You know, not every smartphone has to be putting down maxed-out hardware. That’s a lesson that Nokia is certainly taking to heart, concentrating many of its latest efforts on lower-end Symbian devices that it hopes will capture entire new swaths of users that’d otherwise be buying dumbphones with half the functionality (and far less than half of the revenue potential). In the world of Android, though, recent devices like the EVO 4G, Droid, Droid Incredible, and Nexus One have admittedly caused us to grow accustomed to the idea that we should all be using blazingly fast processors and huge WVGA displays.
In reality, of course, Android is an extraordinarily scalable platform; there’s a whole world of hardware (and around $200 of on-contract pricing) below today’s latest round of “superphones.” At $100 on a two-year deal, the LG Ally sort of typifies what we’d expect out of a midrange Android device right now — a gap-filler that can capture users seeking a Droid experience on a Kin Two budget. So does it hold up in the day-to-day grind, or are you going to be begging for a Droid by day two? Let’s find out.
With defining designs like the original Chocolate, the Shine series, and the BL40 under its belt, LG isn’t a company that we generally associate with producing utterly uninspiring handsets, but there’s really no other way to describe the Ally — it doesn’t really look like anything at all. Apart from a pair of muted chrome strips aside the display, there isn’t a single feature of the phone that isn’t geared at function over form. For a certain percentage of the target demo, of course, this is just what the doctor ordered: some of us just want a smartphone that gets the job done day in and day out without attracting attention. For others, though, the downright nondescript design is going to be enough to scratch it off the short list.
What little design is there, though, is a decidedly mixed bag. We’ve always had a soft spot in our hearts for soft-touch plastic, and the back of the Ally (well, really just the battery cover, which takes up about 80 percent of the back) is fully coated in it, so that’s a plus. Along the sides, the volume rocker and camera button are chromed for no reason in particular — they really look out of place amongst the sea of black — and the microSD slot (which comes equipped with a 4GB preinstalled) and micro-USB port are both covered with plastic flaps that swing open on one side. That’s totally fine for the microSD slot, but we hate it when phones cover up the charging port with anything — the micro-USB standard is specifically designed to be robust enough to handle frequent use, and when you’ve got to charge the phone on a daily basis, it’s a pain in the ass. Let’s hope you don’t chew your fingernails.
Turning our attention to the front, the phone’s got a pretty unremarkable mug — and like we said, that’s just fine for some users. Thing is, LG still somehow managed to fumble the mantra of simplicity here: in addition to four physical buttons along the bottom, they’ve tacked on two capacitive buttons just above as if they were afterthoughts. In Android, we don’t even know why you need Send and End buttons — much less prominently-placed ones that together take up fifty percent of your physical button row, which ends up relegating Back and Search to the capacitive mezzanine. Ultimately, LG should’ve canned Send / End and either moved the capacitive buttons down to the physical row or nix the physical buttons altogether and just stick with capacitive. Instead, you’ve got a hodgepodge that will unnecessarily confound your muscle memory if you’re coming from any other Android device.
The Ally is well-balanced in the hand and weighs about what you’d expect a phone of this size, complexity, and thickness to weigh. At nearly 15mm thick, you won’t mistake it for the svelte Nexus One or CLIQ XT in your pocket — but then again, the Ally’s got a slide-out QWERTY keyboard that the others lack, and it’s basically the same thickness as its similarly-equipped Verizon stablemate, the Motorola Devour.
Speaking of the QWERTY slide, the Ally’s keyboard is a mixed bag (noticing a trend here?). We actually really liked the feel of the keys — and the spring-loaded slide mechanism itself feels about as solid as you could reasonably expect — but the layout isn’t among the better ones we’ve seen. For example, the numeric row along the top has alternate symbols that exactly mirror the symbols you’d find along the numeric row on a full-size keyboard — which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense for a phone. We found ourselves cursing every time we wanted an “@” character, for example. In fact, the only symbol you can reach without activating Alt is the lowly period, and there’s only one Alt button located left of the A key, so your thumb is executing some serious gymnastic maneuvers every time you need an exclamation point or dollar sign. If you think there’s no room for dedicated symbol keys or extra Alts, we’d disagree — Home, Menu, Back, and Search are all unnecessarily duplicated, and they’re placed haphazardly to the left and right of the main keys. We don’t get it. On the flip side, the directional pad was actually quite good, though you might not use it very often.
We’ve no serious complaints about the Ally’s audio. In fact, the monaural loudspeaker located toward the bottom of the back is crazy loud — there aren’t many phones in existence where you feel compelled to back off a notch or two from max volume when using the speakerphone function, but the Ally proudly makes that short list. The earpiece was also plenty loud but possibly just a tad muddied; ultimately, we couldn’t tell whether that was the connection, the phone, or just the general characteristic of the carrier’s vocoding to blame. It certainly wasn’t even close to being a deal-breaker.
As for the camera… well, if you’re looking for a point-and-shoot camera replacement, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Though the LED flash performed admirably in really poor lighting (both as an autofocus assist and as an actual flash), shots from the 3 megapixel sensor came out smudgy, splotchy, and without definition, which we’d probably have to chalk up to an overly eager noise reduction algorithm. Shutter lag held steady at just under a second in our testing — after you’ve established focus using the two-stage dedicated camera key, that is, which was a reasonably quick process. You have access to 8 effects (compared with stock Android’s 6), configurable white balance, ISO, and a dedicated macro mode, but none of it really makes much difference if you can’t take a decent shot.
You won’t commonly find us complaining that a phone’s screen resolution is too high… and actually, you won’t find us complaining about it with the Ally, either, but we did find it somewhat odd that LG chose to go with WVGA resolution on a crisp, bright LCD measuring just 3.2 inches. That puts the phone into stratospherically high pixel density territory, and frankly, we felt like it was a bit unnecessary — HVGA is totally fine below 3.5 or 3.7 inches, especially since most of Android’s UI fails to take advantage of the higher resolution displays by, say, offering more space for icons on each home screen. The capacitive touchscreen has a distinctly plastic feel to it — though it’s no different (or worse) than virtually any of its pricier contemporaries like the Droid or Nexus One — and it seemed responsive enough. There was some jerkiness that we’ll get to in the next section, but we attribute that more to software than we do to any issues with the touchscreen. Anyhow, we can’t help but wonder if Verizon could’ve sold the Ally for, say, $80 on contract if they’d stepped down to HVGA.
At a quick glance, you might think that the Ally was running stock Android 2.1 — but you’d be wrong. Instead, LG (or is that Verizon?) has chosen to imbue the phone with a mildly reworked build that’s sort of the worst of both worlds: there’s no perceptible benefit to LG’s skin, and because it is skinned, Android updates stand a greater risk of being delayed significantly (if they come at all). It’s a bizarre and unfortunate move that the average Ally buyer isn’t going to appreciate — or even think about, for that matter — walking into the store.
So what does LG’s skin buy you, exactly? You get a handful of custom widgets — all of which can be replaced with nicer looking, less buggy equivalents in the Android Market — along with a mediocre social aggregation tool called Socialite and a reworked home screen.
Let’s start with the widgets. You get an oddly-sized 2 x 1 alarm clock that isn’t particularly pretty; you can toggle an alarm on and off from here, but tapping on the set time will just drop you into the standard Android Clock app. Dual Clock might be the prettiest of the custom widgets, great for keeping track of two time zones at once with clock faces that change from day to night depending on the locale’s sunrise and sunset — but it’s hampered by an unintuitive configuration screen that might leave some users scratching their heads. LG Calendar is a simple (but huge) calendar widget that offers barely any additional functionality over Google’s own; you’ve got a full-month view, which we suppose could be useful in some situations, and you can change the day from the event view, whereas the stock widget leaves you stuck on the current day. Finally, there’s Weather, which is an uglier, buggier, less useful version of the stock News and Weather widget — it can’t be set to track your location, it has no news, and at one point, we got it stuck so that it took more room than was physically available on the screen (see the picture above). Even worse, it appears to be a 4 x 2 even though it’s basically taking the space of a 4 x 1, so if you tap and hold anywhere in the space below it, it picks up the widget rather than bringing up the home screen context menu. Bottom line, it’s a disaster, and we quickly found ourselves missing Google’s own widget here.
Likewise, Socialite serves no discernible purpose. It’s a social aggregator, but it only handles Twitter and Facebook — both of which now integrate deeply with Android through official (and free) products — and the app’s widget takes up the entire fricking screen. If your widget’s going to take up a whole screen, why not just… you know, launch the real app? Furthermore, Socialite doesn’t directly support any photo upload or URL shortening services for Twitter, and you can’t load multiple accounts. It’s just not a useful product.
We’ll end our conversation on the customizations on a slightly brighter note: LG’s skin. Activated through an application called Themes (rather than through Settings, for some reason), LG’s home screen UI is clean and functional, adding four unchanging icons at the bottom that stay with you as you scroll between panels: Phone, Contacts, Messaging, and Browser. And when we say “unchanging,” we seriously mean unchanging — we couldn’t figure out any way to replace them with our own selections. So close, LG!
Opening the tab in the center of the strip reveals a fairly typical list of apps, though LG breaks it up between pre-installed items — listed under “Applications” at the top — and apps you’ve installed yourself, down below under “Downloads.” We’re not sure whether we like this or not, but we’re leaning toward thumbs-down; we just can’t really think of a reason why we’d want them organized this way, and this dooms anything you’ve downloaded from the Market to an obligatory scroll since the built-in apps always get top billing. Fortunately, the skin is totally optional — you can switch back to the stock Android 2.1 theme, which gives you the 3D launcher first found on the Nexus One.
LG also bundles with Ally with DivX VOD compatibility — you access your registration code from Settings and input it into your computer’s player to link the device to your account. We tested it quickly and it works fine, though it’s not the most user-friendly thing in the world: on a Mac, it seems that you need to mount the phone as mass storage and transfer the movie by hand, though you should be able to do it through the DivX Plus Player on Windows machines. Once the file is downloaded, you open it using the Gallery app — not the first place users might look. Playback controls are basic, but the movie played without a hitch.
But never mind all these bells and whistles — what about speed? Frankly, the Ally is a bit jerkier than we would’ve expected considering its 600MHz MSM7627 core with graphics acceleration, but it was totally usable. At times, things like the stock 3D launcher were butter smooth, but then things would start locking up and slowing down in unexpected ways; context menus would take a long time to load, for example, and swiping between home screen panels always seemed to choke up the processor just a bit.
The battle for the Android high end is well-entrenched, and it’s becoming a bloodier battle nearly every day; the huge middle ground, though, is seemingly wide open. Staying shy of the magical $100 price point is key for a device in the category, and it’s a challenge that the Ally passes — but we couldn’t help but feel like we should still be able to expect more. Cheap doesn’t have to mean low quality.
Frankly, we came away feeling like LG half-assed this phone at a time when it could’ve swooped in and established itself in the thick, meaty midsection of Verizon’s smartphone lineup. The customizations feel as though they went through barely any quality control at all, the phone’s slower than we know the MSM7x27 series is capable of performing, and nothing about the hardware inspires us. Sure, it’s unquestionably a better value than the $150 Devour, but that doesn’t make it a good value. For now, the Ally’s a pass — but we’re encouraged that this is a market segment that manufacturers and carriers want to play in. If HTC can make an affordable Android handset drop-dead sexy, surely LG and others can do it, too.