Technology

LG's Potential iPhone Rival


0609_lg_vu
Editor's Rating: star rating

The Vu has some cool features that even the iPhone lacks, but LG has some wrinkles still to iron out, including weak Web connection and battery life

In its next iteration, I can see the LG Vu becoming a major rival to the iPhone. It's almost there now.

At first glance, the devices are even similar in design—streamlined, simple, beautiful. And in a few key ways, the Vu is more capable. It's one of the first devices from AT&T (T) that's equipped to pick up the Flo TV mobile-TV service, which beams live channels such as MTV and CNN with wonderful clarity and crispness for $15 a month. Though the iPhone is also available from AT&T, even the latest version of the Apple (AAPL) handheld, unveiled on June 9, can't tune into that TV service.

Unlike many TV-enabled handsets, the Vu has a dedicated TV antenna to pick up the Flo TV signal where other handsets, such as Samsung's Access, can't. While the TV signal—broadcast from a separate network built and run by Qualcomm (QCOM)—can still be a bit spotty where I live, it comes in much better on the Vu than on phones without the antenna.

More Goodies

The Vu, available for $300 with a two-year contract and mail-in rebate, also brags a super-responsive touchscreen, which vibrates when you press the virtual buttons to let your finger know its tap has registered. You can easily switch from viewing the screen in vertical "portrait" mode to a horizontal view, putting the large, three-inch screen to full advantage.

The phone also comes with a Web browser that can display pages in the Internet's native HTML format. The surfing isn't as smooth and pristine as Web browsing on an iPhone, but it beats many other smartphones.

The Vu has a 2-megapixel camera that, in addition to shooting photos, can be used to make video calls with other AT&T subscribers who have video-enabled phones. Among the phone's other features are a music player, a slot for microSD memory cards to hold your music and photos, and easy access to Web-based e-mail accounts such as MSN's (MSFT) Hotmail.

The Downside

Basically, the Vu has just about every feature I need, though there are a few wrinkles that need ironing. My biggest gripe (and this could be AT&T's or LG's fault) is that the mobile Internet connection isn't as reliable as I've come to expect using other handsets. For example, when I downloaded video clips to watch, the footage occasionally froze while the phone struggled to download the next chunk of data. Wireless downloads of songs would also get interrupted.

I'd like to blame this on poor cellular coverage in my area of Portland, Ore. But when I used Samsung's Access on AT&T's network in the same places, I encountered no such problems (BusinessWeek.com, 6/6/08). And the Vu was able to make voice calls in the same spots where the data channel stumbled. To make sure I wasn't working with a faulty unit, I tried out a second Vu and encountered the same trouble. This makes me think the issue is not poor network coverage so much as some flaw with the phone's receiver for wireless data transmission.

I'd also love to see LG improve on the screen images for navigation. Swiping my fingers down a touch scrollbar on the side didn't always work well; the screen often jumped up or down too fast. And while the screen recognized taps on menu icons with ease, it sometimes took several taps to open links on Web pages.

Then, there were the keyboard woes. A virtual keyboard pops up on the screen whenever you press on a field requiring character entry. You can type letters in portrait or landscape mode—a great idea, except I found that in landscape mode my fingers kept pressing all the wrong buttons. Oddly, I had no such problems in portrait mode, where the keys of the QWERTY keyboard do require multiple presses but seem to be larger.

One more gripe: The Vu's battery, designed for up to three hours of talk time, seemed to drain in two hours or less whenever I used the mobile TV service or even browsed the Web. Samsung's Access held up longer when I used the same features.

Bottom line: I like the Vu quite a bit. But asked to choose between this device and an iPhone—which, come July, will sell for as little as $199—I'd pick the iPhone every time.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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