LG shows Android's low-end smartphone promise

A few weeks using LG's Optimus One shows Android workable for low-end smartphones. Just don't push it too hard.

LG Optimus One
LG Optimus One Stephen Shankland/CNET

My test of an LG Optimus One smartphone began inauspiciously with a combination of consternation and revulsion at its keyboard. But after two months using it as my primary phone, I wound up with a much more favorable impression of it and the prospects for Android on lower-end phones.

The Optimus One's dismal keyboard is a touch-screen version of the numeric keypad so poorly adapted to typing letters. It reflects LG's effort to cater to new arrivals in the world of smartphones. As I see it, the sooner they fumble through the settings to switch to a more useful Qwerty keyboard, the sooner they can start getting a taste of a real smartphone.

For the full smartphone meal, alas, a higher-end model is really the way to go. But for the basics of Android--e-mail, Web surfing, a few games, driving navigation, texting--it's fine.

LG's Optimus One is sold here in Europe; including its close kin in the United States, the Optimus S, T, and Vortex, LG has sold more than a million of the phones, and LG said it "expects Optimus One to be its first 10 million-seller smartphone." That's doubtless in part because they're cheap--even free with two-year contracts in some cases. You'll pay a lot in monthly fees, but a low introductory price is important to close a sale.

More broadly, after living with an Optimus One as my primary phone, I've concluded that Android is workable for low-end phones.

Smartphones for mainstream budget
When it comes to smartphones, we all want the glam models with the fancy specs--the 4G network, the dual-core processor, the accelerated graphics, the retina display, the near-field communications chip.

But the reality is that much of the world hasn't even upgraded to a feature phone yet, much less something with a functioning Web browser and an app store.

LG's phones are lower-end Android-based smartphones that emerged at the end of 2010. They're geared as step-up products for folks looking to junk their 2005 Nokia rather than the latest hero phone engineered to streak fear into the heart of iPhone fanboys.

Although it's natural to pit a high-end Android phone against iPhones, there's a broader competition, one of market segments. Apple picks its battles carefully, and at present has shown a remarkable ability to profit even when it doesn't ship the most products in a given category.

The Optimus One throwback: a virtual numeric keypad. I hated it.
The Optimus One throwback: a virtual numeric keypad. I hated it. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Android turns out to be adaptable enough to work on feeble hardware, so naturally Apple's rivals are exploring the down-market options as a way to compete.

The Optimus One shows that down-market need not mean doggy. The phone body is sleek, sturdy, and attractive. It's compact and comfortable to hold. It comes with Android 2.2, aka Froyo, which comes with crucial features like the mobile hot spot even if it's not the latest 2.3 Gingerbread version of the operating system. The screen works reasonably well even in bright conditions, audio quality was fair, and I didn't suffer any dropped calls.

Cutting corners
LG cut corners, of course, and this is where those familiar with Android, especially newer phones, will find disappointments.

The processor, a 650MHz model, is comparatively pokey; I was one of those who suffered through a version of Angry Birds for more powerful models . The touch screen is finicky--at one moment not responding to a swipe or a flick and at another scrolling suddenly at a blazing speed down a list of Facebook status messages. After a couple weeks, I calibrated my flicks with enough of a pre-swipe stationary finger touch to get the phone to register the contact, but not enough to, say, fool the phone into thinking I'd tapped on an icon.

After a few weeks, I found the Optimus One painfully slow--launching podcasts through Google Listen dragged, and sometimes the phone would become unresponsive while I was trying to open e-mails or take other routine actions. Things got a bit better when I deleted the Tweetdeck application, and after I performed a factory reset, the phone was much snappier. I suspect I'd just loaded it up with too many apps and background processes for its horsepower, storage, and memory.

The screen is smallish, too, and it's somewhat susceptible to scratching. There's no automatic brightness adjustment, but I prefer the power widget anyway.

This is the first Android phone I've used extensively that lacks a finger-mouse or trackball, and I miss it. I'm probably a freak of nature here--I've seen plenty of people ask why you'd want a trackball on a phone with a touch screen--but I find it tremendously useful for editing text. Especially on the Optimus One's smaller screen, where it can take several pokes to position the cursor properly, I missed it.

The LG Optimus One comes with a highly impractical keyboard, with hard-to-hit keys and sub-par autocompletion, but you can change it.
The LG Optimus One comes with a highly impractical keyboard, with hard-to-hit keys and sub-par autocompletion, but you can change it. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Optimus One keyboard was laughably bad, and I hope beginners will realize it's not mandatory. The touch-screen numeric keypad was an awkward throwback--heck, why not make me use a touch-screen rotary dial to place a call? Happily, a Qwerty keyboard shows up when you hold the phone in landscape orientation. Unhappily, LG's Qwerty keyboard, portrait or landscape, is little better. Its text-prediction algorithm faltered frequently. Its buttons are small, hard to hit, and the bottom row of the keyboard is stuffed with wafer-thin modifier and option keys.

Mercifully, holding down the tools icon lets you switch the input mode to the stock Android keyboard, which works much better for the most part. Its text prediction is vastly superior in general (it didn't work on my phone, but LG assures me that was a fluke), and its buttons are easier to hit. Gingerbread promises further refinements, but LG wasn't able to tell me whether an upgrade is planned.

Smartphone potential
Clearly, I didn't fall in love with the phone. But I do think it's important to look at this from the perspective of a budget-minded first-time smartphone buyer. Somebody who's planning on a reasonable suite of applications should be fine. The obvious alternative--a feature phone or an earlier-generation smartphone--is much more limited than the Optimus One.

Examples from today of what I did with the phone: I typed part of this piece with the mobile browser interface to Google Docs. I listened to a podcast about the physics of the multiverse during my daily stroll. I found the postal code for the Slough Cemetery and Crematorium for a lost driver trying to find a funeral, then showed him a map of how to get there. I checked some Facebook posts. I solved a squiggly/color Andoku puzzle. And mobile phone traditionalists will note that I even talked to my wife.

The LG Optimus One isn't cutting-edge Android, but it's enough of the smartphone revolution to justify the expense.

 

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