LG leans on high-end specs in smartphone push

LG, which has struggled over the past few years to make a major impact in the smartphone business, looks to LTE, HD displays, and quad-core chips to set itself apart.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read
LTE is a big focus at LG during its media preview event at Mobile World Congress. Roger Cheng/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--LG is banking that the consumer need for speed will drive sales of its mobile devices, a bet the company hopes will pay off with a larger foothold in the smartphone market.

The company's product lineup for Mobile World Congress, which was announced throughout last week, illustrates its increasing use of high-end components. The phones include Nvidia's Tegra 3 quad-core chips, high-resolution and 3D displays, better battery life, an embrace of the latest Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, and the ability to tap into the super-fast 4G LTE network.

The devices on hand today were the Optimus 4X HD, which includes the Tegra 3 chip and HD display, the Optimus 3D Max, the 5-inch Optimus Vu, a quasi-phone-tablet device similar to the Galaxy Note, and a number of affordable style-centric phones under its L series of devices.

"We lost our focus," Ramchan Woo, who runs the smartphone division for LG, acknowledged in a discussion of the company's past struggles. "We're going back to the fundamentals."

Quad-core LG Optimus 4X HD also dresses to impress (photos)

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LG figures that since it makes several components for the iPhone, it can just as easily have a hit product in its own hands. Woo noted that LG's various divisions make the display, battery, and camera for the iPhone. Rather than use different components from various vendors for a Frankenstein device, it can create a more integrated handset in-house, Woo said in an interview with CNET.

LG hopes its move to the high end will help it break through the smartphone market. Once dominant in the cellphone category, it has struggled to see the same kind of success with smartphones. At the same time, rivals such as HTC, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung Electronics have seen a number of blockbuster phones emerge from their earlier embrace of Android.

There is certainly an opening for LG. Samsung has emerged as the only real powerhouse in Android, with HTC hitting a snag toward the end of last year, and Motorola Mobility busy getting swallowed up by Google.

Woo touted the Optimus 4X HD's combination of the Tegra 3 chip, true HD screen, slim design, bigger battery, and LTE connection as an example of LG's "no compromise" vision for a product.

"We want to make these phones easy to sell," he said, boasting that he is willing to go toe to toe with competing devices in a spec battle.

The move to the high end marks a reversal of the company's previous strategy, which was to sell a more affordable smartphone to mass-market consumers. The problem, however, is the company lacked a high-end model for people to aspire to buy, and its products were largely lost in the shuffle. Even now, there is a decided lack of enthusiasm from carriers and consumers about LG products.

Even with last year's Optimus 2X, which was the first dual-core smartphone in the market, Woo acknowledged there were a lot of compromises to the device that didn't make it a must-buy.

A more competitive product lineup has the carriers more excited for LG this year, Woo said.

Toward the second half of 2011, LG worked to improve its lineup, getting 3D and LTE devices out to meet the carriers' needs. In the fourth quarter, LG reported a narrower fourth-quarter loss thanks in part to higher smartphone sales. Executives have cautioned the strength may have been due to holiday sales, and aren't ready to declare a resurgence yet.

High-end, low-end strategy
LG plans to be aggressive in packing in the specs. Woo said the company plans to offer only LTE smartphones to carriers that offer the network, including AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

"LG will leverage LTE speed and quad core processing, two of the hottest trends in 2012," said Danny Hernandez-Ortega, director of marketing in Europe for LG.

LG isn't planning on spending a massive amount on marketing, so the phones will in effect have to sell themselves, Woo noted.

Alongside the Optimus 4X HD is the Galaxy Note-like Optimus Vu, a 5-inch mobile device that LG considers a large smartphone, as opposed to a small tablet. The Galaxy Note, however, has been criticized for its size. Woo acknowledged the Vu isn't for everyone, and said it will largely be a tool for business users.

Likewise, he doesn't believe the Galaxy Note's initial negative response will hurt sales of the Vu, and applauded Samsung for working to create a new category of large smartphones.

LG, meanwhile, isn't completely abandoning its mass-market strategy, which the company is addressing with its L series of phones. The devices will be priced competitively, but Woo said competing devices in this segment wouldn't match what LG packs in its devices. No other mass-market device will have the same big screen, thin profile, battery life or internal specs as the L phones, he said, adding that most of the carriers around the world have committed to selling it.

"This year, we're going for everyone in the market, from top to bottom," Woo said.

Barcelona prepares for Mobile World Congress (photos)

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