LG Unify review: Flexible service, mediocre phone

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MSRP: $129.99

The Good The LG Unify has great battery life, but the real star is the flexible, affordable Virgin Mobile Custom service plan.

The Bad Poor call quality and network speeds are coupled with a lackluster camera.

The Bottom Line With disappointing call quality and no features to speak of, the LG Unify's only value comes from the flexible service plan.

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5.3 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 6
  • Performance 5

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

Josh Miller/CNET

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

Josh Miller/CNET

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

Change your plan on the fly. Screenshots by Nate Ralph/CNET

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.

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