It's a unique touchscreen phone, but it might be more trouble than it's worth. The LG Versa from Verizon Wireless ($199 with two-year contract and rebate) includes a combination keyboard-case that you can attach for heavy-duty messaging or leave behind when you want to travel light. The device also sports an attractive 3D interface you can populate with shortcuts to your favorite contacts, Web sites, and other apps and a relatively responsive accelerometer than changes the display's orientation and lets you play motion-controlled games.
However, attaching and removing the keyboard is a bit of a pain, and using the Versa as a phone with the keyboard connected is awkward. We also don't understand why LG didn't include a full-size 3.5mm headphone jack. The Versa is an interesting concept, but only some will find its versatility worth the high price.
If you like the idea of having a detachable keyboard, be prepared for some trade-offs. By itself, the Versa is pretty light and easy to carry, measuring 4.2 x 2.1 x 0.5 inches and weighing 3.8 ounces. The phone is noticeably narrower but a bit heavier than the 3.7-ounceLG Dare. Although it's getting a little tired, we still like the black-on-chrome look of LG's touchscreen phones, and the Versa fits easily into a pocket sans keyboard.
Adding the keyboard balloons the weight of the Versa up to 5.6 ounces, but does not add too much in the way of bulk. The good news is that the hinge is sturdy, and this attachment doubles as a pleather cover, complete with a small 0.9-inch OLED screen for peeking at incoming calls. Unfortunately, you have to remove the battery cover to attach the keyboard, all but guaranteeing that many users will lose it. (The cover also obscures the microSD Card slot on the right side of the phone, but that's more forgivable.)
The left side of the Versa has the ever-annoying 2.5mm headphone jack (which won't accept standard 3.5mm headphones without an adapter), volume controls, the camera button, and a proprietary charging/USB port. Here is where you'll also find the unlocking mechanism for the battery cover and keyboard attachment. Removing both is relatively simple: just push the switch downward while you pull on a little lip of plastic that's conveniently built-in.
Keyboard and Other Attachment Possibilities
Typing using the Versa's 3-inch touchscreen is not a fun experience. We like that a QWERTY layout shows up when you turn the phone to landscape mode, and that letters pop up after you hit them to confirm your entries, but too often the Versa typed the wrong letter or didn't register our first touch. The physical keyboard attachment is a completely different story: The keys are large and backlit, make a satisfying click, and have a good amount of travel for rapid text entry. Our only real beef is that the period key is in an unusual spot--to the right of the L key. LG could have easily put the period key in the bottom row if they just got rid of the arrow keys, which seem unnecessary with a touchscreen.
Though the keyboard doubles as a pleather cover with an external display and dedicated Send and End keys, and you can still hold a conversation with the cover closed, using the Versa in this mode can be awkward. For starters, you can only call the last number dialed; you'll have to open the phone to cycle through other recently dialed numbers, or use the dialpad. And if you're dialing a number that requires entering numbers after you dial, like an extension or menu option for voicemail or customer support, you'll have to open and then close the cover to continue your conversation.
The LG Versa could be become more compelling over time as Verizon Wireless and LG make available additional attachment modules. Though nothing is confirmed, there has been talk of speakers and game controllers.
User Interface and Accelerometer
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If you thought the LG Dare's interface was a bit of a mess, like we did, you'll appreciate the new 3D interface on the Versa. Swiping your finger across the 3-inch, 480 x 240-pixel touchscreen (left or right in portrait mode and up or down in landscape mode) will toggle through three different desktops that you can customize. On the first screen, you can add favorites; the second screen lets you add shortcuts to anything from the Browser to the Visual Voicemail feature; and on the third screen you can add Media, that is, shortcuts to pictures, videos, music, and Web bookmarks.
For example, to add a shortcut to The New York Times homepage we went to the third screen and touched the cog icon in the bottom right corner, which brought up an Add Media button on the left side of the display. We then clicked Bookmarks in the Shortcut menu that appeared and selected The New York Times from a list of bookmarks we had already created from within the browser. Once we finished, an icon for the site appeared on the Versa's display.
Moving between the desktops was pretty smooth and quick, complete with a neat 3D cube animation, and the accelerometer was quite responsive. The display changed its orientation in most cases almost as soon as we turned the Versa. Most applications opened quickly, too. The built-in accelerometer also worked well for steering our vehicle when we played a game of Need for Speed Underground; all we had to do was tilt the phone to move left or right on-screen.
Browser and Messaging
Although the Versa's browser pales in comparison to what you'll find on theiPhone, it's decent for a device that's not a smart phone. You can use three available tabs at any given time, and easily subscribe to RSS feeds by touching the RSS icon next to a given Web address. Just don't expect much from the so-called Flash support in this browser. Sites like Pandora and Slacker don't work, and like most cell phones, you'll have to stick to the mobile version of YouTube to get your video fix.
Still, the speed of the Versa's browser was impressive. The mobile versions of NYTimes.com (6 seconds), CNN.com (4 seconds), and ESPN.com (6 seconds) all loaded relatively quickly. The Versa took considerably longer to load full HTML sites with more pictures, with blog.laptopmag.com and Engadget.com both loading in 28 seconds, but we could start reading content within 10 seconds. While zooming in on Web pages is not as easy as double-tapping on the iPhone, you can zoom in by clicking the lower right icon on a Web page and selecting the magnifying glass icon.
Like other Verizon Wireless devices, the Versa supports a mobile instant messaging app (with the usual AIM, Yahoo, and Windows Live Messenger clients, but no Google Talk) and a basic mobile e-mail app that works with AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo, as well as other accounts.
Music and Video
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Entertainment seekers will enjoy using the Versa. It comes with a well-designed music player that supports MP3, WMA, and unprotected AAC files, and you can rock out while doing other tasks like surfing the Web and sending text messages. The integrated speaker was nice and loud, too. Downloading a Travis track from the V CAST Music store took only 30 seconds. Not keen on paying $1.99 per song? Sign up for an unlimited $14.99-per-month Rhapsody subscription and sync to your heart's content using the bundled USB cable.
We're disappointed that Verizon Wireless doesn't include a stereo headset, and that you're forced to use the smaller 2.5mm jack. The LG Dare had a full-size 3.5mm jack; why mess with a good thing? On the plus side, you can use a pair of wireless stereo Bluetooth headphones.
To test V CAST Video on the Versa we streamed a news clip from CNN and The Daily Show from Comedy Central. It took 13 seconds for the CNN clip to finish buffering and start playing, which isn't bad, and we like that the video window gets larger when you flip the phone from portrait to landscape mode. It doesn't fill the whole screen though; there are touch controls on either side of the video window. Video playback was relatively smooth but audio was tinny and out of sync with the on-screen action. The Daily Show clip loaded in 8 seconds and looked and sounded marginally better.
The Versa's camera takes a step down in resolution from the 3-MP LG Dare, but we don't think buyers of this handset will mind too much. The 2-MP camera started up quickly in our tests and produced Facebook-worthy (but not print-worthy) photos. A shot of a co-worker looked fine on the Versa's display but dim and grainy at full-screen on our notebook. You can edit photos right on the phone (zoom, rotate, and crop) and add frames and icons.
Recorded videos at the highest resolution (640 x 480) looked better than what most camera phones capture, with accurate colors and not many artifacts when played back on the Versa itself. However, when we played our footage back on a notebook using VLC media player, pixelation was much more noticeable, so you can forget about uploading videos to YouTube. Audio was surprisingly loud and relatively clear.
We've long been fans of VZ Navigator ($9.99 per month), and the experience on the LG Versa was top-notch. It calculated a route from Freehold, N.J. to Midtown Manhattan in less than 10 seconds, and the spoken turn-by-turn directions were quite loud over the built-in speaker. We were also able to look up a Best Buy along our route, and get traffic alerts. Perhaps LG and Verizon Wireless could produce a car-mount attachment and make the Versa an even better navigation device.
Call Quality and Battery Life
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The Versa delivered solid call quality on our tests. When we left a message on a landline from a loud bus, we could easily make out the words, even if the background noise was a bit distracting. On other test calls, we heard only a bit of fuzziness; otherwise calls were clear with more-than-sufficient volume.
After a day and a half of use on a full charge, the LG Versa still had a single bar of battery life left on its meter. That's pretty good endurance, given that during that time we surfed the Web, played music, snapped pictures and recorded video, and used the GPS application. Verizon Wireless rates the Versa with a talk time of 4 hours and 50 minutes and a standby time of 17.9 days.
Although we appreciate the flexibility the LG Versa offers in that you can take the keyboard with you or not, it's awkward to use as a phone with it attached. Yet typing is much more accurate with the physical keyboard than with the touchscreen (even though it's better than theBlackBerry Storm's). And at that point it might make more sense to get the LG Voyager, which sports a touchscreen and integrated keyboard and costs $50 less. Or just get a BlackBerry Curve for $99.99, if you can live without a touchscreen. Assuming Verizon Wireless makes more attachments available, the Versa may become more attractive over time. But unless you really dig the pleather cover, you might want to pass on this device for now.