Handset Hands-On: The LG Electronics Vu

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LG Vu--front view.
The black-clad LG Vu features a tabbed and icon-based interface and a spacious 3-inch touch screen.
When something as innovative as the iPhone comes along, other companies are bound to copy it. That's what LG Electronics does with its new Vu cell phone. The Vu is one of several handsets that look and feel (sort of) like the Apple iPhone.

The $400 (as of May 23, 2008) Vu, one of the latest cell phones from AT&T, is currently one of only two handsets that support the carrier's new Mobile TV service, which starts at $15 a month. The service allows you to watch various channels directly on the phone, including CBS Mobile, ESPN Mobile TV, and NBC2Go. A few of the programs have the same content that the network broadcasts on regular TV.

The difference between Moblile TV and Cellular Video, AT&T's other television service, is that you can watch programming on Mobile TV continuously instead of viewing one short video clip at a time. The live TV service is based on Qualcomm's MediaFlo technology--the same technology that underlies Verizon's live TV service.

LG Vu--TV orientation.
You can watch The Tonight Show and other television programs directly on the LG Vu--if AT&T's Mobile TV service is available in your city.
The caveat: You must be in a city where AT&T offers the service, such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. Regrettably, the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, isn't covered. To find out whether it's available in your town, check out the coverage map on AT&T's Web site.

What sets the Vu apart from the present-day iPhone? Mobile TV, AT&T Video Share (the ability to send and receive live video from another AT&T Video Share user), the 3G wireless standard, video recording, and preloaded instant messaging clients (AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger).  Otherwise, the Vu replicates the Apple handset's general appearance and icon-based interface.

Like the iPhone, the Vu has a clean, minimalist design, including a glossy black paint job that's a magnet for fingerprint smudges. At 3.3 ounces, the Vu is lighter than the iPhone. It's also slightly shorter and a tiny bit thicker, measuring about 4.3 inches by 2.2 inches by 0.5 inch.

Vu sports a 3-inch, 240-by-400-pixel-resolution LCD touch screen on the front, with only a few buttons on the front and the side. It forgoes a traditional keypad in favor of an on-screen version; a virtual keyboard is accessible on certain applications. In my tests, the keyboard worked fine for text-messaging, e-mailing, entering contacts, and performing Web searches.

When you touch the icons, buttons, and so forth on the Vu's screen, you'll feel a slight vibration to indicate that your selection has registered. If you don't like how this tactile feedback feels, turn the feature off. But even with the feature active, the Vu's touch controls could stand some improvement. At times the handset was unresponsive to my finger scrolling in some apps--including the Web browser. I much prefer the iPhone's touch screen and gesture-based controls: The iPhone is simply more capable and more satisfying to use.

The Vu's call quality has room to get better, too. I noticed hiss in the background in several of my calls. Fortunately, the speakerphone was adequately loud.

You should be able to use this handset in other countries that support GSM and EDGE. If you buy the phone from AT&T, you'll need to sign up for AT&T's international roaming service. Also, you won't be able to connect to Wi-Fi anywhere because the Vu lacks support for it.

The Vu's music player worked okay and its speaker sounded a little better than the iPhone's. You get just 120MB of internal memory, so if you plan to download songs, videos, and other content, and take pictures and record your own videos with the embedded 2-megapixel camera, you should invest in a 4GB or higher-capacity microSD card. The phone supports Bluetooth and stereo headphones. If you want to use wired headphones, you'll need to buy an adapter to accommodate the 3.5-millimeter plug used by standard headphones.

The phone's battery should last for up to 3 hours of talk time, according to AT&T. That's fairly brief compared to other handsets I've looked at.

To access personal e-mail on this phone, you're better off downloading a free application such as Flurry than paying a monthly fee for the mediocre AT&T Mobile Email client. I was glad to see Google Maps installed on my test phone, but the phone's poorly designed menu and controls for this app made it unbearable to use. You're also limited to displaying maps because this handset doesn't have GPS to provide features such as turn-by-turn driving directions and information about local points of interest.

Would I buy this over the iPhone? No. It's simply not as fun to use, and most of its features--especially its browser--are inferior to the iPhone's. Some people might consider buying a Vu for the mobile TV programming and for AT&T's Video Share. But even that isn't a very compelling reason, with the 3G iPhone set to appear any day now.

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