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Not All iPhone Rivals Are Created Equal

July 30, 2008

Apple has set the bar high for mobile phones _ finding a product as fun and versatile as its iPhone is difficult. But because some people may not want to use AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive U.S. carrier, I’ve been testing two new touch-screen competitors.

Neither Sprint’s Samsung Instinct nor Verizon’s LG Dare has touch controls as intuitive as the iPhone’s, but both have desirable features lacking in Apple’s product.

SAMSUNG INSTINCT

The Instinct can shoot videos; the iPhone cannot. And through Sprint, you can watch live TV, send picture messages and access a GPS feature that makes the iPhone’s revised Maps application feel dated. You even can e-mail a photo and attach a voice comment. Pretty cool stuff, and all worked well in my tests.

The GPS-based navigation is provided by TeleNav and, like dashboard-mounted units, offers voice-based turn-by-turn driving directions. Sprint also offers this on other phones.

Hence, one of the Instinct’s advantages is that it includes a few of Sprint’s better products. Another is the Sprint TV service, which remains the best among carriers.

Navigating the Instinct is simple. There’s an icon of a house at the bottom that indicates the home screen. Then there are touch tabs to help you navigate the phone. There’s a tab for “main,” which holds e-mail, voicemail and the navigation program; a tab for “fun,” where you can access TV, radio, the disappointing 2-megapixel camera and games; and a tab for “Web,” which has links for sports, weather, news and a useful live-search button.

With search, you can speak into the phone, say “sushi,” and a list of nearby Japanese restaurants pop up. Click on one you like, and a phone number and directions are offered. You also can e-mail or text-message that information to a friend. (There are applications for the iPhone that offer a similar function.)

Adding my Gmail account was nearly as quick and simple as on the iPhone. Plus, the e-mail integration for sending restaurant details or pictures worked well.

The Web browser, on the other hand, is clumsy. Navigation is not as intuitive as the iPhone’s.

The Instinct is attractive and priced competitively at $129. Despite the Web-surfing issues, you’ll want to get a data plan with this phone because, like the iPhone, there’s no reason to own it if you want to only make calls.

LG DARE

With the LG Dare, you get the feeling that Verizon called all the shots, and LG simply provided the hardware. Where the Instinct uses some Sprint features, the Dare is all Verizon. If you like Verizon’s services, you probably will like this phone.

But Verizon’s approach, I fear, does not allow an otherwise interesting phone the space it needs to breathe. There are pluses with the Dare, notably the 3.2-megapixel camera and the ability to create video, but any innovation that may have been present has been overwhelmed by Verizon.

One example: Setting up my Gmail account was easy, but the phone doesn’t tell me when I have new e-mail messages. Rather, I have to tap through a few menu screens to find the mobile-mail key, and tap on that again to open the account.

With the Instinct and iPhone, I hit the e-mail key and my account opens. Worse with the Dare, there is no integration with my mobile e-mail and other features, such as sending a photo.

Navigating the phone is simple, and it offers Verizon’s VZ Navigator service.

But there is no improvement with the touch controls. I made many errors, as I had to press firmly _ the virtual keys are not as spongy as on the Instinct _ when typing out a message.

As for Web surfing, the touch controls slow down browsing. You can use your finger to scroll up or down or side to side, but it’s not nearly as responsive as on the iPhone.

Priced at $199, the Dare does not provide a compelling reason to leave one carrier to join Verizon.

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(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderoff@tribune.com or at the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60611.)

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