If you're a Verizon Wireless customer, and you're not looking to spend over $100 or so on an Android smartphone, your options aren't exactly limited at this point. If you want one that's relatively current, though, the RAZR M and Incredible 4G are basically your choices, one of which we actually really liked.
Both of those phones, though, by modern Android smartphone standards, are relatively small, with 4-4.3" qHD displays. For some, such a size may actually be desirable - there have always been a steady stream of complaints about the growing dimensions of Android phones. I, too, often wonder if this is indicative of a larger trend (pun intended), or if it is merely a symptomatic of some subtle problem with the current touchscreen interaction paradigm. That's a consideration for another time, though.
LG's Spectrum 2 joins the growing crop of mid-range handsets with large displays, measuring in at a very respectable 4.7 inches. However, it does away with the compromise a midrange, large-display phone often makes to maintain the value proposition - lower resolution. Samsung in particular is guilty of this offense, and to an absurd degree, making the platitude of WVGA phones on the market, some with up to 4.5" panels. That's sort of like putting 22" rims on a Ford Fiesta.
The Spectrum 2, though, manages to keep the full-matrix 720p IPS LCD of its higher-end brethren. As you'll learn, this isn't without its own drawbacks. Still, what we're looking at here is an eminently good value for money on multiple levels, and one that reinforces in my mind a growing realization about LG: they know how to make a satisfactory, middle of the road phone better than probably anyone else on the market.
LG Spectrum 2
- Price: $99
- Processor: Dual-core, 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960
- GPU: Adreno 225
- Network Compatibility: CDMA + 700Mhz LTE (Class 13), GSM Quad-band HSPA+ (unlocked) via microSIM
- Operating System: Android 4.0.4 with Optimus UI 3.0
- Display: 4.7" IPS LCD 720x1280 (312DPI)
- Memory: 1GB RAM / 16GB storage (12GB usable)
- Cameras: 8MP rear, 1.3MP front
- Batttery: 2050mAh, removable, wireless charging
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / Expandable Storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 9.1mm
- Weight: 148g
- Display: For its class, the Spectrum 2 has a very nice, sharp 720p display with very good colors. It's also big - at 4.7".
- Extras: NFC, wireless charging, microSD, removable battery, quad-band GSM compatibility - all the little add-ons many of us desire in a modern smartphone.
- Build Quality: The Spectrum 2 feels exceptionally solid, especially for a phone with a removable rear cover. I really can't compliment LG's build quality enough, especially on a midrange phone like this. Stellar work. It's also not bad looking.
- Price: At $99 right now, the Spectrum 2 is a good value. A month or two from now, it'll be an even better one, because that price is guaranteed to drop.
- Performance: While it's not as snappy as some S4 dual-core offerings from Samsung, the Spectrum 2 performs admirably, and zips through most tasks relatively quickly.
The Not So Good
- Display: Viewing angles are pretty bad, and I still think LG's auto-brightness mode is the worst I've ever used.
- Optimus UI: I can't say I've ever been a fan of Optimus UI. I don't hate it, but it's still an easy victory for TouchWiz or even Sense. LG has work to do.
- Battery Life: It isn't good, even for an LTE phone. LG's software seems to be suspect number one.
- Camera: The Spectrum 2's rear camera is pretty good for a midrange phone, great for a budget phone, but pretty disappointing compared to the shooters found even on older (Galaxy S III, One X) higher-end handsets.
- Android 4.0: Can't say I trust LG to keep the Spectrum 2 running the latest and greatest. In fact, I don't even know if I trust them to take it past Android 4.1. We'll see.
Design and build quality
As has increasingly been the case with modern LG phones, the Spectrum 2 is admirably assembled, even if it is largely composed of the deceased dinosaur extract we so bemoan in the tech world: plastique. But it's built from the sort of plastic you'd find adorning the interior of a modern-day Hyundai or Ford: the kind that doesn't make you immediately realize that you're touching something cheap.
The handfeel of the Spectrum 2 is largely evocative, for me, of the Optimus G. A sort of entry-level trim version of it. It is remarkably rigid, and while it does creak on occasion when torqued, it leaves the impression of a far more expensive piece of hardware. So basically, unlike every Samsung smartphone in existence, if you'd like a frame of reference.
It's so rigid that, at first, I wasn't aware the rear cover was removable. This was, to be fair, reinforced by the fact that said cover does not have a demarcated area that visually indicates it can be removed, unlike most phones with modular battery doors. The cover is coated in a very nice rubberized silicone material with a fine diamond pattern, and I love it. It's also quite beefy for a removable cover these days, and it has a handy little warning that makes it apparent why - the cover houses both the inductive wireless charging coil and NFC element. Yep, wireless charging. Fancy. (This is apparently a "thing" that Verizon is doing on all of its new phones.)
LG was kind enough to include a charging pad to test the functionality of wireless charging on the phone. It works! However, I find it sometimes charged quickly, while at other times it took much longer. That said, this isn't a production version. I have no idea how much this pad costs, or when it's coming out, or what wireless charging specification it uses. I do know that it sort of works with the DROID DNA too, though it charges it really slowly. I can also only assume that, at some point, LG will sell something very much like this, and you will be able to buy it, and Verizon will charge you too much money for it.
Now that I've successfully derailed this section, let's get back on track with the exterior design choices. Aesthetically, I kind of like this phone. Except for the big "4G LTE" logo on the back, which I find about as appealing as that stupid little "Flex Fuel" badge GM puts on all its E85-ready cars. Who cares? Even average Joe isn't going to forget his phone has LTE, only to be reminded every time he looks at the back of it.
The Spectrum 2 certainly has an interesting style, and like most phones out of LG lately, it's understated, but distinct. It is exceptionally rectangular (like the Optimus G), eschewing the soft edges that HTC and Samsung have flocked to in their most recent handsets. LG's design isn't fussy or overly adorned, either, something I took issue with when reviewing the DROID DNA. It's simple and industrial. It's not a work of art, but LG continues to impress me with its clean "built-in-CAD" sort of lines. I do find the way the rear cover looks compared to the other half of the phone in profile to be interesting, though it sort of works, for some reason.
Button placement. If there is one thing that I do not believe is consistently recognized enough on smartphones, it's button placement. The debate currently raging in this field is, as screen sizes grow, the side-mounted power button versus the top-mounted. LG has gone for the latter. The power button is on the top right, and the volume controls on the left hand side. The power button is quite interesting, and I think LG may have stumbled upon what I would call the best smartphone power button to date (hey, you take what you can get).
The button itself is circular, made out of a small cylinder of machined aluminum. It is surrounded by a translucent, white plastic band. Under this band somewhere is a little LED, and this LED flashes blue when you receive a notification (and it actually works right, unlike previous LG phones I've used). It also glows blue when you're charging the phone. The button has a nice, long throw, is easily felt out by my finger without looking, and clicks with a satisfying clicky action. If the notification LED were brighter, it would be basically perfect. Also, it looks really cool. I enjoy the separate buttons for volume up and down, too. Once again, it makes eyes-free adjustments easier.
Overall, the exterior hardware on the Spectrum 2 feels like something from a company that has been making smartphones for ages. Carefully constructed, designed with restraint and originality, and just generally well thought out.
The Spectrum II has capacitive navigation buttons, and the backlight on them is blue, like the power button. It's kind of neat.
The Spectrum 2 has one of the best displays I've seen on a mid-range phone. However, if you've been spoiled by the latest from Samsung, HTC, or even LG's higher-end phones, it is a very noticeable step down. While sharpness is great (it's 720p, after all), and colors are pretty decent, viewing angles are simply not good, and as a result, sunlight visibility is pretty poor. Brightness is solid, though, and LG's IPS panels have a reputation for power-sipping.
Colors, compared to something like the One X, are on the washed out side, and black levels are particularly mediocre. The display also seems to sit rather far below the glass, a phenomena I experienced while reviewing another LG phone, the Optimus 4X HD.
Auto-brightness is accomplished through LG's base range setting scheme, which I still find horribly unintuitive, and generally can't stand. I just end up using the phone at 85% brightness all the time, because dealing with the automatic adjustment isn't worthwhile. I should not have to think about automatic brightness, it should be automatic.
It's not very good. My battery life with the Optimus G running LG's latest iteration of its UI overlay was not good, and my experience with the Spectrum 2's battery life has been just as bad -if not slightly worse. I can't help but point the finger at LG's software here. I've used plenty of dual-core Snapdragon S4 phones with LTE, and this just isn't acceptable, especially with a 2150mAh battery. LG really needs to work on optimizing this part of its devices. Making it through an entire day isn't going to be easy if you're even a moderate user.
There isn't some app using a particularly large amount of battery, there's just far too much awake time - I lost 20% of my battery with the phone simply sitting idle overnight. I'm not syncing anything unusual, and can't say I even qualify as a particularly heavy smartphone user. This needs to be addressed. The battery is removable, though, so you could buy a spare, I suppose.
I should probably go back to the wireless charger, too, for the sake of completeness. It works. It charges the phone quickly, except when it doesn't for whatever reason, though it has to be positioned with the top of the phone pointed to the top of the charger - something I personally didn't know about wireless chargers. Not a drawback, just interesting.
The charging pad is pretty small, about six inches diagonally. I can't tell you for a certainty what wireless charging tech the pad uses, though it works with the Qi-compatible DROID DNA, so I'm guessing it's a Qi-based system. Oddly, it charges the DNA rather slowly compared to the Spectrum 2. I don't know why that is.
Storage / wireless / call quality
The Spectrum 2 offers around 12GB of usable internal storage. And, comments section of this article be praised, there's a microSD card slot.
Wireless performance has been solid. Everything works as it should, including Verizon's fastastic LTE, the unbridled bandwidth of which in my little suburbia speeds along at velocities approaching 50Mbps. Your mileage will vary.
Call quality has been acceptable, and the earpiece speaker is capable of producing such volume that aural discomfort resulted when I maxed it out. I suppose that's a good thing, though, as far too many smartphones don't get loud enough during calls, at least for me.
Audio and rear speaker
The Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 chipset delivers a headphone audio experience as good as ever - very balanced, clean, and relatively powerful. Music lovers won't have anything to get upset about.
The rear speaker on the Spectrum 2 is decently loud, and includes the now-standard (for LG and Samsung) "hump" between the two cutouts in the battery door where sound escapes, so as to avoid muffling when the phone is laid flat on its back. This does mean that a phone which would otherwise sit flush on a flat surface now doesn't, but I don't think that's going to be a concern for anyone but perfectionists.
The rear camera is often the first casualty in the cost-cutting war when it comes to mid-range smartphones. The Spectrum 2's 8MP shooter is no exception. Low-light performance is simply terrible - I can't even get it to focus when using flash - and daylight photos often look washed out in terms of color and exposure, and the performance of auto-focus is less than great. LG's camera software has never been a particular favorite of mine, and that hasn't changed with the Spectrum 2. That said, the shots you'll get out of it are of a reasonably good detail, and pretty handily outclass competing handsets from HTC and Motorola. Shutter speeds are also very quick.
While not as smooth or quick as higher-end Android phones, the Spectrum 2 performs very admirably for a mid-range handset. LG's UI overlay, for all of its battery-sucking tendencies, is very smooth and responsive generally, and doesn't feel like the second-rate experience it was a year or so ago.
I did get occasional stutters when opening or closing the app drawer or scrolling through the recent apps menu, and the whole UI just didn't feel as smooth as it does on, say, the Optimus G. That's to be expected, I suppose - with half the cores and half the RAM, the Spectrum 2 isn't packing quite the hardware horsepower of its big brother.
Still, Samsung gets amazing performance out of Android 4.0 and the S4 processor on the Galaxy S III, while LG has managed to just get good performance out of the Spectrum 2.
UI / UX general
So, I approached the Spectrum 2 expecting the same UI experience as on the Optimus G. But like the AT&T Optimus G compared to the Sprint Optimus G, the Spectrum 2's software is just a little different than every other LG phone before it.
LG, I understand that carriers want their little tweaks here and there. I understand there are going to be a variety of bloat apps. I understand that not every phone can support every software feature.
But for the love of all things decent, please decide on a single software experience. The app tray icon is different on the Spectrum 2. Apps won't fully alphabetically sort themselves, but rather downloaded apps are in their own, second alphabetized subgroup. The stock Android keyboard that's present as an option on some other LG phones is gone. The ability to rotate the homescreen isn't present. The dialer looks slightly different. So does the power control widget - which has had its Wi-Fi toggle removed, and color scheme altered. The Wi-Fi toggle in the notification power controls has mysteriously vanished, as well (I am giving you a very mean look, Verizon).
These are all admittedly small things, but it's the kind of stuff that drives me nuts going across multiple phones from the same manufacturer running the same version of Android. No one but a phone reviewer will notice this, frankly, but I can't help but get tech-OCD knowing I'm missing stuff I should have on this phone, based on my experience with others.
Distinctions from other LG handsets aside, I still find Optimus UI 3.0 (or whatever it's called) to be a pretty usable overlay. This version has some things I find decidedly annoying (see above), but they also don't outright ruin the experience. Optimus UI is pretty snappy (I find it quicker than Sense), more customizable in some regards than TouchWiz (lock screen, notification power toggles, etc.), and while it's not particularly pretty, seems stable enough.
The Spectrum 2 is probably the best mid-range handset you can buy on Verizon today. And while it's $99.99 at Big Red's retail locations, it can be had cheaper elsewhere, and by the time the new year rolls around, I wouldn't be surprised to see it popping up as free on contract occasionally. While I personally don't recommend any mid-range Android phones when asked about what to buy, if you're set on a low-cost Android handset on Verizon (eg, buying it for a kid or older relative), the Spectrum 2 is a very solid choice.
I've seen LG move from being the unappreciated underdog of the Android smartphone ecosystem into a major player, and phones like the Spectrum 2 are the leading factor behind that transformation. Even if LG doesn't have a great reputation in the community for software support, they make smartphones for the casual consumer crowd that are affordable, well-built, and functional.
While it probably won't be winning many end-of-the-year tech awards, compared to similarly positioned handsets from its rivals, I think the Spectrum 2 is another strong indicator of LG's seriousness about winning midrange market war.