The LG Ally, at first glance, doesn’t look like a stand-out device. In fact, it looks like a lot of other handsets out there: a touchscreen taking up the majority of space, with a few buttons at the bottom for good measure. Pretty standard stuff. Sure, there’s a landscape, physical slide-out keyboard underneath, and that does add a bit of differentiation to the mix (especially with this increase in touch-based only Android handsets), but is it enough to make the LG Ally stand-out amongst the increasing crowd? Or does the LG Ally fall flat in its hopes to shine?

The Body

Obviously, one of the first things you consider when getting a new phone, is how it looks. You don’t necessarily want a beast of a phone to show off to your friends (unless you’re into that kind of thing, of course), and we can safely say that the LG Ally, while hefty in its own right, isn’t all that unattractive. Looking at it head-on, the only thing that might detract from its aesthetic appeal, is the obvious difference between the physical buttons, and the touch-sensitive versions right above them. If you’re accustomed to Android, then the button layout itself will seem a bit unorthodox; but after you get used to it, the layout isn’t all that bad. From right to left, you have the End Call button, the Menu button, the Home key, and finally the Call/Answer button. Above these, you have the touch-sensitive activators, which are Search and Back. Not that different, but just different enough to throw a wrench in any user already familiar with Android handsets.

The 3.2-inch touchscreen itself feels like a large slab of plastic, more so than its Android competitors, but we didn’t find that it missed any touch inputs, and it was as responsive as we would have liked. However, with LG’s decision to go with WVGA resolution on a 3.2-inch screen, we can’t jump on board. We never thought we’d say that there’s too many pixels on our phone’s display, but LG have definitely made the argument possible. Truth be told, on a screen anywhere less than 3.5-inches, HVGA would have been a perfect fit.

Along the sides, you’ve got the standard features. On the left side, you have the micro-USB charger, and the volume rocker. Along the top there’s just the 3.5mm audio jack. On the right side, there’s the MicroSD card slot, and the physical camera button, which is a sight for sore eyes. And finally, there’s nothing on the bottom. The handset itself is simple, black, and gets right to the point. It’s very reminiscent of other “heavy duty” LG handsets out there, and every time we held it in our hands, we knew that this handset could definitely survive the day-to-day rigors of life.

On the back of the Ally, you’ll find a 3.2MP camera with a flash. It has the ability to auto-focus, and you can also capture video with it. Our test runs with the camera were pretty positive, but we’ll cover that here in a little while. There’s nothing else on the back, with the exception of the standard branding from Verizon, LG, and Google. All in all, LG makes their point with the LG Ally very clear: here’s a phone that may not win the next award for good looks, but it’s constructed well and feels solid in the hands.

Also on the back, near the bottom, you’ll find the loudspeaker. And, when we say that this thing is loud, we mean that it’s loud. We actually had to refrain from putting the volume level all the way up, for fear that we’d blow the embedded speaker. This is one of the first times, in all honesty, that we were wholeheartedly pleased with a loudspeaker in a handset. It just works, and it does it very well.

As for the earpiece, it does an admirable job in of itself. However, through our varied test calls, people on the other end did sound a bit muddied. However, due to our location, that could have been anything: network connection, the other caller, or our phone. We tried a few calls from Google Voice as well, but the situation didn’t change. Though, if you’re a frequent caller on your phone, we wouldn’t say that this should keep you from getting the phone, as it was never all that bad.

The slider feels remarkably good. We were surprised at how many times we could slide it open and closed, and still feel like, over the course of two years, it wouldn’t lose any of its effectiveness. As for the keyboard underneath, this is yet again another department that LG surprised us. In a good way. It’s a huge, responsive, and comfortable keyboard. It has an expansive four-rows, meaning your number keys are dedicated and don’t need any kind of secondary feature, and each key is separate from one another. There’s a four-way D-pad, with the OK button placed in the center of it. And right above that there’s dedicated buttons for Home and Menu. Typing on the keyboard went rather well, but it still could have been a bit better over a long period of time. It has nice travel and response time with the letter input on the screen. Hands down, the keyboard is definitely one of the defining features of the Ally, and if you are a fan of physical keyboards, this one puts the Motorola Droid to shame.

The physical parts of the LG Ally are either going to attract new customers, or push them away. It’s heavy in the hand, and has an industrial look and feel to it that, when compared to devices like the HTC Incredible or Droid Eris (both of which are available for Verizon Wireless, hence the comparison) makes its lack of “sex appeal” something that customers will think about. In our case, we’re fans of the way LG put the Ally together, and believe that the extra weight in our hands goes a long way to show that the phone is well made, even if it’s just a psychological thing. Plus, the keyboard is too good to pass up, frankly.

The Software

LG, thankfully, managed to stick Android 2.1 on the Ally. That should be enough to sell the device to anyone at this point, but we understand that you probably want us to dig a little deeper. There’s not much to go on here when it comes to the bare bones software of Android 2.1. At least, not that we haven’t covered before. You get all the features of the updated mobile Operating System (OS), and right off the bat it doesn’t look like there’s any skinning going on, either. So, hopefully, that means that when updates do arrive for the Android platform, the LG Ally will be one of the first for Verizon Wireless to get them.

But! If you do like themes, or skins (like HTC’s Sense UI), then LG’s got you covered. They’ve put the Android 2.1 main software to the fore-front of the device, but they’ve also included their proprietary software on board as well. It’s right in the 3D launcher, and you’ll see it called ‘Themes.’ It puts the software overlay atop Android 2.1, and it does a pretty good job of changing some things up enough to make it pretty interesting. However, it should be noted that this is no way, shape or form, as in-depth as HTC’s Sense User Interface (UI). Basically, the LG Home theme changes up the launcher, and that’s about it.

The launcher itself, while completely hidden in other Android versions and proprietary skins, isn’t with the LG Home theme. It keeps, what you can picture in your mind, is the first row of the launcher positioned on the screen at all times. You can’t switch around the icons that are there, either. (It took us several tries, but we finally figured out how to change the icons in the home row: you simply hold an application’s icon in the launcher, and when it drops down to put that icon on the homescreen, you can put it in the launcher’s home row. It’s very strange, and not intuitive at all.) So, you’ll find the phone, contacts, messaging, and browser icons always present. We thought it was a good idea at first, and we actually used this theme more than the standard Android one for a few days, but then we wanted the 3D launcher back, along with the ability to save some extra screen real estate with the launcher completely removed from our home screens. Although, it should be added that LG does do a good job of separating pre-installed applications, and ones that you’ve downloaded in the Marketplace, by literally separating them from one another in the launcher. Very odd, especially considering it breaks the collected feel of the launcher, but we imagine that it’s a good way to show which apps you’ve downloaded and which ones were there already, making sure some people don’t delete necessary applications by accident.

We probably would have found ourselves using the LG Home theme a lot more had there been some more customization and skinning involved. Even some additional widgets would have been nice. Instead, the widgets are interchangeable to each theme, and even the LG version of the Messaging, Weather, and Socialite widgets can be used in the main Android standard theme. So, unfortunately, we just didn’t find a reason to use the LG Home theme.

Now, the widgets. Considering it’s an Android-based device, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the widgets that LG has added. As we just mentioned, they’ve got a Weather widget, the Socialite widget, and a widget for the Messages application. All of which work well for what they’re supposed to do, but, we’ll be honest, they don’t compare to the widgets that HTC developed for Sense.

The Weather widget is a simple blue bar that sits on one of your home screens. It displays the time for you, and then the temperature and current city you’re in. The date’s included, too. There’s no animation of the weather (we know that that’s not necessarily something people look for, but we have to point it out), and even opening up the application doesn’t do much to provide anything else but the weather. It brings up the six day forecast, all brought to you by the AccuWeather website. No, the widget itself, nor the application underneath, isn’t attractive, but it does do what it’s supposed to do: show you the weather. So, we can’t really say it’s a bad app, or widget.

The Socialite application is meant to bring your Facebook and Twitter streams to the front and center. And, much like the Weather widget, we have to say that LG definitely didn’t want to bring any unnecessary flair to their applications. It’s almost totalitarian in its presentation, designed to not necessarily attract your eye, but just deliver the information you want. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems we had with the widget itself, is the fact that it’s not all that dynamic. Instead of being able to scroll up and down in the widget, you have to use arrows positioned at the bottom, which will scroll up and down for you. LG also included their own Twitter client, but you can only access it through the Socialite application.

And finally, the Messaging widget. Again, simple, and not dynamic in the slightest. It does well to show the message and picture of the contact sending it, but other than that, it’s just right to the point. You can hit options to write a new message without having to go into the Messaging application, along with delete a message. You can also get into the Messaging application simply by hitting the Menu option on the widget as well. Just like the Socialite widget, arrows will take you from one contact’s message to another, but you can’t navigate in any other fashion.

You can find plenty of other applications and their widgets in the connected Android Marketplace, of course, but as of right now, unless you don’t mind the simplest of design features, the LG versions aren’t going to win anyone over, we don’t think. But, in the end, they do exactly what they’re designed to do, so again, we can’t necessarily say that these are bad widgets in the slightest. We just want a bit of aesthetic appeal to our shiny new toys, and we don’t think that’s too much to ask.

One last application that we wanted to bring to your attention is the ThinkFree Office application. When we first took a shot at it, we thought it was probably the most brilliant idea we had ever seen. You have to register your device with the software, or you can skip the step and just dig into the features. We skipped the step, and just wrestled around with what the application had to offer. Now, if you’re not familiar with ThinkFree Office, it’s basically an online word document, spreadsheet, and other document creation website, that offers up to 1GB of free storage for you to access what you need on the go. However, the application on the LG Ally not only allows you to access this service, but it also links to your Google Docs, as well as any documents you may have on your SD card. Unfortunately, we felt pretty dismayed when we signed into our Google Docs account, and it then took us to the website, where we had to subsequently sign in again. Basically, it’s just a portal to the Google Docs site, and therefore just one more step and one that we immediately stopped using. However, for viewing documents with ThinkFree Office and on your SD card, it works well.

Under the Hood

The LG Ally is powered by a 600MHz processor, and it features the standard Android fanfare: WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. As we mentioned above, it does support MicroSD cards, so that you’ll have plenty of space for all your media consumption. It does have all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect from an Android handset, so LG definitely hit the mark on this one.

However, we were unexpectedly unimpressed with the processor, especially considering the graphics acceleration it comes with. As we said above, the Ally features a 600MHz MSM7627 processor, so we were thinking that the experience with the Ally would be quick, clean, and crisp. And sometimes it was. So good, in fact, that we loved just moving from one homescreen to the other, launching the 3D launcher, and activating applications. But then, randomly throughout the day, for inexplicable reasons, the whole system would slow down. The 3D launcher would pause, jerk up, and then jerk back down. Transitioning from one homescreen to the other was painful to watch, especially when we had Live Wallpapers activated (and it still happened with just a regular picture activated, too). Even after restarting the phone, the jerkiness would still happen from time to time. It just boiled down to us waiting, as if to give the phone a break, before the processor would start powering the phone like we wanted. But, despite the lag from time to time, the phone is definitely usable. You’ll just have to grit your teeth through the random (and we mean random) slow downs.

The Camera

We’ll just come right out and say it: this won’t replace your current digital camera, and if you’re looking for a method to combine your phone and camera, the LG Ally is not going to be your gadget of choice. Yes, we know there’s only a 3.2MP camera on the back, but we’ve taken better pictures with other 3MP camera-phones. And, honestly, it doesn’t get any simpler than that. It does feature auto-focus, video capture, and it has an LED flash, so that may be good enough for some people. And, in fact, the LED flash did well as an actual flash, and in the autofocus assistance department. But, images came out without definition, and more often than not, splotchy and blurry. Shutter speed, when worked in conjunction with the two-stage hardware camera button, is not too bad, but you should wait for the autofocus to kick in, if you want any kind of semblance of a decent picture. There are 8 effects to choose from, a dedicated macro mode, white balance which can be configured, and ISO. But, none of those mattered after awhile, as we just didn’t want to take anymore photos with it.

The Battery

Truth be told, we were completely blown away by the battery on our first day with the LG Ally. But, unfortunately, not in a good way. We charged it up completely, and then left it alone for an entire day. We had the standard things running in the background: email, Twitter, and Gmail. When we checked it again, about eight hours later, the battery was completely dead. Now, while that may sound great for anyone looking at it from the hours perspective, we ask you to keep in mind that we weren’t using the phone. That means no voice calls, no texts, and not actually responding or checking those emails. The phone was simply pulling info. Not good at all.

And yet, it seemed to fix itself over the following days. We were using the phone easily enough throughout the day, with several texts, Google Talk messages, and other Instant Messaging client messages sent, with plenty of emails, Gmail messages, and Twitter messages sent out. With all of that going, we clocked the battery at anywhere between 5 to 8 hours, which should mean that the average user should be able to squeak out a little bit longer than that. Of course, with Android 2.1, you’re able to see what exactly is pulling the power from your battery, and adjust your settings accordingly, which, honestly, we recommend.

Also worth mentioning, is how long it takes to charge the battery. If you’re like us, then you’ve got your phone plugged into the USB port on your computer more often than not. We do not recommend you charge your phone like this. Especially not the LG Ally. It takes forever. Now, charging it from the standard AC outlet takes a bit of time, too, but it’s nowhere near the length it does from the USB port. And yes, that’s from a USB 2.0 port, as well as a non-USB 2.0 port.

In the End

The LG Ally is a phone that, when held in the hand, feels more like a piece of industrial equipment. It’s heavy, it’s not all that attractive to look at, and the buttons on the front are completely mind boggling. However, it does have a relatively roomy touchscreen, and even if the WVGA screen is a bit too much, it does do a great job of showing off all those colors well. The sliding function is great, and while the keyboard may not make everyone happy, we were far more pleased with it than let down. And, while we love Android 2.1, we would say that LG should shy away from the themes from now on, and just let the stock ‘droid take over.

This may not be at the top of the list for Android handsets out there (it’s certainly not on ours), but for what it’s worth, it does a good job of showing that LG takes the Android handset seriously, and we imagine that the handsets coming down the pipe from the company will be better. However, if you had to ask us right here, right now, if we would recommend the $99 LG Ally to any upcoming Verizon Wireless customers, we simply couldn’t do it. Yes, it’s a better deal than the Motorola Devour, which is still positioned at $150, but that doesn’t mean you should get it just because it’s cheaper. There’s other options to look at, and we strongly suggest you look.