A word of advice if you're fan enough to get the new Mobile ESPN cell phone: Spring for the extended-life battery. If you do, cellular sports nirvana may be within reach. If you don't, you may not even be able to make a call.
The "ACE" phone — a souped-up version of a RAZR-like flip from Samsung — is a big step for Mobile ESPN, as it's only the second handset in an ambitious bid to siphon sportsaholics from mainstream wireless brands.
The differences between the ACE and its predecessor, the Sanyo MVP, are more superficial than technological. But looks are a key feature for a pricier service that tries hard to replicate the hyperactive glitz of ESPN's television broadcast — with real-time scores, stats and video — within the confines of a handheld device.
The slender Samsung is eye-catching and more tightly integrated with ESPN's content and branding, better concealing the fact that this is largely another company's cellular service (Sprint) in disguise. The Sanyo looks and feels a tad clunkier, and unlike the ACE, its buttons aren't optimized for one-click access to the neon carnival of Mobile ESPN's menus. On the downside, the ACE gets sluggish or even frozen on downloads and updates, while the MVP zips along.
While both handsets are high end in terms of processing power and display technologies, the Samsung viewing experience is more pleasing for the video updates that Mobile ESPN hopes users will pay extra to watch. ESPN, a unit of Walt Disney Co., asked Samsung Electronics Co. to boost the graphics-rendering speed of its A900 handset sold by Sprint Nextel Corp. to make the ACE faster.
But better visuals come with a battery-devouring cost on such a skinny phone. Even with light usage of the Mobile ESPN application, the Samsung phone would drain its juice in less than half a day. In an apparent nod to this deficiency, every ACE is being sold with a free car charger, an accessory that usually costs extra.
The real answer, though, is to buy an extended-life battery for $30 on top of the ACE's price tag: $99 for new subscribers signing a two-year commitment, or $149 with a two-year extension to upgrade from the MVP.
The bigger battery makes the phone a bit fatter of course, but the extra eighth of an inch doesn't produce much of a backside bulge on a handset that's just five-eighths of an inch thick to start. (The phone weighs 3.9 ounces with the standard battery and almost an ounce more with the larger one.)
As for the service itself, Mobile ESPN is a work in progress, but delivers gobs and gobs of timely content that would make many a sports fanatic salivate. Whether they'd pay extra for it remains to be seen.
It's been some time since I've been an avid sports fan, though I do faithfully "manage" a long-suffering team in a fantasy baseball league. As a father with little time to sit around and watch games, I'm probably not the target audience for a premium product like Mobile ESPN.
But truth be told, since my fantasy baseball team is in contention, it was fun carrying around a phone that could provide an array of quick information when I wasn't near a TV or computer. When Ty Wigginton, a third baseman on my team who moonlights as a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was placed on the disabled list, I found out at the beach with an alert from the cell.
The $10 fee for wireless Internet use on the phone gets you most of Mobile ESPN's non-video features, as well as a typical cellular connection to Web sites that haven't been optimized for a mobile phone. For an extra $15 a month, you can get video clips and game highlights from ESPN's TV broadcast, plus a monthly allowance of 200 text messages. Calling plans start at $40 a month for 400 anytime minutes and $60 for 800, with unlimited nights and weekends for both.
The basic options, all accessible with precious few clicks compared to the typical wireless Internet menu, include news alerts and real-time scoring updates on up to five teams of your choosing.
There are also play-by-play snapshots from ESPN.com's signature GameCast and audio updates from ESPN Radio. You can plug in a list of favorite players so it takes fewer clicks to see how they fared that day.
As compared with the rigid approach to news delivery on most cell phones, which shoehorn articles into generic categories like "financial" or "baseball," the menus on Mobile ESPN's phone are a splendid demonstration of how to serve up content on a tiny screen.
The main menu, rather than occupying an entire screen, is an ever-present ribbon of icons to the left that can rotate up or down in a continuous loop, ready to steer you directly to any other selection instead of forcing you to navigate back to the main page first. And the menu choices aren't fixed in stone: dedicated icons appear with the arrival of events such as the World Cup, the British Open and even the World Series of Poker.
There were annoyances too. Occasionally, the network connection would fail, requiring several attempts to connect. Video downloads could take a half a minute or more than two. And true to Murphy's Law, the network went down during the final game of the World Cup.
Mobile ESPN won't say how many subscribers it has. Some wireless and marketing experts doubt there's much of an audience for premium services like this.
It's a tough call. I might not pay extra for it, but I do know people who are ga-ga enough about sports that they'd love to eliminate those lonely moments when they're not near a TV or listening to sports radio.
Just remember: There was a time, before cell phones hit the mainstream, when people jammed coins into pay phones to call sports-information lines or carried beepers with running scores. And none of those services came with video.