Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
6/20/2011 10:05:05 AM
Intuitive, tablet-friendly OS, great email and web features, nice design touches for one-handed use
Expensive, 3D feature needs to be used with glasses or 3D TV
LG has always been one of the zanier manufacturers, first to the gate with gimmicky features that are as impractical as they are, well, cool. There was the Crystal with its transparent, touch-sensitive keypad. There was the divisively sexy New Chocolate with its 'true' cinematic widescreen display that had to be housed in a chassis the length and width of a TV remote. And now we have the Optimus Pad - the first tablet to record video in 3D. Is this Android Honeycomb tab a harbinger of things to come, or does it simply coming bearing a niche feature strictly for the diehard?
An 8.9-incher, the Optimus Pad sits between the uber-portable seven-inch tablets like the HTC Flyer, and the homebody-sized ten-inchers like the iPad 2 and Motorola Xoom. Its plastic chassis comes in brown with a fat metal strip down the middle proclaiming it to be a Google tablet. The two cameras for 3D recording sit on either side of the strip, along with an LED flash. Unfortunately, the display itself is not actually 3D compatible - it's a standard 1280x768 pixel screen with near-widescreen 15:9 aspect ratio - and you'll need to wear the bundled pair of red-and-blue glasses to view 3D content in all its dimensional glory. At 621 g, it's denser and heavier than the larger iPad 2, but it feels plasticky and a touch pedestrian. The Optimus Pad is made to be used in landscape orientation, with a black bezel around the screen that gets much thicker at the sides - ideal for your thumbs to hold and swipe at the edges. Because it's relatively thin, it's easier to use one-handed than the Xoom or iPad 2.Under the hood, it's packing what's become de rigeur for tablets - dual-core 1GHz chip, 1GB of RAM, A-GPS support and 32GB of storage, expandable by another 32GB in the microSD slot. Along with its dual five-megapixel cameras, it also sports a two-megapixel one up front for video calls and photobooth-type snaps. An HDMI port lets you hook up to an HDTV for playing media. Like the Xoom, it runs on a vanilla build of the Android Honeycomb OS, which is just fine because Google's tablet-optimised software looks and works great.
Customising the five home screens is a simple matter of holding down on any screen, which brings up a view of all five screens, and a scrollable set of menus for adding apps, widgets, folders and even changing wallpapers. Notifications pop up in the bottom right of the screen, letting you head to new events at your leisure. An Apps icon in the top left lets you view all programs, while in the bottom left are three touch spots for Menu, Home and Multitasking, which brings up a list of your five most recently opened programs. These buttons can be brought up from any screen. The refreshed interface really takes advantage of the increased screen size, far more than the iPad OS does.We found the capacitive touch-screen slick and responsive in most areas, though when the virtual keyboard was brought up, it was sometimes a tad slow. As with most tablets, it's not ideal for writing long emails unless you connect it to a wireless keyboard of some kind. When you start the tablet for the very first time, a setup screen runs you through setting up Wi-Fi connection and your Google account. This account will then sync contacts and calendar from your Gmail to the tablet. You can also sync Microsoft Exchange accounts, as well as other webmail (email only). There is no preloaded social app, but if you download the official Facebook and Twitter apps from the Android Market, you can sync contacts from these accounts to your contacts book too. The Optimus Pad comes in Wi-Fi-only and 3G versions; if you go for 3G, you can send texts (but not make phone calls).
Onto the tablet's main selling point - its 3D video capture ability, which manifests as two additional apps, one for the 3D camcorder and the other for the 3D video player. You can record 3D video in a few different modes. Anaglyph is an older method of 3D recording that depends on those red and blue specs to be seen in 3D. Without the specs, it simply looks like a blurry image, which is what it looks like on the screen while you're recording. With the specs, you do get a 3D image, but it is dim and still somewhat blurry. Then there's side-by-side, which displays two images, one from each camera, while recording. When playing back video shot in 'side by side', it'll look like a blurry image even with the bundled specs on; you'll need to play this back on a 3DTV to get the 3D effect. There's also Mixed - which for some reason displays the 3D image like two separate images on top of each other - and Single, which shows the view from just one camera so you can actually see what you're recording (the resultant image can be viewed in 3D).
For all modes, you can adjust the depth control, which affects how close the image in focus seems to be - and also how much of a headache staring at the screen gives you. You can also adjust the white balance and video quality, and for a quick runthrough on how to do all this, there is also a how-to tab. It's really a fairly comprehensive app, which makes it a bit of a pity that LG has decided not to strap on a true 3D display, as it as with its Optimus 3D smartphone. Instead, you'll have to pop on the bundled specs - not exactly a good look if commuting - or, as the tips suggest, hook it up to a 3DTV 'for best results'. If you're lucky enough to own one, maybe this tablet makes sense to you, but for the bulk of consumers, we're not sure being able to record 3D but not actually watch it, is going to sell it over an incoming crop of Honeycomb tablets with more useful USPs.
There's also a regular five-megapixel stills camera that can capture 1080p video. This normal video mode results in far smoother, clearer images - if you want to be using an 8.9-inch slate to be recording footage at all.
Two new features that make it clear you're playing on a tablet now are the new-look Gmail interface, and the preloaded Dolphin browser. Where tablets running on Android 2.3 Gingerbread sported the same single-window view as desktop (and indeed, smartphone) Gmail, Android Honeycomb has a new two-column view that shows the inbox on one side and a reading panel on the other. It's perfect for the widescreen view you get in landscape orientation, and packs all the features you get with desktop-Gmail including all your custom folders, the ability to archive email and the Priority Inbox view that shows your most important messages only.
Meanwhile, the browser supports tabbed and private browsing, two features that are particularly necessary on tablets over smartphones. It's fast, and looks great.
Aside from its anemic 3D features, the Optimus Pad is actually pretty well kitted out for video. The player supports DivX, a common format for high-quality downloaded video, and its screen resolution is high enough for comfortable viewing of HD content. You'll be able to easily move video and music on as well, via drag and drop - no hulking iTunes beast to get through here. There's a 3.5mm audio jack for popping in your own headphones. If you pick up the 3G version, you'll also be able to take full advantage of the tablet's sat-nav features. With A-GPS and Google Navigation, the Optimus Pad easily pinpointed our location, and routed us with voice directions to our destination. Google Maps for Honeycomb has also had a nice refresh, with a more 3D look, and the ability to switch views by using a three-finger drag action. Even if you get the Wi-Fi-only version, it's a great-looking tool for getting directions before you go out.
There are two ways to take the LG Optimus Pad - as a plain-Jane Android Honeycomb tablet, or as a 3D-recording tablet. And it actually stacks up better taken as the former, as its Honeycomb OS makes it highly usable. Unfortunately, its £699 preorder price online (LG has yet to announce operator-subsidised prices) puts it way out of the league of the £599 Motorola Xoom. That's the premium you pay for the 3D video - but the lack of a 3D display makes it a feature that only the most diehard 3D early adopter could really want. Even if you are tech-forward enough to own a 3D screen right now, the Optimus Pad doesn't shoot in high enough resolution to make it a contender against dedicated 3D camcorders. Releasing a 3D device in the infancy of the industry was always going to be a tall order, and the Optimus Pad doesn't measure up.