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LG Leon (T-Mobile) review: Cheap and portable, but still not worth the buy

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The extremely affordable LG Leon serves up midlevel specs like a 5-megapixel camera, a 1.2GHz processor and a low 480-pixel resolution. And while nothing is wrong with budget handsets, the Leon's altogether lackluster performance makes it an unsavory device -- especially since there are so many other alternatives that perform more reliably, have better specs and are priced about the same.

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6.0

LG Leon (T-Mobile)

The Good

The LG Leon is competitively priced, has expandable memory, and for T-Mobile customers, it makes reliable calls over both cellular and Wi-Fi.

The Bad

The handset's camera takes mediocre photos and lacks touch-focus, and its performance is sluggish.

The Bottom Line

The LG Leon is a passable budget smartphone, but it's worth spending a little more for the Motorola Moto G or the 4.7-inch Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3.

If cost is your main motivation, the Leon's price tag is attractive -- $140 prepaid with US carrier T-Mobile, around £65 in the UK and roughly AU$149. However, it underperforms the Samsung Galaxy Core Prime , the Motorola Moto G and the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (4.7-inch variant) -- the last two of which are $40 more and are some of our favorite budget phones of the year so far.

LG's petite Leon goes easy on the wallet (pictures)

See all photos

Design and build

  • 4.5-inch display with 854x480-pixel resolution
  • 218 pixel per inch
  • 5.11 by 2.55 by 0.42 inches (129.79 by 64.77 by 10.67mm)
  • 4.89 ounces (138.63 grams)

Compact and lightweight, the Leon is an ultra-pocketable device that fits easily in your front jeans pocket and is comfortable to maneuver with one hand. The back curves slightly outward, making it more pleasant to grip, and I like the faux-metal sheen on the back plate, which adds just a bit of luxury to the handset. However, the control buttons on the rear bulge out, making it thicker around that area, and I don't like the fact that the phone's chin is so deep, leaving more than enough for an unsightly company logo (in this case, LG's).

On the top and bottom edges are a 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro-USB port for charging, respectively. The back houses the camera with flash, the control buttons including the sleep/power button and the volume rocker, and the speaker grille for audio.

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With its 4.5-inch display, the Leon is pocket-friendly. Josh Miller/CNET

To remove the back cover, you'll need to pry it off from the Micro-USB opening. There you can access the battery, the microSD port that sits underneath the battery, and the SIM card, which is on the right edge.

Though the 4.5-inch display has a low resolution at 480p, it's still quite decent. It's bright enough to view comfortably indoors, though it does wash out a bit when you take it outdoors in direct sunlight. Images and graphics can look pixelated, however, and you can see aliasing on the edges of text. But for your casual phone needs, you'll be able to view and read the screen without any eye strain.

Software and other features

  • Google Android 5.0.2 Lollipop
  • Includes LG's signature QuickMemo+ note app
  • Preloaded T-Mobile apps

The Leon runs Google's mobile operating system Android Lollipop and features a number of apps from the company like Gmail, the Chrome Web browser, Drive, Maps and Hangouts.

The carrier loaded a few of its apps as well, like T-Mobile My Account, which gives you information about your phone and data plan; apps that help set up your visual voice mail and mobile hotspot; and a 30-day trial offer to the media streaming service T-Mobile TV, which streams channels like Fox News and ESPN. There is also the security service Lookout, Device Unlock and T-Mobile's digital payment service, Mobile Money.

Other apps include a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, the Polaris Office office suite, a voice recorder, a flashlight and more. LG threw in its note-taking app as well. Known as QuickMemo+, the app enables users to jot down quick notes and doodles.

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The handset features apps from T-Mobile and LG's QuickMemo app. Josh Miller/CNET

Cameras and video

  • 5-megapixel rear-facing camera
  • 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Can record 1,080p (rear) and 480p video (front)

Photo quality on the 5-megapixel camera was mediocre. But given that this is a midlevel device, I expected there to be some compromises with the camera. Objects were out of focus and when they moved even the slightest, you can see noticeable amount of motion blur. Colors were faded and skin tones were muted. Photos also appeared fuzzier around the outer edges of the frame and the flash can leave a harsh blue tone over the images. The front-facing camera didn't fare any better either. The selfies I took were pixelated and blurry, and my skin tone looked washed out.

In addition, though the front-facing camera has touch-focus (which, in the end, didn't help much with focus anyway), the rear shooter does not. That means you cannot change your picture's focus point, making it harder to take a sharper picture, especially if you're up close. For more about photo quality, check out the pictures below. And be sure to click on each image to see them at their full resolutions.

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Though this indoor picture is decent, you can see the lack of focus around the edges of the frame. Lynn La/CNET

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In this well-lit outdoor scene, people are blurry and colors lack vibrancy. You can also see how skin tones look muted. Lynn La/CNET

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In our standard studio photo, you can see how the flash casts a blue tone against the white background. Lynn La/CNET

Video quality was much better, fortunately. Objects were sharper and in focus and colors were true-to-life. Both distant and nearby audio picked up well and evenly, and the camera adjusted quickly when it came to different lighting environments. You can also pause recording and capture photos while shooting video.

Camera features are minimum. You won't see any HDR or panoramic options here, but you will get a 4X digital zoom, a timer, a voice- and gesture- activated shutter and grid lines that can help you compose a picture. There's also burst shot, which lets you take pictures rapid-fire continuously while holding down the shutter button. Images can be saved in four different resolutions (from 1,280x960p to 2,560x1,920p) for the rear camera. The front-facing camera lets you save images flipped vertically and shoot images in a 640x480p. For additional editing tools, however, you can head to the gallery app, which lets you crop, rotate, and filter images, as well as adjust levels like saturation and brightness.

Hardware performance

  • 1.2GHz quad-core processor
  • 8GB of internal storage (with 32GB expandable memory)
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 1,820mAh removable battery

With its midrange hardware, the Leon can be slow. It takes a few beats to do simple, daily tasks like opening up the app drawer, calling up the keyboard and launching apps. And while its average time to power off and restart is pretty standard at about 41 seconds, the fact that it takes 3.05 seconds to launch the camera is quite long, compared with other handsets that take about 2 or 2.5 seconds.

When it comes to day-to-day usage like using apps and adjusting settings, the Leon also felt a bit slower compared with the Galaxy Core Prime and the Moto G. Though, the speed difference is only slight, and it was really only noticeable when the devices were placed side by side.

Benchmark scores, however, told a different story. The Leon managed to score decent benchmark results, and had the highest 3D Mark Ice Storm unlimited result compared with all three phones. And while the Moto G had the highest single- and multicore result from Geekbench 3, LG's handset beat out the Core Prime and the OneTouch Idol 3 on the single-core test.

LG Leon Benchmark Test Comparison

LG Leon 4,563 470 1,428Samsung Galaxy Core Prime 4,545 387 1,153Motorola Moto G (late 2015) 4,473 528 1,609Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (4.7-inch) 4,380 469 1,446
  • 3DMark Ice Storm (unlimited)
  • Geekbench 3 (single-core)
  • Geekbench 3 (multi-core)
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

As for its memory, you'll most likely need to expand the Leon's storage with a microSD card. Though there's 8GB of internal storage here, you'll have much less (about 3GB) to work with, and it runs out quickly when you're taking photos and downloading apps.

Battery life

The phone's battery has an estimated talk time of 10 hours and 11.7 days of standby time. During our own lab tests for continuous video playback, the battery lasted a decent 9 hours. As a comparison, the Galaxy Core Prime and the OneTouch Idol 3's 2,000mAh batteries lasted 10 hours and 11 hours and 54 minutes, respectively. The Moto G's 2,470mAh battery lasted the longest at 12 hours and 34 minutes. In addition, it took about 2 hours and 45 minutes for the Leon to fully charge its battery after it was completely drained.

Call quality and data speeds

  • GSM: (850/900/1,800/1,900MHz)
  • LTE B2/B4/B12
  • UMTS B2/B4/B5
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
  • Built-in Wi-Fi calling

I tested the device in our San Francisco offices by calling a landline, and call quality was great. Using a cellular network, my calling partner sounded clear and easy to understand. Call volume was also appropriate and with maximum volume, I was able to hear my partner well. Audio speaker also sounded good, though it sounded thinner and sharper. I was told my voice over audio speaker sounded more muffled as well.

For US customers on T-Mobile, the handset has built-in Wi-Fi calling, meaning it can make and receive calls over a Wi-Fi network, like the one set up in your house or a local coffee shop. This is useful whenever cellular coverage is weak or nonexistent, and it does not count towards your minutes. When I used the feature, the Wi-Fi call sounded good. Audio was steady, and it didn't cut in and out. Audio speaker was also consistent and loud.

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If you're a T-Mobile customer, the device supports built-in Wi-Fi calling. Josh Miller/CNET

The phone's 4G LTE data speeds were steady and consistent as well, with data speeds being about on par to what I expected with a device of this caliber. According to Ookla's speedtest app, the average download and upload rate was pretty slow at 3.91 and 10.3Mbps, respectively. It also took about 4 seconds to load CNET's mobile site and 24 seconds to fully load our desktop site. Downloading and installing the 44.68MB game Temple Run 2 required about a minute and 51 seconds on average, and a one-time download of the 496MB movie "Gravity" finished in 23 minutes and 24 seconds.

As always with data tests, speeds differ widely depending on several factors such as location and time of day. What I observed here is just a minuscule sample and may not be what you experience in your location.

LG Leon (T-Mobile) average data speeds

4G LTE download rate 3.91Mbps
4G LTE upload rate 10.3Mbps
CNET mobile site load 4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 24 seconds
Temple Run 2 app download (44.68MB) 1 minute and 51 seconds
"Gravity" movie download (496MB) 23 minutes and 24 seconds

Conclusion

Although the LG Leon is inexpensive at $140/£65/AU$150 and has a few extra goodies like expandable storage and built-in Wi-Fi calling from T-Mobile, the handset doesn't perform well at the basics. Its 5-megapixel camera takes blurry pictures and has minimal photo features, and its processor can lag at times.

If you want to strictly stay within the same price range, the Samsung Galaxy Core Prime also costs $140, has a longer-lasting battery and takes slightly better photos with its camera.

But you don't have to splurge too much to have a better phone. The Motorola Moto G , for example, is a great alternative. Starting at $180, £159 and AU$369, it doesn't cost much more than the Leon and it has a capable 13-megapixel camera, a water resistant design and runs a nearly pure version of Android. The 4.7-inch OneTouch Idol 3 from Alcatel is also another option. It costs the same as the Moto G, takes great photos, has a sharper display and has twice as much internal storage as the Leon at 16GB. Again, both cost more than LG's handset, but the smoother performance and better camera make the price difference worth it.

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6.0

LG Leon (T-Mobile)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 6Camera 5Battery 6