The LG Unify is a $130 Android smartphone, available exclusively from Walmart. The phone runs on Sprint's Virgin Mobile pre-paid network, and offers a humble assortment of specs: just 1GB of storage space, a 5-megapixel camera, and a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, packed behind a 4-inch, 800x480-pixel display.
The hardware doesn't exactly inspire much confidence, but we're primarily interested in one thing here: Virgin Mobile Custom. This pre-paid service -- available exclusively from Walmart -- was announced back in July, and promised to bring LTE connectivity to low-income customers with a flexible subscription model that lets you choose how much data, and how many voice minutes and text messages you want to pay for. The service is currently only available for three devices: the LG Pulse, LG Unify, and ZTE Emblem. It's also a phenomenal idea (particularly for the cash-strapped), but the lackluster experience the Unify provides spoils the experience.
Design and specs
The LG Unify is not an impressive device. The phone's soft plastic shell is relatively light -- weighing just 4 ounces -- but it's thick, and feels bulky. The Unify is also really small: just 2 inches wide, and sporting a 4-inch display. The phone disappears in my large hands but it's roughly the same size as an iPhone 4S (albeit thicker), so folks with normal appendages should be just fine.
The phone's 4-inch screen is reasonably bright and represents colors accurately, but it has a measly 800 by 480-pixel resolution, which will prove dismal if you're trying to check out high-resolution photos or videos. That said, I didn't have any trouble reading text on the display, provided I was indoors: the screen is basically unreadable in sunlight.
The LED home button sitting underneath the screen will flash red or green for missed and calls notifications, though you can turn that off if it gets a bit annoying. That button is flanked by capacitive back and menu buttons. The headphone jack sits at the top of the phone, the volume controls are on the left, and the lock button is on the right. The phone is charged by way of the Micro-USB slot on the bottom, and you can also pry the cover off there to get at the microSD card slot. The battery is also removable, and you'll need to pop it out to reach the microSIM card.
Software and features
LG hasn't done too much to change the overall look and feel of Android, saddling the Unify with a skin that adds a few cosmetic flourishes, but generally just stays out of the way. There's little pre-loaded software to speak off, and the busy home screens are actually just filled with links to the Google Play store.
The phone is running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, which is disappointing. Fortunately, recently Google has done an amicable job of decoupling its marquee apps and services from major OS updates. You can still get access to Google Now by firing up the Google Search app, and grabbing the Hangouts Dialer app will get you all of the benefits of voice integration.
But you'll be missing out on the laundry list of changes that came with Android 4.4 KitKat ,and earlier versions of the OS. This is also disconcerting in light of the looming release of Android L , which promises to shake things up further still.
Virgin Mobile Custom
The phone's saving grace is ultimately the Virgin Mobile Custom app you'll find sitting on the home screen. The pre-paid service is a phenomenal idea: you'll use the app to create a fully customized cell phone plan, with total minutes, text messages, and data limits available to change on a whim.
Sign up for an account and add some funds or a credit card, and you'll reach the scrollable plan builder. As you add or subtract minutes, text messages, and data, you'll see details on pricing and the total cost for your plan. You can make changes whenever you'd like too: subtract or add items and the difference will be charged to your account, or credited on your next bill. You can add up to four additional lines to your account, and use the Custom app to manage them all. Minutes can be divvied up between family members, and you can limit the apps that specific devices on your account can use, right down to scheduling days and times that access is available. I do suspect that actually managing all of the apps your kids download will be incredibly tedious, though.
Custom has the potential to be a wonderful tool for folks on a tight budget. I suspect that the average user will simply keep tabs on how they use their phone every month, build a plan that fits their budgets, and then forget about it. But more active, frugal users could potentially adjust things as needed: bumping up their plan's voice minutes during holiday seasons, or temporarily boosting their data limits if they're traveling and foresee a lack of plentiful Wi-Fi.
Of course Custom's flexibility will only be as good as the network it's on, and the 4G connectivity on Virgin Mobile's Sprint-backed network was sporadic at best. Here in San Francisco speeds peaked at about 3.48Mbps, but generally hovered around an average of 1.7Mbps. Connectivity would also occasionally fizzle down to about 0.30Mbps at seemingly random intervals during the day, only to climb back to its normal (but still abysmal) speeds a half-hour or so later.
Network connectivity and performance can vary by location however, so as always, be sure to check a coverage map. The device's call quality was similarly unsatisfying: the people I spoke with complained that I sounded distant, and occasionally crackly. An anemic speakerphone sits on the rear and proved similarly unpleasant, turning calls into a thin, almost raspy experience.
The Unify offers a mere 1GB of internal storage, which simply isn't enough for much of anything. You'll want to grab expandable storage: the phone supports up to 32GB microSD cards. But while the 1.2GHz dual-core processor isn't much to write home about, it suits the device well. Apps load quickly, and I was able through menus and the like without issue. Games like Temple Run 2 also run smoothly, so you needn't necessarily do without a bit of casual gaming.
Battery life, by contrast, is excellent: the phone lasted 12.5 hours on our video playback test, so you can be confident that it'll stick around for the long haul.
The 5-megapixel shooter on the rear is serviceable, though disappointing. Colors lose their vibrancy, and tend to look washed out and faded.
Things improve in bright, outdoor light, but that only serves to highlight the muddled, blurry details. The autofocus is also a tad sluggish, which will make for missed shots if your subject is active (or impatient).
The 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera churns out muddy, unflattering images. The phone is capable of recording 1080p video, but that suffers from the same drawbacks as the still camera, churning out washed out, grainy videos that are generally out of focus.
The LG Unify is a disappointment, with middling call quality, dismal network speeds here in San Francisco, and a lackluster camera. And at $130, it's certainly doesn't seem like an especially good deal: spending a bit extra for the $180 Motorola Moto G will net you a far better experience. If you're looking for something in the LG Unify's price-point, consider the Alcatel OneTouch Fierce 2 : it's not the strongest performer, but it's just $126 sans contract and has a 5-inch, 960x540-pixel display; it also runs Android 4.4 KitKat.
But the LG Unify's greatest flaw is that it's one of the few ambassadors to Virgin Mobile's Custom pre-paid service. Custom is a phenomenal idea, and boils down oft-confusing monthly contract options into a simple, customizable menu that anyone can tailor to fit their use case or budget. And Custom's flexibility means that your plan can grow or shrink as needed, which leaves a wonderful amount of control in the customer's hands.
Limiting this service to just three devices is problematic enough. The LG Unify is little more than a vessel for getting access to Virgin Mobile's Custom service plans, and when one of those devices is this unimpressive, it sours the entire experience.