Apple's iPhone generated the biggest buzz in the mobile market last year, but that doesn't mean other phone makers and wireless carriers have been standing still.
Consider Verizon's LG Voyager. True, Verizon doesn't position Voyager as a direct iPhone challenger - even though it bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's slickest gadget.
Voyager does offer more bells and whistles than any other phone I've seen - including a full-scale Web browser. The problem is that Voyager may be judged more by what it doesn't do, than by what it does. That's a shame, because it does a lot - especially if you want cheap, nationwide broadband Internet access.
Like Apple's offering, the Voyager isn't for people who think small. At 4.6 inches long, a shade over 2 inches wide and almost 3/4 of an inch thick, the Voyager weighs more than 4 1/2 ounces. That's roughly the same length and weight as the iPhone, but a little narrower and not as deep.
There's a good reason for Voyager's front-to-back bulk. It has two color screens instead of one.
The outside of the case sports a 2.8-inch LCD that's touch-sensitive, like the iPhone's, but slightly smaller. It provides a similar menu of icons for telephone, messaging, Web browsing, TV and other functions.
One nice Voyager feature that the iPhone lacks is force-feedback: when you tap the screen, you feel a vibration to acknowledge your request.
Now the cool part. The Voyager flips open to reveal another color screen inside, sitting above a QWERTY keypad that makes messaging, e-mail, instant messaging and entering Web addresses a snap. The feedback of real keys makes it easier to use than the iPhone's on-screen keyboard.
The device is Bluetooth-enabled - so you can use a wireless headset to make and receive calls and listen to music. A 2-megapixel camera takes acceptable photos and makes it easy to send them to other cell phones.
A pull-out antenna turns the Voyager into a real-time TV set that receives eight channels of network and sports programming over Verizon's Vcast mobile television network (add $13 to $15 a month). A few more clicks and the Voyager tunes into Verizon's VZ Navigator GPS mapping and direction service ($13 a month or $3 a day a la carte).
Likewise, Verizon's mobile e-mail client makes it easy to send and receive mail from Web-based services such as Yahoo or from individual POP3 accounts with other providers. If you're an obsessive-compulsive, you can even have e-mail "pushed" to the phone on a regular basis, like a Blackberry PDA.
That's the good news.
For Verizon customers who enjoy their network's speed and reliability but suffer from iPod envy, the Voyager isn't necessarily the answer.
First, it lacks one important feature common to true multipurpose devices - it won't synchronize its calendar or contact list with a PC. So if that's a deal-breaker for you, look elsewhere.
Voyager's Web browser also seems to squander the speed advantage of Verizon's third-generation data network, which normally operates in the 300 megabit-per- second range - about four times as fast as the older AT&T; network that the iPhone is stuck with.
In practice, Voyager's browser was no faster than Apple's was on the slower AT&T; network - although Verizon says a recently released firmware patch should speed things up.
Unlike the iPhone, Voyager can't compensate for a slow cellular performance by hopping onto fast, local wireless connections. That's a saving grace for the iPhone in venues where Wi-Fi access is available - and a major omission on Verizon's part.
Although it displayed pages crisply and accurately, the Voyager Web browser was much less responsive to the touch than Apple's - it generally lagged several seconds behind finger movements. In fact, it was too clunky for serious Web browsing.
Users will probably revert to Verizon's alternative - an abbreviated Web browser that delivers pages with less verisimilitude but greater speed.
Although Verizon makes it easy to buy music online for $1.99 a tune, Voyager's built-in digital music player was a disappointment. First, Verizon's CD-based driver and utility software bombed during installation on three computers, so I downloaded it from the company's Web site.
Then Voyager's PC-based music manager wound up dumping my tunes willy-nilly onto the phone, ignoring my play-list designations - a known failing, even though the Voyager supports play-lists internally. And, with less than a gigabyte of memory available for music, you'll also need to add a micro-SD memory card to make it usable as a digital music player.
The Voyager is $299 with a two-year contract - not bad for a phone with this many features. Just remember that the Web-based goodies will cost extra.
Avoid the temptation to buy Verizon's data services by the megabyte, especially if you have kids - you'll go broke quickly. The premium package, with unlimited data, text messaging, e-mail, Navigator GPS service and Web browsing, is the best deal, but it starts at $79.95 a month with 450 minutes of talk time.
That's $20 a month more than the basic iPhone package from AT&T.; But it's a great deal if you travel with a laptop, because the Voyager doubles as a modem that links your PC with Verizon's excellent broadband wireless data network. Until now, this required a separate wireless card for your computer and a separate, $60-a- month data contract.
Bottom line: The Voyager isn't an iPhone, but Verizon still has the most reliable network, and the Voyager's keyboard, e-mail capability and access to other Internet bells and whistle makes it a good buy. For laptop users who spend a lot of time on the road, it's a steal.