LG Optimus F3 review: Compact and inexpensive, but forgettable

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The Good The LG Optimus F3 is inexensive with or without a carrier contract, has long-lasting battery life, and comes with Google’s TalkBack feature for the visually impaired.

The Bad The Optimus F3 showed inconsistent 4G data performance and call quality was mediocre.

The Bottom Line If you’re looking for a compact Android handset, the LG Optimus F3 will satisfy prepaid customers. As an on-contract phone, however, look to other free smartphones that are better.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

As someone who's getting more baffled by the ever-expanding screen sizes of smartphones, for me it's nice to see a relatively compact Android device, like the LG Optimus F3, coming out of the pipeline from time to time.

But just because it only has a 4-inch screen doesn't mean it also goes light on the features. In fact, its dual-core processor, decent camera, and long-lasting battery all contribute to a quality experience using this 4G LTE handset.

Currently available for free after users sign a two-year carrier agreement with Sprint, (or $240 prepaid with T-Mobile) the Optimus F3 is good for people who prioritize a modestly sized smartphone. For those who don't mind just a little more wiggle room with their displays, however, Sprint offers plenty of those for free too. If you're a T-Mobile customer on the other hand, the F3 is a great deal, and if you want a bigger screen, you'll need to cough up a bit more money.

Editors' note: This review was updated on October 14, 2013, to include analysis of the T-Mobile version of the LG Optimus F3.

The LG Optimus F3 is small -- really small. Measuring just 4.57 inches tall, 2.44 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick, the device is compact and can easily fit in front jeans pockets. Comfortable to operate with one hand, it's also lightweight at just 4 ounces.

On its left and right edges are a volume rocker and sleep/power button, respectively. Meanwhile the top houses a 3.5mm headphone jack and the bottom has a Micro-USB port for charging.

LG Optimus F3 (pocket)
With only a 4-inch screen, the Optimus F3 is a compact, comfortable handset. Josh Miller/CNET

The battery door features a textured line design that keeps fingerprints off with its matte coating. It comes in both silver and dark purple, and it can be easily removed by sliding your fingernail underneath the Micro-USB port. Once it's off, you can access the 2,460mAh battery and both the SIM card and microSD card slots. The back also houses the 5-megapixel camera with flash, and two small slits at the bottom left for the audio speaker.

The 4-inch IPS touch screen has a 800x480-pixel resolution. Though it's no top-tier 1080p display, it's impressively clear and bright in its own right. True, there is a bit of aliasing on the edges of text, but letters and icons still look clean, stock wallpaper photographs appear crisp with little color banding, and the touch screen is responsive. Above the display is a VGA front-facing camera, and below are two hot keys (for back and menu), along with a physical home button that has a colorful LED light surrounding it for notifications.

Software features
The handset ships with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and comes with a number of Google's services, like Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Latitude, Local, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, Search, Shopper, Talk, and YouTube. The Google Play stores for Books, Magazines, Movies & TV, and Music are included as well.

Sprint loaded some of its own apps, one of which is Sprint Zone, where you can check your account information and balance. There's also a ringtone portal called Sprint Music Plus, as well as Sprint TV and Movies, and Sprint ID.

ID enables you to customize your phone with preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose. For example, if you select the E! package, you'll get apps and widgets pertaining to the celebrity news channel. Note that deleting an ID package won't uninstall the apps that you downloaded -- you'll have to remove those apps manually. So far, there are 40 packs available, and once you start up your Optimus F3, the Sprint Default ID pack annoyingly starts downloading automatically.

LG Optimus F3 (screenshots)
The Sprint's ID pack autoloads right at startup, despite the fact that it didn't even buy me dinner first (left). Then, Google's TalkBack, tailored for the visually impaired, is activated. Lynn La/CNET

Aside from providing an Accessible Education ID pack (which is aimed at young users who have a hard time reading due to difficulties learning or seeing), the device also comes with one more accessibility feature for the visually impaired: TalkBack by Google. Tucked under Settings, it's a text-to-speech feature that reads back to you the handset's features, notifications, and apps as you navigate through the phone.

Other goodies include two file-sharing apps (SmartShare and FileShare), a video editor, the Polaris Viewer 4 mobile office suite, a language translation app, and a Qualcomm Enhanced Location app that zeroes in on your location and saves battery power.

A few software goodies from the T-Mobile model include My Account, which gives you information about your phone and data plan; a trial subscription to the caller ID service Name ID; and apps that help set up your visual voice mail and mobile hot spot. Lastly, the media streaming service T-Mobile TV offers a 30-day trial to channels like Fox News and ESPN.

Of course, there are basic apps too, such as native browser and e-mail clients, a calculator, a calendar, music and movie players, a dictionary, a clock with alarm functions, an address book, a weather app, a memo pad, a voice dialer, a to-do list, and a voice recorder.

The Optimus 3.0 user interface comes with a few of LG's signature software features. These include the option to customize app icons (with two different themes); LG's signature note-taking app, QuickMemo, which lets you jot down quick notes or sketches directly over images onscreen; and QSlide, a multitasking function, which you can use to view and resize apps (like the browser and video player) while using other apps or viewing the home screen.

There's also VuTalk, which lets you create annotations on documents and photos on your device while sharing it in real time with another VuTalk-enabled handset through either a network or Wi-Fi connection. Lastly, although the phone doesn't come with NFC-enabled Tag+ stickers, it does come with the LG Tag+ app already loaded. Together, these two would let you customize and activate certain settings on your Optimus F3 on cue, like automatically launching Bluetooth and Navigation when you're in your car.

LG Optimus F3 (app drawer)
The device features Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and LG's Optimus 3.0 user interface. Josh Miller/CNET

Camera and video
The 5-megapixel camera offers a variety of options. It has auto and touch focus; a flash; digital zoom; face tracking; geotagging; a timer; five shooting modes, including panoramic and HDR; and Time Catch, which lets you choose and save the best shot before the shutter was pressed.

It also has a brightness meter (from -2 to +2), five image sizes (ranging from 1,280x768 pixels to 2,560x1,920 pixels), seven scene modes, five ISO options, five white balances, four color effects, four shutter sounds, and the voice shutter function, which lets you operate the shutter by saying certain words like "cheese" and "whiskey" (don't ask me why).

Video-recording options consist of the same digital zoom, flash, brightness meter, geotagging, color effects, and white balances. In addition, you can choose from six video sizes (ranging from 1080p full HD to MMS), and take still photos while recording. There's also the silly faces mode, which will distort your face (for example, bulge out your eyes, squeeze your mouth inward) while the video records, and a background module, with which you can change your background to outer space, a sunset, a disco, or your own custom image.

The front-facing camera offers the same voice shutter function, brightness meter, white balances, color effects, timer, and geotagging feature, but there are only two scene modes (normal and night), no face tracking, and one image size (640x480 pixels). There's also a mirror image option that saves a vertically flipped version of your photo, and a beauty shot meter for adjusting the brightness and blurriness of an image.

Video features for the front-facing camera are nearly identical to those of the rear camera, including the quirky effects, except there is no digital zoom or flash, and there are only three video sizes, ranging from VGA to MMS.

For a 5-megapixel shooter, photo quality was good. Colors were true to life, objects were in focus with well-defined edges, and while you can see digital noise, the amount wasn't overly distracting. What I was mostly impressed with, however, was the speed of the camera. The shutter speed is fast, and I didn't have to wait at all for the camera to ready itself for the next photo.