I’ve been testing a black-and-silver cellphone featuring a large touch screen populated with an array of colorful icons against a black background. Tapping the icons launches functions like a music player, Web browser and text-messaging program.
That may sound like Apple’s heavily publicized iPhone, which runs on the AT&T wireless network, but it’s not. This phone is called the Voyager, and it’s made by LG and runs on the rival Verizon Wireless network.
Despite their superficial similarities, the two devices are very, very different. In fact, Verizon’s public-relations people are at pains to say the Voyager isn’t intended as an “iPhone killer” or even a “smart phone.”
Still, the Voyager is worth a close look, if only because it is one of the first competitors that attempts to mimic Apple’s touch interface, and many of its functions overlap the iPhone’s.
The Voyager beats the iPhone in certain respects. Unlike Apple’s product, it runs on a fast, 3G data network. And my experience has been that Verizon’s network has better coverage than AT&T’s in many cities, especially on the East Coast. It also costs less: $299, after a rebate, with a two-year service contract, compared with $399 for the iPhone.
In addition, the Voyager has GPS and thus provides real-time navigation, a capability the iPhone currently lacks. And the Voyager can even receive live TV programs for an extra monthly fee of $15, though it gets only eight channels and its TV function works only in certain cities.
A big advantage of the Voyager for some people is that it has a physical keyboard for typing in addition to the kind of virtual onscreen keys that are the iPhone’s only method for entering text. This keyboard is revealed by opening the phone, which then resembles a little laptop with a display that’s separate from the outside touch screen. I found that typing worked pretty well. For folks who insist on a physical keyboard, this is a big deal.
Finally, LG has enhanced the Voyager’s touch screen with feedback: When you tap an icon or scroll through a list, you get a light physical sensation.
But the Voyager is bulkier than the sleek iPhone — about 50% thicker and 40% larger overall — even though it’s a tad lighter. And it lacks the iPhone’s ability to use Wi-Fi hot spots and home networks, which are often faster than Verizon’s 3G network. It also has only about half the battery life; a smaller, lower-resolution screen, and just a fraction of the Apple’s internal memory. (Unlike the iPhone, the Voyager lets you add memory cards, but it doesn’t come with any.)
Most importantly, the Voyager suffers badly in the area where Apple’s phone shines: software. Whether Verizon considers it a direct iPhone competitor or not, the LG product tries to do many of the same things, and it generally falls short.
This is the true challenge that the iPhone poses to established phone makers like LG. Apple has managed to build into its phone a real PC-grade operating system with a breakthrough user interface and elegant programs, something that has eluded the major cellphone makers.
As with so many of the new feature-packed mobile phones, the Voyager’s user interface is clumsy and confusing, requiring too many steps to perform simple tasks. And its applications, such as the photo organizer, music player, Web browser and email program, are primitive compared with the iPhone’s.
In fact, the Voyager, bafflingly, has several different user interfaces — two on the outer touch screen and an entirely different one on the inner screen above the keyboard that doesn’t work by touch at all. Some functions work only with the inner screen.
Scrolling through lists with the Voyager’s touch screen is a halting, frustrating process compared with the smooth, slick scrolling on the iPhone. Its touch functions are old style and basic compared with the new “multitouch” approach that Apple built into the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, the Voyager doesn’t allow you to “flick” through photos or other screens, or to use two fingers to enlarge or shrink photos or Web pages. It also doesn’t automatically change photos or Web pages from portrait to landscape view by just turning the phone.
In addition, while the Voyager’s Web browser can show real Web-page layouts, I found it to be far inferior to the iPhone’s browser, which shows entire pages and then zooms in on the parts you want to read with a couple of finger taps.
Apparently because the Voyager isn’t considered a business tool or smart phone, its email function isn’t included on any of the main menus or even located under the envelope icon labeled “messaging.” To find it, you have to wade through multiple menus with unhelpful names like “Tools on the Go.”
Even doing something as simple as entering flight mode — which turns off a phone’s internal radios for use on a plane and takes two steps on the iPhone — requires five steps on the Voyager.
Verizon is promising to improve the Voyager, but right now it’s a classic example of how the leading cellphone makers are going to have to step up their games, especially in software, to match Apple’s upstart device.