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Tech Lab

New gadgets bring over-the-air TV to mobile devices

As usual, there were plenty of giant TVs at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. But I’ve seen enough forty-acre screens, and so have you. How about something a little smaller?

It’s called Mobile DTV, a technology that lets viewers receive over-the-air television broadcasts on their mobile devices. Instead of wasting your cellular data plan on Netflix movies, get free video from the airwaves, like Grandpa used to do. Mobile DTV works pretty well, too, but for now it is much too limited to catch on with consumers.

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In August, Samsung Corp. quietly rolled out the Galaxy S Lightray 4G, the first phone with built-in Mobile DTV capability. But you’ve probably never heard of it. Only no-contract carrier MetroPCS Communications Inc. carries the Lightray, at an unappealing $459.

But in Vegas last week, two companies were pushing gadgets that will convert an Apple Inc. iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into a TV. Escort Inc., best known for automotive radar detectors, offers Escort Mobile TV, while Elgato Systems sells the EyeTV Mobile.

Each delivers pretty much identical performance, so it is unclear why the Escort sells for $119.99 and the Elgato for $89.99, both at Amazon.com.

Using these Mobile DTV tuners is almost as painless as pecking at your living room remote.

Both contain a battery good for several hours of use. This battery must be charged separately from the iPhone; a USB charging cable is included. After charging, plug the device into the iPhone port. Owners of the iPhone 5, with its new Lightning connector, will have to spring for a port adapter; Apple charges an absurd $29, but Amazon has adapters for $11.

Next, download a free app and go through a brief setup process, as the Mobile DTV tuner creates a directory of available channels. From now on, you just plug in the device, launch the app and tune in. You’ll get funny looks in public, though; each gadget uses a telescoping antenna, similar to the rabbit ears of olden times.

You won’t pick up the same high-definition signal used for standard TV broadcasts. Mobile DTV uses a separate frequency with a digital signal that’s been designed for mobile devices.

It is supposed to result in a video signal that’s more stable for viewing in a moving car. I tried the service on a couple of Red Line trains, and it worked moderately well.

Sometimes the image would smear and pixellate a little, the audio would pop in and out, and of course, the signal died when the train entered a tunnel. But above ground, the overall experience was decent enough.

So was the picture quality. Those of us who’ve learned to live with YouTube videos will find Mobile DTV’s images quite acceptable — at least on an ­iPhone. They’re not totally awful on an iPad either, but the tablet’s bigger screen makes the imperfections more evident.

I ran the Escort Mobile DTV unit for 3½ hours before the ­iPhone’s battery gave out. You can’t kept the iPhone plugged into a power outlet and the ­Mobile DTV device at the same time.

So if you expect to make and receive phone calls, you should limit your viewing to an hour or two per charge.

But you’ll be able to restrain yourself, due to Mobile DTV’s biggest drawback — there’s very little to watch.

Only a handful of US television stations currently offer the service; in Boston, you can choose from two video channels from public broadcaster WGBH and the local Fox network affiliate and the children’s TV network Qubo.

WGBH also transmits four audio-only channels, including jazz and classical music streams.

So that makes a mere eight channel choices. If you love “Downton Abbey” or “American Idol,” you’re good to go. But the upcoming Patriots-Ravens game on CBS is out of reach.

There are moves afoot to get more channels on the air; in Atlanta, for instance, Mobile DTV viewers can watch ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and Fox broadcasts. But in most of the country, the pickings are all too slim. TV station owners hold back on Mobile DTV broadcasts because there are so few viewers. But viewers won’t come along until there are more broadcasts.

I side with the viewers; I want more than four TV channels for my $90. Besides, toting a separate Mobile DTV device to plug into my phone is like having to wear special glasses to watch 3D TV.

Consumers have turned up their noses at that brilliant idea, and I suspect we’re about to see a rerun.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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