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Is it possible we've reached our threshold of touchscreen appreciation? LG's Arena looks so familiar to us, like the Renoir without its mechanical face keys and what we've seen of the Viewty II so far. Not even its brushed-steel trim and tempered glass screen can help the Arena look more than mediocre, especially with a few fingerprints smeared on the screen. Perhaps it's the steel-coloured plastic backplate that cheapens the overall aesthetic, or maybe it's just that we've seen too many phones like this recently — the Samsung Omnia springs immediately to mind.
Luckily, LG's new S-Class user interface looks anything but mediocre. It features four home screens that rotate on-screen like a virtual cube, showing media and contact shortcuts, as well as programs and widgets. Each home screen has its own colour scheme, lime green, sky blue, burnt orange, and purple. Together these screens make the Arena feel colourful and alive. Navigating the list of your favourite contacts or your saved images and videos is easy with a Rolodex-style rotating menu, which is responsive to finger gestures, but can get laggy when you fill your phone with music and photos for the menu to render.
The home screens keep your info segmented and easy to find, but the phone's main menu is a cluttered mess of icons — 32 shortcuts in all. Holding the phone vertically shows 16 of these, urging you to drag the lists to display the absent shortcuts, but holding the phone horizontally reveals them all, minus their titles. At first this menu appears confusing, but only until you figure out what the other icons are for, the big question is why are they all on show? Tools like "voice recorder", "Stopwatch" and "Message Settings" are all best left in a sub-category folder, accessible only when they are needed.
Whether you find this system attractive or not, it looks fantastic on the 3-inch WVGA (480x800) display. LG is pitching the Arena as its all-in-one multimedia phone, and the screen specs are a great start. Add to it a top-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack (a rarity on an LG handset) and match it with good media playback and you've got a media powerhouse.
Whether you're an audiophile or a movie buff, the Arena has you covered in regards to media. On the box we read it supports DivX video and features Dolby Mobile enhanced audio — some pretty impressive claims. During our tests it successfully read MPEG4 videos and DivX files encoded after version 5. This means you may have trouble with some of your existing DivX video files if they were encoded with older versions, but converting these files is simple with the media manager in LG's new, excellent PC Suite.
The back of the phone houses a 5-megapixel camera with Schneider-Kreuznach optics (the same as the Viewty and Renoir), auto-focus and an LED flash. It features good software too, and takes excellent photos. It's also capable of shooting video at 720x480-pixel resolution at 30 frames per second. One feature of the camera we loved was the on-screen shutter key. Rather than pressing and holding the shutter until the camera focuses, you simply press the on-screen button and then concentrate on holding the phone still while the software takes care of the rest.
The Arena supports HSDPA web transfers and Wi-Fi networking, offering the best connectivity hardware available at this time. Sadly, these components aren't complemented with excellent software. The browser in the Arena includes a few new input tweaks, like being able to pinch and pull zoom like on the iPhone, but overall we prefer the older version of the browser we saw on the LG Viewty 18 months ago. Pages render strangely and the browser doesn't take the screen's WVGA resolution into account at all — every new page you open renders small and unreadable text, forcing you to zoom in every time.
It's been hard to put our finger on why, but the Arena isn't a phone we've enjoyed using. The phone basics are fine; calling is excellent, with a nice, loud speaker for calls; and messaging is fine, though the on-screen keyboard lacks the razor-sharp accuracy of the iPhone or Nokia's 5800 XpressMusic. We also had a few issues with stability with the Arena crashing on us twice or three times in a variety of different applications, such as the browser and the music player.
Our real problem is with the S-Class interface. In theory this system should speed up certain common tasks; finding a contact or choosing a song to play, for example. In practice it slows the process down. Choosing a photo from the "Rolodex" takes twice as long as choosing from a grid list in the gallery, and scrolling through your favourite contacts is much slower than opening your address book. During the end of our test period we found we infrequently used the cube-style menu and left the screen on the shortcuts pane, which we customised, and accessed everything else through the main menu. Perhaps this is the way LG wants it, giving us the option to use it if we like it, or not to if we don't. But, in our opinion, touchscreens need simple menus with big, clear icons and the S-Class interface offers us the opposite.
In terms of battery life, LG estimates only 3.5 hours talk time, with up to 300 hours of standby. During our tests we tried to mix our usage to find the most realistic results and found we could watch 90 minutes of video and make just over an hour of calls before the battery ran dry. Alternatively it lasted for just over two days with low to moderate use of calling and messaging only.
The Arena keeps its promise of being a media monster, but doesn't amount to much more. In fact, we think it makes a better PMP (portable media player) than a mobile phone. The variety of supported media file types is superb, the camera is great and its screen is one of the best around. It reads like a phone that should offer a class-leading web experience, but the browser is too clumsy for anything more than simple browsing.
LG obviously knows that its touchscreen line of products needs a dedicated finger-friendly interface, but we don't think S-Class is as good as it could be. The interface can be sluggish, especially when the phone is full of data like media and messages, and all of the visual shortcuts make common tasks slower than without the fanfare.