It takes a awful lot of ingenuity and creativity -- and maybe just a touch of dumb luck -- to come up with a unique, truly innovative phone form factor in the year 2009. Somehow, LG and Verizon have managed to hit that rare combo with the Versa
, a full touchscreen bar that can be augmented with add-on modules for those times when function takes priority over form. Right now, the only module available is a full QWERTY keyboard -- a good first choice, we'd say -- and it's included with the package. Cool concept, yeah, but is it usable? Read on.
When you take the stock Versa alone without the QWERTY module, it totally blends in -- which is by design, we think. To the casual observer, this could be a Dare
, whatever -- it's just an ordinary-looking slate without any obvious outward signs that it's capable of hardware expansion. It's small, solid, has a nice heft to it, and feels good in the hand and against the ear. One minor complaint: the side of the device are convex and the buttons rest upon the upper half of the curve, which makes the volume keys in particular a little awkward to actuate while in a call. We're sure you'd get used to it after a few days' use.
We always approach these dumbphone full touch UIs with some well-founded trepidation, but the Versa was a pleasant surprise. Everything seemed to work smoothly and quickly -- including the cute but unnecessary screen transitions -- and the screen was mostly responsive enough. On a couple occasions, we found the phone registering a drag (say, through a menu or scrolling in the browser) as a couple distinct clicks, which led to unwanted behavior; it wasn't frequent enough to warrant a major concern, though.
The browser, while still a far fetch from Android's, S60's, or the iPhone's, is surprisingly usable and full-featured for a non-smartphone device. Call us jaded, but we were downright shocked to see Engadget's full, non-mobile site load in a reasonable amount of time without any visual hiccups. Obviously, a WQVGA screen of this size is going to give you trouble viewing a full site like that for other reasons -- but hey, it's comforting to know that you can do it if you're willing to bear the punishment.
Attaching the QWERTY module is easy enough, but there's a problem: the phone doesn't just snap into position. Instead, you've got to remove the battery cover and attach the module in its place, which means you've got to either carry around the battery cover or commit to staying in QWERTY mode and leave the cover at home. Once you get past that inconvenience, though, you'll be feasting your eyes on a fat, retro mess of brown pleather that somehow... well, works. We can't put our finger on it, but for some reason, we love just how ridiculous the Versa looks nestled inside the module. If LG had taken a less in-your-face approach and made it smooth, matte black, we probably would've been offended by it -- but the fact that they've gone for broke with the heavily-grained fake hide earns our respect and admiration (your mileage will definitely vary on this one). It's so ugly, it's chic.
Open, the keyboard is surprisingly usable. Looking at the module's cover, you might think that it's floppy and impossible to use while standing and supported with a single hand, but it's totally doable -- the keyboard and hinge will happily support the weight of the whole package, which is key to making this concept work. The keys themselves are a little too "clicky" -- they require just a tiny bit too much pressure to actuate and make too much noise -- but the layout works well and we found ourselves busting out text messages with aplomb in no time.
Closed, the QWERTY module makes the Versa the awkward phone we all knew it could be. You don't have a numeric keypad, though LG has seen fit to attach dedicated Send and End buttons to the front of the cover along with a tiny OLED that's just big enough to give you battery and signal strength, time, and caller ID. A hole in the cover lets the Versa's earpiece pass through so you can still hear calls (in other words, you can still hold the phone normally during a call in this mode), but realistically, you'll want to restrict yourself to receiving calls or using voice recognition with the cover attached.
Overall, we came away from the Versa impressed -- moreso than we thought we would be -- largely on the strength of the phone itself and the uniqueness and usability of the QWERTY module. Thing is, it's expensive, lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack, and doesn't really do anything your average mid- to high-end featurephone on Verizon can't -- and ultimately, the success of the device might depend on LG's ability to produce and market a few extra modules (we've heard rumors of a dedicated game pad and a stereo loudspeaker, for example) that'll set it apart from the Dares, the Kraves, and the Glydes of the world. Gimmicks aren't always a bad thing, right?
*Verizon has acquired AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.