Reviewed April 16, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
There's nothing like choice. Just ask AT&T who released two very similar side-sliding QWERTY touch screen phones in the same week: the LG Xenon and the Samsung Impression. Much like the dynamic duo of touch screen slab phones, the LG Vu and Samsung Eternity on AT&T, LG takes the lower road while Samsung the higher road in terms of price, features and casing. The Xenon, released in April 2009 for $99 with contract after rebates, is half the price of the Samsung Impression, and it has a smaller and less fancy display as well as a lower resolution camera. At 4.1 x 2.1 x 0.6 inches and 3.8 ounces, the LG is one of the more pocketable side-sliding QWERTY phones and it's much smaller than the Impression. And better yet, it's not just a warmed over LG Vu: the touch UI has evolved in good ways and there are several new features like widgets that we've seen on LG's more recent touch screen phones for Verizon.
Design and Keyboard
The Xenon has a 4 row hardware QWERTY keyboard that's just right in terms of size: neither too cramped nor so large that it's a stretch to reach the keys. The Impression strikes us as a bit too large, but if you're a really large-handed fella, you might prefer the Impression's keyboard. Since there's no 5th row for numbers, they're embedded in the keyboard area and require an Fn key press when typing emails, URLs and messages but not when dialing from the home screen. Shortcut keys for email, SMS, IM and contacts line the left edge of the keyboard and the layout is normal (no oddly located letters or punctuation).
AT&T currently offers the Xenon in blue-- a bright, zingy electric blue. The phone is solid and nice looking, though it doesn't look chic or expensive. The keyboard slider is solid and the phone doesn't creak or flex. The keys are backlit white and are easy to see in the dark. You can set the display and keyboard backlit timing separately, and control the display brightness. The 2.8", 65,000 color touch screen is pleasant but doesn't wow us like the Impression's AMOLED display. It has haptic (vibration feedback) and you can set the intensity and select from 3 different vibrate patterns.
The front face has call send and end buttons and a task switcher button (yes, the phone does multi-task). The screen lock/unlock button is on the right side and you have to press it twice to unlock the phone (the first press wakes it up and the second unlocks it). The camera button and SDHC microSD card slot are also on the right. The volume controls are on the left and the micro USB charge/headset jack is up top.
Open the keyboard and the phone automatically switches to landscape view, though the home screen background doesn't rotate (the same is true of the HTC Fuze with TouchFLO 3D and the Impression). All icons do rotate and most applications run in both portrait and landscape modes.
There's an accelerometer that rotates the screen when you turn the device on its side, but this works only in certain applications like the photo viewer and web browser. It doesn't work in the home screen, programs menu, IM client, contacts or calendar. For these, you'll need to slide out the keyboard to get landscape mode and to enter text using the hardware QWERTY board rather than on-screen T9.
There's no on-screen QWERTY keyboard, just a phone-style keypad with options for T9 and a copy/paste function.
The email client runs only in landscape mode regardless of phone orientation or keyboard deployment, though it temporarily switches to portrait for text entry if the hardware keyboard is closed. Strangely, the web browser offers no on-screen keyboard whatsoever in landscape mode; you must rotate the phone to portrait mode to bring up the keypad for T9 style entry.
Things we like about the UI- good home screen
The Xenon isn't just a warmed over Vu. LG has added new features that make the phone more fun and easy to use, chief among these is the home screen. The Xenon features a 3 page home screen with a left/right/center metaphor. The main screen has the time, date and carrier name (that means AT&T since AT&T masks roaming information). Near the top, 3 icons (contacts, house/home and star/favorites) allow you to switch between the 3 screens. On the home/main screen, there's a little rounded tab with an arrow on the lower left of the screen and this brings up a palette of widgets, much like Samsung's TouchWiz. Drag a widget onto the home screen to use it. These are a calendar, photo viewer, notes, world clock, mini-music player controller and an analog clock. As with TouchWiz, there's no facility to download additional widgets, so these are what you get. The contacts page is where you'll put photo caller ID shortcuts. Tap on one and tabs appear on all 4 sides of the caller ID image. The tabs are for call, send text message and view any messages that person has sent you. The top tab scrolls the contact's name and phone number-- tapping on this lets you select which number to call if you've got more than one number for that contact. The favorites page is where you'll put icons for your 9 favorite applications. Four shortcut icons line the bottom of all 3 screens and these are for the on-screen dialer, contacts, messaging and the programs menu.
The favorite apps home screen page.
The LG Xenon has a 240 x 400 pixel display that's capable of displaying 65,000 colors. It's a resistive touch screen which means you can use a finger, fingernail or stylus (not included and not needed) to interact with the screen. In contrast, the iPhone has a capacitive screen that supports multi-touch (i.e.: pinching two fingers to zoom) and it works only with fingers and also requires a lighter touch. The Xenon is a little more responsive to touch than the LG Vu, but it sometimes takes a few taps to register an icon press. Scrolling through lists isn't as easy as we'd like: that does require a hard press and drag, along with a little prayer you've gotten it just right so the list scrolls to the desired point without accidentally selecting an unwanted list item. Dragging the web browser window works as it should (and isn't reversed like the Vu).
The Xenon is a quad band world 850/900/1800/1900MHz phone that will work anywhere in the world GSM service is available. As with all US carrier phones, it's locked to the carrier who offers it, in this case AT&T. This means you must use an AT&T SIM card with the phone, or get it unlocked (AT&T will unlock your phone if you've been with them several months and your account is in good standing). The phone has 3G HSDPA 3.6Mbps on AT&T's 850/1900MHz bands (not compatible with T-Mobile's 3G bands or overseas bands, where you'll just get EDGE). Reception isn't the strongest, as with the Vu the Xenon gets fewer bars than several other AT&T phones and unlocked Nokia GSM phones. The Eternity isn't an RF demon, but it manages 2/3 of a full 3G signal in our office while the Xenon got 1/4 bars. When held in the hand (likely partially covering the internal antenna), it dropped to EDGE, which rarely happens in our office. Despite the relatively weaker reception, the Xenon has excellent call quality that's clear and very loud-- good enough to hold a conversation easily in a noisy big box store.
Speakerphone volume is good with breakup at the highest setting (not unusual for a phone to distort at high settings) and the ringer volume is a little on the quiet side. Select or add loud ringers if you carry your phone in noisy places. There's no built-in voice dialing and the address book holds 500 records, a little low for a mid-tier phone. While that might not be enough for Ashton Kutcher, it should be sufficient for us mere mortals.
Here's our 10 minute video review of the LG Xenon:
Messaging and Web
The LG Xenon supports SMS text messages, MMS multimedia messages and a limited set of email accounts via AT&T's Mobile Email application. For SMS and MMS, when the keyboard isn't deployed, you can use an on-screen keypad with T9 (see below). With the keyboard out there's no on-screen input option and the display rotates to landscape mode. The email application, which supports Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, Bellsouth, Comcast, Earthlink, Juno, Mindspring and NetZero, runs in landscape mode (LG assumes you'll want to use the hardware keyboard to compose messages). The display will switch to portrait mode if the keyboard is closed when you tap on a field to compose an email, and you'll get the on-screen T9 keypad.
LG's IM client is included, and this handles AIM, Yahoo and Windows Live instant messaging. It can run in the background and audibly notify you of new messages and you can set it to automatically sign in, save conversations and you can read conversations when offline.
The SMS screen. In portrait mode with keyboard closed you get the on-screen keypad T9 input (left). When the keyboard is slid out, you get the screen above with no on-screen input options.
The web browser is improved over the Vu, with better rendering of HTML sites and better scrolling via finger drag. The browser runs in full screen mode and a tap on the screen brings up controls for zoom, back, reload, favorites and settings. Mobile sites are easy to read when the phone is in landscape mode (the accelerometer works here to change orientation). Text is generally too small to read on full HTML sites, so the browser's zoom comes in handy. Rather than the usual tap or double-tap to zoom, you'll tap on the magnifier glass icon, then drag a slider to zoom to the desired level. This is obviously slower than the tap mode, but it does provide more control over zoom levels. The web browser can't compete with the iPhone's or the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic's (those are tough to beat). But it's not as easy to use as the Samsung Eternity and Samsung Impression's either. There's no Flash support, but the phone handles the mobile version of YouTube fine.
Left: web controls showing. Above: zoomed in view using the zoom slider.
CV streaming video (an AT&T service included with their $15 unlimited data plan) plays decently but audio is slightly out of sync and there's more blockiness than on the Samsung Impression and BlackBerry Bold. Video fills the screen and the speakers are loud and clear.
GPS, music and camera
The LG has an internal GPS and comes with AT&T Navigator (TeleNav) for turn-by-turn spoken navigation, mapping and local information (POIs). The service is $10/month and it's well worth it if you travel frequently to parts unknown. The GPS gets a fix quickly and accurately-- we had no problems using it when driving on the highway or in dense suburban locations. The GPS application, like most 3rd party Java applications, runs only in portrait mode and doesn't make use of the accelerometer.
Like most all current cell phones, the Xenon has a music player and A2DP Bluetooth stereo for wireless headsets and headphones. There's no 3.5mm jack, only micro USB, so Bluetooth stereo is your best bet for music listening. The player supports MP3, AAC (unprotected iTunes format), AAC+ and WMA songs and it has basic features like playlists, EQ, a visualizer, background playback and control from the home screen via widget. The phone works with SDHC microSD cards up to 16 gigs in capacity and USB mass storage mode for transfer without a card reader (micro USB cable not included). The Xenon supports flight mode so you can listen to tunes on the plane. Also included are AT&T's usual lineup of subscription apps: MusicID, XM Radio and MobiTV. Unlike the LG Vu, the Xenon doesn't support mobile digital TV broadcasts over the air.
The Xenon's 2 megapixel camera takes average shots by 2MP camera phone standards. Photos look great on the phone's screen and OK when viewed on a PC. The camera has a fixed focus lens and 2X digital zoom as well as an LED flash. Max photo resolution is 1600 x 1200, with a variety of less resolutions offered for MMS, caller photo ID and the like. The camera can shoot video with audio at 320 x 240 and 176 x 144 at approximately 15 fps and you can send photos and video via MMS.
The Xenon has a 950 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. For a 3G handset, the Xenon has good battery life and lasted us 2 days on a charge with light to moderate use. Using the GPS for trip navigation and streaming CV hit the battery the hardest, while music playback uses very little power when the screen is off. Claimed talk time is 4 hours and that was on target in our tests.
The LG Xenon manages to fit a touch screen and large, side-sliding QWERTY keyboard into a small and fairly slim package. It's budget-priced yet well made and rich with features like HSDPA, stereo Bluetooth, GPS, music and video playback. However, the touch screen response and inconsistent user interface knock this phone down a few notches: the screen requires very hard taps compared to other resistive touch screen phones, there's no on-screen QWERTY keyboard, the accelerometer works only in some applications and list scrolling isn't easy. We've seen better from LG in the Dare and Versa. Granted these are higher tier phones on Verizon, but we'd like to see more polished software from LG's touch screen phones on AT&T.
Once you get used to the Xenon's quirks, it does have some compelling features like a fast and accurate GPS, decent camera by 2MP standards and great call quality. Reception on 3G HSDPA could be better-- if you're in a strong 3G coverage area or an area with no 3G whatsoever, that won't be a problem. But if you're in a middling coverage area, the Xenon might not be ideal.
Pro: Very compact for a touch screen phone with a full QWERTY keyboard. Good keyboard. Reasonably priced for the features it offers.
Con: Reception not very strong, user interface inconsistencies make the phone less fun and pleasing (accelerometer works in just a few apps, some apps rotate while others don't, lack of an on-screen QWERTY, scrolling through lists isn't easy).
Price: $99 with a 2 year contact after rebates, $299 without contract extension
Size:4.16 x 2.11 x 0.62 inches. Weight: 3.81 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone (850/900/1800/1900MHz), with 3G HSDPA on the US AT&T bands (850/1900MHz).
Camera:2.0 megapixel with fixed focus lens, 2x digital zoom and LED flash. Max photo resolution: 1600 x 1200. Max video resolution: 320 x 240, also supports MMS 176 x 144 resolution. Max video record time: 60 minutes (32 seconds for MMS). Supports AT&T's Video Share one-way video conferencing feature.
in speaker, mic and USB stereo headphone
Networking: Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, supports 2 simultaneous connections and saves up to 20 pairings. Bluetooth profiles: headset, hands-free, DUN, A2DP, AVRC, object push, basic printing and file transfer
Software:Proprietary OS with touch screen UI enhancements. PIM applications (contacts that can store up to 500 contacts, calendar), tasks, HTML web browser, CV, AT&T Mobile Email, IM client (AIM, Yahoo and Windows Live), photo viewer, video player, Java runtime, alarm clock, notepad, calculator, world clock, stop watch, unit converter.
SDHC microSD card slot (supports cards up to 16 gigs).
In the Box:Phone, battery, charger and printed manual.