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Cast your mind back to a profoundly great LG phone from 2011. Are you drawing a blank? Exactly. LG has released more than just a handful of Android phones in 2011, but the phone maker has never produced a carrier's alpha Android handset. The LG Nitro HD for AT&T is its first creation in a long time that comes close (very close), with high-end specs that rival and arguably best Samsung's top-of-the-line Galaxy S II Skyrocket.
First, there's the support for 4G LTE, which rides on HSPA+ if you're not in an LTE area. This is AT&T's third phone to have it, after the Skyrocket and the HTC Vivid. Then there's the huge, bright, and beautiful 4.5-inch HD screen. You also have the 8-megapixel camera with 1080p HD video capture, and the 1.3-megapixel camera. And, of course, there's also the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, and a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.
So does the Nitro HD have what it takes to beat LG's longtime rivals? Absolutely. However, there are some drawbacks, like a noticeable shutter lag that misses shots, a quickly drained battery, and niggles like a rougher in-hand feel and aggressive haptic feedback, that make us wish for a greater attention to detail.
The LG Nitro HD costs $249.99 with a new two-year service agreement, though I recommend checking for online and promotional discounts.
LG didn't exactly break the mold with the Nitro HD, but there are some interesting design touches to help give it some character. Like so many other superphones these days, the Nitro HD is all-black, with a rounded rectangular shape and a thick black bezel below the display. A shiny, dark-gray rim around the phone face and a few silver-colored accents around the camera housing and LG logo on the back brighten the textured black battery cover.
The backing itself is made of hard black plastic, but has a slightly softer feel to it that would have been even better if it had been even more rubberized and grippier. Thin zigzag ridges in a diagonal pattern help keep it from picking up smudges. While my colleague Roger Cheng liked the in-hand feel, I found it a little rough around the edges.
As for the size, the Nitro HD is definitely a larger phone, and on par in its dimensions with other handsets in its class. It stands 5.27 inches tall, 2.67 inches wide, and 0.41 inch thick, which makes it a hair shorter than the unlocked Galaxy Nexus, but the exact same width. It's also a smidge thicker--0.07 inch, to be exact, though Verizon's Galaxy Nexus is expected to put on a millimeter or two over the unlocked version we have in-house. It weighs 4.5 ounces.
As for the operating system, the Nitro HD runs Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread right now, but will likely update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It uses LG's typical skin for Android phones, which includes touches like access to the system settings from the pull-down menu, an overview of all seven home screens when you pinch to zoom in, and a specific look and feel to the camera software and app tray.
Below the 4.5-inch screen are three touch-sensitive buttons to pull up the menu, go home, and go back. Above the display is the 1.3-megapixel camera for video chats. The volume rocker is on the phone's left spine, as are the power button, covered Micro-USB charging port, and 3.5mm headset jack.
Flip to the back side to find the 8-megapixel camera lens and LED flash. Below the back cover is the microSD card slot, which comes with 16GB preinstalled to complement the phone's 4GB of onboard memory.
Even though the screen size is important, LG's real point of pride is the Nitro HD's 4.5-inch "true HD AH-IPS" display with a 1,280x720-pixel resolution and a pixel density of 329 pixels per inch. What's more, LG claims its flagship phone packs 500 nits of luminance, a measure of brightness, while keeping colors looking accurate. (The LG Marquee has an extremely bright 700-nit screen, but color reproduction was slightly unnatural at times.) There's support for 16 million hues.
There's only one way I like to test screen claims, and that's to let photos do the talking. I studied a series of pre-existing HD images on the Galaxy Nexus (which also packs a 1,280x720-pixel resolution on its fancy Super AMOLED HD display) and the Nitro HD, both looking at the images on side-by-side phone screens and also comparing screenshots of the images on my computer. I should mention that I slid brightness up to the maximum setting on both phones for this test.
Most of the time, the two photos were extremely close, but the Nitro HD frequently edged out the Galaxy Nexus when it came to color reproduction, smoothness, and clarity of detail. In one screenshot, the image on the Galaxy Nexus was noticeably more pixelated, while the Nitro HD produced a nuanced image with a smooth color gradient (take a peep at the photos above and below).
As a bonus, the screen was still visible even in direct sunlight. Even though it was washed-out, I could still make out the icons and text.
Since this is an Android phone, you're looking at Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, plus DLNA and Wi-Fi Direct support. Support for an almost limitless cast of contacts, integration with social networking buddies, and multiple inboxes is a mainstay, with now-standard features like group calling, ringtone customization, and photo ID. There is also, of course, access to all the Google services you know and love: Maps, navigation, search, chat, YouTube, and so on.
AT&T and LG have preloaded a bushel of their own branded apps, as they are wont to do. That haul includes AT&T Code Scanner and Family Map, AT&T Navigator, and Live TV for U-verse streaming and downloads, a service that costs $9.99 per month. SmartShare is LG's DLNA streaming app for compatible devices.
Other preloaded apps have made their way onto the phone as well, from Amazon Kindle and MOG Music to Qik Lite for video chatting and Polaris Office. A link to HD video games and Zynga Poker HD add some more entertainment options. You'll also find essentials like a calendar, calculator, clock, and basic music player.
In addition to the apps, LG slips in some subtler, but endlessly useful capabilities. I'm talking about the "gestures" in the Settings menu that will perform such gratifying services as silencing an alarm when you just want to snooze, snuffing an incoming call, and pausing a playing video. Just turn the phone butt-up to trigger each action. You can also use a combination of tilting the phone or tapping its sides to do things like move an icon from one home screen to the next, and navigate the photo gallery. You can take screenshots by simultaneously pressing and holding the power button and home button. It's a convenient and consistently successful combo that I used frequently during this review.
The LG and Android keyboards are the two input methods, but Swype diehards will deflate to see that virtual keyboard missing. The haptic feedback you get when you type and press certain buttons has a croaky, aggressive rattle on the Nitro HD. I'm not a big fan of under-finger buzzing anyway (in fact, it's one of the first things I disable), but this one was much more irksome.
Like all high-end smartphones in our day and time, the Nitro has both a rear-facing and a front-facing camera. The 8-megapixel shooter on the back has a very responsive autofocus, as well as LED flash. Photos look terrific when viewed on the phone's screen, but less so when seen on a computer screen. (See the Nitro HD camera test slideshow for more detail.) Some pictures had really nice color balance and crisp edges, but others created visual oddities that didn't exist in real life, especially in scenes with bright color.
Indoor night shots also weren't fantastic when taken in auto mode, which is to be expected. All camera photos generally turn out better when you take the time to adjust the scenes, modes, and lighting. With the Nitro HD, add in time to pose a shot. Even better, turn yourself into a precog and anticipate the arc of action in a shot, since you could be waiting 2 to 4 seconds for the shutter to close. I didn't experience this every time, but enough times, especially in bright outdoor light, to make me miss some good pictures. There are a couple of basic editing features in the Gallery so you can rotate and crop photos.
The front-facing camera took decent 1.3-megapixel photos, though the focal point was hard to control even with the viewfinder centered on your face. The 1080p HD video I captured looked great on the phone and off it, if not a little bright once I took it outside. Videos played back very well.
LG has generously provisioned the phone with 4GB of internal memory for storing multimedia and a 16GB card preinstalled. It accepts up to 32GB of external storage, for a grand total of 36GB.
I tested the quad-band (850/900/1800/1900) LG Nitro HD in San Francisco using AT&T network. Call quality was almost good, but there were some problems. On my end, audio was a little low, even with volume cranked up, and there was a scratchy white noise in the background whenever my caller spoke. It was a little distracting, but otherwise, the timbre and voice quality sounded true. There was sometimes additional white noise. Callers said I sounded OK. Volume was acceptable, but could be louder, they said. There was no echo and no static on the clear line, and voices sounded true.
LG Nitro HD call quality sample Listen now:
I tested the speakerphone by holding the device at waist level. Volume immediately shot up, background noise receded, and voice quality held steady. On their end, my callers said it sounded fuzzy, with no sharp edges, but there wasn't an echo and they said I didn't sound tinny. I did, however, come across quieter than I should for speakerphone, which would lead to problems if I were in a noisy location.
A phone can only be as fast as its network, and unfortunately, San Francisco isn't one of AT&T's LTE markets. I did test the phone on the HSPA+ network, however, and actions felt a little pokey here in typically slower San Francisco. They'll also likely look glacial compared with LTE. I used Ookla's Speedtest.net diagnostic app to get a handle on the data. Speeds stayed in the 1-2Mbps range for data downloads, and in the 0.59-1Mbps range for uploads. I expect they'll be much faster in other locations.
The LG Nitro has a high-capacity1,830mAh battery, but its battery life is suspect. True, I had the screen on full brightness much of the time to scrutinize screen quality, but even with automatic brightness, the battery meter seemed to drain pretty quickly. More detailed battery drain tests will follow, but for now I'll leave you with the rated talk time of 7 hours and up to 10.8 days of standby time--both numbers calculated while the phone is tapped into a 3G network.
If it's a premium, 4G LTE phone you want, the LG Nitro HD has what it takes to give the Samsung Skyrocket a run for its money. The HD screen is terrific and detailed, the camera, while imperfect, is still high-quality, and the high-end specs deliver. At this upper echelon, what separates one champion from another often comes down to minor preferences, like one Android skin versus another, or the look and feel of the chassis itself. I personally think LG could have finessed the phone's design more; there's something about the feel of that grooved back cover that comes perilously close to reminding me of nails on a chalk board. The default haptic feedback also rubbed me the wrong way (I turn this off quickly anyhow), and the often-laggy camera shutter can muck up more active shots. Still, LG deserves kudos for introducing a competitive superphone. At $249.99, it's one of the carrier's pricier handsets. However, online discounts--like the $100 off I saw at the time of the review--price it to sell.
Editors' note: This review was updated with information about the Nitro HD's data speeds and to correct the description of the HD display.