'Aka'-awesome: LG's new smartphones have backstories, names (hands-on)

/ Updated: March 18, 2015 7:29 PM PDT
What'choo lookin' at? The LG Aka phones brim with personality. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

SEOUL -- Eggy, Wooky, YoYo, and Soul.

To you, they may look like yellow, white, pink, and blue smartphones, but to LG, the four new handsets of the Aka family (pronounced "AW-kuh") are a breakthrough in creating an emotional, personality-driven connection between people and their phones.

With digital eyes that peek out from above a three-quarter sleeve slid over the phone face, and expressions that change as you wave your hand before the front-facing camera, LG is transforming the handset from a metaphorical companion into an emotive buddy, sort of like the digital Tamagotchi toys of the mid-1990s.

This time, instead of feeding and nurturing animal friends, the quartet of Aka characters seek to create a connection through their distinct personalities, and through backstories that encourage gamification. Underneath the on-screen animations, the Android phones possess sporty builds and midrange features similar to other handsets targeting the tween-to-early-thirties crowd.

CNET got an early introduction at LG's R&D lab in Seoul, Korea.

Meet the Akas, identities on a chip

The yellow one is called Eggy, LG's head of LTE product planning, Ramchan Woo, explained. "He falls in love easily." Wooky, the white-backed model, always speaks in slang, belying his "cute" appearance. Soul, the blue Aka, loves music and beer, but never imbibes to excess.

Then there's bright pink YoYo, the lone female of the family, so named because her penchant for Coca Cola and hamburgers causes her weight to yo-yo. Oh yes, and she enjoys style, too.

If you choose to dive into their world, an even deeper backstory teams the Akas in a quest to save the world from domination-bent aliens who are crawling out of an interstellar pit in a nearby park.

Time to get into character? Take a selfie with your digital Aka pal. Offer it juice! Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Phones like these scream for accessories. You can buy and swap in cases of other colors to expand your retinue of Aka pals. The phone automatically detects the personality based on an identity chip set on the inside back cover.

On-screen animation portals at the top of the phone's display invite you to access other ways to interact with the Akas, like taking a selfie with the character or posting to its Instagram account. You'll also earn points for buying new accessories and physically tagging owners of other Aka phones, leading to real-world rewards.

Hardware design and specs

With a textured back surface, saturated colors, and a sturdy build, the Aka is attractive in a sporty sense. Its coloring and material finish help it pop, and the tactile back cover material makes it grippier than a lot of other slick, shiny phones. Bottom line: I liked it a lot.

Hardware for the Aka line is decidedly midrange, starting with a 5-inch 720p display and Android OS. The 8-megapixel camera carries over the LG G3 flagship phone's laser focusing trick, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera handles selfies, both with your digital buddy or on your own.

A 1.2GHz quad-core CPU dispatches gaming and task-switching, while storage specs come to 16GB and up to 128GB more on a microSD card. The Aka has a 2,610mAh battery and 1.5GB RAM.

Something daring, something new

LG isn't typically known for mobile innovation: wacky phones are more Samsung's territory. Yet in spite of some pretty blatant gendered messaging with poor YoYo, these color-coded personalities takes LG's Aka phones into a territory that no other mainstream vendor has ever attempted.

Everybody talks about how the smartphone is the most personal device yet, and with the Aka, LG is trying to make it so. I personally love the creativity and whimsy of what is adding up to be quite a functional and eye-catching device.

And what does the company's head of LTE planning think? "The software itself isn't [the Aka's] only identity," LG's Woo said. "We want to create some sort of cultural code. You buy it because you like the culture."

The Aka's character focus will surely be too kitschy for some, but I heartily applaud LG for trying something novel.

Launched in Korea for ₩500,000 in November 2014, LG announced in March 2015 that it will start selling the unique handsets in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Turkey.

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