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LG Escape review: Priced to sell, but not to perform

Trendy features and a solid design come at a bargain price, but variable performance may make even budget shoppers think twice.

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Kent German
Kent_German.jpg

Kent German

Senior Managing Editor / Features

Kent is a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and has worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog, or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).

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11 min read

The LG Escape reminds us again of LG's identity problem in the United States. And that problem is that LG doesn't really have an identity.

LG Escape (AT&T)
7.5

LG Escape

The Good

The <b>LG Escape</b> has a bright display and a sturdy, comfortable design. Trendy features like LTE support, a fast dual-core processor, and Android 4.0 make it more than just an entry-level phone.

The Bad

The Escape's 5-megapixel camera produces images of poor quality and the voice command feature was uneven. The battery drains quickly and the excessive bloatware is distracting.

The Bottom Line

The LG Escape's design and features make it more than a basic Android phone, but it doesn't have the complete performance chops to match.

Indeed, the Escape follows in the footsteps of many of the LG smartphones that came before it. The design is solid, but plain. Its features are current, but not surprising. It delivers strong call quality, but still falls short in a couple of key areas. So to put it another way, there's nothing fatally wrong with the Escape, but it doesn't pull any knockout blows.

When you add in the very affordable price -- just $49.99 with a contract -- the Escape is more compelling, and features like 4G LTE support and a dual-core processor sweeten the sauce. If you can get past the poor camera and battery life the Escape will serve you well, but in my view it plays just a bit part on AT&T's Android stage.

LG's Escape isn't its best shot (pictures)

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Design
Though the Escape lacks the graceful curves of the Samsung Galaxy S3, it succeeds on more practical levels. At 4.96 inches long by 2.54 inches wide by 0.37 inch deep, it has a Goldilocks "just right" size that's neither too big nor too small. That's a plus for anyone who balks at the girth of an Android superphone, but still wants a device with plenty of screen space. The Escape also has a sturdy build without being too heavy (4.5 ounces). The back cover is plastic, but I like how the checked pattern catches the light. The handset also gets points for the ribbed spine that runs along its sides and its top and bottom edges.

The Escape shows its thin profile. Josh Miller/CNET

Below the display are the usual touch controls for moving backward through a menu, returning to the home screen, and opening the pop-up menu (the menu options change depending on the feature that you're using). On the right side is the power control, on the top of the phone is the 3.5mm headset jack, and down below is the Micro-USB port. The volume control on the left side is easy to find when you're on a call. Around back are a single speaker and the camera lens. There's no flash, though, and the lens is right where you want to rest your finger. You'll have to remove the battery cover to access the microSD card slot. I used to complain about that a lot, but I guess the decision by most handset manufacturers to put it there anyway has worn me down.

The Escape's back cover has a checked pattern that's visible only when it catches the light. Josh Miller/CNET

Display and user interface
The 4.3-inch qHD display gives you plenty of room for browsing, typing, and apps. Indeed, it's a nice compromise between the low-end Android phones in the 4-inch range and flagship devices like the Galaxy S3 that go supersized. Similarly, the 960x540-pixel resolution is a step down compared with its fancier rivals' screens, but it's perfectly serviceable for everyone except ardent display devotees. Contrast between light and dark areas was sharp and colors (the phone supports 16 million hues) were vibrant and not oversaturated. Blacks could be blacker, and the screen's maximum brightness could be higher, but it does the job.

The multitouch interface supports pinch to zoom and two-finger rotate and tilt. You can't calibrate the display or adjust the touch sensitivity, but the interface is accurate and responsive.

The Escape's QWERTY keyboard fills its entire display. Josh Miller/CNET

There are five home screens that you can customize with folders, widgets, and icons. A few widgets like a Google Search bar, AccuWeather and Facebook apps, and a music player shortcut will be there from the start, but you can remove or resize them. Also, you can easily move elements around the display by tapping and holding. At the bottom of the display is a permanent icon tray that holds up to four apps. The default shortcuts are the phone dialer, the messaging feature, the browser, and the main menu. You can swap out the first three if you wish. The main internal menu has the standard grid design with three pages for apps, downloads, and widgets.

It doesn't bring Jelly Bean, but the Escape at least has Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. That gives it a relatively modern feel with all the useful elements like Face Unlock, screenshot capability, and the option to monitor data use in real time. You can read more about Ice Cream Sandwich in our original Galaxy Nexus review. Of course, you also can adjust connectivity and display brightness settings directly from the home screen and you can silence the ringer or snooze an alarm by flipping the phone over. The flipping gesture control works well, but the process of tilting the phone to move icons around the the home screen was a bit awkward (you don't have to use it). The QWERTY keyboard, contacts menu, and alphanumeric dial pad have the familiar Ice Cream Sandwich enhancements, as well.

Features and apps
For a phone that's just $50 with a contract, the Escape packs more than just the basics. Indeed, Ice Cream Sandwich, the processor, and LTE support make it more than your average starter smartphone even if AT&T markets it as such. The phone book size is limited by the available memory, with each entry holding multiple fields. You also get the usual organizer and communication features, including a calendar, a voice recorder, a task manager, an alarm clock, a calculator, messaging, and support for personal and corporate e-mail. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are onboard and you can (at least try to) go hands-free with the voice commands. That feature was spotty at best. It interpreted commands correctly, and I could dial by using a contact's name, but dialing by speaking a phone number usually delivered bizarre results.

The Escape has most of the usual Google apps you'd expect from an Android phone, including Maps and Navigation, Places, YouTube, Google+, and Latitude. Of course, you can get many more Google and third-party titles from the Google Play store. It's annoying, though, how many of its own apps AT&T crams on the Escape. You can remove titles like AT&T Family Locator if you like, but the onus is on you to clean up the bloatware you don't want to use. Seriously, I think I can set up my phone without using the AT&T Ready2Go app.

Write on your map with the QuickMemo feature. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Fortunately, the embedded third-party apps are more useful. Amazon's Kindle app will please bibliophiles, YellowPages Mobile lets you search for local businesses (though it's redundant with a standard Google search), and the Qik Lite app enables you to share videos on the go. Hidden in the notifications bar is the QuickMemo app, which allows you to draw pictures and notes directly on the display before saving the image to your media gallery. The Escape has 1GB of RAM and it's compatible with microSD cards up to 32GB.

The GS3 also supports NFC (near-field communication), which will let the phone exchange data between NFC tags and other devices with the same feature. It's a fun and useful option, provided you can find NFC tags, and I found it worked as expected.

Camera and media
Though the Escape delivers on must-have specs like Android 4.0 and LTE, its camera is less successful. With so many editing features (I'll describe those in a minute), the maximum 5-megapixel resolution is out of place and the photo quality is mediocre. This is definitely one case where the chef spent too much time on the sauce and not on the meal itself. On the upside, the camera interface makes it easy to use.

Camera editing options include a brightness meter, several scene and white-balance modes, three color effects, a self-timer, geotagging, an HDR mode, panorama shots, and autofocus. As I mentioned, the Escape goes beyond the basics, though not always to great effect. I like how you can capture action shots with the still camera. As you hold down the shutter control, the camera will take continuous shots of a moving subject or as you tilt the camera around. Then, after you release the shutter, the individual shots will end up as a quasi-filmstrip that you can share or save. Using another cool feature, you can take photos just by saying "Cheese." Just make sure you speak loudly enough.

I wasn't a fan of the "beauty shot" mode, which promises to mask skin blemishes in pictures taken with the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. It sounds intriguing, but I thought it was useless. As I went darker, I began to look like I was sunburned, and as I went lighter, my skin took on a ghostly appearance. Yes, my glowing skin did look younger, but it also looked obscenely airbrushed.

Kent German/CNET

Josh Miller/CNET

So, yes, it's a feature-rich camera. It's just too bad it doesn't have the image quality to match. Not everything was horrible, but even a well-lit room in CNET's headquarters produced mixed results. Darker colors were bright and accurate, but lighter areas like the lighter countertop were blown out. Images on the edge of the shot lacked focus, as well. Without a flash, our standard studio shot was darker than it should be with washed-out colors and blurry definition.

Kent German/CNET

Outdoor shots were similarly variable. In bright afternoon light, the green leaves and the stone wall in the flower box shown above showed fine detail and the purple petals were bright. The red petals, however, were pale and the white flowers blended together into one mass. In a morning shot, there's a ton of noise and the camera was unable to focus on one point (you can tap to focus). Also, the sky looks like an Impressionist painting. However, lastly, while I don't expect most camera phones to do well at night, the Escape didn't let me down.

Kent German/CNET

Kent German/CNET

The video recorder can shoot video up to a full-HD, 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution or scale down to just 176x144 pixels for multimedia messages. There are many editing options and you can deactivate the sound for silent movies. Like with the still camera, there are a couple of bizarre options that may leave you either entertained or...not. When filming a person, for example, you can add an effect to make them have bug eyes, a bigger nose, or a Glasgow-smile-type mouth. They're all kind of creepy, so I was more partial to the funky backgrounds like space or a sunset. Video length is limited only by the available memory.

The media player has a standard Android design with features like album art, playlists, and shuffle and repeat models. Loading tracks is easy using a USB cable or a memory card. The video player shows no surprises either. Video is a bit higher-quality than still photos, but still unimpressive. I noticed a fair amount of graininess and faded colors. Nonetheless, you'll find a dedicated YouTube app and AT&T Live TV.

Browser
The browser shows Android 4.0 enhancements and a Skyfire Horizon toolbar extension, which lets you quickly access social media pages, like Facebook and Twitter, while browsing the Web. It's all very standard with a user experience that doesn't stray from the Android line.

Performance
The Qualcomm 1.2GHz processor keeps the Escape humming along. There was no delay in opening apps or in switching between applications. What's more, the device never got bogged down when running multiple applications at once. I had to visit the Task Manager only once during my trial period. The phone powered on from a cold start (with no background applications running) in 23 seconds and the camera launched in barely 2 seconds.

LG Escape Performance
Average LTE download speed 8.87Mpbs
Average LTE download speed 13.55Mbps
App download 646KB in 9 seconds
CNET mobile site load 5 seconds
CNET desktop site load 12 seconds
Boot time 23 seconds
Camera boot time 1.5 seconds

LTE data speeds couldn't compare with those of higher-end AT&T 4G phones. After five tests on the Ookla Speedtest.Net app, I clocked an average download speed of 4.75Mbps and an average upload speed of 0.80Mbps. Compare that with the performance of the Galaxy S3, which delivered average download and upload speeds of 8.87Mbps and and 13.55Mbps, also in San Francisco. Still, the data speeds should be fine for casual users. The CNET News app (646KB) downloaded in 9 seconds, which is respectable. The CNET mobile site downloaded in 5 seconds and the full CNET site in 12 seconds.

Call quality
For making calls, the Escape is a true world phone with support for the 850/900/1800/1900 bands. On LTE, it uses the 4 and 17 bands, which limits access outside AT&T's network, but it will default back to the 850/1900/2100 HSPA+ 3.5G bands if LTE isn't available. As such, you will have some high-speed data access overseas.

Call quality on the Escape was admirable, with a clear signal and little static or distortion. Voices sounded mostly natural, though I noticed that a couple of my friends sounded rather breathy. It wasn't always there, but the whispering effect never went away completely. I didn't experience any dropped calls in my testing period and there were no audio cut-outs. On their end, callers said I sounded fine and I didn't have much trouble with automated calling systems.

LG Escape call-quality sample Listen now:

The volume level gets very loud, so I could hear well even when I was calling from noisy places. That carried over to the speakerphone, which almost had a thunderous quality. As you'd expect, though, the level of distortion increases as you turn up the sound. The Escape is compatible with M3 and T3 hearing aids.

Battery
The Escape has a 2,150mAh battery, but the results were less promising than I'd hoped. Over the course of a day, the Escape drained almost completely as I made calls and cycled between features. What's more, when I left the phone unattended overnight after a 35 percent charge, it was almost dead the next morning. To be sure, large displays and speedy processors are battery drainers, so results will depend on how much you're using both (and which brightness setting you use). When I ran the CNET Labs Video playback battery drain test I got better results. The handset latest for 8.3 hours when playing a video loop. That's quite good, but my experience when multitasking wasn't as sharp. The Escape has a digital SAR of 0.74 watt per kilogram.

Conclusion
The Escape occupies a unique place in AT&T's handset stable. Considering just the specs it could almost be high-end, but the entire package keeps it more midrange. Of course, it's not designed to compete with AT&T's high-end devices like the Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 5 and it offers much more than its Android brethren in the same price range. Its closest competitor is probably the Motorola Atrix HD. That handset also offers a great screen and a fast processor, but low battery life, a lot of bloatware, and poor photo quality held it back.

So where does that leave it? Well, it leaves it in the same place as many of LG's phones before it. It has a lot to offer, but there's nothing really special about it. Absolutely, the price is excellent. And if you're looking for more Android phone for less, it's worth buying on that basis alone. But if you want better performance, it's worth shelling out more for a flagship smartphone. Just remember that a lot of new and interesting AT&T devices, including the LG Optimus G, are due before the end of the year. So if you think the Escape blends into the background now, just wait a few weeks.

LG Escape (AT&T)
7.5

LG Escape

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7
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