Wednesday

LG Optimus L7 review

 

The Optimus L7 headlines LG’s new L-Style line of Android phones, designed for users that want the latest software and features but don’t have the budget for the more expensive Optimus smartphones. The L-Style range is LG’s first to come with Android 4.0 out of the box, and arrives before the company’s flagship Optimus 4X HD next month.
While it may not compromise on software, hardware is a different matter altogether. While other Optimus devices are powered by dual- and quad- core devices, the L7 has a 1GHz single-core processor paired with 512MB of RAM. It does have the edge on screen size though, offering a spacious 4.3-inch display, far larger than its contemporaries.

LG has a bad history with skins and bloatware on its devices, and it’s not shipping a stock Android 4.0 experience with the L7. So has LG learned from its mistakes? And how does LG’s interpretation of Android 4.0 stack up when compared with HTC’s Sense 4.0 and Samsung’s Nature UX? Read on to find out.

Design - hardware


 
This is by no means a luxury device, but that doesn't have to be an issue — there's a difference between something feeling cheap and being built to a price.
The L7 bears somewhat of a resemblance to the Prada Phone 3.0, and features the same "floating mass" design language, which separates the phone into three parts. There's a 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) display up front, along with a physical home button, a pair of capacitive keys, and a VGA front-facing camera. A faux-metal plastic band covers the top of the L7, and curves down to surround the phone on all sides. While I'm not a fan of plastic masquerading as metal, the lines of the device are really well thought out, and the effect isn't as gaudy as you'd imagine. It’s both thin and light enough to keep up with competition as well, measuring 8.7mm (0.34 inches) thick and weighing 122g (4.3 ounces).
The removable back cover is a solid piece of ridged white plastic which encases a Micro USB port at the bottom and a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash. It feels sturdy and has an ergonomically-sound curve towards its edges. On the sides, you'll find a plastic volume rocker and that's it — there's a headphone jack and power button up top, but this is a remarkably sparse design. 
Removing the back cover is a cumbersome affair. Unlike most devices, there's no opening for you to pull it off from, so you have to wedge your fingernail inside the Micro USB port and pull. Once you pry the cover off, you’ll find a 1700mAh battery, space for a full-sized SIM, a microSD slot, and contacts for the cover’s built-in NFC antenna.
While the materials used don't exactly exude quality, the utilitarian design principles at play here have worked wonders. LG has managed to put together an attractive, somewhat desirable handset that strikes the perfect balance between cutting costs and maintaining appeal. It's not going to stand out in a crowd, but I'd much rather that design reflects what an object actually is. This is an affordable device made from simple, sturdy materials.

Display


The L7's 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) display is an IPS NOVA unit as seen in many of LG's devices. Like most IPS displays, it has great viewing angles and accurate color reproduction, and is also protected by Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. WVGA over 4.3 inches is a bit of a stretch, and you'll be able to make out pixels from time to time.
Unlike other NOVA displays, which LG touts as some of the brightest around, this display is a little dim, even with the brightness cranked up to 100 percent. You’ll have difficulty using the L7 in direct sunlight. The only other issue I have with the display is the lack of an ambient light sensor, and thus an automatic brightness setting. Why would any company leave out what is now a standard feature in a modern smartphone? It's lucky that LG includes a brightness toggle in the L7's drop-down notification area — you'll be using it a lot. This is still a good display, though, and looks better than the considerably-more-expensive HTC One S' qHD screen — I’d rather see the occasional pixel than have the muddy, inaccurate colors the One S PenTile matrix offers.

Software

This is the first device from LG to come with Android 4.0 pre-installed, and was released before LG announced its Optimus UI 3.0 skin for ICS. Although it’s missing a couple of features announced alongside the new Optimus UI, this is almost exactly the experience LG will be giving all its Android 4.0 devices.
While this is definitely Ice Cream Sandwich, at first glance it's difficult to tell. The default homescreen has everything you'd expect to find in an LG Android 2.3 skin; a four-icon dock, a cheesy beach scene wallpaper, and cartoony icons are all carried over from Gingerbread. Just as I was mentally preparing myself for a tirade against LG, I clicked the Applications icon. Despite first impressions, LG hasn't actually drastically changed Android 4.0, and the app drawer looks almost exactly like Google's stock version.
It may look similar to stock Android, but there's definitely some LG influence at play here. Alongside the standard Apps and Widgets options at the top of the app drawer, you'll find a Downloads button which displays only your downloaded apps — an ICS remix of the category you'll find on many of the company's Android 2.3 handsets. There's also a small cog in the upper-right corner that puts you in edit mode to quickly remove and reorder apps. While Android purists may not like what LG has done, the changes are easy to ignore, and I'm a fan of both anyway.
LG's new lock screen is also worth a mention. Placing your finger on the screen opens a circular translucent window that shows you what you're unlocking to, and as you swipe away from the circle, it grows to show you more of what's behind. A subtle vibration lets you know when you've gone far enough to unlock. There are also four icons along the bottom of the lock screen and swiping out from each takes you to the associated application. It's a cute way of avoiding unwanted attention from Apple's lawyers, and a nice way to unlock your device.
One of the first things I do with a new device is change the wallpaper and re-arrange the icons and widgets to my liking. Apart from the aforementioned beach scene, and an ugly woodland photo, the wallpapers are okay, but I headed straight to Google Play to pick up a clone of the Phase Beam live wallpaper that comes as standard on the Galaxy Nexus. Suddenly things were looking a lot more like ICS: LG has thankfully stuck with Roboto for the L7's system font and the status bar is nearly identical to that of stock Android 4.0.
The notification area is also faithful to Google's creation, save the addition of a personalizable toggle area that lives at the top. It's in keeping with Google's Holo theme and, as with the app drawer, I found LG's modification here to be a useful addition. Although four icons sit across the dock by default, LG does allow you to add a fifth, and after rearranging the Applications icon to the center, you're left with a very Nexus-like device. That is, except the icons.
Companies initially skinned Android because by default the operating system’s icons, typography, and general aesthetics left much to be desired. We tolerated skins because they were, for the most part, no worse than what stock Android had to offer. With Android 4.0, Google has done all the work — along with much-improved performance, it provides attractive icons, a great app drawer, and functional task switching. There is certainly no need to replace the icons, and LG's are among the worst you'll see on any device. Unlike wallpapers, icons aren't so easy to change, although if you persist there are workarounds that will let you change the icons on your homescreen, at least. Unfortunately, without the simple changes I made, there was a total disconnect between the homescreen experience and the rest of the UI. It's a jarring experience — it shouldn't be up to the user to fix LG's wrongs.
LG has made another big change to Android with the menus. The basic layout and style is the same, but LG has switched to a white, rather than black, background. On my white review unit the color scheme makes sense, but you do get the feeling that this is a case of differentiation for differentiation’s sake.
The L-Style L7 has NFC built in, and as with other handsets, LG has packaged in its Tag+ system. LG Tag+ consists of three NFC-enabled stickers that automatically open apps, set brightness, wireless, and audio settings when you tap one with your phone. They're user-customizable and pretty useful — if you want a full run-down of the feature, you can find it in our Optimus 3D Max review.
LG also includes its SmartShare DLNA app, which lets you beam video and other media across a Wi-Fi network to compatible devices, and is persisting with its entirely superfluous SmartWorld app store. Thankfully, the applications mentioned above are pretty much all you get, and the SmartWorld appstore is even deletable. It's refreshing to see a phone with so little in the way of bloatware, although if and when the L7 comes to the US your carrier will likely have some less-than-welcome changes in mind.
300_lg_settings
Android 4.0’s stock browser is a huge improvement over the one found in Gingerbread, and LG has left it largely untouched. The one addition is an ever-present tab that sits at the bottom of the screen. A quick swipe up from the tab will reveal a discrete set of five translucent icons for navigation and bookmarks. It’s an unobtrusive way of making the transition from LG’s Gingerbread browser to the buttonless ICS browser, and if I wasn’t in love with Chrome for Android, I wouldn’t have any issues using LG’s effort as my day-to-day browser.

Performance

Unfortunately, software is only one part of the L7's story, and — spoiler — this tale has a tragic ending.
The L7’s 1GHz single-core Snapdragon SoC is simply incapable of running Android 4.0. The Snapdragon MSM7227A isn’t the S4 that was smashing benchmark records earlier this year; nor is it the capable S3 that featured in some of last year’s flagship devices; it’s not even an S2, as found in the HTC One V; no, this is a Snapdragon S1, a Cortex-A5 chip that can also be found (albeit with a reduced clock rate) in the ultra low-end Lumia 610 — and Android 4.0 is a lot more demanding than Windows Phone 7.5.
There’s no need for fancy vocabulary — the Optimus L7 is slow. Graphical transitions stutter, applications take two or three seconds longer than expected to open, and even swiping through homescreens can cause problems from time to time. LG has openly stated that it's looking to entice first-time smartphone buyers with its L-Style lineup — it should be offering them a better experience than this.

QUADRANTVELLAMOGLB 2.1 EGYPT (720P)GLB 2.1 EGYPT (1080P)ANTUTU
LG Optimus L-Style L71,94286111fps6fps2,379
HTC One V2,0601,15532fps18fps2,515
Galaxy Nexus2,0021,06528fps14fps6,079
Galaxy S II3,0221,12953fps26fps6,142
HTC One S5,1412,42057fps29fps7,107
We had difficulty even running our benchmarking suite on the L7, and the same was true with a number of apps. Video streaming through Netflix was glitchy (although playing back videos through the native gallery app was fine), and the live view in the camera app stutters. I compared the L7 side-by-side to the reasonably low-end Motorola Defy, and can honestly say Moto's year-old device is more responsive. If LG wants to include more advanced features, it has to throw in a more advanced SoC to deal with them.
Gaming, aside from basic puzzle games, is very hit-and-miss on the L7. Of course everything loaded up without issue, but playing Samurai II was definitely not a pleasurable experience. If you're a gamer, you'll find nothing but slowdown waiting for you here. That's hardly surprising when you consider that the GPU is a slightly enhanced version of the four-year-old Adreno 200 found in devices like the Nexus One. That said, you’ll still be able to play titles like Angry Birds, or any titles that aren’t negatively affected by low framerates.
I had the opportunity to try out LG’s Android 4.0 skin on a Korean Optimus LTE, and with a faster processor the Optimus UI 3.0 was a pleasure to use. Put simply, the L7’s SoC is just too underpowered — even if you’re not a power user, you’ll be frustrated by the stuttery UI and long loading times. LG’s money-saving measure has effectively ruined what was shaping up to be a compelling budget option.

Cameras


LG has fitted the L7 with a bog-standard 5-megapixel rear camera, and the images and videos it produces are decidedly average. In the right place, at the right time, and in the right hands, the L7 is capable of taking some rather pretty photos. Daylight shots are on the whole perfectly acceptable, but everything is a little soft and colors are under-saturated. There's a fair amount of shutter lag to contend with as well, which seems to be directly tied to how many tasks are open in the background. Perhaps it's down to shutter lag, or the lack of a hardware camera button, but I found that a number of images were blurry and unusable.

The built-in flash does a fairly good job of lighting up the dark without over-exposing objects, and given the camera's low-light performance, you'll need it. While all cameras suffer as the sensor receives less light, the L7 produces particularly grainy, almost unusable images that are surpassed in quality by some front-facing cameras.
Video capture is limited to VGA (640 x 480 pixels) resolution — another trait shared with the Lumia 610 — and is poor by anyone's standards. It has trouble tracking movement, although it reacts to changes in lighting faster than most. The front-facing VGA camera coped with a Skype call just fine, but that's all it's good for.
The software suite doesn't seem to have benefitted much from the upgrade to Android 4.0. There's the usual selection of resolutions, white balance, focus types, scene modes, ISO, and color filters. Stand-out features include the panorama and continuous shooting mode carried over from LG's Android 2.3 suite (the latter still doesn't let you choose the best picture and discard the rest), and a truly bizarre shutter sound. If you choose option four (yes, there are four shutter sounds to choose from, yet no option to silence the damn thing), every shot will be serenaded by a harmonious duo singing "click."

Call quality / reception

The L7 maintains LG's reasonably high standards when it comes to call quality. The speaker is loud and crisp, and no one I spoke with had any issues hearing me. The loudspeaker was loud enough, although I found myself having to shout in order for people to hear me. Signal strength is a major strong point, and the L7 consistently held signal better than the Xperia P, Galaxy S II, iPhone 4S, and Razr that I had on hand. 3G performance was equal to all of the aforementioned devices, maxing out at 7.1Mbps down and 2.4Mbps up.
The L7 has a generous 1700mAh battery, and when combined with its meek processor I had high hopes for its battery life. Unfortunately, the processor's Cortex-A5 architecture shows its weakness here, and turns out to be pretty power hungry. It lasted 5 hours and 11 minutes in our battery test, which cycles through websites with 65 percent screen brightness, and in more regular use lasted the day just fine. That’s pretty average for a smartphone, but if you’re coming to the L7 from a featurephone you’ll have to get used to charging your phone every night.

Wrap-up

LG has succeeded in creating a desirable, well-built device, but has burdened it with an underpowered processor — that’s really all that’s missing here. The L7’s IPS display is very good for a budget device, and Android 4.0 is a huge selling point.
LG’s problem, however, is that it’s not alone in wanting a piece of the budget smartphone market. HTC’s One V is almost exactly the same price as the L7, is very well built, and also offers Android 4.0 alongside better performance and camera quality. Cheaper still is Sony’s Xperia U, which promises to bring a lot of features from the company’s flagship Xperia S down to the low-end — although it’s presently stuck on Gingerbread. There are also a number of Windows Phones at this price point that offer similar specs and much more fluid performance, provided you don’t need the wider app choice of Android.
The L7 shows that LG can nail both industrial design and software. Even a slightly improved processor would alleviate 99 percent of my issues with this device, but as is, it’s tough to recommend the L7. If it can pull all the elements together for the higher-specced Optimus 4X HD 2012 could be a good year for LG.