You'd be forgiven if at first glance you thought the LG LX550 were an iPod. To be fair, with its boxy shape, square external display, and round music controls, the new Sprint cell phone does look like Apple's wildly successful music player. It even comes with a selection of faceplates in iPod-like colors such as blue, pink, and green. Perhaps these similarities are the point, however, because beyond making calls, the LX550 boasts solid music capabilities, including the first FM transmitter in a cell phone. The remaining feature offerings are plentiful; you'll find Bluetooth, a 1.3-megapixel camera, 3G support for streaming video, and an expandable memory slot--all in an appealing, compact design. And it makes good calls too. Sprint has dubbed the LX550 with the bizarre name of Fusic, and it's available for a sky-high $329, or a more reasonable $179 with service.
As we mentioned earlier, it's clear where LG got its inspiration for the LX550. And though we were skeptical initially of any cell phone's attempt at mimicking the iPod, we were pleased with the overall result. Although it's a tad boxy, the phone has a clean, minimalist design that doesn't put on airs. At 3.78 by 1.89 by 0.78 inches, it has overtones of the current slim phones. It's not nearly as thin as the hot Motorola Razr, but it slips easily into a pocket or a bag. It also benefits from solid construction (4.23 ounces), and the flip opens and shuts with authority. The LX550 comes in blue in the box, and you'll find changeable faceplates in green, pink, and black.
The most distinctive feature on the front flap of the LG LX550 are the round music controls that let you access the music player and Sprint's music store when the phone is closed. Once music is playing, you can then use the control to pause your tracks and scroll through your playlists. Although there's no Click Wheel, as on the iPod, the controls are still tactile and intuitive. Just below the controls is a small speaker for music and speakerphone calls, while above them is the square, 1.25-inch-diagonal external display. With support for 65,000 colors (96x96 pixels), it's one of the better external screens we've seen on a cell phone. You can't alter the backlighting time, but you can change the wallpaper and use the display as a viewfinder for self-portraits. It also shows photos for caller ID. Above the display is a small light that blinks when the phone is in standby mode and when you're on a call. It glows only in green, but you can turn it off if you like.
Inside the LG LX550, you'll find a gorgeous internal screen that measures 2 inches diagonally. Sharp and vivid with support for 262,000 colors (176x220 pixels), it displays graphics and pictures beautifully, and we enjoyed the funky animated wallpaper. Scrolling through the snazzy menus was also a treat; available in two styles (grid or list), the designs are an improvement upon those of previous LG phones. Not only are they easier on the eyes, but the various pop-up submenus are quite user-friendly. You can change the backlighting time and the font size but not the brightness, and as with most cell phone displays, it's difficult to see in direct light.
The navigation controls left us somewhat divided. Although we're not fans of buttons that are flush with the phone, we found the LG LX550's controls tactile and user-friendly nonetheless. The navigation array is also quite large, so users with big paws shouldn't have a problem. A five-way toggle serves as a shortcut to four user-defined functions, and we liked that the OK button opened the menu when in standby mode. There are also two soft keys, a camera shortcut, and a dedicated speakerphone button--a nice touch. When in standby mode, the left soft key opens a programmable Favorites menu of oft-used features. Below the toggle are a dedicated Back button and the traditional Talk and End/power keys.
The keypad buttons are a tad harder to manipulate. Since they are set flush with the phone, we had trouble dialing by feel. They're also smaller than we expected, but the blue backlighting is bright, and we like the silver plate that covers the inside of the phone. Back on the outside of the LG LX550, there's a camera button and a covered headset jack on the right spine, while a volume rocker, the Micro SD card slot, and a voice-command button sit on the left spine. The camera lens and flash are located on the top of the rear face just below the stubby external antenna.
Besides music features, which we'll get to in a moment, the LG LX550 offers all the basics you'd expect and more. The phone book holds 500 contacts, with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, a Web address, and notes. You can organize callers into groups or pair them with a picture (called a waterdrop, for some reason) or one of 24 polyphonic (72-chord) ring tones. And like the Samsung SCH-A580, the LX550 supports Sprint's new Wireless Backup service. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, an alarm clock, a calculator, a scheduler, a notepad, text and multimedia messaging, a Micro SD card slot (a 64MB card is included with the phone), instant messaging (AOL, Yahoo, and ICQ), POP3 e-mail support, a voice recorder, and a world clock.
For hands-free use, there's Bluetooth, voice commands, voice dialing, and a duplex speakerphone you can activate before you make a call. In particular, we were impressed with the extensive Bluetooth capability. Not only can you use it to make calls with a Bluetooth headset, but it supports a stereo Bluetooth profile for listening to music (very cool), and you can transfer files wirelessly. The LX550 also comes with a USB cable for transferring files and can even serve as a USB flash drive. It was a simple exercise, but we were disappointed that the phone wouldn't accept calls during a USB connection. For modem use with a computer, you can utilize either Bluetooth or the USB cable.
Like Sprint's other music phones, the LG LX550 offers a music player that supports MP3 and AAC files (but not WMAs), as well as music purchased over the Sprint Music Store. Alternatively, you can transfer your own songs to the phone via the TransFlash card and the USB cable but not over the handset's Bluetooth connection. The music player itself is pretty bare bones; it displays album art for songs purchased from the music store, but the user interface is sparse, save for the standard title and artist info, along with a progress bar and time elapsed/total time. You can pause your tunes, skip to the next song, create playlists, and shuffle or repeat your music. And unlike previous Sprint music phones, the LX550 has an equalizer, and you can scan forward or backward within a song. It's a satisfactory experience overall, and we give Sprint credit for not forcing users to buy its music. What's more, we welcome the addition of an FM transmitter (the first on a cell phone), which allows you to broadcast your music to an available frequency on a nearby radio.
Since it supports Sprint's 3G EV-DO network, the LG LX550 is big on streaming-video options. Sprint's Power Vision service offers a variety of content, mostly in 2- to 3-minute for-pay video clips from channels such as CNN, ESPN, the Weather Channel, and E Entertainment. And if video isn't your thing, the phone supports streaming Sirius and Rhapsody radio. The LX550 also makes use of Sprint's on-demand service. You can get up-to-the-minute news, sports, and stock-market updates. Moreover, you can personalize the information by punching in your zip code. And since the phone has GPS capability, you can access movie and TV listings, weather reports, and maps for your current location. Finally, there's an online phone book and dictionary.
The 1.3-megapixel camera takes pictures in just three resolutions--1,280x960, 640x480, and 320x240--which was a bit disappointing for such a mediacentric phone. Still, there's a fair number of editing options, including a 5- or 10-second self-timer; a 10X zoom (except at the highest resolution); a flash; four color tones; brightness and white-balance settings; three quality modes; four shutter sounds, plus a silent option; and an image enhancer--whatever that is. The camcorder shoots videos with sound, and editing options are similar to the still camera's. The video length is limited by the available memory space, and clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds.
Once you're finished playing photographer, you can send your shots in a multimedia message, upload them to Sprint's online album service, assign them to a contact for photo caller ID, or store them on the phone's 21MB of shared memory. Otherwise, you can use the included USB cable to send photos to a computer or to a photo printer with Sprint's PictBridge service, and you can even send them to a Fujifilm retailer for printing and pickup. Image quality was about what you'd expect from a 1.3-megapixel camera. Colors were distinct, but object outlines were fuzzier than we would have liked. Overall, they're fine for use on a computer, but we wouldn't want to print them. Video clips were serviceable but grainy in places; they aren't meant for home movies.
You can personalize the LG LX550 with a greeting and choose from a variety of screensavers, clock styles, wallpaper themes, color skins, and alert tones. You can also set your photos to cycle through a slide show. More customization options and ring tones are available for download through the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Gaming options are slim, with demo versions of only four Java (J2ME) games: Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris, World Poker Tour, and Zuma. You'll need to buy the full titles for longer playtime, and you get a trial version of two other applications as well. StreetFinder somewhat accurately gauges your location via GPS, and ToneMaker lets you mix and record your own ring tones.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) LG LX550 in San Francisco using Sprint's service. Call quality was exceptional, with great clarity and volume even during speakerphone calls. On the other end, callers said they too were satisfied with the audio quality, despite being able to tell we were using a cell phone. At times, we noticed some static, but it wasn't too bothersome, and we experienced no interference with electronic devices. We successfully paired the phone with the Plantronics Explorer 320 Bluetooth headset. Call quality was good, though callers had more trouble hearing us. The included wired headset was satisfactory as well, but just don't expect too much.
Music quality didn't fare as well, however. While there was plenty of volume, songs sounded way too bass heavy, and though the LG LX550 has stereo speakers on the exterior, the interior speaker was far less effective. Song downloads averaged about 1 minute, 15 seconds, which isn't bad, considering the transfer was over the air. Also, the music player itself takes about 5 seconds to start up. We tried using the FM transmitter, and while the experience wasn't perfect, it's a step in the right direction. You can broadcast up to 12 frequencies, but the phone does not automatically scan for them. We also had to hold the phone no more than a foot away from our radio's antenna, and the audio quality was no better than when we were using the phone.
Video quality was mostly sharp as 3G phones go. It's comfortable for viewing in short spells, but it's not like watching TV, no matter what the Sprint ads may tell you. Clips didn't stop or pause for rebuffering, but there was a fair amount of pixelation. Downloads were speedy, usually about 15 seconds for a clip, and Web browsing was a big improvement upon 1xRTT browsers.
The LG LX550 has a rated talk time of 4.5 hours, while our tests showed a talk time of 4 hours. According to FCC radiation tests, the LG LX550 has a digital SAR rating of 0.6 watt per kilogram.