Editors' note: Since the Optimus U is so similar to the Optimus S, we'll focus on what sets the Optimus U apart in this review. For more design details, please read our LG Optimus S review.
Just when we thought we had reviewed the last of the LG Optimus line of phones (see the LG Optimus T, the Optimus S, the Vortex, and the Optimus M), we get the LG Optimus U. While the Optimus handsets share similar specifications with each other, the Optimus U is most like Sprint's Optimus S. Indeed, aside from a few minor differences, they're virtually identical. As the letter U is attempting to suggest, the Optimus U is available from U.S. Cellular. The phone is free after an $80 mail-in rebate. New customers will have to sign up for a two-year contract, but existing customers can get the phone for the same price without having to sign up for a new agreement as part of U.S. Cellular's new Belief Project.
If you place the Optimus U and the Optimus S side by side, you probably won't be able to tell them apart at first glance. Both are 4.47 inches long by 2.32 inches wide by 0.52 inch thick, and have a soft-touch finish that gives them a comfortable feel in the hand. Even the 3.2-inch 16.7 million-color (320x480 pixel) LCD is the same.
Yet, there are only a few differences between the phones. One of them is the placement of the Android hot keys beneath the display. The Optimus S puts them with the Home key first and the pop-up menu key second, whereas the Optimus U has the menu key first and the Home key second. The positions of the Back and Search keys are the same.
The second difference is the home screen. Unlike the Optimus S, which has the Sprint ID profile pack system, the Optimus U has a fairly stock Android interface. On the bottom row of the Optimus U's home screen are shortcuts to the phone dialer, the contacts list, the main menu, the messaging menu, and the browser. This arrangement is similar to the interface on the Vortex and the Optimus M, but the Optimus U comes with only the default multitouch Android keyboard. Like with the Optimus S, if you want Swype, you'll have to download it on your own.
The LG Optimus U ships with Android 2.2. Even though it does not have the most recent 2.3 firmware update (which it should get at some point), we think it's still a great operating system. Features of 2.2 Froyo include voice dialing over Bluetooth, app sharing, and integration with Facebook and Twitter contacts. However, we were not able to play Flash video in the browser due to hardware limitations, even though the OS technically supports it. You can still play Flash video, but only with YouTube or third-party apps.
Even though the Optimus U is billed as an entry-level phone, we were pleased with its connectivity and media features. They include Wi-Fi with hot-spot capabilities for up to five devices; 3G in the form of EV-DO Rev. A; and stereo Bluetooth. It has GPS, too, which comes in handy with location-based apps like Google Maps, Latitude, U.S. Cellular's own navigation app called Your Navigator Deluxe.
Like most Android phones, the Optimus U comes with a slew of Google apps and features, such as a handy Google search bar, Google Voice search, Google Talk, Gmail, Google Calendar, and YouTube. LG and U.S. Cellular threw in a few other apps, like Facebook, Twitter, MyContacts Backup, City ID, and Tone Room Deluxe. The Optimus U also has ThinkFree Office, a productivity suite that lets you create and edit Office documents.
Aside from Gmail, you can enter your own POP3/IMAP account information into a separate e-mail app. If you want to get corporate e-mail, the phone supports Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync for syncing e-mail, contacts, and calendar information. Other basic features include a speakerphone, a vibrate mode, a calculator, conference calling, voice dialing, visual voice mail, a calendar, and text and multimedia messaging.
Delving into multimedia, the Optimus U has the usual Android music and video players. The phone doesn't come with the Amazon MP3 store app, but you can easily download that from the Android Marketplace. You also can load your own music to the device; it has a built-in memory of 170MB, but it's extendable with up to 32GB microSD cards.
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 3.2-megapixel camera. Even though there was no LED flash, the picture quality was fairly decent. Images looked sharp and in focus. Colors were not as bright as we would have liked, but that was more of a problem in low-light situations. Camera settings included five resolutions, adjustable ISO, white balance, color effects, a timer, brightness, six scene modes, four focus modes, and 2x digital zoom. The camera on the Optimus U also can record video in VGA, QVGA, and QCIF format.
We tested the LG Optimus U in San Francisco roaming on U.S. Cellular. We were pleased with the call quality on the whole. On our end, we had no problems hearing our callers. They sounded loud and clear, without a hint of static or background sound.
Callers reported great call quality, too. Our voice sounded natural, and they didn't hear any interference or voice distortion. Speakerphone quality was not so good, though. They said there was more of an echo effect, and that our voice sounded a little overly processed. That's pretty standard for most speakerphones, however.
We enjoyed decent EV-DO speeds in San Francisco, as well. We loaded the CNET mobile page in 18 seconds and the full HTML page in under a minute. YouTube videos looked rather choppy and pixelated, but they didn't take long to buffer.
While the 600Mhz processor on the Optimus U may seem fairly dinky compared with higher-end smartphones, we didn't notice any lag while navigating or scrolling through the phone. Scrolling around the browser did seem a bit choppier, however.
The LG Optimus U has a rated talk time of 11 hours and a standby time of 18.75 days. It has a tested talk time of 10 hours and 35 minutes. According to the FCC, it has a digital SAR of 1.04 watts per kilogram.