After a slow start, text messaging has caught on in a big way in the United States, and Americans now send more than 5 billion text messages every month. In response, carriers have begun to introduce handsets such as the LG VX9800 for Verizon Wireless. Although mainly the domain of smart phones and PDAs, full QWERTY keyboards are now appearing on basic cell phones, and the VX9800 marks the fourth such handset picked up by a U.S. carrier. Whether the convenience of the keyboard on this mini-laptop-like 3G (EV-DO) cell phone trumps the inconvenience of its bulkiness and ergonomic compromises is up to you. But there's no denying that the keyboard vastly improves messaging on every level. Just be prepared to open your wallet wide for the privilege: The LG VX9800 comes at a pricey $299.99, with an online discount and a two-year contract available from Verizon Wireless. The overall aesthetics of the LG VX9800 reflect its multiple functions. It's essentially the cell phone version of The Three Faces of Eve. From the front, it's a standard candy bar mobile with an alphanumeric dial pad, a navigation array, and an external display. Turn it over, and it resembles a thin digital camera with a flash above the lens, a portrait/macro toggle below it, and the shutter-release key on the top-right side, where your right index finger thinks it will be. Finally, like the , the VX9800 opens lengthwise to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard and a separate internal display.
Although this transformerlike form factor is eye-catching and user-friendly, as with all multifunction devices, compromises have been made on all three faces. At 4.57 by 1.97 by 1 inches and a hefty 5.19 ounces, the LG VX9800 is heavy and bulky. It fits only in bigger pockets, and it can be uncomfortable to hold against your face for long conversations. On the upside, it's solidly built, and there's no external antenna to add to the bulk. The external display supports 65,000 colors, but it's relatively small--especially considering the phone's size--measuring 1.75 inches diagonally. It shows all the necessary information, including the date, the time, battery life, signal strength, and photo caller ID (where available); conveniently, you can use it to scroll through some of the menus without having to open the phone. Additionally, you can change the backlighting and the font size.
Below the display are the navigation controls, which consist of a five-way toggle, two soft keys, a Clear button, a voice-command key, and the Talk and End buttons. Overall, the navigation keys are too cramped for users with large fingers; they're also too small and flush with the surface of the phone. The dial-pad buttons are equally small, and though they're raised just above the phone, dialing by feel is difficult. On the plus side, all the keys have a cool, ice-blue backlighting. The headset jack is located along the right spine, which is a fitting location, since it faces you when you are watching video with the flap open. The Mini SD slot is conveniently located next to the headphone jack. While the volume toggle is on the left spine, where it ought to be, it ends up behind the screen when flipped up, which isn't convenient. Also on the left spine is the camera shutter.
We had some design complaints with the LG VX9800's rear-facing camera. The lens is a bit too close to the right edge/top; your index finger will often wander accidentally across the lens. Also, since there's no lens cover, you'll need to be extra careful. Instead of acting as a zoom/wide toggle, the spine volume toggle next to the shutter release shifts between landscape and portrait mode--but without shifting the view in the viewfinder accordingly; you'll have to tilt the phone 90 degrees to get the true effect. You also can use the internal display as a much bigger viewfinder, and there's even a dual-display mode for using both screens--perfect for self-portraits.
Inside the LG VX9800, you'll find its best features. We were drawn immediately to the huge, 2.25-inch-diagonal landscape internal display, which is flanked by a pair of large stereo speakers. Supporting 262,000 colors, the screen is bright and vivid; it's perfect for using the standard Verizon menus, viewing pictures and, and playing games. Yet, the messaging text is so tiny that you almost have to squint--not a good sign. The QWERTY keypad features individual oval keys that are generously spaced to accommodate all but the extremely pudgy thumbed. In addition to a spacebar, LG smartly included dedicated Shift, symbol, and Enter keys, and there's a nifty button that opens a programmable shortcut menu. Overall, the keyboard is comfortable to type on for long periods of time, and we liked that the phone opens 180 degrees so that you can position the flip at an angle, as with a laptop, or completely flat. In addition to typing messages, you can use the keyboard to enter address book contacts. That's a big improvement upon LG's previous keyboard phone, the for Cingular.
We weren't impressed with the LG VX9800's five-way navigational toggle to the right of the keyboard, as well as the two narrow soft keys underneath the screen. It's a bit disconcerting to have the toggle and its center menu/OK button nowhere near the screen, much less the command it activates. As with the toggle on the exterior, however, the interior array can be set as a shortcut to four user-defined functions. The rice-shaped soft keys are squeezed above the keyboard and beneath the screen top, making them difficult to thumb without hitting one of the adjacent number keys. There's also a Clear button in the lower-right corner. You can make calls with the top up, but we're not sure why you'd want to.Short of a full PDA or BlackBerry, the LG VX9800 is as fully featured a phone as you can buy. You get a 500-contact phone book, with room in each entry for five phone numbers and two e-mail addresses. You can also match callers with a picture or any of the 10 polyphonic ring tones for caller ID; the phone supports tones up to 72 chords. Other basic features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a world clock, a tip calculator, instant messaging, a calendar with scheduler, an alarm clock, a calculator, voice commands and dialing, 1-minute voice memos, and a notepad. The phone also supports text-to-speech dictation. On the more practical side, there's a full-duplex speakerphone, as well as support for calendar syncing and POP3/IMAP4 e-mail. That said, if you go with Verizon's Wireless Sync e-mail ($19.99 per month), you can't get attachments or establish a connection to a corporate server.