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In the battle of the really cheap Android phones, the $80 LG Realm for Boost Mobile does OK, but doesn't win -- and that's even after accepting the 3G-only data speeds and entry-level specs like limited storage capacity and a low-resolution screen.
In the case of the Realm, a few LG software extras stand out -- like a glowing LED home button and double-tapping to turn the screen off and on -- but when it comes to specs like the screen quality and storage capacity, Boost Mobile's Motorola Moto G (2013) is ultimately the better buy, even if it does cost $20 more.
The Realm is basically a version of the LG Optimus L70 that's compatible with the CDMA technology rather than with GSM networks as was the L70, so if you're familiar with the former, you pretty much know what you're getting here.
For the most part, the Realm looks like your basic black rectangular smartphone, with rounded corners and a slim silvery rim to break up the all-black look. The plastic backing has a subtle pattern of black-on-black squares, which adds a little dimension, though it's the pulsing, glowing LED indicator around the physical home button that gives the Realm a little distinction.
Size-wise, its 4.5-inch screen will please those with smaller hands, or who prefer to use phones one-handed, since the Realm stands at 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.38 inch thick (127.3 by 66.8 by 9.7 mm). It's a little weightier than I'd expect (4.8 ounces, 136 grams), but the heft never got in my way. In fact, being able to easily slip the phone into my pocket is what I noticed most.
In terms of the LCD display quality, the 800x480-pixel resolution screen is appropriate for the 4.5-inch size, though its 207ppi pixel density is far from stunning and outdoor legibility in sunlight is predictably challenging. Aliasing and pixelation are evident when you look at high-resolution images on the low-res screen.
Above the screen, you'll find the front-facing camera and a speaker grille. Below it are the capacitive buttons and the home button, which also calls up Google Search with Google Now. A Micro-USB charging port lies beneath, and up top is the standard 3.5mm headset jack. Volume controls are on the left spine, with the power/lock button on the right. Flip the phone over to find the rear camera with LED flash. Prying up the cover exposes the microSD card slot. Accomplish this by sliding a nail into the charging port and pulling back.
LG's decision to outfit the Realm with Android 4.4 is one of the phone's best benefits. The up-to-date OS gives the phone some stability and features that are on-par with the hoity-toitiest Android phone out there, like Google Now.
In addition, it also racks up the LG add-ons replete within the phone-maker's custom Android layer. LG touts the Knock Code, an optional security feature that has you tapping a sequence into various quadrants of the display, buy my favorite is double-tapping the screen to lock and unlock it.
An app quick-launcher called QSlide, and a Quick Memo app are other LG touches; you can also access Quick Memo by sliding up from the bottom edge of any screen, just as you do to raise Google Now.
Troll the settings and you'll find some useful extras, like the option to turn off screen brightness between 12am and 6am each night. Still, I'd rather have automatic screen brightness and retain my right to read my screen in the wee hours when insomnia strikes.
Battery saver that can jump on when the battery hits 30 percent. You can configure it to turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; vibration and auto-syncing; and to reduce screen brightness and shorten the screen timeout. I always like LG's Guest Mode.
While you will find Bluetooth 4.0 to pair wirelessly with devices, the Realm does not appear to support the NFC protocol.
Between them, Boost Mobile and LG can account for a load of extracurricular apps. An LG backup app and Mobile ID profile packs are two. You'll also find a third-party app update center and Boost Music, among many other programs hat you can either use, hide, or ignore.
A membership to Club Realm gets you a 5-megapixel camera that comes with autofocus and LED flash, plus a wide range of settings for things like ISO and color effects. Panorama mode is joined by burst and sports, but not HDR.
Everything takes a little longer to do on this phone, and on the majority of phones in this class, from auto-focus to readying itself for the next shot. Image quality is acceptable, though colors are a little dull and the images lack crisp focus.
While videos taken on the 800x480 (WVGA) camcorder are fine for capturing the moment or posting as a Vine clip to a social network, you'd do best to keep these grainy clips short and sweet. You can do that by selecting the MMS video mode for a quick movie, or you can choose a long video format. The latter doesn't restrict the length of your recording, but will stop when you run out of storage space.
Meanwhile, the front-facing 0.3-megapixel VGA camera takes extremely soft-focus shots that also grays out skin tones.
Let's talk about data. The Realm is a 3G phone running on a Sprint-owned network. Speeds in San Francisco were abysmally low on the diagnostic app Speedtest.net, and a little more livable in real life. Speedtest results barely notched scores higher than 1 or 2Mbps downlink or uplink. Browsing on Web sites was usually a bit better, since sites are typically optimized for mobile, though YouTube videos mostly streamed smoothly after the initial, extended buffering. This is a phone you want to use with WiFi; the Realm supports 2.4GHz networks.
Since the Realm is essentially a reworking of an older phone, it isn't outfitted with the faster 1.2GHz Qualcomm quad-core chipset we're seeing in entry-level phones released this year. Instead, we've got a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor in here, and that slows things down.
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Performance is a little slow and choppy overall. You'll need to wait a beat for normal tasks to complete, and while gameplay is fine -- especially for titles that have been optimized for lower-performing devices -- you're certainly not going to have the snappy, graphically-rich experience you would on a higher-caliber phone.
Of the 4GB included in the Realm, only 1.3 is user-accessible, so you'll want that microSD card good for up to 32GB more, thank you. You'll find 1.2 GB RAM.
Battery life on the Realm seemed to last a work day between charging up the 2,100mAh juice box. It has a rated talk time of 17 hours, but we'll run our own looping video playback tests soon. According to FRR measurements, the Realm has a digital SAR of 1.2 watts per kilogram.
Call quality was completely usable when I tested the LG Realm in San Francisco using Boost Mobile's network. Volume on both ends of the line was adequately loud at medium-high settings, and voices sounded fairly natural. They weren't quite as rounded and my testing partner and I have heard on other phones, and we both experienced some white noise -- on my end, it festooned my caller's voice, fizzling out when my caller fell silent. Boost's Realm uses Sprint's HD Voice technology.
Speakerphone took us to the other end of the spectrum, with immediate fallout in both volume and voice quality. The line remained fairly clear, but we each thought the other sounded distant, and degraded by muted and strained audio qualities. At some points, my testing partner couldn't discern what I was trying to say.
If you're loyal to Boost Mobile's service and looking for a sub-$100 smartphone, there are worse phones than the LG Realm. Its decent 5-megapixel rear camera and helpful indicator light around the home button speak well of it. As long as you understand that you'll get slow 3G speeds, buying the Realm wouldn't be the biggest mistake of your cellular life.
Equally, it wouldn't be your crowning moment either. Pony up the $20 more ($100) and get the Motorola Moto G instead. The original, 2013 Moto G edition also tops out at 3G speeds, but has the better screen and processor. It's also blessed with more storage space and a higher-megapixel front-facing camera.