Though the real story lies inside Alltel's LG AX490 phone, you can see at first glance that the handset is designed a bit differently from other flip phones. With sleek, curvy lines and two deliberately placed silver strips that resemble headlights, the AX490 looks a bit like a black race car. The semblance is no accident, as the handset comes with several NASCAR and racing-themed wallpapers, games, and sounds to appeal to your inner racing fan. The AX490 speaks to avid text messengers with the U.S. introduction of the Fastap keypad, which combines a standard 12-button numeric keypad with a full alphabetic keyboard. That alone makes the handset worth a look, but you'll also find Bluetooth, a speakerphone, and a VGA camera. The AX490 costs $209 if you pay full price, but you can get it for as low as $29 with service.
At 3.7 by 1.9 by 1.0 inches and 3.8 ounces, the AX490 isn't the smallest phone around, but it's still compact enough for easy portability. Its relatively slim profile allows it to slip into a front pants pocket without any trouble. A stubby external antenna adds a tad more girth, but the phone is comfortable to hold in the hand while talking. What's more, it's solidly constructed. The postage stamp external display shows 65,000 colors and four lines of text (96x64 pixels). Displayed information includes the time, date, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID (where available). It also supports photo caller ID, and you can use it as a viewfinder for self-portraits. To showcase the racing theme, you can set wallpapers of your favorite racer's numbers to scroll by as if they're on the move.
Above the display is the VGA camera lens, while the camera flash sits just below it. Stereo speakers are set into the two silver strips at the bottom of the front flap (the ones that resemble headlights). A dedicated camera button is on the right spine, while a volume rocker and voice command/recording buttons rest on the left spine.
The internal display isn't particularly impressive. Measuring 1.75 inches diagonally (128x160 pixels), it supports nine lines of text. Though it supports 262,000 colors, it isn't the most high-res screen we've seen. Colors were dim in our tests, and most graphics looked a bit grainy. On the other hand, it was decent for scrolling through the basic LG menus (available in two styles). You can change the backlight time and the font size and color.
Below the display are the navigation buttons, which are large and easy to use. A four-way toggle gives one-touch access to the ring-tone menu, the Web browser, Alltel's application downloads menu, and the messaging tool. There's an OK button in the toggle's center that in standby mode opens a special My Menu where you can program up to 12 (one of each numeric keypad button) user-defined shortcuts. Flanking the toggle are two soft keys that open the menu and the phone book when the phone is standby mode, while below it are the talk and end/power keys and a dedicated back/speakerphone control--nice.
We've kept you waiting long enough, so it's on to the AX490's star attraction: the Fastap keypad by Digit Wireless. Alltel is the first U.S. carrier to offer Fastap and for the most part, we like what we see. Set in the midst of the usual 12-button numeric keys are small round buttons for each letter of the alphabet. Designed for quicker and easier messaging, they essentially give users a full alpha keyboard. For this phone at least, you can forget the usual text-message tap dance that comes from pressing keys multiple times to select the correct letter. The alpha keys are quite tactile, and we like that they're raised above the numeric keys. Without a doubt, text messaging is quick, though it's worth noting that Fastap involves a steep learning curve. Because the letter buttons are arranged in alphabetical order, we hunted around for a while before we remembered the correct location of the letter (we didn't even try typing by feel). Some users may not like this arrangement and be more inclined to use a phone with a QWERTY keyboard, but we think Fastap offers a nice alternative in a compact form factor.
The numeric buttons also take some getting used to. Because of the additional letter buttons, the numeric keys are a bit smaller than you might expect, and it was weird at first to reach past the raised letter buttons to press a number. Also, they are a bit slippery. Fortunately, all controls are brightly backlit, and we like that the AX490 has dedicated shift, space, and symbol keys. You can even use the letter keys to dial numbers that use words (as with many 800 numbers), and the phone will convert the letters to numbers automatically. In keeping with the racing theme, the keypad looks a bit like a checkered flag.