In a world full of cheap gimmicks, it seems easy to slap on the 3D moniker in order to compensate for a product that isn't up to par. (Remember that Justin Bieber movie, "Never Say Never"? Exactly.)
But in the case of the LG Optimus 3D Max, the successor to 2011's LG Optimus 3D, the 3D feature may actually be the device's downfall instead of its saving grace. Everything else about the handset is perfectly adequate -- it has a decent 5-megapixel camera and a zippy 1.2GHz dual-core processor, and it's NFC-enabled. Its biggest setback, however, is its 3D feature, which still has a few kinks to work out and bogs the phone down when connected to a data network.
Introduced in February at Mobile World Congress and launched about a month ago in Europe, the Optimus 3D Max is going for about $635 unlocked. But you won't find the 3D Max in the States yet, and there's no word on the carrier, pricing, or release date. So until it makes its way across the ocean, we'll just have to get our 3D action someplace else.
The LG Optimus 3D Max measures 4.99 inches tall and 2.65 inches wide. At 0.38 inch thick, it's thinner than the original Optimus 3D, but at 5.22 ounces, it's still heavy. I have a small grip, so the device felt too wide to handle. I dropped the handset a couple of times trying to use it with one hand, and its slick backing didn't help out either. Although I can put it in my jeans pocket, the fit is snug and a good half-inch is still exposed.
On the left side are a volume rocker and a Micro-USB port that has a small cover you can toggle back and forth. Though I appreciate the faux-metallic finishing on these features, the volume buttons are difficult to press. They're so flush with the side of the phone, it makes them hard to find by feel and even harder to push. Up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack (a pair of midlevel earbuds comes with the 3D Max) and a sleep/power button. To the right is the 3D shortcut button, which gives you quick access to your 3D games, 3D YouTube videos, and the 3D camera (more on all these later).
The back is made out of a black, slightly textured thin piece of plastic. Again, it's incredibly smooth, so don't expect any friction to keep it in place on, say, an airplane seat's tray table or your car's dashboard. On the left side, you'll see two 5-megapixel lenses for the 2D and 3D cameras, and on the bottom right are two slits for the output speaker. Using a small indent on the bottom edge of the device, you can pry the backing off to gain access to the 1,520mAh battery, the microSD card slot, and the two little gold NFC antennas.
The generous 4.3-inch WVGA touch-screen Gorilla Glass display is large enough for comfortable game-playing and has a resolution of 480x800 pixels. In both 3D and 2D mode, colors were rich and vivid. I was especially impressed with the display when brightness was cranked all the way up: menu icons (shaped as cubes to keep with the 3D theme) were crisp and graphics were smooth.
In order to render images in 3D without the need for those goofy 3D glasses, the display uses what's called a parallax barrier. It makes your left and right eye view two different sets of pixels or images. When seen simultaneously, they give the image you're looking at a sense of depth.
One of the biggest complaints about this technology is that it requires you to look at the screen at just the right angle. I had to hold the handset about 12 to 16 inches away and it had to be placed dead center in front of my face. If I tilted or shifted the handset just a few degrees, the images would be all off and it would get pretty nauseating. Especially when playing games, where some physical movement is a given.
The narrow viewing angle is especially a drag when you want to show your phone off to your friends. If this 3D feature is considered a party trick, your party will have to line up one by one or squeeze their heads together to get a good look at the 3D action.
Above the display is a front-facing VGA camera for Web chatting and vanity shots. Below are the four usual navigation buttons (menu, home, back, and search) that light up when in use.
The LG Optimus 3D Max runs on a 1.2GHz dual-core processor. The CPU's speed is one of the most redeeming qualities of this device, as it was incredibly impressive. Not only were simple tasks such as switching the handset from landscape to portrait mode, opening and using the camera, or zooming in on Web pages executed swiftly, but more complicated tasks were carried out quickly as well.
Sometimes, however, a few of the 3D apps would quit unexpectedly. For example, when connected to a data network, 3D YouTube and some of the 3D games would force-quit, and the 3D camera app quit a few times, regardless of data connection. But when they weren't quitting, the internal speeds made saving 3D recordings and playing graphics-heavy 3D games a breeze.
One disappointment, however, is that this phone runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread. It will be updatable to the Ice Cream Sandwich version of the OS "later," but with all these new products coming from LG (like the Optimus 4X HD and the Optimus Vu), learning that they're not shipped with ICS natively is getting to be a consistent letdown.
Nevertheless, the 3D Max has all the Google goodies you've come to expect, like Mail, Search, Plus, Latitude, Play Store, Messenger, Maps with Navigation, Places, Talk, and YouTube.
3D-specific apps include four games (Asphalt 6, Let's Golf 2, N.O.V.A., and Gulliver's Travels -- which isn't really a game but a useless interactive storybook filled with mumbling characters), a 3D guide in case you need help, a 3D camera app for taking 3D photos and video, a 3D gallery to store said footage in, and a 3D Converter app. When other 2D apps, like Google Maps, are launched within this feature, they're supposed to be converted into 3D.
This sounds like a neat idea, except it didn't really work when I used it. Nothing happened after I opened my Maps in 3D Converter and after several minutes of trying to figure it out, I concluded the app was either in beta stage or it had a lousy user interface. Although you can't really blame LG since it doesn't develop apps, I can at least be disappointed in its touted 3D Converter.
The Near Field Communication chip, or NFC, within the device, is greatly welcomed, though. This chip enables the handset to wirelessly communicate with other NFC-enabled devices within a short distance.
LG included three Tag+ stickers labeled Office, Sleep, and Car mode that let you use the NFC feature to activate certain settings on your phone that you customize. For example, every time you go to sleep, you may want to put your 3D Max on vibrate, dim your screen, and have your music turn off after 10 minutes of playing. Once you set up and save those settings using the LG Tag+ app, you can activate them whenever you tap your Sleep Mode Tag sticker.
When I tried out this feature, it worked solidly every time and the Tag+ app made setup easy.
There are other preloaded apps, such as a backup app; a finance app for keeping track of your stocks; Flash Player; a news and weather app; the Polaris Office mobile office suite; a RemoteCall app that lets LG support services remotely access your device for troubleshooting; a content distributor app called SmartShare; LG SmartWorld; an app called What's New for your notifications; and a video editor.
You also get e-mail, text messaging, a Web browser, and Bluetooth, and the basic task-management features of a calendar, a clock with alarm settings, a notepad, a calculator, and a voice recorder.
As for the 5-megapixel camera with two lenses, shooting in 2D offers a greater variety of options. The rear-facing 2D camera has autofocus, touch focus, a flash, face tracking, geotagging, a timer, and continuous shooting. It also has a digital zoom and exposure meter; five image sizes; five scene modes (normal, portrait, landscape, sunset, night); five white-balance modes (auto, incandescent, sunny, fluorescent, cloudy); and four color effects (none, black and white, sepia, negative).
Recording options consist of the same digital zoom and exposure meter, flash, audio muting, six video sizes (ranging from full HD 1080p to QCIF), a stabilizer, two recording durations (one for normal recording and one for sending over MMS), and the same white-balance and color effects.
The front-facing camera offers the same exposure meter, white-balance modes, color effects, timer, and geotagging feature for the camera, but only two scene modes (normal, night). Recording with the VGA camera lends no options save for audio muting.
Putting the camera in 3D mode brings fewer options, but there are still plenty of editing features left to work with. For photos, there is an exposure meter, as well as another meter that lets you customize where you want the depth of the 3D image to appear (either somewhere "behind" the display or "in front" of it). Again you have flash; two 3D focus modes (border, center); three different image sizes (from 1 to 3 megapixels); a timer; geotagging; and the same color effects and white-balance choices.
When shooting video in 3D, all previously mentioned features are included, save for the addition of a stabilizer and different video sizes (ranging from VGA to 720p HD).
I tested the unlocked LG Optimus 3D Max in San Francisco first with a T-Mobile SIM card. Because the Optimus 3D Max is not optimized for T-Mobile's 3G or HSPA+ networks, I had to test the handset on EDGE. Stay tuned, as I will test this product on AT&T's network later on.
Signal quality on T-Mobile was perfectly adequate; I didn't experience any dropped calls, extraneous buzzing, or audio clipping in and out. Sound quality, however, was mediocre. Voices were audible but muffled. Though turning up the volume helped a bit, my friends still sounded like they were talking underneath a thin sheet. Likewise, I was told I sounded a little stifled as well.
The output speakerphone quality performed much better. Calls still sounded muffled, but music videos and games played loud and crisp. When the volume was cranked all the way up, though, sounds did come off as too harsh or sharp, but they were clear regardless.
Listen now: LG Optimus 3D Max call quality sample
The 5-megapixel 2D camera's photo quality was perfectly decent. Shutter speed was quick and images taken indoors and outdoors appeared well-defined and sharp. Photos only looked grainy after zooming. Colors were bright and didn't bleed into one another, though they weren't as vivid as they were in real life.
Video recording quality was also satisfactory. Audio was picked up well and feedback followed quickly behind my moving the camera. Colors were rich and images were cleanly recorded with little graininess or pixelation.
The front-facing VGA camera understandably had a lower photo quality. Shades of white were washed out and other colors were muted. Since there is no focusing feature, objects came out blurry as well.
With all my gripes about the 3D feature on this device, I did get a kick out of recording and taking pictures in 3D. Although you can't view the photos in 3D outside the handset (they're exported as two separate images and are saved at 3 megapixels), colors are still rich and accurate, though bright lights do get washed out from time to time. The 3D effect is impressively apparent, especially if you take a picture that has many objects spaced out at different depths.
Video recording yielded similar results. When I recorded oncoming traffic, cars looked as if they could be driving right off the screen. Outlines of images were visibly defined and colors were accurate. Sound was picked up clearly as well.
Keep in mind that since my first tests were on T-Mobile's EDGE network, data speeds won't be representative of how the Optimus 3D Max could on a 3G network. When the 3D Max is connected to a weak data network, don't expect apps like 3D YouTube to run smoothly. Oftentimes, video rendered as two 2D videos playing side by side or the app, as previously mentioned, just quit altogether. It was only when I connected to a strong Wi-Fi network that videos played correctly and smoothly.
During our battery drain tests the 3D Max lasted 9.35 hours. It had poor battery life when many 3D features were activated. After spending a few hours playing and recording 3D videos and running 3D games, the battery drained significantly as expected. When sticking to activities like making calls and text-messaging, I got a good handful of hours in without much loss of charge. According to ICNIRP radiation standards, the device has a digital SAR rating of 0.69W/kg.
As a standalone product, the LG Optimus 3D Max is a reliable handset. The camera quality is satisfactory, the swift dual-core CPU makes it a breeze to handle, and the NFC-enabled chip is a welcome new technology on any phone.
But if you're looking for an outstanding user experience from the device's 3D feature, it may help to wait for the technology's bumps to get smoothed out. Although the 3D camera works well, the apps are buggy, the viewing angle is too narrow, and if you're on a slow data network, you can forget about accessing 3D features on the Web altogether.
Through the idea of a great 3D screen on a mobile handset sounds promising, my most pleasant experiences with the 3D Max came when it wasn't in 3D mode. And, if we're going by the European unsubsidized sticker price of $635, the price may be too steep for what some see as just another party trick.