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LG Tribute review: Premium style on a budget

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Few phones are inexpensive without being cheap, but the LG Tribute from Virgin Mobile is one of them. This $80 phone not only has a sturdy and stylish exterior, it's also armed with a speedy processor, Android KitKat and a capable camera.

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7.3

LG Tribute

The Good

The LG Tribute costs $80 on a prepaid plan and has a design that's well put together and looks more expensive than it is.

The Bad

The small screen is cramped for browsing the Web, and the phone is cluttered with superfluous extras from Virgin Mobile.

The Bottom Line

With alluring style and specs, LG's Tribute is one of the best budget phones you can find on Virgin Mobile.

What's lacking here is size; the phone has a small 4.5-inch screen that's a bit of an anomaly in today's market. But for its low price, I'm not disappointed by the petite display.

The Tribute was released alongside Virgin Mobile's new Unlimited prepaid plans, which get you unlimited talk, text and data for $35, $45 or $55 per month, depend on which data level you pick. If you reach your data limit, Virgin Mobile will throttle your data speeds, but you won't be charged for any extra mega- or gigabytes.

The sleek, budget-friendly LG Tribute (photos)

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Design

Compared to today's pocket-busting smartphones, the Tribute is on the small side. It's just 5.02 inches tall, 2.67 inches wide and 0.42 deep (127.5mm by 67.8mm by 10.6mm), compact enough to slip into any pocket and easy to wrap my smaller hands around it. Weighing 4.90 ounces (138.9 grams), it's a bit heavy for its size, but the heft makes the phone feel sturdy and more premium that it really is.

The Tribute has a simple, rounded rectangle design, similar to the LG Nexus 5 . It has an all-black front bezel and matte white battery cover and the two colors meet on the edge, creating a nice effect. The front of the phone is mostly empty, with just an earpiece, front-facing camera lens and light sensor. The only two buttons are on the side; a power/lock button on the right edge and a short volume rocker on the left.

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The Tribute has a sleek black and white design. James Martin/CNET

On the back, there's the main camera, flash, and small grill for the speaker. Though I like that the battery door wraps around the sides of the Tribute and sits snug against the phone, that makes it difficult to remove the cover to get to the SD card, SIM card and battery. You need to wedge your fingernail under the cover near the microUSB port to pop it off. Luckily, the SD card slot is separate from the battery, which means you can install a card or swap it with the phone on, which is helpful.

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The phone is compact and thin. James Martin/CNET

There's a 4.5-inch, 800x480 pixel WVGA screen which isn't remarkable sharp, but not fuzzy either. On paper, the screen doesn't sound all that impressive, especially when you compare it to higher-end smartphones, but in person, it looks vibrant and clear. The colors are rich and natural. The screen's easy to view in direct sunlight, especially at full brightness.

The screen's biggest hindrance is that its paired-down size makes websites feel a bit cramped and some apps don't fill the screen quite right, meaning some buttons might look cut off or smashed together.

Software features

The Tribute is running Android 4.4.2 KitKat and has LG's custom UI that you'll also find on the higher-end LG G3 . It's a simple, yet sophisticated design that goes a long way to making the phone feel much more expensive than it really is.

You can customize your home screen layout with a handy grid that appears when you press and hold the screen, and you can change the animated transitions when you scroll between home screens. There are also several fun animations throughout the phone, such as when you remove an app from a home screen or when you uninstall it. These small touches make the phone more memorable and interesting than other available budget Android phones.

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The Tribute runs on Android 4.4 KitKat and has LG's clean, modern custom UI. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Like the G3, the Tribute lets you set a Knock Code to unlock the device, instead of entering a password or PIN. You just tap the screen in a unique pattern to unlock it. The phone also has gesture controls, so that you can flip the phone over to silence incoming calls, snooze the alarm, or pause a video. I like that LG put the some of the same care into this budget device that it does for its higher-end models.

Virgin Mobile loaded up the phone with several apps, including browser add-on Lumen Toolbar, security app Gadget Guardian from Lookout, and Virgin Mobile's My Account app. Unfortunately, the app is also loaded with several shortcuts to apps in Google Play that you'll want to remove because they just clutter the screen.

Camera and video

A 5-megapixel rear camera handles most of your shots, and there's also a VGA front facing camera for selfies or video chatting.

What stood out to me immediately is that the camera app has a minimal setup by default, with very few on-screen controls are the default. There's not even a shutter button, instead you just tap the screen to take the picture. If you'd rather have more controls, tap the three vertical dots to bring up more options, including the shutter button and camera settings.

Along with the typical scene settings and filters, the camera has many extra features, including panorama mode and Cheese Shutter, which takes a photo with a voice command. You can also use a hand gesture to take a selfie; you just hold your hand up and then make a fist when you're ready for the camera.

In my testing, the camera produced good, but not stellar photos. It struggled to pick up fine details, and occasionally made shadows overly dark, but overall it performed well.

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In this outdoor landscape shot, the details in the waves comes through, but there is a lot of digital noise on the sand. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

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Digital noise was also a problem in this indoor shot, though the lighting is well balanced. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

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The lighting is good in this close up, and you can make out the details in the leaves and plastic snake. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

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In the standard studio photo, the scene looks overly dark and the colors fall flat. James Martin/CNET

The camera can capture 1080p video and the video I shot with the Tribute looked sharp and picked up fine details a bit better than in photos. There were still a few lighting issues, mostly that any dark or shaded areas looked overly dark. You can also capture still shots while recording video with Live Shot, a handy feature.

Call quality

I tested the Tribute on Virgin Mobile's network in San Francisco, and I was impressed with what I heard. In my test calls, voices on both ends sounded clear and natural, with very little distortion and no static. Occasionally, my testing partner sounded a bit muffled, but I could still hear her just fine. The phone did a good job of reducing any background noise, even outside next to a busy street.

On speakerphone, my testing partner said I sounded clearest when I held the microphone close to my mouth, but that when I moved it farther away, it was still easy to hear me. On my end, her voice was crisp, natural and loud, without getting distorted even at the highest volume. Unfortunately, that speaker didn't perform as well when playing music or videos, as it sounded harsh and distorted at high volumes.

Podcast

Performance: Processor, data, and battery

Inside, the Tribute has a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM, both which keep the phone snappy and responsive. I did notice some occasional lag when opening apps and menus, but it didn't detract too much from the overall experience.

Likewise, the Tribute handled games well, with almost zero lag or dropped frames. Just a note that I wasn't able to run a Quadrant test on the Tribute because the phone asked me to turn of any network connection to run a benchmark app, and the Quadrant Standard app needs an Internet connection to calculate the results.

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Behind the back cover, you can add an SD card for extra storage. James Martin/CNET

There's 4GB of internal storage for apps, photos and files, and if you need more space, you can use an SD card to add up to 32GB. If you plan to install a lot of apps or snap a lot of photos, you'll want to get an SD card, because 4GB can fill up quickly.

LG says the removable 2,100mAh battery is offers up to 15 hours of talk time, and I found that the phone lasted a full day without a charge while checking email, playing games, and making a few phone calls. I can see it lasting a full day with moderate use, but if you'll spend a lot of time on your phone, playing performance-hogging games, you might need to top off the battery. With CNET's battery test, in which the phone plays a video on a loop until the battery runs out at fifty percent brightness, the Tribute lasted just over 9 hours, an impressive feat.

LG Tribute (Virgin Mobile) performance times

Average 4G download speed 8.74Mbps
Average 4G upload speed 3.55Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 43.7MB in 40.2 seconds
CNET mobile site load 3.4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 11.5 seconds
Restart time 32.13 seconds
Camera boot time 2.10 seconds

The phone runs on Virgin Mobile's CDMA network and gets 4G LTE data speeds via Sprint's Spark 4G LTE service. In my tests, browsing the Internet was fast, as was downloading apps. Streaming video loaded quickly in HD and played without any buffering. While the LTE speeds are great, I could do without the sun-like Spark logo in the status bar that spins frequently.

Should you buy it?

LG's Tribute impressed me from the moment I took it out of the box. Its modern design gives it a premium feel, while the internal guts come together to create a deft phone that handles everyday tasks well and the snappy LTE data speeds give you a fast experience when browsing the Web and cruising your social networks.

The Tribute is a budget phone done right, thanks to its polished design and solid specs. For $80, you don't have much to lose and you could do much worse on Virgin Mobile.

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7.3

LG Tribute

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7