What’s Good: Attractive, highly customizable UI with home screen shortcuts; Compact design with high-res touchscreen; HTML Web browser and Email app with EV-DO Rev A support; VCAST Music and Video Support; Rhapsody streaming music support; 3.2 MP camera with flash and VGA video capture; 3.5mm headphone jack; Accelerometer and proximity sensor

What’s Not Good: “Full HTML” Web browser is mildly disappointing; Touchscreen can take a bit of getting used to; No VCAST TV support

Bottom Line: Dare is the best multimedia phone Verizon currently offers and the best cameraphone they’ve ever offered.  It may well be the best cameraphone available from any US carrier right now, as well.  Though the touchscreen is smaller than those of its competitors (iPhone, Instinct, and Vu come to mind), it’s bright, clear, and relatively responsive.  If you don’t need QWERTY or VCAST TV, Dare is the best feature phone on VZW, and arguably the best media-rich handset currently available on a US carrier.

Specs:
Make/Model: LG Dare
Network: CDMA 850 / 1900
Data: 1x EV-DO Rev. A (3G)
Carrier: Verizon Wireless
Size: 104 x 56 x 13 mm
Weight: 107 g
Form Factor: Candybar with Full Touchscreen
Display: 3.0” Color LCD, 240 x 400 resolution, 262,000 Colors
Memory:  200MB Internal Memory, microSD card slot
Notable Features: Full touchscreen; Virtual QWERTY/T9 and handwriting recognition; 3.2MP camera with flash; VGA video capture with slo-mo up to 120 fps; HTML Web browser; VCAST Video and Music Support; Rhapsody streaming music support; GPS with VZ Navigator software


Introduction

LG’s Dare is now the king of Verizon’s VCAST multimedia phones.  While the LG Voyager and Samsung Glyde offer full QWERTY keypads to supplement their touchscreens, neither offers the responsiveness, ease of use, or customization options of Dare.  Dare also boasts an impressive camera (for a phone), and music player with standard 3.5mm headphone jack that also supports Verizon’s new VCAST with Rhapsody streaming music subscription plan.

Put it all together and you get a compact but full-featured media phone that just about does it all.  Without getting into comparisons, Dare itself might not be enough to pull customers over from other networks (unless they really want a great cameraphone), but combine the phone with Verizon’s wide-ranging network coverage and EV-DO Rev. A high speed data and you’ve got a compelling package.

Dare’s got its flaws, and we’ll get to those in a moment.  But taken on the whole this is an excellent handset for the multimedia enthusiast who wants his camera, music, and Web/Email along with his phone.  I was excited for Dare before its release and certainly wasn’t disappointed when I got one to test out for myself.


Design & Features

Dare is a full touchscreen candybar phone in the vein of iPhone, Vu, and Instinct before it.  Dare’s smaller than those three, though, and feels more squared off than long and rectangular like its rivals.  Most of Dare’s front panel is taken up by a 3” touchscreen display, though there is room for three buttons (Call, Clear/Voice Command, End/Power) beneath the screen and a stainless steel border framing it all.

The back panel of Dare is finished in black soft-touch plastic that’s easy to hold on to, and the handset fit easily and securely into my hand.  Dare’s relatively small size means that its display is noticeably smaller than those of Instinct and iPhone, but it’s also very pocketable.  The phone weighs in at around three and three-quarter ounces, which makes it feel “light” and “solid” at the same time. 

Dare’s display looks good, and I found it a bit more responsive to the touch than Instinct or Vu and much easier to use than Glyde, though it’s not in iPhone’s class when it comes to flicking through menus and double-clicking Web links in the HTML browser.  There’s also a handwriting recognition mode and drawing apps that let you create pictures or draw on top of photos and then send the images off to friends in Email or via MMS.  With a 240 x 400 resolution capable of 262K colors, the LG’s widescreen rendered images, video clips, and animations richly and vividly.  When it came to texting and Emailing, I found it easier to use Dare in virtual T9 mode than full QWERTY mode - the horizontal QWERTY board is fairly well done, but the phone’s screen was small enough to make for somewhat cramped thumb typing.  A built-in accelerometer automatically switched input modes when I rotated the phone in my hand, which is a neat touch.

Verizon and LG packed Dare full of multimedia features and built a standard (3.5mm) headphone jack into the phone’s top panel so you can enjoy all of that audiovisual goodness in full stereo over your own headphones (Dare also supports A2DP for Stereo Bluetooth).  The VCAST player works well and includes a semi-lame knockoff of iPhone’s Cover Flow mode - Dare’s version lets you click between album art like iPhone, when you do the phone simply skips forward or back one track at a time.  Dare is also VZW’s first device to support the new Rhapsody option, which gives you unlimited access to some 5 million or so audio tracks on your handset and PC for $15/month.  The player also supports Verizon’s own VCAST music store ($1.99 per track downloads) and streaming audio and video clips, and Rev. A EV-DO made for speedy downloads of purchased audio tracks - just over a minute for a 1.6MB track.  Audio/video clips and images can be stored in the phone’s generous 200MB of internal memory, or on microSD memory cards, and transferred to and from a PC via Bluetooth, message, card or USB data cable.

Dare also sports the best camera currently offered by a cellular carrier in the US; Nokia’s N82 and Sony Ericsson’s K850i are better, but you can’t walk into a VZW, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile store and pick up anything better than Dare.  Dare’s 3.2MP autofocus camera with Schneider-Kreuznach lens delivered sharp images with crisp details and rich color, and a variety of options including face detection and multiple editing options add to the package.  While the LED flash only works at close range and did tend to add color noise to photos, it’s a sometimes handy addition nonetheless.  Dare also features full VGA resolution video capture at up to 30 fps, and a 120 fps capture mode that’s cool for super slow-motion effects like capturing sports footage.  One note about the camera:  The shutter button takes a bit of getting used to, as it controls auto-focus and switches between still and video modes depending on how hard you press it and how long you keep it pressed down for.


Usability & Performance

I tested Dare both in the San Francisco Bay Area and while on vacation in Montana.  Wherever there was Verizon service (there was none for some of my Montana trip), Dare generally pulled in a strong signal for both voice and EV-DO data usage.  Voice quality was good but not as good as some other VZW handsets I’ve tried recently.  I experienced an occasional clicking - or more like ticking? - sound during calls, and people I was talking to sometimes said I sounded kind of far away.  Neither of these problems were deal breakers, nor were they constant issues, but they were noticeable enough to merit mentioning.

Audio quality on headphones (not included) while playing back audio and video clips was quite good, and while I wouldn’t rely on the internal speaker for listening to music it actually got fairly loud for a phone.  Mono and Stereo Bluetooth audio also worked well, and pairing was fairly easy. 

Dare’s user interface is really pretty nice, especially for a Verizon phone.  While I still think there may be one shortcut menu too many on Dare, I really like the ability to drag and drop shortcut icons from the main menu to the home screen.  Unlike the Sprint Samsung Instinct, which has a Home screen made up of only shortcuts, Dare lets you arrange shortcuts on top of a wallpaper image or animated background.  This allows for a combination of customizability and functionality not found on many other consumer-level handsets (aside from a jailbroken iPhone, I can’t think of any, actually).

Verizon is hyping Dare’s handwriting recognition and Drawing Pad features, but I wasn’t really blown away by either of them.  Drawing Pad is kind of neat, but I can’t imagine too many people opting for handwriting instead of virtual QWERTY or T9 when composing messages on the device.  I did like the ability to add contacts to my Favorites list by dragging their photos around the screen - Dare’s full of little features like that that make using it fun. 

Dare also supports mobile Email for popular services like Yahoo and AOL, as well as Mobile IM.  VZW subscribers with the appropriate data plans can also tether their laptops to Dare and use the phone as a data modem.  An integrated GPS chip provides location based services and works with Verizon’s VZ Navigator service; while not quite as good as the nav solution on Instinct, VZ Navigator still worked quite well on Dare.

There’s also a full HTML Web browser on Dare.  On the one hand this lets you get out of the “Mobile Web” of WAP-only sites and out into the world of HTML Web sites (but not Web 2.0 or Flash-enhanced sites).  On the other hand, the browser isn’t at the level of Opera, Safari (iPhone), or Symbian S60 (Nokia N- and E-Series) browsers, so using it proved frustrating from time to time.  Zooming and panning weren’t particularly smooth, which was a problem given the realities of viewing made-for-desktop Web sites on a 3” display - reading text and clicking links was basically impossible without zooming in and panning around a page.


Conclusion

No phone is without its strong and weak points, and you can’t please all of the people all of the time.  While Dare left something to be desired in a few areas, in general I found it to be an extremely attractive device that excels at most of what it does.  Perhaps most importantly for a phone that does so many things, Dare’s easy and fun to use.  It took a little while to get used to the touchscreen’s idiosyncrasies and learn - and customize - the many shortcut menus (even the main screen has two options: Grid and Scattered), but once I got the hang of it I really liked being able to set the home screen up with a photo of my choosing and single-click links to my favorite features.

Hardcore texters may lament Dare’s lack of a physical keypad and relatively small onscreen QWERTY, while those looking for the optimal mobile Web experience could also do slightly better elsewhere.  And Dare isn’t a true smartphone, so don’t expect support for your custom POP3 Email account or robust PC syncing.  But Dare does have plenty of features to appeal to the masses, and a killer camera and great media player to boot.  And if size matters to you, you may prefer Dare’s compact body to longer, larger options like Instinct and iPhone.  I personally really love Dare’s size and shape, even if a larger screen would make Email and Web browsing a little easier.

Will Dare lure AT&T customers away from iPhone and Sprint devotees from their Instincts?  Probably not.  But it certainly should help Verizon retain customers who’ve been yearning for an all-touch, media-friendly handset of their own.  Verizon’s had a solid network for quite some time.  Now they’re starting to fill their shelves with some eye-catching new handsets to take advantage of all that EV-DO goodness.  Dare gives VZW their most direct iPhone competitor to date, and a great cameraphone to boot.  But it also gives them something else:  A handset that’s cool to look at and fun to use.  In the fickle eyes of the consumer, sometimes cool and fun are worth more than all the features in the world.


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