Much has been made about the LG Vu: Its large touchscreen and multimedia functionality immediately draw comparisons to that other, similar-looking phone in AT&T's stable. But while the $299 Vu is sleek and elegant and has several features unavailable on the iPhone, such as AT&T's Mobile TV and 3G data speeds, it lacks Wi-Fi, and its touchscreen and multimedia functionality aren't up to snuff with its largest competitor. Nevertheless, this more affordable device is a fun and easy-to-use iPhone alternative.
The first thing we noticed when we picked up the LG Vu was its light weight. Before anyone in the office took notice of its large and crisp, 3-inch, 240 x 400 widescreen display that takes up nearly the entire front, they, too, commented on its 3.2-ounce weight. The BlackBerry Curve, by comparison, weighs 3.9 ounces, and the iPhone weighs 4.8 ounces. Its 4.3 x 2.2 x 0.5-inch form factor makes it marginally smaller than the iPhone and perfect for pockets, but its screen is 0.5 inches smaller. At first, the Vu feels almost cheap compared with the iPhone, but we grew to like how easy it was to tote.
There are only three buttons on the front: one for making calls, one for ending calls, and one central Back button for navigating backward through menus. We love the minimal use of buttons, and the phone has a silver striped border, leaving most of the navigation to the clean UI and touchscreen. The right side does have a few additional buttons for volume controls, locking the phone, and launching the camera. On the top right corner is a barely noticeable slot where a large antenna hides; you can pull it out to improve TV reception.
Simple Touchscreen Navigation
The Vu has a clean and speedy user interface that's easy to use with its haptic feedback touchscreen, which is similar to the LG Voyager's. We appreciated the soft buzzing that confirmed our fingers had made contact. We rarely saw delays, and we liked the animated icon movements and menu system. LG and AT&T didn't clog up the home screen with icons, making the UI look fresh and uncluttered; instead you'll find the basic signal bar, battery life, and other small icons up top to access your music or quick menus at a touch. Four primary shortcuts along the bottom of the phone (represented by four dots) lead to the Menu, TV, Contacts, and the dialpad.
Inside the Menu, you'll find four tabbed icons along the right-hand side. One offers settings for your contacts, address book, recent calls, and messaging features. Another is a shortcut to your multimedia, including music, games, camera, and video. Yet another gives you access to your pictures, alarm clock, calculator, calendar, and other tools. The last tab is for your phone's settings. The UI is sharp but not as crisp as the iPhone's interface. However, users will find it easy to launch applications. Just don't expect features like multi-touch gestures.
How's the Keyboard?
Having a stellar on-screen keyboard is essential for a touchscreen-only phone. If a phone fails at that, it fails altogether. We'll give the Vu a passing grade on this front, but it still has plenty of room for improvement. In general, the touchscreen was able to register our thumb pokes accurately, but sometimes we had to press more than once.
Much like the HTC Touch, the Vu uses different keyboard layouts for SMS messaging/Web browsing, and e-mails, so this phone has a bit of a learning curve if you're looking to punch out quick messages. The full QWERTY for Web input and SMS messaging is different than—and preferred to—the scrunched layout for e-mailing. The e-mail QWERTY moves the launch key for entering numbers and symbols from the left side to the right side and moves the Return key up a spot.
In most cases, you can opt for a T9 alphanumeric keypad if you crave that over a QWERTY, and in many cases, T9 is the default choice. While on a par with the LG Voyager, the Vu's keyboard is not as good as the iPhone's, which has built-in error correction and enlarges each letter as you type to make enterting text easier.
E-mail and Instant Messaging
The Vu has AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger built in for contacting your buddies on the go, but you can't add ICQ or Google Chat. It also offers Mobile E-mail, which enables support for AOL Mail, AT&T Yahoo, BellSouth, Comcast, Earthlink, Juno, MindSpring, NetZero, Windows Live Mail, and Yahoo Mail. We're dumbfounded as to why we weren't able to configure our own POP3 e-mail account or a Gmail account but appreciated that setup took less than 5 minutes with the preconfigured choices provided. Keep in mind, though, that this is not push e-mail.
LG Vu Made for Mobile TV
The LG Vu is ideal for viewing AT&T Mobile TV, which is available in 58 markets including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego. AT&T Mobile TV costs $15 for unlimited access to its 11 stations, and for $30 a month users can add Mobile TV Plus which includes unlimited TV, unlimited Web browsing on MEdia Net, and unlimited Cellular Video (CV) downloads. A limited TV package for $13 gives users access to just four news channels: CBS Mobile, Fox Mobile, NBC 2Go, and NBC News 2Go, but we suggest splurging the extra $2 to get the unlimited package.
The eleven available channels include CBS Mobile, CNN Mobile Live, Comedy Central, ESPN Mobile TV, FOX Mobile TV, MTV, NBC 2Go, NBC News 2Go, Nickelodeon, and a Sony movie channel called PIX. The eleventh channel, CNCRT, broadcasts music concerts and will be available for a limited time. South Park looked great on the Vu, and it was much smoother and crisper than AT&T's Cellular Video service. While we didn't encounter any lag or out-of-sync audio, we wish the video took up the whole 3-inch landscape display. Instead, the video stops about a quarter inch from each side.
The Mobile TV interface is easy to use, and you can even view a small TV-in-TV picture up in the top right-hand corner while browsing for another TV show in the guide. The volume was sufficient for watching the TV in our hands while kicking back on the couch. In general, we found the experience quite similar to the service offered by Verizon Wireless on the LG Voyager.
You can load your own tunes using a microSD Card, but LG doesn't include a USB cable to connect the Vu to your computer. We loaded some tracks onto our microSD Card and slid it into the Vu, which required removing both the battery and SIM card. Once we had our music loaded, we loved the audio interface, which let us view the CD cover art. Navigating through a long list of songs wasn't nearly as intuitive as the finger swipe on the iPhone, though, and you really need to push and drag on the sidebar to scroll down. Luckily you can search by song or artist name.
The phone has a free trial for MusicID preinstalled ($3.99 after a four-day trial). You can use the software to "listen" in on a song playing, say, at a bar, and it will identify the tune for you. It was able to pick up and provide links to download Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years," Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," and Kings of Leon's "The Runner," which we thought was pretty impressive.
We wish LG hadn't decided to design the Vu with a combination power jack and headphone jack, requiring that you use LG's included and uncomfortable plastic headset instead of your own 3.5mm headset. However, unlike the iPhone, the Vu can be paired with stereo Bluetooth devices. We paired the Vu with a set of stereo Bluetooth speakers in less than a minute and streamed Dierks Bentley's "Free and Easy" and enjoyed decent sound quality.
Using the preinstalled XM Radio application, users can listen to 25 stations, ranging from talk radio to hip-hop to country for $8.99 a month. In our tests around Manhattan, XM Radio sounded clear over AT&T's HSDPA network.
You can buy songs from Napster, but each is sent via e-mail to your computer and not downloaded directly to the phone. AT&T claims the phone works with eMusic downloads as well, but we weren't able to find this during our tests. If you want to side-load your own videos, the phone supports MP4 and 3GP playback.
A host of games comes preinstalled on the Vu, and its support for Java 2.0 means the games look great and play well with the touchscreen. We liked walking around in the corny storyline of New York Nights, a game demo included on the phone.
LG Vu Web Browsing
If there's one area where the LG Vu falls flat, especially compared to the iPhone, it's surfing the Web. For starters, it takes too many steps to enter a URL; first you have to activate the QWERTY keyboard, then enter the address, and then hit the OK button. But that's not enough; you then have to click Connect on the next screen. It was a pain.
To navigate around a page, you'll need to push down and pull on the scrollbar using your finger; the phone was pretty good at launching the links we were attempting to press with our fingers. A thumbnail view for navigating around larger Web pages is easy to use, and while you can also zoom out or in, we don't suggest zooming out too far, as the text becomes nearly illegible.
You can bookmark your favorite Web sites, but every time you do, you need to type in the Web address manually; the Vu doesn't insert it for you. We appreciated the HTML support for browsing real Web pages, but navigating around larger ones, such as Reuters.com, was tedious with the touchscreen.
On the plus side, the browser loaded CNN.com in 11 seconds and ESPN.com in 10 seconds, not bad for AT&T's 3G network. We also like that the Vu supports YouTube Mobile. When we navigated to m.youtube.com, the page loaded in six seconds and we were watching a video shortly after. Our 2 minute and 24 second video called "Tat Fancy" buffered in 3 seconds and launched in the Vu's own media player. You can even choose to view the videos in landscape mode. Like most mobile browsers, the Vu's doesn't support Flash, so you can't stream videos from sites like Hulu.com.
Sharp Camera, Meh Video
The Vu has an included 2-megapixel camera with autofocus, and it delivered good results when we snapped pictures around Manhattan. The 1600 x 1200 images looked crisp enough for showing off to friends on either your phone or a social networking site but not good enough for framing. Although the autofocus worked well, the Vu doesn't have image stabilization, so some shots were a bit blurry. Note that when the camera is set to its largest resolution, you can't zoom or use the multi-shot feature, however.
We appreciated the multitude of on-screen options for the camera, which you can touch to adjust settings such as color effects, quality, and brightness. Once you snap a picture, you can crop it, resize it, change the positioning, or add effects, right from the camera itself.
You can also use the camera to shoot 320 x 240-pixel resolution video, but our footage looked poor. Colors were washed out and people appeared blocky. A girl riding her bike looked like she was a mash of pixels when we played the video on a computer.
Vu Call Quality
One of our favorite things about the LG Vu was its exceptional call quality. Calls were so clear that when we dialed a friend, we weren't even sure they had picked up because we heard no background noise. We said "Hello," and they responded, and we then realized our call had connected. During another call, voices were exceptionally clear and loud enough for talking and walking along New York City's busy streets during a downpour.
Decent Battery Life
LG rates the Vu at up to 3 hours of talk time or 10.4 days of standby. During our first day of extensive testing, where we used AT&T Mobile TV and made consecutive phone calls, the phone died after 4 hours of use. While that's more than LG claims, we'd still strongly encourage potential buyers to keep their chargers on hand. We charged the phone and unplugged it at 8 p.m.; at 1 p.m. the next day, after regular usage and half an hour of talk time, we were still close to full battery capacity.
LG Vu Verdict
If the LG Vu's goal was to deliver a touchscreen phone and silky-smooth Mobile TV to those who can't afford (or don't want to pay for) the iPhone, we say: mission accomplished. The Vu is also a better phone than the iPhone, although it lacks niceties such as visual voicemail. If you don't need a full Web surfing experience on the go and don't mind putting up with a few other quirks, this is a good choice.