Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
6/15/2011 10:06:11 AM
The NOVA display is impressively vibrant and delivers on its promise to provide an excellent visual experience, even when outdoors
Dated Android 2.2, Wi-Fi connection kept dropping, slow webpages
When the LG Optimus Black was unveiled back in January at CES in Las Vegas, two things stood out: LG claimed it was the world's slimmest smartphone and it was also the debut device for the manufacturer's NOVA display technology, something LG hinted was so impressive it would seriously rival the iPhone 4's excellent Retina display. Since then, the Samsung Galaxy S II and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc have launched, both with slimmer waistlines. But there's still that Nova screen, and with a host of other features squeezed into that chassis, we had high hopes for the Optimus Black.
Something else we took away from CES was that while the LG Optimus 2X with its dual-core processor was the Korean firm's powerhouse handset, the Optimus Black was its head turner. While our pupils did initially dilate as we opened up the box, they quickly returned to normal on closer examination. The front of the device is certainly eye-catching (and uncannily iPhone 4-esque), with a sleek piano black finish that borders a four-inch display. Yet when we flipped the phone over, not only were we greeted with the plasticky Teflon cover we've come to associate with lower-end phones, but we were also surprised to find it was far more charcoal than 'black' as its name would suggest. Perhaps we were expecting too much, but the LG Optimus Black's looks failed to inspire us. Bizarrely, the Optimus Black is also available in white.
Below the display sit four touch-keys: settings, home, back and search. These become illuminated once the screen is woken, which can only be done by pressing the power/lock button found on the top of the phone. You'll still need to unlock the phone by swiping the screen upwards. These keys produce a heavy pulse when you press them so you're under no illusion as to whether they've recognised your command or not.
So what of this high-tech display? Well, it's certainly bright. The icons resting on the home screens have a 3D feel and their edges are prominent, making them stand out. LG promises that its NOVA display reduces energy consumption by up to 50% compared to that of an LCD screen. That might be the theory, but we still had to charge the handset after a day's use.
However, its real USP is the claim that it offers the best outdoor reading experience seen on any phone. In fact, with a built-in light sensor the Optimus Black cleverly assesses your environment and adjusts the brightness accordingly, reducing battery consumption in the process. You can test it by simply moving your hand over the phone and watching the screen illuminate a little bit more. The transition is less obvious outdoors, but we enjoyed a near glare-free visual experience with the Optimus Black in the great outdoors.
If you don't like being dictated to you can always adjust the brightness manually - cranked up to the max, the NOVA display really is quite blinding. We wouldn't put the display in the same league as either the iPhone 4's Retina display or even that of the Samsung Galaxy S II's Super AMOLED Plus screen (brightness apart) - but it impresses and remains one of the device's highlights.
The LG Optimus Black runs on Android 2.2 Froyo, meaning it's not in the same class as the Gingerbread-toting Samsung Galaxy S II and HTC Sensation. Though LG has promised an update, some early adopters may be put off by this slow start. That said, the phone can still play Flash video and when that update does come along, we assume the fact that it already has a (two-megapixel) front-facing camera will mean that it's able to support video calling too.
As with all its previous Android phones, LG has skinned the Optimus Black with its own S-Class user interface. When manufacturers do this, it can often lead to muddled results - sadly, this applies here. Customising the menu is a fiddly process, requiring you to pinch and pull before renaming, adding categories or moving the order that programs appear, while the preset apps such as Twitter for LG and Facebook for LG are limited in functions. You're frankly better off downloading fuller versions from the Android market.
Perhaps the most innovative feature LG has introduced to the Optimus Black is its 'gesture' control. Found on the left-hand side of the phone is a 'G' key. By holding this down you can, for example, slide from home screen to home screen by tilting the phone in either direction, or answer a call one-handed with a double tap. It's a tad gimmicky, but we were quite taken with it, though we're not sure why the volume keys are so close to the 'G' key as we accidentally pushed it on more than one occasion, especially when the right-hand edge of the phone is completely bare.
One gesture that had huge potential was the ability to fire up the camera from the lock screen. As is becoming frustratingly common practice among Android phones, there's no dedicated camera key on the LG Optimus Black, meaning by the time you've accessed it via the touch icon that spontaneous shot you were hoping to capture has gone. The idea of being able to start the camera from the locked screen with just a sharp jolt pleased us. The fact that you actually need to awake the phone by pressing the power button first, did not.
The camera is actually one of the better features of the Optimus Black, though we found we got far better results when adjusting the settings manually rather than leaving it on auto, especially when taking 'macro' shots. There's plenty of pre and post doctoring you can do with your snaps too, which should please the David Baileys out there. Sadly, video recording didn't fare as well, with our films appearing on the blurry side, and it was irksome to discover that no adjustment, such as zooming, is possible once recording has begun.
Our web experience was also a mixed bag. Again, the display came into its own with pages displayed with impressive crispness. Yet despite the single-core 1GHz chip, webpages took a while to load up fully. Have we become too accustomed to dual-core processors already? Our Wi-Fi signal also dropped out on more than one occasion. This could have been down to our own office hotspot, but none of our other devices or phones dropped connection, so we can only assume it was down to the Optimus Black.
Talking of Wi-Fi, the phone houses a very innovative feature called Wi-Fi Direct. This enables you to send content directly from one Wi-Fi-enabled device to another at a rate far quicker than Bluetooth and at a distance of up to 656ft. However, until this technology is embraced by other manufacturers, it will sadly remain rather redundant.
Four months is a long time in the mobile world. Our initial excitement when we first got introduced to the LG Optimus Black at CES in Las Vegas has been replaced with a shrug of the shoulders.
The screen is undoubtedly impressive but neither the build nor what's going on under the bonnet can justify the £400 price tag - especially when other more powerful phones such as the iPhone 4, Samsung Galaxy S II and Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc are available for a similar cost.