We're not sure we'd be able to find a piece of hardware that made us adore Windows Mobile 6.5 the same way we adore puppies or a hot cup of cocoa, but that doesn't mean that the usual suspects -- HTC, Samsung, LG, and the like -- aren't producing some magnificent hardware on which to run it. Today we've had a chance to give LG's new eXpo for AT&T a quick once-over, and on paper, this is a hell of a handset: 5 megapixel autofocus cam, a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a d-pad, Snapdragon power, a WVGA display, full QWERTY, and most notably, support for an optional microprojector add-on. Sadly, a ship date hasn't yet been assigned to the PJ, but does the basic package hold its own against the similarly-spec'd Tilt2? Let's check it out.
Physically, we're going to go out and a limb and say that this is as good-looking of a phone -- or darn near it, anyway -- as the Tilt2 and Touch Pro2, phones that we think set a benchmark for the way a modern landscape QWERTY WinMo slider should look and feel. We didn't have one of HTC's units handy for comparison, but the eXpo definitely feels like it's up to the task with solid construction, a thick-but-not-too-thick shell, and a metal battery cover; needless to say, it's a huge step up from the cheap, plastic-heavy Incite of old and its giant, mirrored bezel. One look tells you this phone means business -- it's understated while subtly giving off "hey, I'm a pricey smartphone" vibes. That's generally the sweet spot, we think.
Turning our attention to ports and controls, let's start with arguably the most important: the keyboard. The eXpo's is quite good, but it's not the best we've used -- and on a device like this, we can understand how a typing experience that rates even a solid 8 or 8.5 on a 10 scale could still be a deal-breaker for some. The keys are wide and clicky, the spacebar is perfectly placed, and the numeric keypad is in a normal perfectly-squared pattern (unlike the Tilt2, where it annoyingly shifts back and forth from row to row), but it's totally flat and makes a strange, disconcerting "crushing plastic" sound when certain keys are pressed. We're tentatively going to chalk that up to a problem with our review unit, but it gives us some pause about the build quality of the keys specifically. Depending on the device you're coming from, you might also be thrown off by the lack of a second Shift key (we weren't personally).
The fingerprint scanner doubles as an optical trackpad, but it's not a very good one. Fortunately, 6.5 Professional doesn't really require any directional input (the Touch Pro2 doesn't have any d-pad whatsoever), but if you were hoping that this would be as good as the trackball or trackpad you used on your last BlackBerry, you're in for a disappointment. For a trackpad to be comfortable and effective, it's got to be smooth, fall on the large side, and have just a little doming to it -- and the eXpo's falls flat in every category. It's actually a bit concave -- that's bad -- and the chrome ring surrounding it acts as a ridge that gets in your way; not only does it not feel great to run your thumb over, but it has a tendency to interrupt your motion, too. Again, though, it's really not a big deal for usability -- LG obviously through this functionality in here as a bonus since it figured it'd have the fingerprint sensor on there anyway.
Up top, the eXpo features a power / lock button alongside a micro-USB slot covered by a plastic flap. We're not huge fans of these covered flaps -- they're finicky, particularly if you're lacking fingernails -- and they have a tendency to get screwed up or broken over time, especially when you've got to uncover it daily to recharge like you do here. Plenty of devices in the market have proven that micro-USB is a robust enough connector type to withstand everyday abuse, and there's no reason LG couldn't have left it uncovered here; we're guessing they just wanted a "clean" look. The real kicker, though, is that the port doubles as the eXpo's headphone jack -- yes, that's right, it lacks the all-important 3.5mm standard connector. We'd started to genuinely believe that manufacturers had learned their lesson here, and this would've been a great opportunity for LG to differentiate considering that the Tilt2 also lacks the jack. At any rate, it's strong evidence that neither LG nor AT&T consider this a very consumer-friendly, media-heavy device, and neither should you.
The screen looks great -- as most WVGA mobile displays tend to these days -- but at 3.2 inches, a stylus or well-placed fingernail is definitely required to get some things done, mainly because 6.5 just isn't as finger-friendly as it could be (a well-worn complaint, we know). Alas, for some reason, LG elected not to put a stylus in the phone's body, which means you've got to tie up the external stylus to an anchor point in the upper left corner of the phone. True, Nokia does this from time to time, but we'd argue 6.5 is less finger-friendly than S60 5th Edition; on an N97, for example, you can easily go without the stylus, but we found ourselves constantly working our stubby fingernails on the eXpo. That said, the on-screen keyboard was up to the task using thumbs alone -- it's easily as pretty as HTC's, has XT9 integrated, and gets the job done when you're not feeling like sliding open the physical board.
You might think that slipping a mighty 1GHz Snapdragon processor this package works wonders, but after using the eXpo for a while, we're not so sure. It's not that the Snapdragon isn't a brilliantly capable core, it's that it's simply not playing in the same league as a bone-stock WinMo 6.5 build like the eXpo uses -- it's like trying to race a Ferrari in a parking garage (don't anyone dare make a The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift reference here). In terms of everyday usability, we'd venture that an old-school 528MHz MSM7201A (like that found in the Tilt2) would work just as well -- and you'd get more battery life out of it to boot. Cores like OMAP3 and Snapdragon excel at powering flashy, modern, animation-intensive user interfaces, and considering that 6.5 is basically a tweaked version of a UI we saw early this decade, it doesn't need (nor can it really take advantage of) this kind of processing power effectively. Gaming capability alone might justify it, but goodness knows WinMo isn't anyone's mobile gaming platform of choice these days. Perhaps the one place where you'd think the Snapdragon would pay dividends -- browsing -- didn't seem to have much of an effect; we didn't have an MSM7200-based phone side by side to benchmark it, but the eXpo doesn't scroll or zoom in IE Mobile with the creamy smoothness you might expect (it's not bad, it's just not anything special). We can't believe we're saying it, but yeah: this might be the first, last, and only time we wish a Snapdragon phone had an MSM7200 series chipset instead. Revel in it, because you won't see us making that statement very often.
Who is the eXpo for? Simple: if the Touch Pro2 / Tilt2 make you salivate and you're on AT&T, the eXpo definitely deserves your attention before you make a purchase decision. The forgettable Incite had left a bad taste, but LG's latest entry for AT&T totally changes course -- it's not just a far better device, it's a serious competitor in the business power-user market segment with quality construction, good looks, and virtually every feature (and then some) that a 2009-spec phone playing this field should have. If you spend 8 hours a day wearing headphones or you can't go more than a few minutes without Super Monkey Ball, look elsewhere -- but if you live your life one PowerPoint presentation at a time, give it a serious look. And just remember -- when that microprojector accessory finally hits retail, we'll all be insanely jealous of you anyway.