LG Esteem (MetroPCS)
MetroPCS will forever hold the distinction of being the first to offer the U.S. an LTE market and phone 11 months ago, but it's also been the slowest in developing a 4G portfolio. The LG Esteem represents the carrier's second LTE smartphone since MetroPCS first launched the Samsung Galaxy Indulge.
Unlike the Galaxy Indulge, the Esteem has no slide-out keyboard to accompany its all-touch screen. It's thick, solid, and square as a brick, but it's also MetroPCS' best smartphone to date. The large, vibrant touch screen, the dual cameras, and the faster processor all add to the appeal, but there's a major sticking point that keeps the Esteem from reaching its potential: its abysmal battery life.
There are some other perks as well: the HDMI-out port, for one, and the 720p HD video capture for another. In addition, MetroPCS will offer a 90-day free subscription to Rhapsody. The LG Esteem costs $249 after a $100 mail-in rebate, without a contract.
The nice way to describe it is that the LG Esteem is a brick with racing stripes. It's a thick black square with sharp edges and thin silver metal accents down the spines (the square edges on the phone's face take some getting used to.) It's a hefty 6-ouncer, which we usually see when a phone is brimming with metal accents and a thick keyboard. There's no keyboard here, but the upside is that the phone is sturdy-strong and likely to take a little abuse before cracking (not that we'd recommend it, mind you.)
Beaming up at you is a 4.3-inch WVGA touch screen (480x800-pixel resolution) with a Corning Gorilla Glass topper and support for 262,000 colors. The result is a bright, colorful, and sharp screen. The Esteem runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, with a subtle custom interface that adds just a few touches, like access to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, airplane mode, and so on from the pull-down notification bar. Swype comes preinstalled on the Esteem, but you can always switch to the standard Android keyboard if you'd prefer.
The Esteem, as we said, is a thick phone, and the dimensions match--5 inches tall, 2.6 inches wide, and 0.5-inch thick. It's a bit bulky for most pockets and the weight is significant--just know what you're getting into.
Below the screen are four touch-sensitive buttons: Menu, Home, Back, and Search. On the right side there's a covered Micro-HDMI adapter port and the volume rocker. On the left, you'll find the covered Micro-USB slot. Up top are the lock/power button and the 3.5-millimeter headset jack. The 5-megapixel camera lens is on the back, along with a flash (it does 720p HD video capture, too). Beneath the soft-touch back cover is the microSD card slot.
In addition to the rear-facing camera, there's a 1.3-megapixel lens above the display that's well-suited for self-portraits and video calls.
With Android, you know where you stand. As with the rest of the Gingerbread men, the Esteem has all the Google goodies--Google Maps, Gmail, turn-by-turn navigation, Google Places, YouTube, the works.
That subtle custom experience we mentioned also finds its way into other aspects of the phone, for instance the deep integration of several social networks. For example, when you begin adding accounts, you can sign into Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace apps that have been customized by LG to work on the phone. LG has also made Yahoo and Windows Live Hotmail accounts easy to sign into from the Accounts menu.
Back in the land of apps, LG and MetroPCS have laid down a thick welcome mat. The upside is that the phone looks less empty and more populated than it might otherwise. The downside is, if you don't like the selections, the prepopulated app tray may smack of uninstallable bloatware. For starters, there's Astro file manager, an application manager, Yahoo finance, Guided Tours, Loopt, Pocket Express, Polaris Office, and the Rhapsody music service.
There's also the SmartShare home networking app (the Esteem supports DLNA), and essentials like a clock, a calendar, a calculator, a newsreader, and a memo pad. MetroPCS has also added its regular complement of apps, including a browser, a navigator, a backup app, an online storefront for purchasing more ringtones and music, a 411 service, and a Wi-Fi sniffer. There's also the MasterCard-backed VCPay mobile app for MetroPCS customers to use for purchases--it's designed to be used as a debit card for those who don't have a credit card, and it requires a $1.49 monthly fee.
When it comes to music, the Rhapsody music app complements the basic Android music player. MetroPCS has partnered with Rhapsody to offer Esteem owners a free 90-day trial subscription. The Esteem also boasts the Dolby Mobile Surround 7.1 system. Music sounded plenty loud and fairly rich when played through the Esteem's speakers, though even Dolby wasn't able to completely eradicate the slight buzz and tininess that are par for the course when playing music from a cell phone. Hard-core audiophiles still won't be pleased with the audio quality, but most people should be happy enough with the sound. We were certainly happy enough listening to songs play while working on this review.
At 5 megapixels for the rear-facing camera, the Esteems' shooter may not capture the highest number of megapixels on the market, but it doesn't need to. Instead, it joins other 5-megapixel cameras (like those of the Samsung Focus and iPhone 4) to show that competent software trumps numbers alone. Photos are crisp and colorful, with good color fidelity, auto-focus, and a well-calibrated flash that correctly didn't engage when taking well-lit indoor shots. There's very little shutter lag.
The front-facing camera surprised us most. The 1.3-megapixel shooter's reproductions were much less grainy (and much more flattering) than many other front-facing cameras, even those with 2 megapixels. Although there were predictably some issues with color reproduction, edges, and clarity (especially with video), it's one of the better front-facing cameras we've seen.
LG's interface is also intuitive and easy to use, with well-considered submenus and a handy shortcut to get to the photo gallery without leaving the camera app entirely. For the more detail-oriented photographers, there are plenty of options to tweak image size, shooting mode, ISO, white balance, color effect, and focus. One of our favorite features, the Esteem will let you edit a photo immediately after capturing, without having to leave the camera app. A plethora of tools let you crop, rotate, adjust colors and lighting levels, resize the image, add effects, and annotate, all before sharing. Kudos to LG for a really seamless effort.
Video capture and playback were also good with both front- and rear-facing cameras. Volume was loud, though quieter when we turned the camera on a subject. The image jerked when we did; some image stabilizing software wouldn't be a bad idea. Overall, playback was pretty smooth from the 720p HD-capable 5-megapixel lens.
The Esteem has a respectable 8GB of internal memory and accepts up to 32GB more in its microSD card slot.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900; LTE 1700/2100) LG Esteem in San Francisco and San Diego on MetroPCS' network. Call quality was totally OK, though not as crystal clear as we've heard elsewhere. Volume could have been higher; set to the maximum volume our friends sounded fine, but we would have liked that level at medium volume. Voices sounded a bit unnatural, digitized, and wavery, but there was absolutely no background noise. On their end, our friends said we sounded clear, loud, and good. Their only complaint was that our voice tended to distort a bit at the highest frequencies.
Speakerphone sounded great to our ears, without any background crackling or hiss, and with louder volumes than when we held it up to our ear. Not so for our callers; they noted that we sounded distant when we held the phone at waist-level. While our voice quality remained high, they said we sounded a little muffled, and that the high-frequency clipping was also more pronounced--they had to listen intently to carry on a conversation.
LG Esteem call quality sample Listen now:
A 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor powers the Esteem. While it's no dual-core processor, it's still plenty fast and we were able to navigate the phone and complete all our tasks without noticing any problems.
When it comes to data speeds, the Esteem is in rockier territory. MetroPCS may technically have an LTE network, but it's never been known to move as quickly as Verizon's LTE, for instance, or even as fast as T-Mobile or AT&T's HSPA+. However, the 4G data speeds are much faster than the 2.5G data network (1x RTT) that MetroPCS has deployed as its 4G fallback, and which also serves as its standard data network. If you're a MetroPCS subscriber in a 4G market like San Francisco, the speeds are indeed noticeably faster. While in San Diego, Web sites loaded much slower, and downloads were positively pokey.
Battery life was the phone's most disappointing feature. The Esteem has a rated battery life of 3.5 hours talk time and up to 8.3 days of standby time on its 1500mAH battery. In real-time, the battery drained quickly and we often found the phone turned off when we fished it out from our bag. You'll find yourself charging at least once, probably twice a day. It's the Esteem's single most concerning feature, especially for active data users, and the one thing that gives us pause in recommending the phone.
FCC radiation tests measured a digital SAR of 0.85 watt per kilogram.
If the Samsung Galaxy Indulge was a step in the right direction for MetroPCS' 4G lineup, the LG Esteem is a leap. Sure, it's a single-core Android device, it's bulky, and there's no HD video capture, but it does have Android 2.3 Gingerbread, an impressive set of front-and-rear-facing cameras, and pretty good call quality. In short, the Esteem is a great example of a higher-end phone for a modest, contract-free carrier. The pricing is right too, for a prepaid phone. However, we wouldn't recommend pocketing the Esteem if you're outside MetroPCS' 4G LTE market, since data is molasses-slow on the 2.5G fallback network. And while we like the phone's hardware and software, the dismal battery life is a heavy black mark against it. If not for the poor battery showing, it would easily be the carrier's best phone.