13
Jul
IMG_3950[9]
Last Updated: July 24th, 2011

If you’re a fan of a physical QWERTY keyboard, your Android options tend to be fairly limited. Your best bet would be to pick up the Motorola Droid, but if, for some reason, that phone doesn’t do it for you, you’re limited to either the Cliq or the Backflip – both developed by Motorola, and both gimmicky and under-powered. For some reason manufacturers seem to be avoiding high-powered QWERTY handsets like the plague, instead opting for touchscreen ‘superphones’, such as the EVO 4G, or the Nexus One.

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Sure, these are nice handsets, but for those of us that just can’t get used to a touchscreen keyboard, QWERTY handsets are where it’s at. This time around, LG has tried their hand at an Android powered QWERTY slider, and despite an Iron Man themed marketing campaign, the phone is anything but ‘super’. While the hardware is definitely solid, once you begin to use the phone, it’s clear that it’s a mid-range handset, with mid-range components. Still, not everyone needs a ‘superphone’, so is it a phone worth buying for those in the market for a mid-range QWERTY slider? Read on to find out!

Hardware

After a few weeks of playing with the LG Ally, I keep landing on the same word when thinking about the phones build quality: tank. This phone is built like a tank. It seems that manufacturers have adopted the mentality that thinner and lighter means better, but as someone who’s broken more handsets than they’d like to admit, I disagree. The thinner and lighter a phone is, the less comfortable I feel using that phone. What the manufacturers don’t add to the phone when it ships, I end up adding myself in the form of screen protectors and silicone skins. The only time my Nexus One is naked is when it’s in the car or home docks, and even then it still has a ‘Best Skin Ever’ to protect it from nicks and scratches.

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Things are quite different with the Ally. When the battery is in place, the phone has a very sturdy, solid feel to it. I can see how some may say that the phone feels heavy, and compared to something like the Nexus One, there’s definitely some added heft, but personally, I like it. I wouldn’t purposely abuse the phone, but should it accidently take a tumble, I feel that it would hold up fairly well.

The handset’s also considerably more attractive in person than it is in pictures. It’s mostly made of solid, black plastic, with brushed metal accents above and below the screen bezel, and glossy (nickel?) metal accents running alongside the bezel.

The front of the phone presents a slightly different button layout than what I’m used to on an Android phone. Unlike most, the Ally sports dedicated hardware ‘Call’ and ‘End’ buttons that flank the menu and home key, while the ‘back’ and ‘search’ buttons are capacitive and located above the primary set of buttons. I’d say this was annoying if I wasn’t so often frustrated with the unreliable response of my Nexus One’s capacitive buttons. Still, considering how often I use the ‘back’ button, I find its placement odd, and a bit awkward to use, though I’m sure if I were to use the phone daily it’s something I’d adapt to with little trouble.

Along the sides of the phone you’ll find a dedicated two-stage camera button on the right that allows you to focus your shots before snapping them. I had some issues with it recognizing my attempts to focus a shot, where it instead insisted to go ahead and take the picture. A minor annoyance but one that may be frustrating if you’re trying to capture something ‘just right’. Above the camera button, you’ll find an easy to access MicroSD slot – why most manufacturers insist on putting these in the battery compartments, I do not know, so I applaud LG’s decision here. The left side of the phone is fairly barren with the exception of the volume rocker keys, which feel solid enough, and the Micro-USB port for charging and syncing. Topping things off is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a multicolor LED for notifications along side the upper right corner of the phones bezel.

I can’t say I have any real complaints about the display. It’s your fairly standard 3.2” TFT LCD, with capacitive touch, natch. I didn’t have a chance to try it out in the daylight (I’m a vampire), but indoors the screen was bright and crisp and seemed to respond well to touch. I had no problem typing with the on-screen keyboard, though it was a bit cramped due to the screen size. Nothing amazing here, but it works as well as expected.

The phone slides open with a fairly satisfying and solid feeling ‘clunk’, but it takes a bit more force than I was comfortable with to get the screen to budge. I found my fingers slipping over the slick accents along side the screen’s bezel a few times, rather than actually moving the screen. Once it’s open you’re presented with a fairly decent keyboard and a 4 direction d-pad in place of a trackball.

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The hardware keyboard is a mostly pleasurable experience with the keys offering very satisfying and clicky tactile feedback, though I could use a bit more space in between them. There’s nothing ground breaking about the keyboard, but it is there, and it serves its purpose quite well.

It’s easy to forget that these smartphones can also be used for things other than browsing the internet, or recording movies. You know, things like actually using it as a phone. I tried a few test calls with the handset to both landlines and cell phones, and the general consensus was that I sounded ‘fine’, with the exception of my mother, who said I sounded better than I normally do [when I call with my Nexus One]. On my end, calls were clear and a bit louder than with my Nexus One. I can’t really imagine people will have trouble with this aspect of the device.

I wasn’t able to conduct a solid battery test for a few different [personal] reasons, though the official stats are listed as 450 minutes of ‘usage’ time and 500 hours of standby time. I imagine this will vary based on the amount of apps installed which may run in the background.

All in all, as I previously mentioned, this phone is solid – if you’re looking for an Android phone that can survive a fairly active lifestyle, and can deal with a few software quirks(keep reading to hear about those), then you may want to check this phone out.

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Software

It seems to be increasingly harder these days to buy an Android phone that hasn’t been customized by the manufacturer or carrier (or both), and the LG Ally is no exception. The phone runs their skinned version of Android 2.1, though in this case, I use ‘skinned’ lightly. You’re definitely not going to see customization to the degree that HTC has done with their Sense UI as LG’s tweaks seem to be relatively minor – a new widget here and there, with a few cosmetic tweaks strewn about the OS.

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I haven’t found anything about their customizations that has been particularly irksome, but I also haven’t found them particularly useful either. Basically, there’s nothing here that I would say justifies the potential delays that may come as a result of LG having to port their customizations to a new version of Android before pushing out the update to their customers.

That said, I did find most of their customizations growing on me – I like their spin on the Android dialer, even though the only difference seems to be rounded corners and a lighter color scheme. They’ve also added some nifty widgets:

  • Alarm Clock (Allows you to quickly toggle your alarm)
  • Dual Clock (Show’s the time for two user specified locations)
  • LG Calendar (Displays full month calendar or agenda)
  • LG Socialite (Similar to HTC’s Friendstream)
  • Messaging (Quick access and reply to SMS)
  • Weather (Similar to the HTC Weather/Clock widget)

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If I owned the phone, I could definitely see myself using these, but again, I can’t say they justify the potential for a delay in receiving an OS update. These are all widgets that you can likely find suitable replacements for from the market.

They’ve also added the option to use their launcher rather than the stock Android home launcher. It’s interesting that the handset doesn’t default to their launcher – rather you have to set it manually by opening up the ‘Themes’ application. Once selected, the normal dots that indicate your screen selection and the grid icon from Android 2.1 are both replaced with a row of four icons: phone, phonebook, SMS, and the browser. The 3D app drawer is also replaced with LG’s slide out app drawer – very similar to the drawer that the G1 shipped with. Again, this is a mostly cosmetic change and can easily be replaced with applications found on the market (LauncherPro and ADW Launcher come to mind).

LG also included their own social network app, Socialite, which includes unified integration with both your Twitter and Facebook apps. I gave it a go and found it to be visually pleasing, but the performance was fairly poor. Profile images seemed to take ages to load, far longer than should be considered reasonable on a WiFi network. Due to the amount of time the app takes to update, I’d imagine I’d quickly replace it with Facebook and Twitter alternatives from the market. It has the potential to be something halfway decent, but the version included with the phone just isn’t there yet.

The camera interface has also been revamped to allow easier access to several settings, such the ISO, white balance, color effects, etc – it’s very similar to the way HTC implemented their camera design or Froyo’s revamped camera interface. In this case the changes are welcome and they seemed to do their job fairly well. I’ll cover the camera in greater detail later in the review.

That about rounds out the changes that LG has made, or at least the ones I could find. There may be a few buried options that I’ve missed, so let me know in the comments if that’s the case.

Otherwise it’s a standard Éclair install, complete with the 3D launcher, as previously mentioned, as well as live wallpapers. Considering the phone’s performance though, I can’t imagine I’d be using those much.

The phone is powered by Qualcomm’s MSM7627 chipset, clocked at 600Mhz. Seeing as how that’s a hair faster than the G1’s 528Mhz CPU, you’d expect it would perform slightly better, or, at the very worst, the same. Unfortunately though, that doesn’t seem to be the case, or at least it wasn’t in my experience.

I wouldn’t say that the performance is bad necessarily, but I definitely don’t feel that the phone runs particularly well either. Scrolling at all, anywhere, is a laggy affair – I noticed it when swiping between home screens, as well as sliding through the system settings menu. The browser, strangely enough, seemed to handle scrolling smoother than the rest of the operating system, for reasons that I can’t explain. The mobile optimized version of Google News preformed well, as did a non-optimized page from USA Today – but only after the page completed loading(which is to be expected). Speaking of pages loading, don’t expect to do much while that’s happening as the browser slowed to a crawl, and even trying to stop the page from loading took several seconds.

From a users standpoint, the performance is acceptable, if only just. Things will feel a bit slow, especially if you have any resource intensive applications in the background, but the performance is approximately on par with other mid-range Android phones.

Camera

Like most mid-range phones nowadays, the LG Ally sports a 3.2MP camera, which for some reason, seems to be the sweet spot for these types of phones. I wasn’t able to test outdoors or daylight performance, so I can’t speak to the quality there, but I was able to give it a run through indoors.

If you’re in a room where there’s sufficient lighting, then you should be OK – the LG Ally takes halfway decent pictures when it doesn’t require the flash. However, if you do need the flash…then expect to look pretty blue. In my very non-scientific low light tests, all of the pictures had a very odd blue tint to them. I wasn’t able to determine how or why this happening, but it certainly was…and this was with the flash on. Take a look at the sample photos below (click the thumbnails to view full size):

Indoors, with background light, no flash:

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Indoors, low light, with flash:

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I’m not sure if the blue tint issue was specific to my review unit, or is representative of all Ally’s out in the field – I’m going to take some test shots next month when I visit some family in Ohio as my future mother-in-law picked an Ally up recently. If her phone seems to take low light pictures with the flash and no blue tint, I’ll be sure to update this review with my findings.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Construction: I really liked how the phone felt in-hand. Definitely solid, and the brushed metal accents give it a heavy duty feel.
  • Keyboard: I’m a sucker for hardware keyboards, and I found the Ally’s comfortable to type on for extended periods of time.

Cons

  • Speed: I found the Ally to be fairly slow – it reminded me of using my G1.
  • Camera: Again, not sure if it was my unit, or if all Ally’s have this issue, but any low light images that required flash were pretty much unusable
  • Custom Skin: In this case, I wasn’t able to find anything baked into LG’s custom skin for the Ally that justified a potential delay in receiving Android OS updates

For better or worse, my final thoughts on the LG Ally are much like the phone itself: boring. In a time where a new Android ‘superphone’ seems to be announced every other week, it’s hard to get worked up over a mid-range handset. However, if you’re not one for bells and whistles, and are simply looking for a solid, well built Android device, that can likely hold its own when paired against rowdy teenagers, then the Ally is worth a look – as long as you can find the Ally for $100 or less with a 2-year contract.

If you’re signing a new contract and can spend around $150-$200, pretty much every Android superphone is within reach, and unless you’re in need of a particularly sturdy handset, it really makes no sense to go with the Ally over something like the EVO 4G or the Droid X for $100 more.

Chris Dehghanpoor
Chris is an Android devotee based out of Houston, TX. He enjoys indie rock, general geekery and long walks on the beach. If you can't find him online, he's probably playing Plants VS Zombies.
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