By Mike Langberg
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Back in the Dark Ages, before the invention of cordless phones, making a call from home meant you were tethered to one spot or could only pace a few feet as you stretched out a kinked and knotted curly-cue phone cord.
Television, until now, has been mired in the same trap. You have to plant yourself at the spot in the house where the TV set is installed. How primitive.
Sharp Electronics' new Aquos 15-inch wireless color LCD television changes all that. For the first time, you can pick up a TV screen and move it to a place that's convenient for you.
At least that's the theory. As is often the case with first-generation technology, the wireless Aquos is underperforming and hugely expensive at an astounding $1,699.
So let's regard it as a preview of coming attractions, something we can look forward to buying in a few years when the rough edges are smoothed over and costs have plummeted.
Officially known as the model LC-15L1U-S (www.sharpusa.com), the wireless Aquos reached a limited number of retailers last month.
Like a cordless phone, the wireless Aquos comes in two parts.
The surprisingly hefty 11-pound screen includes a rechargeable battery, half-circle stereo speakers on either side and a handle on the back for easy lifting, along with a flip-out leg to balance the screen on a flat surface. A mounting stand, which you don't have to use, lifts the screen up three inches and adds three more pounds.
The base station, a silver box the size of a hardback book, connects to a video source such as a cable box, satellite receiver, videocassette recorder or DVD player.
Sharp says the screen can range up to 50 feet from the base station, although real-world performance will almost always be less than the marketing claims.
But even 20 or 30 feet is enough to watch TV in places that wouldn't otherwise be practical, such as the middle of the kitchen table or a shaded spot in the back yard.
This is possible because LCD, or liquid-crystal display, screens are relatively light and durable - the only technology practical today for mobile devices. Conventional televisions use thick hunks of glass, known as cathode-ray tubes or CRTs, that are simply too big and too heavy. Plasma, currently used in big-screen, flat-panel TVs, can't be economically downsized for screens smaller than 32 inches, and delivers somewhat less picture quality.
But LCDs have one big disadvantage: They're expensive. LCD TVs often cost four times as much as CRT sets of the same screen size, although prices are heading steadily if somewhat slowly down.
Which brings me back to the wireless Aquos, with all its first-generation flaws.
After several days of testing the Aquos at home, my right shoulder was sore from lugging around the 11-pound screen as I checked reception around the house. I found the screen was too heavy to comfortably cradle in my arms or rest on my lap while watching. In contrast, the beefiest laptop computers with 15-inch screens weigh no more than 8 pounds, even though they contain many more components.
The video signals are also prone to interference, because the wireless Aquos uses the same 2.4-gigahertz frequency as WiFi home computer networks, microwave ovens and some cordless phones.
I put the base station in the living room at the center of my modest single-story wood-and-plaster suburban house. Reception was excellent within the living room, but faded in my bedroom just 25 feet away after passing through several walls. Video images froze for a quick second before resuming.
When I turned on the microwave oven in my kitchen, adjoining the living room, the Aquos immediately stopped, with an unmoving image and no sound. It wouldn't work anywhere in the kitchen, as long as the microwave was running.
The Aquos also does not display high-definition television, a big annoyance given the high price.
Battery life, by the way, is about 90 minutes with the screen set to "bright." The "normal" mode extends run time to two hours, while "dark" delivers three hours. I found the normal mode acceptable, but the dark mode was too dim to be useful.
Another point worth mentioning: The wireless Aquos comes with a remote control that can send signals back to the base station. Using an adapter cable plugged into the base station, the remote can control other devices such as a cable box or VCR.
The big issue with the wireless Aquos is, of course, the price tag. A well-equipped laptop with a 15-inch color LCD screen and built-in DVD drive for watching movies costs about $1,000. It will weigh less than the Aquos and run for about the same amount of time on batteries. It won't make a wireless connection to your cable or satellite box, but it will fetch electronic mail and play your digital music files.
Alternatively, Sharp sells non-wireless, non-HD, 15-inch LCD TVs for $500 to $600. You could buy three of these regular LCD TVs, in other words, for what the wireless model costs.
For now, Sharp has the wireless TV market to itself. But Sony and Casio have already announced portable LCDs similar to the Aquos, scheduled to ship this fall at similarly awesome prices.
The crowded market should have the benefit of making wireless TVs sleeker and cheaper over time. There are also new ideas in wireless technology that could overcome many of the interference problems.
In time, I'm convinced wireless LCDs could be scattered throughout the house. Perhaps there will be tiny LCD refrigerator magnets that deliver weather and traffic reports; bedside LCD panels that play commercial-free streaming Internet radio as well as TV broadcasts; and LCD work pads for Web browsing and e-mail.
All TVs would be wireless in this world. Big screens would only need to plug into an AC outlet, while small screens would run on batteries and be portable. We'd finally escape the wired Dark Ages.
© 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.