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As first impressions go, seeing the LG Optimus Vu will make your jaw drop -- and not necessarily in the good way.
Though I heard about the Vu back in February as the "phablet" that was LG's presumed answer to the Samsung Galaxy Note, I never saw it until it was sent to our offices for this review. At first sight, I asked myself the same question everyone else asked when I showed the device to them: "Is that really a phone?"
It may be difficult to believe due its large, squarish frame, but yes, the Vu does make calls. Just expect a lot of sneers from other people when you do so in public because this handset will stand out in a crowd.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, for those of you in North America who actually want it), the Optimus Vu won't arrive at a U.S. or Canadian carrier anytime soon. It is exclusively available in Korea now, for an eyebrow-raising $900. And given that huge phones, including the Note, are appearing in K-dramas (screenshot by CNET), its oversized body might not be considered as daft as we think.
At 5.5 inches tall, 3.5 inches wide, 0.33 inch thick, and weighing in at 6.08 ounces, the LG Optimus Vu is huge for a smartphone. But for its size, it's quite lightweight and slender in the hand. Though it does fit in my palm, most of the time I needed two hands to operate it. For example, dialing the number pad while holding it with one hand and using my thumb was near impossible. In fact, I dropped the Vu a couple of times while trying to make a call.
You can fit the handset in a front or back pocket, but it won't be comfortable at all. I found about 2 inches of the Vu would remain above the seem, and it felt bulky when I was carrying it around.
On top are a 3.5mm headphone jack, a shortcut key called QuickClip for QuickMemo (more on that in a while), a Micro-USB port that can be covered with a slick little sliding door, a sleep/power button, and an embedded antenna that can collapse into the phone (more on that later too). To the right is a volume rocker.
The plastic back of the Vu is textured with a grainy design that resembles leather. Though I'm sure this material keeps the phone light, it gives it a cheap sort of feel, and it's definitely less luxurious-feeling than the Note. On its left corner is an LED-flash-supported 8-megapixel camera. To the right is a covered slot for the mini-SIM card. Below that are two small slits for the output speaker. Unlike other devices, it doesn't have a slot for prying the back off with your fingernail. Instead, two screws at the bottom keep the back plate secure.
The phone sports a 5-inch IPS LCD display with a resolution of 1,024x768 pixels. Though it's not as impressive as the LG Optimus 4X HD's, the screen is still decent. Menu icons were crisp and images were vibrant and richly saturated. A few default wallpapers, however, looked a bit streaky. Because it has 650 nits of brightness, videos played vividly. The viewing angle is wide, even while outdoors in the sun, which is usual for IPS displays.
One odd thing about the screen is that it has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which LG claims is the most "common aspect ratio for print materials in real life." The company also says it makes browsing the Web more comfortable, which I found to be true. For other content, the handset automatically optimizes third-party apps to fit the ratio. Sometimes it worked -- when I played Temple Run it looked fine on the bigger display -- but other times it didn't. YouTube videos, for example, stretched to fill the screen, giving people in the clips giraffe necks. On the other hand, if I chose to watch a video while retaining its ratio, there'd be a lot of dead black space bordering it. If an app doesn't render correctly, you can enable "aspect ratio correction" when you hold down the home button. This will change the display setting of the app to make it slimmer.
Above the display in the left corner are a proximity sensor and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. Below are four front keys (menu, home, back, and search) that light up when in use.
The phone comes with a stylus that LG calls a "Rubberdium" pen (don't ask me why). Though I like the fact that it feels sturdy like a real pen, it's inconvenient that there's no slot for storing it in the phone.
The LG Optimus Vu runs on a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. Again, it doesn't hold a candle to the 4X HD's quad-core processor, but it's still snappy. There was no noticeable lag time for simple undertakings like switching from landscape to portrait mode, swiping through its seven home screen pages, and opening apps. Games launched and closed without a problem and transitioning back to home was a breeze. There were processing issues with the camera, however, which I'll explain later.
Unfortunately, the device runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which isn't the latest version of the OS. LG reported that it will be upgradable to version 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, but it's not certain when that will be. In the meantime, the handset comes with a few Google apps you expect like Gmail, Search, Latitude, Play Store, Maps with Navigation, Places, Talk, and YouTube.
Other preloaded content includes an app that backs up your files; a news and weather app; the mobile office suite known as Polaris Office; RemoteCall, an app that lets LG support services remotely access your phone for troubleshooting; a video-editing app; SmartShare, a content distribution app; LG SmartWorld, for downloading LG apps and ringtones; a TV app that, in conjunction with the antenna, lets you watch TV and listen to the radio; a folder with preloaded apps, which include a Korean game that's similar to Tower Defense and a wallet service app; an e-reader; and about a half dozen Korean apps that look to include things like an e-reader store and a cloud service portal.
Basic features present are text messaging, e-mail, Bluetooth, a Web browser, a dictionary, a calendar, a clock with alarm settings, a memo pad, a calculator, and a voice recorder.
The Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip enables the handset to wirelessly communicate with other NFC-enabled devices within a short distance. LG included with the Vu 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 phone 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.
Though the feature was mostly reliable and the LG Tag+ app made for easy set up, the NFC chip wasn't as sensitive as it was on the LG Optimus 3D Max. With just a simple tap on the Max, the NFC chip would save its settings. With the Optimus Vu, however, it took a couple of movements to get the NFC to register.
The device also is equipped with QuickMemo, a feature you can access by clicking the QuickClip hot key on top. It lets you jot down, with your finger or with the Rubberdium pen, quick notes or sketches directly over screen images, which you can then save and share. You can customize the color and style of your pen tip.
A couple of other services include Wi-Fi hot spot, Wi-Fi Direct, and gesture support -- the last of which is common in LG devices. Gesture support lets you stop or snooze your alarm, pause video, or mute an incoming call, all by flipping the handset over.
The 8-megapixel camera offers a variety of options: autofocus, touch focus, a flash, a 15x digital zoom, face tracking, geotagging, a timer, continuous shooting, and panoramic shooting. It also has an exposure meter (-2 to +2); four image sizes (ranging from 1,280x960 to 3,264x2,448); six scene modes (normal, portrait, landscape, sports, sunset, and night); four ISO options (100, 200, 400, and auto); five white balances (auto, incandescent, sunny, fluorescent, and cloudy); and four color effects (none, mono, sepia, and negative).
The front-facing camera offers the same exposure meter, white-balance options, color effects, timer, and geotagging feature, but only two scene modes (normal, and night) and two sizes (either 640x480 or 1,280x960). There's also a "mirror image" option that saves a vertically flipped version of your photo and a "beauty shot" meter that lets you adjust the brightness and blurriness of an image. This comes in handy when you're taking self-portraits and want to soften the photo.
Recording options consist of the same digital zoom, flash, exposure meter, geotagging, color effects, and white balances. In addition, there's audio muting and you can choose from seven video sizes (ranging from full HD 1080p to QCIF).
Though the front-facing video camera has fewer options, it still retains a good deal of features; you get the same exposure meter, white balances, color effects, and audio muting, but there are only five video sizes (ranging from HD 720p to QCIF).
I tested the unlocked quad-band (850, 900, 1800, 1900) LG Optimus Vu in San Francisco using an AT&T mini-SIM card. Signal quality was perfect adequate, without any dropped calls, extraneous buzzing, or audio clipping in and out. Sound quality, however, was mediocre. Voices were audible, but muffled. I had to ask my friends to repeat themselves a few times than usual. Though turning up the volume helped a bit, my friends still sounded like they were talking underneath a scarf. Likewise, I was told I too sounded stifled.
The output speakerphone quality was also poor. Calls, as well as music, sounded incredibly sharp and severe, making it unpleasantly harsh. You can also hear the sound bouncing off the back plate of the phone. Turning the volume down helped somewhat, and you can still hear what's being said, but it was disappointing regardless.
Listen now: LG Optimus Vu call quality sample
The 8-megapixel camera's photo quality was respectable. To take photos, you can use the onscreen shutter button, or the physical volume buttons. Images were in focus with distinct edges, and objects were well-defined both in indoor and outdoor lighting. The front-facing camera was also perfectly adequate. The smaller number of megapixels did mean more graininess and poorer focus, but you can still make out faces and objects easily.
Although the feedback speed of the camera and my moving of the device didn't lag with the rear-facing lens, the front-facing camera had significant drag. Through the viewfinder, movement was slowed down, and I could momentarily catch myself blinking at the lens. What's odd, however, is that when switched to recording mode, the front-facing camera's speed quickened, and aligned itself more with real time.
Video recording also was decent. Audio was picked up well and images were crisp. Colors were true to form and there was no lag time between the viewfinder and my moving of the camera. Due to the 4:3 aspect ratio, the videos you record will be played in letterbox form. Furthermore, while watching recorded videos in landscape mode was fine, when held in portrait mode, recordings played noticeably choppily, similar to stop-motion animation.
Since the Vu that I reviewed was developed for the Korean carrier SK Telecom, it was not compatible with AT&T's data network. As such, I had to connect to a Wi-Fi network to send and receive e-mail and use the Internet. I had no problems using Wi-Fi, but lack of data support for U.S. networks will limit the Vu's stateside usability. Stay tuned when I get a unit that can connect to a U.S. carrier and I'll update this review.
During our battery drain tests, the Vu's 2,080mAh battery lasted 16.08 hours. Anecdotally, the handset had decent battery life. After spending a few hours playing games, watching videos, and chatting with my friends, I found the battery had only drained by about three-fourths of its charge. With heavy usage, it's easy to see this thing needing a few charges throughout the day, but with basic tasks like making short calls and texting, you can get a good handful of hours without much loss of battery. According to the National RRA, the Vu has a SAR rating of 0.462 W/kg.
After you get over the LG Optimus Vu's, uh, interesting size and its throwback antenna, you start to realize that something about it feels rather unpolished. Maybe it's the outdated OS, or the odd aspect ratio, or the lagging camera, but the device doesn't seem like it will help usher in a modern era of phablets that the Note opened the doors to.
Plus, the fact that the unlocked version is going for nearly a grand makes it even more of a wasteful investment. So while you might say that the United States isn't ready for a large phone like the Vu, it's more correct to say that the Vu isn't really ready for us.