LG Optimus Black: Impressive though modest Android phone
The LG Optimus Black is a smartly designed Android phone that features a nice-looking display, a simple and clean user interface, and battery life that would make some far-more-expensive smartphones envious.
I spent a day using the phone and found it to be dependable and easy to use, despite that fact that its hardware and features are far from top-of-the-line among Android phones.
The phone’s single-core processor was sufficient for the modest tasks I tried to perform using the phone’s Android 2.2 (Froyo) OS. LG says that the Optimus is easy to upgrade to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread).
The 3G phone uses GSM/UMTS cellular technology, so it will work with an inserted SIM card from AT&T or T-Mobile.
Optimus Black is smooth and all-black, with rounded corners and no hard lines or protruding buttons. It’s 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide. It’s 0.36-inch thickness slims down to 0.23 inch at the sides on its bottom, creating an illusion of even smaller size.
The Optimus Black weighs just 3.84 ounces. That may be impressive from a design perspective, but the phone felt a bit too light to me—a little too insubstantial (and droppable) in my hand. By comparison, the iPhone 4 takes up less space on the desk yet weighs almost an ounce more (4.83 ounces).
The front of the Optimus Black is completely smooth, with a 2-megapixel front-facing camera at the top. At the bottom, just below the display window, are the menu, home, back, and search buttons, which are touch-based and built into the body of the phone.
The top of the phone hosts the headphone jack, the micro-USB port, and the power button. On the upper back are the 5-megapixel camera and the flash. The right spine is smooth and devoid of buttons or ports.
Consistent with the midlevel components in the rest of the phone, the Optimus Black uses a single-core 1GHz OMAP 3630 processor from Texas Instruments. The chip is no dual-core powerhouse, but it seems well suited to a moderately priced 3G phone.
When launching apps, browsing the Web, and opening video content, I wasn’t blown away by lightning-fast responsiveness, but I didn’t notice any serious lag time between the touch or gesture of my finger and the device’s execution of the task.
The phone’s 4-inch WVGA display (480 by 800 pixels) uses NOVA technology, which LG says requires far less power (during indoor use) than the LCD and AMOLED displays that other smartphones use; during outdoor use, though, it produces a much brighter and more visible screen. I found that the display rendered HD video content reasonably well: Images seemed sharp and had accurate colors. But the blacks weren’t deeper and the whites weren’t brighter than those I’ve seen in smartphone displays using Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology, for example. And when I held the Optimus under direct sunlight next to an iPhone 4 and an 18-month-old HTC EVO 4G, the Optimus’s display did not appear to be significantly more visible.
I liked the simple look and feel of the user interface. Unlike more-expensive smartphones that I’ve seen recently, the Optimus Black wasn’t overloaded with every imaginable branded widget and app. Because the phone isn’t linked to a specific carrier, LG managed to keep these elements to a reasonable number, which should make it easier to find the stuff you use on a regular basis.
The Optimus Black uses a modest LG-designed software overlay called UI 2.0, which lets the user access certain content without having to unlock the phone. For instance, you can see and access phone messages and e-mail directly from the locked home screen. You can also move two fingers outward on the screen to see all seven of your home screens (LG apparently borrowed this trick from HTC’s Sense UI overlay).
“Shake” and “Tap” controls
The Optimus Black has one navigation trick up its sleeve that I haven’t seen elsewhere. On the left side is the volume rocker and just below that is a button that LG calls the ‘3D Motion Gesture Key’ or G-Key. The G-Key works alone or in combination with motions to activate various functions. Hold it down and the phone goes into camera mode. Hold it down again while in camera mode, and shake the phone from side to side a couple of times, and the phone will display the photos you’ve just shot. You can tilt the phone this way or that while holding down the G-Key to move among the seven different home screens provided by Android.
You can also tap the sides of the phone to do things such as skipping forward or backward during a song while you’re in the music player.
The Optimus Black’s 5-megapixel camera is about what I expected: not the highest-quality smartphone camera out there, but not a disappointment either. The feature setup resembles that of many other Android phone cameras I’ve seen. On the left side of the interface are the zoom, light balance, and flash controls, along with a toggle between the rear-facing and front-facing cameras. On the other side of the screen are the shutter button and the toggle between still camera and video camera.
The still pictures that I shot with the camera looked reasonably clear on the phone, and they looked even better when viewed at full size on my computer screen—not perfect, mind you, but not bad for a smartphone camera. I also found the light balance of the photos to be fairly accurate with no adjustment. When I shot a person standing in front of a bright light source, the person’s image darkened somewhat but didn’t lose all detail, as happens with many low-quality cameras. The camera did, however, have trouble auto-focusing quickly on fast-moving objects in the frame—in this case, oncoming traffic.
I got roughly similar results when shooting video on the Optimus Black. The results looked adequately detailed and color-accurate when I watched the footage on the phone, and again on the PC. But I didn’t like not being able to use the volume rocker for zooms while shooting video, given that I could use it for zooms in still-camera mode. Odd. The G-Key could have been put to good use in still image and video mode, too, but no dice.
The Optimus Black isn’t the speediest phone in the world. The radio chipset inside uses HSDPA 7.2 technology for downloads and HSUPA 5.76 technology for uploads, meaning that the highest (theoretical) download and upload speeds that the phone can achieve are 7.2 mbps and 5.76 mbps, respectively. Both the T-Mobile and the AT&T networks (the networks that the GSM Optimus Black can run on in the United States) are capable of much higher speeds than the highest that the Optimus’s radio can support. Unfortunately, our test device came without a SIM card, so we couldn’t test the radio.
LG says that the NOVA screen on the Optimus Black “reduces power consumption by 50 percent during general indoor use compared to a conventional LCD [display].” Though we could not perform formal tests on the Optimus’s 1500mAh battery, its battery burn rate during my testing looked promising. I charged the battery completely, and then commenced testing—which involved using various aspects of the phone, including battery-intensive tasks like HD video viewing and shooting video. The testing regimen included an overnight of pure standby time as well. But 24 hours later, I still had 63 percent of the battery left. Relative to many other smartphones I’ve tested, that’s very good.
To test the phone’s voice-calling chops, I placed several calls to land lines from a busy street. The people I called said that my voice was loud enough, but sounded a little bit remote and hollow. The voice I heard coming from the ear speaker on the Optimus wasn’t quite loud enough even with the volume cranked up. The phone’s noise cancellation seemed to work well, however; the people I called said that they could hear the traffic noise (which was moderately loud to me) only slightly and that the phone seemed to be separating that noise from the sound of my voice and suppressing it.
The Optimus Black is a compact, nicely designed, no-nonsense Android phone that might work well for users who don’t need a top-of-the-line model or who would rather not buy their phone from a wireless carrier.
LG announced the Optimus Black at the CES show in Las Vegas last January, saying that the phone would be coming in the first half of 2011. That means it will be showing up online and possibly at a few big box tech retailers very soon. As of now, we know no pricing details beyond the fact that the phone won’t be sold (subsidized) through a carrier.
[Mark Sullivan is a senior associate editor at PCWorld.]