The €40 iPhone


— 6:03 PM on March 12, 2008

When Apple first unveiled the iPhone last summer, my first reaction was, "Yes. This is what cell phones are supposed to be like." Looking at other cell phones had always made me think of old 1970s calculators, not 21st century wireless communication devices. Why were manufacturers sticking with the numeric keypad as a method of text input, despite it being so awkward? Sure, QWERTY keyboards are available on a few phones, but they're far from the norm, and they're often implemented somewhat awkwardly. In the back of my mind, getting rid of all those buttons and having the display double as an input device (and not with a stylus) always seemed like the right thing to do.

Upon seeing the iPhone's price tag at its launch, though, it became clear to me that this technology would take some time to democratize itself. I may be crazy enough to spend way too much money on a desk chair, but there's no way I'm spending 400 big boys on a gadget I carry in my pocket—no matter how tough it is (and yes, I know the iPhone is tough). So, I stuck with my trusty Nokia 6280 slider phone, which I got back in early 2006 for about €100. The 6280 was reliable and easy to use, and it did everything I wanted: doubling as a modem, running Opera Mini, letting me snap two-megapixel photos, and allowing me to text comfortably thanks to its comfy number keys. Its only downsides were its thickness, and the fact that it still had keys, of course.

A couple of weeks ago, my cell phone contract hit its two-year anniversary, and my operator gave me enough upgrade points to switch to a newer and shinier phone at an attractive price. I looked around the selection of available handsets, but nothing really tickled my fancy. I came close to grabbing a Nokia E65, but then I realized it was more or less the same as what I already had—not something I wanted to spend another two years with. No, I wanted something next-gen, something that pushed the envelope. I saw that Samsung soon planned to introduce its SGH-F480 phone (basically a cheaper, unbranded version of the touch-screen Armani), but I was disappointed to learn that the device didn't have an on-screen QWERTY keyboard. Also, the video demos I saw made its display seem a little too cramped for a touch-based UI.

I gave up on my search for a while, but then I came upon the LG KU990 (a.k.a. Viewty). My operator's point scheme allowed me to get that phone for just €49—about 1/8th of the price of the iPhone here—provided I renew my contract for another two years. The KU990 seemed to have everything I wanted. The only thing I was worried about was its size, but my fears quickly vanished when I got a chance to try one at a nearby phone store. After hesitating a little, I took the plunge. In the end, I was able to get the only KU990 left at the shop for just €39.

First impressions
After having torn the phone out of its surprisingly Apple-like packaging, my initial brush with the KU990 was a mixed experience. In some ways the handset was everything I wanted—touch-based, sleek, feature-rich, like something out of a sci-fi movie—but it also had some shortcomings. For instance, the on-screen QWERTY keyboard isn't available in some applications, and handwriting recognition with the stylus seems too awkward and inaccurate to be of any real use. The interface also didn't seem quite as responsive as I would've hoped, and it sometimes proved frustrating to use. Considering the price tag, I didn't really mind, but part of me was disappointed.

A few days passed, and my appraisal changed drastically. As it turns out, the touch UI just takes some getting used to, and now I feel genuinely hindered and cramped when I try to use a regular cell phone. With the Viewty, I don't need to unfold the device, slide the keyboard out, or enter an awkward combination of keys to be able to unlock it and do stuff. I just hit the little round "unlock" button on the side with my thumb, do whatever I need to do, and then hit it again and slip the phone back into my pocket. The fact that this handset doesn't have any keys also gave LG room for a large, colorful display, which is a joy to use when reading text messages, browsing the Internet, and watching videos. Despite the large screen, the KU990 isn't much bigger than a folded Motorola Razr, and it's actually thinner than my old Nokia.

Even features that initially struck me as useless or over-engineered turned out to be kinda cool once I got to know them. For instance, the handwriting recognition is a pain to use with the included stylus, but you can just leave that in the box and use your finger or fingernail to draw letters—and that actually works pretty well. The handset's camera features are also very powerful, but they don't make me feel like I'm using a digital camera strapped to a cell phone. LG gives you all the features you need to take decent pictures, like the ability to select the ISO level, white balance, and focus level, but the lens doesn't protrude ridiculously out of the back, and the picture quality certainly doesn't make me want to throw away my Canon A570 IS.

Delving deeper
After spending some time with the KU990, my mind drifted to the obvious comparison: how does it hold up against the iPhone. Overall, I would say LG's user interface isn't quite as polished as the iPhone's. For instance, scrolling behavior isn't entirely consistent in all applications, and like I said earlier, the QWERTY keyboard isn't always available (nor does it automatically correct errors). However, LG did include some things that the iPhone lacks, and the KU990 more than holds its own in other areas.

For instance, there's no Wi-Fi, but you get 3G and HSDPA support, which means comfortably speedy web browsing anywhere—not just at your local Starbucks. The KU990's browser uses the same WebKit rendering engine as Safari, and it actually has basic Flash support—another thing the iPhone lacks. Google Maps? The KU990 already has that pre-installed. Video support? Grab the free drag-n-drop transcoder from the DivX website and convert any of your existing videos so you can slap them on your phone. Java support? Yes, sir. And, of course, LG's camera and video capture features are more sophisticated than the iPhone's. Heck, the Viewty even lets you capture slow-motion video at 120 frames per second—even my camera doesn't do that.

For a device that cost me less than one tenth the price of the iPhone, offering that kind of functionality is impressive to say the least. Of course, the KU990 does have some limitations. It doesn't support microSD flash cards with capacities greater than 2GB, so you can't load it up with an entire season of The Office or as much music as an iPhone. The built-in e-mail client also doesn't seem to support SSL encryption, which is a problem if you want to use GMail or many other e-mail services (thankfully, you can just use the GMail Java application). LG's PC synchronization software kinda sucks, too. And, again, the QWERTY keyboard isn't available everywhere, which I think is a shame considering how handy it is.

Hopefully, LG will eventually sort out some of these problems in a firmware update. That said, none of those shortcomings are real impediments for me. Having to use a T9 keypad instead of a QWERTY keyboard to type URLs isn't a big deal, and since my handset spends most of its time doubling as an alarm clock, I have no need for huge storage capacity or fancy e-mail features. The KU990 is well-tailored to my needs, and I think it more than covers the bases: thin and light, nice big display, touch interface, 3G+ connectivity, good web browser, Google Maps, multitasking support, great camera features, and QWERTY input where LG offers it.

To conclude...
So what's the point of all this rambling? Aside from just bragging about my shiny new phone, I think the message here is clear: you don't need to pay $400+ to get a fancy touch handset with high-speed Internet access and powerful multimedia functionality. You don't even need to pay $200. If you're prepared to make a few slight compromises, you can grab a device like the KU990 for about the same as any other camera phone. At least, you can if it's available where you live. LG doesn't seem to offer the handset in the United States yet, although I know it's widely available in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the EU. You should also be able to find it in Australia and Asia.

Still, it probably doesn't matter whether you can get the KU990 or not, because I'm sure other companies are rushing to release similar phones with similar features around the same price range. Samsung recently unveiled the SGH-F490, and it has more phones in store just like it. Phone manufacturers may have taken a while to catch up, but they're finally going after the iPhone, and the result means cheaper next-gen phones for consumers.

   
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