LG has never been a company particularly well-known for its smartphones. And the occasional notoriety the company has received for its Android-powered hardware has rarely been positive. The original Ally, for example, despite its Iron Man-marketing and substantial launch hype, turned out to be an unremarkable, painfully slow phone. The next handset from LG to attract much attention (in the US, at least) was the G2X (or Optimus 2X, internationally). It too failed to gain much in the way of critical acclaim, and customers found the phone laden with major usability bugs. Then came the Revolution, a device that, as it turns out, did not have a very fitting name at all.
There were other releases along the way, but the point is this: LG has consistently failed to make a name for itself in high-end smartphones, and thus been unable to capture any substantial piece of the lucrative US market. The phone we're looking at today may change that - even if it doesn't end up on American shores.
The Optimus 4X HD is LG's answer to the likes of the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III - a modern superphone. Your first question is, undoubtedly, "is it as good as either of them?" Well, no, not really - not in a holistic sense. But those devices represent the very pinnacle of smartphone technology, they are the flagships of the entire Android smartphone "fleet," if you will. The 4X HD is certainly a worthy "escort frigate" (excuse the nautical analogies, I'll stop), and is a very noteworthy addition to the increasingly large number of good, if not great, Android phones on the market.
The 4X HD isn't without (substantial) imperfections, but it's a phone I would happily call my own were it to drop in my lap by some fortuity. More importantly, it shows that Android, and the hardware available to manufacturers, continue to improve and evolve at breakneck speed.
- Price: €500 (select European markets)
- Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 3 at 1.5GHz
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce ULP
- Network Compatibility: Quadband GSM 3G 850/900/1900/2100, HSPA+ 21Mbps
- Operating System: Android 4.0.3 with Optimus UI 3.0
- Display: 4.7" TrueHD IPS LCD 720x1280 (312DPI)
- Memory: 1GB RAM / 16GB storage (12GB usable)
- Cameras: 8MP rear / 1.3MP front
- Battery: 2150mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes, in battery cover
- Ports / Expandable Storage: mUSB / microSD slot
- Thickness: 8.9mm (0.35")
- Weight: 133g (4.7oz)
- The Optimus 4X HD is a wonderfully well-designed phone - it truly is gorgeous. It's also very solid and sturdy-feeling for something built out of plastic. Even the rear cover feels surprisingly secure.
- There's no arguing that NVIDIA's Tegra 3 can really get the performance out of a modern Android phone. The 4X HD is very smooth (most of the time), snappy, handles multi-tasking well, and provides a truly enjoyable user experience for it.
- LG's Optimus UI 3.0 overlay is rather invasive, but does provide some useful extras and certainly isn't horrible to look at (it has some annoyances, too - we'll talk about those later, though).
- A microSD slot and removable battery keep your storage and power options open.
- The true-720p IPS display is bright, has great colors, and seems to consume very little power.
The Not So Good
- That great display has awful viewing angles, probably because it sits unusually far below the bezel glass. It pretty much goes invisible at extreme angles.
- The cellular radio on the 4X HD seems to be rather picky about signal, sometimes fluctuating between strong and weak while sitting untouched for no apparent reason.
- The rear camera, while quick to snap, has extreme difficulty focusing, and sometimes dramatically reduces exposure without warning.
- Optimus UI has a few quirks, annoyances, the occasional crash, and in some ways just feels unfinished.
Design and Build Quality
I have to say, the 4X HD has become my second-favorite Android phone from a purely aesthetic perspective (the One X remains the most striking phone on the market, in my eyes). Everything about the 4X HD feels tight and solid - even the removable battery cover. Yes, it's all plastic. And I have my fears that those wonderful metallic-look accents bordering the phone will, one day, chip and scratch. But there's no denying that this phone has a real elegance about it, certainly more than the Galaxy S III. In side profile, the 4X HD looks almost architectural - like the top of some ornate building from America's Roaring Twenties. The rear cover is textured with a sort of water eroded-sandstone grain look. As such, fingerprints are a non-issue.
The fact that this is the white model certainly helps its looks, too, as most phones just look better in white. But the colors of the 4X HD are incredibly uniform. The white looks the same shade on every surface, including the display bezel, which is completely white as well (taking a bit of a cue from Apple, I suppose). The result is a phone with a sense of stylistic unity rivaled only by devices like the One X and iPhone 4S. The one aesthetic flaw is the black border around the display between the actual panel and the white bezel on the front. It nags at me with its inconsistency.
As for the quality of construction, I was once again impressed with the 4X HD. Even with a removable battery cover, the phone feels incredibly solid. That cover snaps onto the rear of the chassis at 12 individual points, completely eliminating any "play" between the two components on my review unit. This is how removable covers should be done.
The volume rocker is a bit difficult to find through feel alone, and the action on it isn't particularly satisfying. But given the equally abysmal volume controls on the One X, it seems this is par for the course with slim, sleek superphones. The power button is much better, raised just enough to provide a satisfying, mechanical click action that you'll rarely second-guess.
One gripe I will make is with the capacitive touch buttons. Their nifty party trick is to disappear into the white bezel on the front of the phone, and they light up only after providing some sort of interaction (eg, pressing the power button or screen), though they can be set to "always on." It certainly looks cool, but in practice, white backlit capacitive buttons on a white surface are completely impossible to see in sunlight even when lit. The more annoying part? LG doesn't have haptic feedback on them enabled by default. What were they thinking?
That's when they're lit up. Look closely.
Hardware and Performance
The LG 4X HD is packing the same chip you'll find in the international version of the One X and various Tegra 3-powered tablets. Its quad-cores are clocked at 1.5GHz, along with a fifth low-power "companion core" for more mundane tasks and sleep / idle. Tegra 3 didn't disappoint in the One X, and the story is the same on the 4X HD: smooth, smooth, smooth. Tegra 3 also means you'll have access to Tegra-optimized games, so that's a plus.
By the numbers, how does the 4X HD stack up? A GPU-based test is one way to find out. My benchmark of choice is GLBenchmark's 720p off-screen Egypt (higher is better):
- Samsung Galaxy S III: 11002
- DROID RAZR: 3202
- HTC One X (S4): 6330
- HTC One X (T3): 7164
- LG Optimus 4X HD: 6919
As you can see, the 4X HD keeps up blow-for-blow with the Tegra 3 One X, while the Galaxy S III does seem to leave both of them in the proverbial polygon dust. Yes, I just mixed boxing and racing analogies. In the real world, the 4X HD, as I said, is very smooth. But things aren't perfect. The lockscreen is a bit laggy at times, and very rarely, homescreen lag presented for a few seconds.
On the whole, the 4X HD provides a performance experience that, while not always as good as or superior to its primary competitors, is satisfying enough that you probably wouldn't notice the difference without some head-to-head scrutinizing. Android 4.0 pushed by Tegra 3 is going to be speedy enough for the vast majority of people.
Storage / Wireless / Call Quality
Storage shouldn't be a concern on the 4X HD, because while it only packs 12GB of usable internal space, a microSD slot under the battery cover provides plenty of potential room for all of your gee-bee-related needs.
In the realm of wireless, the 4X HD did have one issue. Its cellular connection was sometimes inexplicably erratic in terms of signal strength - fluctuating between 1 and 4 bars for no apparent reason while sitting, unmoving on a surface while indoors. Data speeds and latency took severe hits when this occurred. Outside, reception was more reliable, but this definitely isn't something I experience on my 3G One X on the same network (AT&T). Wi-Fi performance was strong, Bluetooth worked as expected, and my brief test of NFC using LG's included NFC stickers was successful.
Call quality was decent, though nothing special. Considering the ever-decreasing focus on this aspect of smartphones, the 4X HD delivers a call experience that's on par with most of its rivals, and I suppose I can't really complain about that.
Here's where things get a little sticky. LG has been touting its "Optimus UI 3.0" as a lighter, faster, better implementation than its previous skins. And that's definitely true. It's a lot better. It's faster, better-looking, has more features, and doesn't have that "complete TouchWiz-ripoff" feel anymore. That said, I just get the feeling that, when I use it, it isn't quite finished.
For example, the lockscreen has this very cool circular unlock that "reveals" your underlying homescreen in a growing circle as you slide your finger across the display. But this nifty effect causes the phone to slow down to about 30FPS, while the rest of the UI slides along smoothly at 60FPS. It's needless inconsistency. Why not just use a simpler animation? The lockscreen does have 4 customizable shortcut buttons, along with wallpapers and clock styles, though, so that's cool.
The weather widget looks like the one from previous LG phones, and it's tainted with a "Y! Weather" logo in the upper-left corner. Come on LG, you can do better - this thing looks like it belongs in Android 2.3. Then there's the app drawer. You can only re-sort all your apps into alphabetical order if you do it one at a time. Otherwise, you're stuck with the pre-installed apps in alphabetical order, while all apps installed thereafter are part of a second "group" that begins at the end of the preinstalled apps. It makes no sense and it's extremely frustrating. I can't find my apps easily, and that makes me want to throw expensive plastic objects out of second-story windows.
Then there's stuff like the settings menu, which I think looks brilliant. But then another flaw crops up, this one in the form of the display brightness settings. You can't set the display to fully automate brightness. You can only have it adjust brightness from a relative baseline (which you can adjust with the slider bar or power control widget). Setting the phone to 0% as the minimum threshold means the screen will almost always be too dark in bright light. Setting it to the middle (40%) means in dark areas, you'll be wasting more battery than you should. And obviously, setting it to max (100%) spells battery death. Why make this feature needless more complex? LG also decided to keep the persistent Google search widget below the notification bar, but to rid it of that burdensome Voice Actions shortcut. Gee, thanks.
LG does include some useful apps, like remote tech assistance, FM radio, a full-fledged backup utility, and an NFC tag app (LG Tag+) that lets you program included NFC stickers for "Car Mode" and "Office Mode" (basically, NFC-triggered behavior presets). For the average user, this is definitely cool - most people have no idea what NFC is or what it does, and this is a great (and useful) introduction to the technology. You go, LG.
Finally, the keyboard. It's basically a slightly modified stock Android 4.0 keyboard with a more condensed-looking prediction engine. It works wonderfully, and I love it. Keypresses are accurate, quick, and the prediction engine isn't so aggressive as to be annoying.
This is one area where I expected LG to nail it. Unfortunately, the 4X HD's display is a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, looking at it straight on, the 720p IPS panel on the 4X HD is impressive. Colors are vivid and accurate - comparing it to my One X, which has the most accurate display of any smartphone on the market, the 4X HD make a strong argument for its own panel. Reds are a little hotter, and greens just a bit duller than the X, but overall, the accuracy of the two is at least comparable. The 4.7" panel on the 4X HD gets high marks for color, then.
Brightness is another of the 4X HD's strengths - that IPS panel can absolutely burn. The whites are white, though blacks are not as deep as those on the One X, and so will presumably fall even shorter of those on the Galaxy S III's Super AMOLED HD display.
As for viewing angles, let's just say don't get your hopes up. While straight on in sunlight the 4X HD's display is pretty damn good, once you tilt it, it's over. On a sunny day, tilting the display to any sort of extreme will practically make it go invisible, probably since it's buried so deeply under the glass covering the bezel. I'm not sure why LG was unable to bring the display closer to the surface, but I can tell you it would have been a lot better if they had. And as you can see, that annoying black border around the panel is very noticeable at an angle.
LG also has lowered the native DPI of the OS so that text and icons and such appear larger and more legibly on the 4X HD, as I just noticed in a side-by-side comparison with my One X. So that's interesting.
I really thought the 2150mAh cell packed in the 4X HD would deliver with some stellar battery life. It didn't. It's decidedly average - most users will find it adequate for a full day's charge, but no more than that. The 4X HD isn't a particularly efficient sleeper, and leaving it off the charger overnight after a day of use resulted in me waking up to a dead phone. I'm not sure if it's LG's UI overlay, their management of Tegra 3's companion core, or just bad mojo, but I feel like the 4X HD should be able to last a little longer given its sizable store of lithium ions.
LG has included some power management options, with an adjustable low battery mode threshold, and you'll probably make use of them. The display consumed surprisingly little power according to the battery usage chart, even after 1 hour 45 minutes on out of 10 hours on battery, it showed only 6% of consumption. Impressive.
A note on battery life: initially, my battery wasn't even getting me through a day of use. Then I found out that after updating Google Maps to the latest version on the 4X HD, it was reading as 90%+ on the usage chart. So, if you're buying one of these phones, perhaps avoid updating Google Maps until LG releases a fix.
This is yet another miss for LG. The camera on the 4X HD can take some decent shots. See the ones below to check out what the 4X HD's 8MP rear shooter is capable of - when it wants to cooperate. It's not amazing - certainly not up to the bar set by the One X or Galaxy S III, but it gets the job done. Snapping is also quick, about an image per 1.5 seconds.
When it doesn't want to play nice, it's terrible. Focusing usually takes between 2 and 4 seconds, rarely ends up focusing on the object you're attempting to shoot, and then when it does (after usually having to manually select a focal point), especially in macro shots, suddenly decides to dramatically lower the exposure or change its focus to something else. It's highly annoying, broken software that needs to be fixed. Here are some of the botched shots I took:
Overall, LG needs to work on things in the camera department. The camera on the 4X HD feels like an afterthought, not a keynote feature. If the software were fixed, LG would have a passable high-end smartphone camera on its hands. As it stands now, it's very difficult to use for capturing anything remotely candid, since you'll have to take 3-4 photos to get a shot right.
OK, here's the thing - I like the Optimus 4X HD. Really, I do. It's a good phone, albeit one with problems. Is it the best Android smartphone on the market? No. But it's a damn good phone regardless, and that's not an easy place to get to. Many of its problems will, hopefully, be fixed with software updates. Those that cannot be are not fatal blows to this phone's credibility. In fact, I don't have to hesitate when I say the Optimus 4X HD is LG's best smartphone ever - and by a long way. It's very usable, it's extremely good-looking, well-built, and it packs hardware that won't leave you behind the curve.
It's not perfect, though. I'm hoping many of the issues I've pointed out in this review will be resolved by LG in updates, and more importantly, in later phones. But if LG doesn't up its game on software (and cameras), it will continue to struggle against the likes of HTC, Samsung, and even Motorola.
LG really is coming into its own in the smartphone market, and I think with the 4X HD we're seeing an LG that is finally taking that market seriously. And if there's one thing I love about Android, it's seeing the product of some healthy competition. Let's hope the 4X HD is indicative of a trend, and a sign of greater things to come from Seoul's other big electronics house.