Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
12/12/2011 3:54:27 PM
Excellent image and video, finger friendly touch-screen and vibrant high-res display.
Lightweight look and feel, and inconsistent web experience.
LG is getting a reputation for quality touch-screens and the Arena is no exception. Billed a multimedia phone, it also sports a high-definition WVGA screen, AMD processor, and Dolby Mobile technology, which lends music and movies the richness of surround sound.
Its five-megapixel camera has auto and manual focus, as well as D1 recording for DVD-resolution video content and the ability to record at up to 120fps so you can playback in slow motion. There is an impressive 8GB of internal memory, expandable by up to 32GB in the phone’s microSD slot.
As is becoming the norm for smartphones in 2009, it also boasts excellent connectivity features, which include HSDPA, Wi-Fi and A-GPS, plus location-based services support in the form of Google Mobile Service including Search, Maps, Gmail, YouTube and Blogs.
The Arena is one of those much-hyped hero handsets, and like a lot of phones, where it fails is the rare instances when its star features – in this case, a supposedly revolutionary user interface – turn out to be more hype than hard facts. As a media phone though, it can’t be faulted.
The Arena is surprisingly small, and barely surpasses palm size. The tempered glass surface is scratch resistant but smudges show up all too obviously. A 3.5mm audio jack sits handily at the top of the phone; we’re glad phones that are trumpeted as media phones have finally cottoned onto the necessity of not only an audio jack but of having it at the top so the headphones do not dig into your leg.
Unfortunately, its lightweight titanium casing makes this high-end phone feel a lot less high spec than it really is. In fact, after weeks of gazing at its shiny, sexy press photos, we were just the slightest bit let down by how it actually looks.
The seams between the parts that fit together are quite obvious, and while the small sliding panel that hides its mini USB port is a nice idea, aesthetically the panel looks pretty low tech, as it actually has a tiny handle.
The touch-screen is the highlight of the hardware, and as we’re coming to expect from LG, is responsive, well-calibrated and incredibly easy to use. Light taps and swipes move you around the user interface, and the phone vibrates gently with each touch.
One of the most talked about features of the phone pre-launch was LG’s new 3D user interface (UI), seen for the first time in the Arena. The 3D S-Class interface has icons in a 3D layout that you scroll through by swiping your finger. You have a selection of four home screens - Shortcuts, Multimedia (which features two scrollable lists of your image and music files), Text/Email/Call notifications, and Favourite Contacts – in a cube which you rotate by swiping. Once you’re in a home screen, you can also swipe across the screen to reach the next home screen in either direction.
You can customise these home screens with your favourite shortcuts, widgets, contacts and gallery files. LG has made accessibility a top priority in the Arena – at the bottom of each home screen, there’s a toolbar with icons to number keypad, contacts, text messages and all programs, so you’re generally a minimal number of clicks from wherever you need to go.
Once you're in the widget menu, you can drag and drop your most-used icons so they're always visible, leaving the rest to be scrolled to.
The UI is definitely stylish, dynamic and easy to whiz through – we particularly liked little flourishes such as a contact twirling back into its menu – but it feels like there are still small usability bumps to iron out, and they all relate back to that cube.
For example, a cube icon on the face of the phone usually takes you to the cube, but when you’ve reached the last menu in a hierarchy, it no longer works and you’re relegated to using the cancel-call button.
Then there’s the fact that you can swipe through each home screen in the exact same way without being on the cube – redundant, except for the novelty factor of a navigation menu built around a zippy little block. And while it spins in a satisfyingly stylish way, a little inspection reveals that each face is just a generic display of icons, not the icons you actually have on the ‘real’ home screen. It feels almost like a last-minute addition, more for show than for any practical or integral purpose.
The AMD chip means phone processes are remarkably smooth and fast, even when you load up the memory with video files. While the UI could be a little more streamlined, navigation around the interface is fast and intuitive.
Media can be viewed in landscape or portrait orientation, and an accelerometer means the phone can switch between the two in several other screens too.
Video is one of the star features of the phone, which supports the usual MPEG video files, and more excitingly, DivX and Xvid formats, which compress DVD-quality files to a tenth of DVD size. These files, like music and images, can be transferred to and from the phone via cable or Bluetooth. We loaded up The Dark Knight and were very impressed with both the quality of the surround sound and the rendering of the Xvid file on the three-inch WVGA screen.
The Arena is only the second phone with Dolby Mobile technology (the other one is LG’s Renoir) and is currently the only smartphone that has it. Expectedly, the audio quality is excellent through headphones and the on-board speakers are quite good, though not great with bass, and the maximum volume is still a tad too low for use in a room that isn’t totally quiet.
Its music player can be accessed in two ways – via one of the home screens and the widget screen. The interface is intuitive with bright, clear icons, and its only glitch is that the icons toolbar at the bottom of the screen isn’t actually functional when you’ve selected a song.
LG has addressed the battery issues of its previous phones and the Arena’s battery life is enough for a whopping 30 hours of MP3 playing, but of course, it drains quickly if you go online.
The five-megapixel camera has an LED flash, digital zoom, auto-focus and a dedicated snapping button, and takes good pictures in bright light and low light. There's no night mode - instead, you can manually adjust each shot for image quality and ISO, which goes up to 800 for maximum light entry in low-light conditions. There's also a timer mode, macro mode and continuous shot mode that takes five shots in rapid succession.
We were particularly impressed with the auto-focus function, which managed to compensate for our hand twitching right as we took a picture. Once a picture is taken, you have the option of sending it via email, MMS or Bluetooth. You can also rename the file, which is a vast improvement on an entire memory card full of file names like ‘IMG02019.jpg’.
The video camera is less impressive. You can’t zoom in or out while recording, which could be forgiven in a lower spec handset, but considering its ability to record at 120fps and in D1 mode for DVD quality, it would seem LG is encouraging Arena users to actually record something decent with all that high spec goodness.
It does come with a nice suite of add-ons though – you can choose whether to record sound or not, as well apply a few different effects to the shot such as ‘emboss’, ‘negative’, and ‘sepia’.
With HSDPA, Wi-Fi, and a WVGA screen, the Arena offers a comfortable browsing experience with good data speeds. A hidden address bar with Back/Home function surfaces when you tap the screen – this maximises usable screen space, but we occasionally got ‘stuck’ because using the same motion to tap a link often brought up the toolbar instead.
Mobile optimised sites such as Facebook load easily, as did text-rich sites like BBC News; however, embedded links took almost 30 seconds to load, and the browser isn’t Flash-enabled.
We hit up some picture-rich sites, and found the Arena to render images amazingly well – not quickly, but the end result looks fantastic. And while multi-touch isn’t functional in any other application, in the browser, you’re able to zoom with multi-touch pincer movements, making surfing very intuitive.
Emailing is similarly intuitive with the nice touch that each letter you type pops up so you know if you got it wrong. A wizard prompts you through the setup of POP3 and Microsoft Exchange email accounts.
Typing is accompanied by a cute typewriter sound, but the screen is just a little too small for comfortable writing, especially for larger fingers. You can attach a multimedia file from the gallery, or simply take a picture and immediately attach it to your email. The menu is well-designed though, with a ‘send email’ button on the touch-screen at all times.
The Arena wouldn’t make a bad business phone if you can deal with emailing on its touch-screen keyboard, as the email client can handle attachments, and the phone comes with a document viewer for Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and PDF files.
Despite some redundancies in the user interface, the Arena is really a very intuitive phone, and LG has done a good job of minimising the clicks required to get from one application to another.
LG is known for producing finger friendly, well-calibrated touch-screens, and the Arena is one of its best. There were no lags in response time, no accidental missteps as the icons are a good size and distance apart, and the swipe gestures work perfectly.
The phone also lives up to its multimedia branding and we were impressed with its surround sound capabilities and image rendering. The DivX and Xvid player is one of the top features of the Arena as well, as most movies transferred to the phone will likely have been downloaded in one of the two formats, and of course, in a handheld device, it’s extremely important that you can get a high-quality file compressed.
The Arena’s looks may fall short of its specs but it checks off on all the sound, image and video functions of a top-notch media phone.