With and increasing number of Android phones sporting pure slate designs with larger-than-life screens, the LG Ally seems like a breath of fresh air. This device ($99 with a two-year agreement) features a keyboard that kicks the Droid's butt in a design that's lighter and easier to carry. However, some may find the screen a bit too small, and the phone doesn't have the fastest processor. So is the Ally really a good value or is it just an enV with Google software slapped on top?
The Ally seems less utilitarian and stark than Motorola's design: where the Droid has sharp angles and edges, the Ally is more rounded at the corners, which makes it more comfortable to hold. We also like the soft touch back. Still, the Ally is an all-black phone, which is a little boring. Love it or hate it, at least the Devour's sleek aluminum body makes an attempt to stand out.
The Ally measures 4.6 x 2.2 x 0.6 inches, making it 0.2 inches narrower but 0.1 inches thicker than the Droid, and nearly the same size as the Devour (4.5 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches). However, the Ally is lighter at 5.6 ounces to the Droid and Devour's 6 ounces.
The 3.2-inch display dominates the face with standard Android buttons beneath (Call, Home, Menu, and End). Just above on the touchscreen is a Back and a Search button. On the right side is a camera button and a microSD Card slot (up to 16GB); it's nice that you don't have to pop the device open to reach it. On the left is the microUSB port and volume controls. Up top is a headphone jack, and around back is the camera and flash.
The sliding action to reveal the keyboard is crisp without being difficult to open with one hand, and we didn't encounter any wiggle with the screen open or closed.
The Ally's 3.2-inch touchscreen is smaller than the Droid's (3.7 inches), but it has the same resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. The picture is equally bright and crisp, but you'll need to zoom in more to read webpages. The multitouch-enabled display also has haptic feedback, which we liked, but you can disable this feature in the sound and display settings.
One of the only knocks on the Droid was that its keys were flat and hard to press. In this regard, the Ally's keyboard is a vast improvement. While it's roughly the same size as the Droid's, each key is separate from each other and wedge shaped in a way that's optimized for your thumbs. For the most part, we like the layout, especially since one of the Alt keys enters ".com" automatically; however, we wish the phone had a dedicated "@" key, as on the Droid. To the right of the keyboard is a comfortable four-way D-pad that's more square than that of the Droid.
The Devour has a similar keyboard layout to the Ally, but it lacks a number of keys on the periphery, including Caps, Alt, Search, and the D-pad.
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Interface and Performance
The Ally runs the latest Android 2.1 operating system, which means, among other things, live wallpapers and voice input. Unlike the HTC Droid Incredible, there's no secondary interface, though it has an LG skin, which gives you a few different widgets (more on that below).
Powered by a 600-MHz Qualcomm MSM 7627 processor, 512MB of ROM, and 256MB of RAM (the same as the Devour), the Ally was fairly snappy. Sliding the app menu up was occasionally choppy, and it took 4 seconds to open the camera app, but zooming in and out of pictures using two fingers was smooth and quick. Switching from portrait to landscape mode was also fast, taking about half a second to make the transition. The Ally barely flinched when we searched a map while Pandora streamed in the background.
The Droid, which has a 550-MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor, offers slightly better performance. When playing Winds of Steel on both the Droid and the Ally, action was a bit smoother on the Droid when we were dogfighting in our Mitsubishi Zero. We also appreciated the extra screen real estate, too; we could make out more details in both the airplanes and in the ground below.
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Click to enlargeAs an Android phone, the Ally can access the Android Marketplace and its 40,000-plus apps. While Verizon's VZ Navigator or V Cast services aren't preloaded on the phone, the Ally does come with ThinkFree Office (which lets you create, edit, and read Microsoft Office docs), Amazon MP3 store, Facebook, MySpace, and Socialite. Socialite is a widget that shows your friends' latest Facebook and Twitter updates on one screen; clicking on an update lets you reply (but not retweet), update your status and profile, read messages, and search for friends. It's not as slick-looking as the Loop feature on Microsoft's Kin Two, but it's far more useful and intuitive.
More gimmicky, at least for now, is the bundled augmented reality app, which will cause certain things to appear on the phone's screen when you point the camera at an object. So far, the only thing it works with is an Iron Man comic book; aim the camera at the cover, and a 3D Iron Man comes to life and flies around the screen. We can see this app being useful for shopping, but that might not come to fruition for some time.
Yet another LG widget lets you activate Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, screen refreshes, and display brightness without having to dig through the settings menu. We found this immensely helpful when looking to extend the Ally's meager battery life.
E-mail and Messaging
In addition to Gmail accounts, which synced quickly and easily to the Ally, the phone also supports Microsoft Exchange, which means that you can access your corporate contacts, calendar, and e-mail on the phone.
Using the Ally's browser over 3G in the city, the full NYTimes.com web page loaded in 25 seconds, but was viewable in just 11 seconds. ESPN mobile (we couldn't switch to the standard page) loaded in 6 seconds, and Laptopmag.com loaded completely in 21 seconds, but was viewable in 11. Over Wi-Fi, those sites loaded in 17, 7, and 12 seconds, respectively. The browser supports pinch-to-zoom, which responded smoothly to our input.
Camera and Multimedia
Click to enlargeEven though it has a lower resolution than the Droid (3.2 megapixels vs. 5 MP) and won't replace a real point-and-shoot, the Ally generally took good outdoor photos. When viewed on a notebook, we saw that, though images were splotchy, the Ally was able to pick up the variations in color among the various stones in the Lincoln Center plaza in New York City, and compensated fairly well for variations in lighting. Indoors, the camera also took colorful photos in well-lit situations, but the flash didn't do much in the dark; pictures were murky and had a blue cast.
The camera can also record video at resolutions up to 640 x 480; a movie of water streaming from the fountain at Lincoln Center flowed smoothly, but the Ally had trouble adjusting the exposure as we moved from light to dark areas.
While most users will keep the settings on automatic, it's nice to know that you can manually tweak the white balance, ISO, scene mode, and colors.
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The Ally's photo gallery shows the advantages of living in the Googleverse: not only were photos grouped by the date they were taken, they were also geotagged (even though pictures taken in our office were given an address a block away). Also, the gallery automatically pulled in the photos we had on Picasa.
The movies we shot on the Ally played back smoothly and without hitching. Its speaker was loud enough for us to comfortably listen to music streamed from Pandora. Oscar Peterson's "Night and Day" was a bit tinny, but fine for a smart phone.
The Ally can pinpoint your location using its built-in GPS, or, if you want to save a little juice, using 3G or Wi-Fi triangulation. This is particularly helpful when in a city such as New York, where tall buildings can block satellite reception. Indeed, with GPS and Wi-Fi turned off, the Ally said were a block away from where we actually located. After we turned on Wi-Fi, the phone put our location as across the street from where we were. Not perfect, but close enough. Clicking on a destination in Google Maps allowed us to share the location via e-mail, text, or Facebook, see the Street view, add as a contact, and search nearby.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Click to enlargeOver the Verizon Wireless network, calls were generally good with the Ally. Friends reported little distortion, and background noise while standing on a street wasn't too distracting.
We were a little disappointed with the endurance of the Ally. Verizon rates the phone for about 7.5 hours of use and 21 days on standby. After a day of using the phone lightly to make a few calls, take photos and videos, and create a route using Google Maps, we were down to about 50 percent power. We left the phone on overnight with GPS and Wi-Fi turned off, and found it dead the next morning.
LG Ally customers will need to subscribe to a Verizon Wireless Nationwide Talk Plan and an Email and Web for Smartphone plan. Nationwide Talk plans begin at $39.99 for monthly access. Email and Web for Smartphone plans start at $29.99 for unlimited monthly access.
For $99.99, the Ally is a good Motorola Droid alternative for those more concerned with typing comfort than screen size. Not only is the Ally's keyboard much better, but the phone is far more ergonomic. As long as you remember to bring your charger, the Ally is a good choice for heavy texters who want an Android smart phone at a reasonable price.