Reviewed May 13, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Editor's note, 11/2008: Check out our review of the latest touch screen TV phone on AT&T: the Samsung Eternity.
When the LG Prada phone came out a year ago in Europe, it made quite a splash: it was the first consumer-oriented touch screen feature phone, and it beat the iPhone to market by several months. Unlike most touch screen business-oriented PDA phones, the Prada was thin, beautiful and simply hot dressed in black. The software and applications behind the touch screen technology worked well and the phone was a pleasure to use, though still not quite as sophisticated and seamless as the iPhone. Rumors abounded that Verizon would carry it to compete with the iPhone in 2007, but instead Verizon launched the LG Voyager and other touch screen phones but no slim, touch screen slate.
Fast forward to May 2008 and AT&T has released the Prada's close cousin as the LG Vu. The Vu weighs only 3.16 ounces and is smaller than the iPhone. It features a 3" touch screen with haptic (vibration) feedback, 3G HSDPA for fast data, CV streaming multimedia, a 2 megapixel camera with autofocus lens, music player, SDHC microSD card slot and Bluetooth. Not bad.
Boob Tube Mobile
Also new for the Vu is FLO TV. At the same time AT&T released the TV-endowed Vu and the Samsung Access, they rolled out broadcast TV service for phones in 58 US metropolitan areas. This is the same Qualcomm MediaFLO technology Verizon first introduced in the spring of 2007 and it's true broadcast digital TV over the old UHF channel 55 in the 700MHz band. It doesn't use your phone's data connection, so you need not be in a 3G coverage area or subscribe to a data plan. The $15/month service includes 10 channels including 2 AT&T exclusives: CNN and the Sony Pictures channel which shows movies. Other channels include FOX, Comedy Central, ESPN, Nickelodeon and MTV. This is 24/7 broadcast TV, and like regular TV it's not on-demand: you catch the show when it's on. Some shows are repeated so you'll get a second chance to watch them, though. And yes, there are commercials, though fewer than on regular TV.
What if you don't want TV or are in a rural area that's not likely to see FLO TV coverage in the near future? You can still buy the Vu CU920 or you can save a 50 bucks and buy the TV-less version of the Vu, model CU915. Other than TV, the two models are identical.
How does TV look? Great! It's surprisingly sharp and clear, and much better than anything you've seen streamed over CV (AT&T's streaming media service) or V Cast (Verizon's streaming media service). No blocky-choppy, out of sync video here. Granted, if you're at the edge of coverage things might not be so rosy, but in the Dallas metroplex and metro Seattle we couldn't find an area without good coverage. Should you be in a fringe area, the Vu has a telescoping metal antenna that otherwise isn't needed. This scores a few points over the Samsung Access which has no external antenna for those iffy places.
The Devil Wears Prada or iPhone?
The comparison is unavoidable, though these two aren't wholly direct competitors. After all, AT&T already has the iPhone as an exclusive, why would they want to self-compete? But the similarities are there: touch screen, slate design with few hardware buttons, slim and sleek forms suitable for the phone runway... a gadget to impress friends. The similarities really end there. The LG Vu is about beautiful design, full phone features and TV. The iPhone is about the best touch experience on the market, ease of use and an unbeatable mobile music and video player.
The LG Vu isn't cheap at $299 with a 2 year contract, but it is $100 less than the base iPhone. Though it's cheaper, you get the full gamut of phone features that the iPhone omits: 3G HSDPA, removable battery, a camera that can shoot video as well as still photos and send them via MMS, voice dialing, an IM client, expandable storage memory and full Bluetooth profiles for DUN, file sharing, printing and pretty much everything else. Take that, iPhone... though somehow we always forgive you your omissions because what you do do, you do better than any other phone.
In comparison, the iPhone has full POP3 and IMAP email support (sluggish though it is for IMAP), an even larger display, a more sensitive and accurate touch screen with gesture support, an accelerometer that rotates the screen when you turn the phone on its side, the best web browser on a mobile phone, support for music and video purchases via iTunes (Apple won't let anyone else have that), great syncing with desktop PIM applications (the LG has close to zip for contacts and calendar syncing) and a great music/video player. The iPhone fits into the smartphone camp while the LG Vu fits into the high end feature-phone camp.
Show Me Your Body
The Vu has that touch of Prada: it looks designer good. When I whip it out, folks who haven't seen the Vu ooh and ah. They comment on the slippery black look, the thinness, the smallness. You get the idea; it's one nice looking phone. It looks classy but not as high-end as the iPhone which once again raised the bar for phones with its metal, glass and aluminum carcass. Unfortunately, the Vu courts fingerprints like a model attracts size 2 dresses. If you want your phone to stay pretty, carry a cleaning cloth or whip out that cotton shirt tail. I have the driest hands on the planet with little skin oil and my Vu looks smudgy after 20 minutes of handling. I wipe it down daily while my iPhone gets a weekly wipe.
The LG Vu has call send and end buttons on the front face. Big deal, you say-- don't all phones? Nope, many recent touch screen feature phones omit these, making life generally harder than it should be. For example, the recently released Samsung Glyde on Verizon has none, so there goes hitting the end button to exit a program or the ability to start dialing quickly. Press and hold the send key to re-dial the last number. Press and hold the end key to turn off the phone. Thank you, LG-- life is definitely good. Granted, the iPhone leaves out these two sacred buttons but that's the only phone where it was OK thanks to the insanely talented UI designers at Apple who find new ways of making old tasks easy.
There are few other buttons-- there's the camera button (something we wish the iPhone had) and a screen lock/unlock button. The display locks after a user-settable period and when in a call. The screen saver includes a little arrow that points to the button on the phone's side, telling you to unlock the phone. It also shows the date, time and missed calls. Speaking of helping a gal out, when you turn on the phone for the first time, it takes you through a tutorial that shows you how to use the touch screen for a variety of tasks. The phone has an on-screen icon to run this again if you need a refresher. The good news is, the phone is intuitive enough, that you'll likely not need the tutorial (but watch it that first time, just in case).
The camera lens is on the back, the volume controls are on the side and the SIM card lives in the battery compartment at the rear. The bad news is that the microSD card slot is also here, and you must remove the battery to access the slot. Bummer... such is the price we pay for miniaturization. Fortunately, the phone has Bluetooth file transfer support so you can send photos and other content over Bluetooth or browse the phone from a Bluetooth enabled computer. It also has trifold USB support for data/PIM syncing, mass storage (the phone and card mount as a removable drive on your computer's desktop) and music transfer mode for syncing tunes from Windows Media Player. But you'll need to purchase that USB cable separately. Thankfully, it's easy to find as it's the same LG blade style connector used by most recent LG phones.
Through the Looking Glass
Like the LG Voyager, LG Venus, Prada and Samsung Glyde, the LG Vu has a haptic display that offers vibration feedback when you touch the screen. You can adjust the vibration from off to subtle to a genuine finger massage. At 3 inches, this is one of the largest screens on a feature phone, though the iPhone's is still larger at 3.5 inches. The screen is lovely and perfect for TV: really bright, sharp and color-saturated. The 400 x 240 display is large enough to make TV truly watchable, scoring a few more points over the smaller-screened Access on AT&T. The screen is large enough that 2 people on friendly terms (i.e. sitting close) can watch TV together. Curl up in bed with your loved one, and you've got a more intimate version of TV than that old Trinitron 15 feet from the bed can provide. The TV picture fills up nearly the entire screen, with bars on the side because the phone has a widescreen display and the TV channels are broadcast in the usual 4:3 aspect ratio.
Though not as gosh-awful perfect as the iPhone's, the Vu's display is one of the best touch screens we've used. Haptic screens look great, but their accuracy isn't always the best. The Vu responded correctly nearly every time and scrolling worked well in MP3 player and contacts lists (though it takes a little practice to scroll and select precisely in a long list). A swipe up/down gesture gets long lists scrolling quickly, while a hold and drag works best for moving slowly through lists. The Vu is spritely and responsive, with no lag.
The Samsung Access and LG Vu TV phones for AT&T.
The Vu has on-screen virtual dial pads and keyboards since there are no hardware keypad or keyboard. These have haptic, tactile feedback to aid in dialing and entering text and we had no trouble using either. Oddly, the on-screen QWERTY keyboard is an option in many but not all applications. The number pad is there in every application and works in both multi-press and T9 modes. The QWERTY keyboard is available in the web browser, IM program, Mobile Email and calendar but not in contacts-- go figure. You can highlight blocks of text for editing but there's no copy and paste. You can select multiple entries from a list (via checkboxes next to each entry), and in some instances drag-and-drop (you can drag songs to the ad hoc playlist in the music player).
Calling and Web
The LG Vu CU915 and CU920 are quad band GSM world phones that work on the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands. They have 3.5G HSDPA on the US 850/1900MHz bands with EDGE for those areas not covered by 3G. Like all carrier-branded phones, the phone is locked to its provider, in this case AT&T, which means you must use an AT&T SIM in the phone or call AT&T customer service to get an unlock code. Call quality is excellent in 3G areas and very good in GSM areas, with slightly louder-than-average call volume. HSDPA reception is weaker than average by AT&T phone standards. In our office, the Samsung Access gets 66% bars, the AT&T Tilt gets half bars, the Samsung BlackJack II get's 75% bars and the Nokia N95 US version (N95-3) gets 75 to 100% bars. The Vu gets 33% and sometimes drops to EDGE. GSM/EDGE reception is very good, however telling us that the Vu does better with the 850MHz band than the 1900MHz band.
The phone worked well with a variety of Bluetooth headsets including the Plantronics Discovery 655, Jawbone and Samsung WEP200. Range was good as were incoming and outgoing call clarity and volume was loud. The LG comes with voice command software that can dial contacts and handle the basics like checking messages and dialing by spoken numbers. You need not record voice tags, and it works with Bluetooth headsets. In fact, we found it more accurate with a headset than the built-in mic. There's no dedicated voice command button but if you turn on the standby screen shortcut palette, there's an icon on-screen to start voice recognition.
The SIM and microSD card slots are in the battery compartment (battery was removed for this shot).
For those of you using AT&T's VideoShare one-way video calling (are there any of you out there?), the Vu supports it. There's no front-facing camera, so the phone is better suited to sharing what you're looking at, rather than you. But there is a self-portrait mirror on the back to help matters a bit.
The IM client handles AIM, Yahoo IM and Windows Live Messenger and supports most features from these services. It works well and the on-screen QWERTY keyboard makes messaging a breeze (T9 addicts can use the on-screen keypad if they so desire). Mobile Email is a bust though, with only a few services supported such as Hotmail, Yahoo mail, Earthlink and NetZero (you can't enter settings for providers not supported by the Java-based email app).
Music, Fun and Games
The LG Vu CU920 and CU915 have built-in music players that support MP3, WMA and AAC/AAC+ files, though we had trouble getting the phone to play nicely with unprotected iTunes AAC files. You can put songs on a microSD card (high capacity SDHC cards over 2 gigs capacity are supported) using a card reader or LG USB cable, and the phone can sync to Windows Media Player. Sorry Mac folks, there's no iTunes syncing support nor much of any other kind of Mac support. Use a card reader to copy songs and Bluetooth to send your contacts to the phone.
Sound quality is good through the included earbud headset and much better through a good pair of Bluetooth A2DP stereo headphones. We tested the Samsung SBH500 and Nokia BH-503 Bluetooth stereo headsets which sounded superb, and the Motorola S9 which sounded good. The music player supports playlists and can sort by artist, album, genre and title. Beyond that, it doesn't do much.
CV (Cellular Video, formerly Cingular Video) works well on the Vu, and once again the lovely, large screen makes for a pleasant experience (though the videos don't play full-screen). Video looked sharp by CV standards and audio stayed in sync with video. AT&T offers a variety of free streaming content with their $15/month unlimited MEdia Net data plan and pay-for subscriptions to select HBO series. They offer a $30 bundle which includes FLO TV and MEdia Net unlimited data, which doesn't save you anything over buying the two services individually. If you're a serious texter, subscribe to FLO TV (if you want it) and add on one of the Media Max plans that include bundled text and MMS messages-- that's cheaper than adding a messaging package onto the TV/MEdia Net data bundle.
YouTube addicts rejoice: the Vu supports the mobile YouTube site at m.youtube.com. Playback with a good 3G connection is watchable though frames do drop and jitter.
The bundled games look good and run well on the VU. These generally aren't designed for the touch screen, but an on-screen control palette shows up to replace a hardware d-pad. The phone has flight mode so you can play games, listen to music and watch locally stored videos when the phone's radio is turned off.
The Vu takes better than average photos by US phone standards thanks to the autofocus lens. The 2 megapixel camera's lens focuses quickly and accurately, resulting in sharp shots. Color saturation is pleasing and color balance is good though it's slightly biased to the magenta for outdoor shots. Indoor shots are good if there's adequate lighting but forget low light shots since there's no flash. The phone uses the entire display as the viewfinder with various on-screen controls. It can save photos and video directly to a card and maximum photo resolution is 1600 x 1200, while max video resolution is 320 x 240.
The LG Vu comes with a 1,000 mAh battery (the Prada's is only 800 mAh for comparison) that's user replaceable. Battery life is decent by 3G phone standards, and with light to moderate use the phone lasts 2 days on a charge. If you're a streaming CV or YouTube addict and watch those services more than 30 minutes/day, expect to charge daily-- that large, bright display gobbles power. If you talk an hour or more per day, expect to charge more frequently and likewise if you watch a lot of TV, charge nightly. The battery meter is a bit out of whack: it shows full for quite a long time (longer than it should), then quickly makes its way to empty.
We like the Vu quite a lot. It's small, light and attractive with that chic look. Yes, it's plastic and pales in comparison to the iPhone's modern skyscraper glass and metal shtick, but when compared to mere mortal phones, it's good stuff. The touch screen is large, lovely and perfect for TV. Better yet, it responds well and the haptic feedback makes it more natural than interacting with lifeless glass. It's not quite as good as the iPhone's (other than the quibble with the iPhone's lack of tactile feedback), but then nothing is. The Vu's mobile TV experience is excellent (assuming you're in a covered area), the camera is good and call is very good. Oh, and we really like the HTML browser.
Pro: Lovely looking, small and light. Very good haptic touch screen that's large, bright and clear. Autofocus camera takes good shots when there's enough light. Plenty of Bluetooth profiles including DUN, and A2DP sounds great. HTML web browser does a good job, YouTube mobile support is a welcome touch and broadcast TV looks really sharp. Fast and responsive in all respects. Good IM client.
Con: 3G reception is below average. Music player doesn't play nicely with iTunes AAC files despite claimed support. Fingerprint magnet. Email provider support is limited. Must remove battery to access the microSD card slot. Battery meter is inaccurate (drops quickly after charge is half drained).
Price: $299 with 2 year contract after rebates for CU920 with TV, $249 for CU915 with no TV tuner
Display:262K color haptic touch screen display (resistive).
Screen size diagonally: 3". Resolution:
400 x 240, supports both portrait and landscape modes in several applications.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Performance:120 MB internal memory.
Size:4.25 x 2.16 x 0.51 inches. Weight: 3.16 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band 850/900/1800/1900MHz. Dual band US HSDPA (3.5G) 850/1900MHz.
Camera:2.0 MP camera with autofocus lens and no flash. Max photo resolution 1600 x 1200. Max video resolution 320 x 240.
in speaker, mic and LG blade style stereo headphone
jack (combined with power/USB all in one jack). Wired stereo headset with inline mic included. Supports A2DP Bluetooth stereo and has speakerphone/loudspeaker.
Networking:Bluetooth 1.2. Supported profiles: headset, hands free, DUN (dial up networking), file transfer, vCard, serial port, A2DP, AVRC.
Software:HTML web browser, IM client, music player, contacts, calendar, alarm clock, world clock, note pad, CV (Cellular Video) streaming player, XM Radio (requires monthly fee), Music ID (requires monthly fee), picture viewer, voice command, Video Share, Tasks, tip calculator, unit converter, stopwatch, calculator, Mobile Email and various games.
microSD card slot supporting SDHC high capacity cards.