCV), is anchored by NBC, Fox and Univision and will be delivering content via its Dyle Mobile TV service. The second, the Mobile500 Alliance, is made up of smaller broadcasters -- though ones that control hundreds of stations across the country -- and is expected to focus on local content. Programming is expected to be ad-supported and free -- at least to begin with, as both programming initiatives also include the ability to encrypt signals for subscription-only content.
But regardless of how many stations are actually broadcasting Mobile DTV signals by the end of 2011, few people will be actually watching them. Only a handful of portable TVs and portable DVD players have tuners capable of receiving Mobile DTV. In 2012, Mobile DTV devices -- including portable TVs and Mobile DTV capable smartphones and tablets –designed to be compatible with these two ventures likely will be released. These devices are expected to be designed to support subscription-only programming. We say likely because the hardware specification is fairly new, and no manufacturer has announced plans to make it.
Our research reveals that if you want a portable TV, your best bet might be a hybrid model that includes a standard digital tuner and a Mobile DTV one. These TVs can receive ad-supported free Mobile DTV signals, as well as standard digital TV signals in areas not served by Mobile DTV. They won't, however, support any subscription-based broadcasting offered by the competing groups -- should those plans come to fruition.
Few portable receivers are available. Tivax makes the 7-inch MiTVMobile7-b hybrid portable TV (*Est. $160), but there is very little review feedback for it. We found the most information for a pair of RCA portable TVs: the RCA DMT335R (*Est. $130) and the RCA DMT336R (*Est. $160). Both have 3.5-inch screens, ATSC and ATSC M/H tuners and similar performance, according to reports. Outside of styling, one key difference is that the step up RCA DMT336R adds an FM radio. In addition, while the cheaper DMT335R relies on 4 standard AA batteries for power, the DMT336R uses a built-in rechargeable power pack -- though as explained below, that's not necessarily an advantage.
Both portable TVs can be challenging to find at retail sites, though the availability of the DMT336R is a little better. In addition, you can get these hybrid portable TVs direct from Innovative DTV Solutions, which markets them under license from RCA.
Both receivers have been put to the test by expert reviewers, though the reports tend to be on the technical side. The bottom line, all agree, is that although there are some downsides, Mobile DTV performance largely delivers what's promised. In addition, the receivers sport standard ATSC (digital tuners) that outperform most competing options. As an example, Peter Putman at HDTVexpert.com tests the RCA DMT336R side-by-side with an Eviant T7 (*Est. $95), an older but better regarded portable TV that has only a standard digital tuner. He reports that the greater sensitivity of the digital tuner in the DMT336 is clearly evident.
Though it, too, is becoming harder to find, the Eviant T7 remains available and garners pretty good feedback among standard portable TV choices. The T7 is a 7-inch portable TV with a 16:9 widescreen display. The 480-by-230-pixel display is not standard definition, let alone HD. However, most reports say that picture quality is pretty good -- as long as you don't look too closely. The speakers' audio quality is also said to be surprisingly good, or you can use a pair of headphones for more private entertainment. Viewing angles are excellent. A built-in stand is convenient for use on a tabletop or counter. A card-sized remote is included, but it doesn't do much more than change channels and volume. The T7 is available in red, white and black.
On the downside, channel changing is slow, and the programming information broadcast by every digital station isn't displayed. Even seeing the time means a trip to the menu. However, the biggest issues are that battery life is short, and the T7 is powered by a nonremovable, rechargeable Lithium-ion power pack. That's not an issue if you plan to use the portable TV around the house where power is readily available, but it won't get you through a game if you take the T7 with you to the stadium. Also, unless you have an alternate power source, the short battery life means that the T7 isn't a very good emergency TV.
Small size is a key part of making a portable TV, well, portable. But if you want or need a bigger screen, the 9-inch Philips PT902/37 (*Est. $95) might be worth considering. No professionals weigh in, but there's lots of user feedback and most of it is positive. High points in owner reviews include a decent tuner, though some say they've had to abandon the detachable antenna included with the TV for something more powerful to get the best results. Picture quality is another high point, though with a screen resolution of 600 by 220 pixels, the display is not high-def. The most common complaint is poor sound quality -- something the Philips PT902/37 has in common with most other portable digital TVs. A built-in tuner for FM radio is a nice plus. Again, the use of a nonreplaceable rechargeable battery could be a minus for some.
We found a bit of feedback regarding Mobile DTV receivers, including reviews of RCA models at Sound & Vision.com, HDTVexpert.com, HDTVMagazine.com and TVTechnology.com. User portable-TV reviews such as those at Amazon.com, provide the best current guidance on standard digital portable TVs. Few professional reviewers have revisited standard portable digital TVs of late, but CNET is worth a look because many of its older reports cover models still available.