Review: LG enV2 and Keybo

A very welcome if imperfect improvement on the original enV. (August 10th, 2008)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: LG

Price: $50 (Telus 3 yrs.) $80 (Verizon 2 yrs.)

The Good

  • Much more efficient, comfortable design than the earlier model.
  • Good battery life for a CDMA phone, especially on standby.
  • Simple, no-nonsense interface.
  • 3.5mm headphone jack on the in-line mic.
  • Telus version gets a 1GB microSD card in the box.

The Bad

  • Voice quality is just average for a CDMA phone.
  • Little software; media player and web browser are very simple.
  • Bluetooth and USB transfer problems with at least the test model.
  • Connectors on the phone itself are still proprietary.

LG's first attempt at a hybrid phone with the original enV was, for the most part, successful in hooking phone users who spend most of their time sending text, but for actual calling was often too big and difficult to control. The enV2 (known as the Keybo in Canada) aims to solve many of the outstanding problems of the original device in one fell swoop. LG manages to accomplish many of its goals, but whether these changes are enough to sway those who were sitting on the fence the first time around is another matter.

design and expansion

The original enV was criticized for its sheer size, and not without reason: in trying to be both a good phone and a good messaging client, it was too bulky for those who regularly handled both. The enV2/Keybo handily solves this. LG's newer phone is still relatively thick, but it's decidedly thinner than keyboard-free devices like the Nokia N95 8GB and still has roughly the same overall surface area as a conventional phone. The size is only now a concern for especially tight pockets.





Moreover, LG is also making much better use of the space it has, even with the smaller shape. The number pad on the outside is extremely large and very comfortable to use in practice. The smaller external LCD is less of a problem than one would think; while it does hurt the ability to properly frame a camera shot, it's more than enough for the calling, messaging, and basic music controls that are most likely to be used while the phone is fully closed. The camera and volume buttons are also very large and easy to hit, but not so much so that they'll be pressed by accident.

On the inside, LG has had to shrink the QWERTY keyboard from the original enV. The difference is noticeable, but the keys are still more than large enough to permit quick typing. It was possible to type at full speed within minutes of opening the box, and the controls are intuitive enough that one is never really at a loss as to what to press.



A smaller LCD screen is the only real sacrifice. Due equally in part to the smaller overall size and slightly larger (and better-sounding) speakers, the internal LCD has shrunk from the first enV. The difference isn't enough to affect most operations, but it does make it less comfortable to play games or otherwise view the screen from a distance.

Connecting devices to the phone is straightforward, albeit not as universal as we'd like. The built-in audio jack is a 2.5mm port common among phones but unusable for regular earphones; thankfully, the in-line microphone has a 3.5mm jack that works with whatever you already have. The phone also connects to PCs through a USB connection, but on its own end uses a proprietary micro USB port -- a likely problem should the bundled cable ever be lost. Also, while the phone technically supports mass storage over USB, it doesn't appear as an accessible device outside of Windows. That's a problem for Mac users and others who would like to sideload music or upload photos, and it feels a somewhat arbitrary choice.



Little is included in the way of accessories with the enV2/Keybo, and the pack-in earbuds are largely dismissable: they resemble Apple's first-generation iPod earbuds, produce basic audio quality, and are likely to slip out of any unusually shaped ears. Those buying the phone through Canada's Telus as the LG Keybo will be glad to know, however, that a 1GB microSD card is bundled with this version, which gives it much more headroom for music and photos.

interface and software

Compared to the other split-sided phone Electronista has tried, the Samsung UpStage (or m620), the enV2/Keybo's menuing and interface is a relative pleasure to use; there is never quite the need to switch back and forth to access a missing feature. The basic on-screen layout is also considerably easier to grasp than with Samsung's device and almost second nature after enough time. For those using the phone as intended, it's excellent.

The amount of software included is fairly spare, however. Aside from music and video services -- V CAST Music and Video with Verizon, and Telus Mobile Music plus TV/Radio on the Canadian device -- there is little to work with beyond what LG already offers. Mapping is available, but is handled through VZ Navigator or Telus Navigator and isn't really a substitute for a true GPS phone. This absence isn't necessarily an issue given the phone's focus, as the built-in messaging client is almost certainly the highlight, but it can be slightly disappointing to those used to having an abundance of apps with other phones.



For Telus' version, the music player is the same Java-based player and store hybrid that many phones rely on for content. It's limited in features and ultimately there to market over-the-air downloads more than to replace your stand-alone media player. The web browser for both the Telus and Verizon versions is also far from noteworthy: like most non-smartphone browsers, it simply falls apart when asked to handle anything more than a WAP-oriented site or otherwise barebones pages.





Additionally, there were problems getting the phone to pair properly over Bluetooth. It would only periodically recognize the existence of a PC to link to and couldn't be located from the PC even when both were set to discoverable and searching for each other. Content had to be "pushed" from the phone to the PC rather than downloaded from the PC itself. That's somewhat disappointing for what's often a trouble-free procedure with other phones tested so far.

call quality and battery life

It's difficult to say just how widespread the issue may be, but CDMA networks have often come out at a disadvantage versus GSM in local testing, and the LG enV2/Keybo's performance with Telus is no exception. Calls were understandable and loud enough, but almost invariably sounded slightly muddled versus tests on GSM and were markedly less clear than 3G calls from devices like the iPhone 3G or K850i. It may not be until the next major leap in cellular technology for these networks (most likely to 4G through the Long Term Evolution standard) that this quality issue is solved once and for all.

Still, this particular handset is at least long-running on that network. Active talk time is rated at about five hours, and in practice it gets close to this mark; that's longer than the three or four hours that many other CDMA phones manage, even if it's only just as long as most 3G-ready GSM phones can achieve. Standby time is the real jewel in the phone's crown: at over 21 days, the handset is so long-lifed in this passive mode that it's possible to leave on an average vacation and still come back to enough call time without immediately charging up again.

camera

Even simpler mid-range phones are now coming with two-megapixel cameras, and that's what's in place for the enV2/Keybo. Unfortunately, there's not much else to recommend for this (admittedly secondary) feature. Outside of minor on-phone editing functions, the camera is extremely simple and has no autofocus, flash, or portrait mirror. Shots are fairly clear but still exhibit many artifacts that are a symptom of simple phone cameras, including "purple fringing" and other chromatic effects from a small and unspectacular lens. It's useful for simple spur-of-the-moment images, either outdoors or in bright indoor light, and not much else.





wrapping up

What's most impressive about the enV2/Keybo is, as was mentioned from the outset, the sheer cleverness of its design. It's surprising that the handset is as simple to use as it is on either side, and doesn't feel like the perpetual exercise in compromise that was the m620/UpStage. LG would get more marks still if it used a proper 3.5mm jack on the device itself.

The core software and battery are similarly noteworthy, if just that they're good enough to be non-factors; they rarely get in the way of using the phone as it was intended, which in an era of overly complex devices may well be a saving grace.

Having said this, it's evident that the device still isn't the definitive non-smartphone one would hope for. The dearth of software and the strictly mediocre call quality may still push some buyers to consider an entry-level smartphone instead, and the camera is there more to tick a checkbox in the feature list than draw a crowd.

This might not matter given the phone's price. In Canada, the Keybo sells for just $50; while that's with an inordinately long three-year contract, it's inexpensive enough to be a near-impulse purchase and easily matches the feature set. The two-year pricing for both Telus ($100) and the enV2 with Verizon ($80, without a microSD card) is similarly low enough to be reasonable, although at this level is just expensive enough to possibly lure customers over to low-hanging fruit like the Samsung Instinct for Telus or even the Palm Centro smartphone for Verizon subscribers.

For either carrier, it's still true that the enV2/Keybo is focused well and represents a tangible improvement over the earlier phone; it just doesn't do everything well, and that's something to watch out for before committing the next few years to this one device.

by Jon Fingas


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