LG Ally Review: It's No Droid

Among Android handsets with keyboards, the Droid is the indisputable king. The LG Ally, also on Verizon, doesn't change this, but it does make buying a Droid tougher to stomach.

The LG Ally is an odd handset, spec'd through the roof in some respects - its 800x480 screen and top-notch keyboard, along with Android 2.1 - while painfully lacking in others - its pokey 600MHz processor and blotchy 3.2MP camera, in particular.

In some ways it's obviously better than the Droid. In more ways, though, it can't compete.

Unspectacular Hardware

I've been using this phone for a while now, and I still struggle to write about its design from memory, even if that memory is just seconds old. It's remarkably unremarkable, an inoffensively rounded chunk of metal glass, with hints of rubber. It wears a typically LG-ish rounded row of buttons on its face, which blend with its black frame, black body, black trim, black keyboard and black backplate.

The Ally is heavy, though for its size - a bit thicker and less narrow than the Droid - it doesn't feel too dense. I'd be tempted to call it masculine, but next to the Droid and HTC Incredible, its conservative lines don't really earn descriptors more exiting than "lumpish" or "there".

(I will give the phone's shell credit for surviving a gnarly tumble down our office's stairs without a scratch.)

There are a few standout features. I mentioned the screen, which is a wonderfully dense 800x480 unit, somehow squeezes all those pixels into 3.2-inch diagonal inches, which makes this one of the most finely resolved displays I've ever seen on a phone. Font rendering is perceptibly flawless, and you can read text on desktop web pages totally zoomed out, in portrait mode. It's as if the display isn't made of pixels.

Surprisingly, in day to day use this screen quality doesn't matter so much - reading text is a bit more pleasant than it would be on an SVGA phone like the iPhone or HTC Hero, but it's not really any easier. As hardware features go, this is a perk. The display doesn't seem to be too much of a drain on battery life, which easily saw me through an average day of use, and through to the next morning.

But even in brilliant luminance of the display, the Ally's standout feature by far its keyboard, a beautifully laid-out, deceptively compact number with adequate spacing, well-angled keys and stern feedback. It's a joy compared to the Droid's irritatingly flat QWERTY, and it's the one feature that I could see luring users away from a Droid if used side-by-side, as many will in Verizon stores. But on its own, it's not enough.

Weak Spots

The Ally's 600MHz MSM7627 Qualcomm processor isn't up to the task of powering an Android 2.1 phone, though I could have told you that before I even used this handset, since it's the same processor used in another, much less ambitious piece of hardware that was also panned for its sluggishness: the Palm Pixi. (Though the architecture isn't directly comparable, the Droid's processor runs at 800MHz.) App launching is quick enough, and the device doesn't really hang, per se, but it isn't responsive. It's 2010. Our phones shouldn't act surprised when we touch them.

The camera meters light fairly well, and renders usable shots most of the time. It does seem to rely an awful lot on image processing though, and if the shot isn't well-lit by natural light, you can make out the telltale blur of aggressive software noise reduction.

The Software

Again, the Ally is a frustrating specimen. On the one hand, it runs a near-vanilla build of Android 2.1, which means it can run any app in the App Market, unlike some skinned handsets like the Motorola Devour, which are often an Android version or three behind, as their makers struggle to upgrade their customs skins to keep pace with Google's release schedule. But that doesn't mean that LG didn't meddle a little.

What LG has added here is a device theme, seen above, as well as a handful of apps, including a social media aggregator that you probably don't need to touch - Android's Twitter and Facebook integration and apps are just, well, better. The changes are unobtrusive, but they're still changes. Android is best when it's pure and when nothing stands between Google - which pukes out an interesting software update ever few months - and your phone. Every carrier or manufacturer add-on equates to an extra delay in upgrades. And given how little these OS mods matter here, what's the point? (Branding. Lousy branding, I should say.)

Otherwise the Ally is Android 2.1, warts and all. And in case you were wondering, this handset does ship with multitouch.

The Conundrum

Part of the Ally's supposed appeal is that it's cheap. Verizon seems to be building a line of Android phones that spans from entry level to high end, from the Motorola Devour to the HTC Incredible. The $US100 Ally, I suppose, is intended to fill some kind of midrange role.

Here's the problem with created ranges of Android phones: They're all smartphones. They're all going to cost the same month to month, and their retail prices are close enough that, compared to their total cost of ownership - often north of $US2000 - they barely even matter. And anyway, price ranges fall apart when stores like Best Buy sell the flagship phone for half of retail: just like the Ally, the Droid is available for $US100.

And so the fate of the Ally is sealed. It's aimed at the same kind of people who would buy a Droid, but it's not as good a handset. To the Verizon user who wants a keyboarded Android phone, I would say to buy a Droid, even if it cost a bit more, and its keyboard isn't as easy to use as the Ally's. To the general Verizon smartphone buyer, I'd say to check out the Droid and HTC Incredible. To someone thinking about using a smartphone like the Ally instead of a messaging phone, I'd say to check the math.

A fantastic screen and unbelievable keyboard isn't enough to save the Ally, a competent phone sabotaged by a weak heart and confused identity.

Super-sharp screen

Lovely keyboard - the best so far on an Android phone

Unremarkable, chunky design


Less-than-stellar camera

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