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LG Nitro HD first impressions: LG's time to shine?

The LG Nitro HD certainly sounds promising--does it have what it takes to topple other Android rivals?

This year has been the year of the superphone, but LG seems to have missed the memo the first time around, offering some solid Android handsets, but very little to cut into Samsung, HTC, and Motorola's Android dominance.

With the premium LG Nitro HD phone for AT&T, the handset-maker hopes to close out the year with a bang.

LG Nitro HD
The Nitro HD will be LG's first LTE handset for AT&T. Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T ruined its own surprise by announcing the Nitro HD a full four days ahead of its launch event in New York, but it wasn't until then that we got a chance to see it in the flesh.

The Nitro HD starts things off right with a 4.5-inch "true HD AH-IPS" display and a 326ppi-pixel density. As with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the HTC Rezound, the Nitro HD has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution. Much is made of screens these days (as it should be), and LG is claiming that the Nitro HD's screen will pack 500 nits of luminance, a measure of brightness. (The LG Marquee has an extremely bright 700-nit screen.)

The screen was large, bright, and beautiful indeed, and colors looked vibrant, and true to life. We won't be able to get really down and dirty with screen comparisons until we lay the Nitro HD, Rezound, and Galaxy Nexus side by side and put them all through their paces for color, brightness, and clarity.

After tearing our eyes away from the high-detail display, we took in the rest of the phone. It's all black, with a few metallic silver accents around the camera housing and LG logo on the back. The shape is simple, with a sloping top and bottom to soften straight sides. The backing has a softer finish to it with thin zig-zag ridges; it's grippy and thankfully not a magnet for smudges. The phone felt good in the hand.

At 5.27 inches tall, 2.67 inches wide, it's a hair shorter than the unlocked Galaxy Nexus, but the exact same width. It's also a hair thicker--0.41 inch for the Nitro HD and 0.35 inch for the unlocked Galaxy Nexus (Verizon's Galaxy Nexus is expected to be a tad thicker.)

The Nitro HD runs Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread right now, but will likely update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich after the OS makes it exclusive Galaxy Nexus debut on Verizon. It uses LG's typical skin for Android phones.

For AT&T, the Nitro HD's biggest feature is data speed for faster streaming, downloads, and uploads. The Nitro HD is the carrier's third-ever 4G LTE-capable phone, right after the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket and the HTC Vivid. If you're not yet in an AT&T LTE coverage area, like San Francisco and New York, you'll default to HSPA+ speeds when available, and 3G speeds after that. Of course, we'll test speeds once we get a phone in-house to review.

Internal speed is also an important measure of performance, and the Nitro HD sports a dual-core 1.5GHz processor. We had no complaints during our initial hands-on period, which is generally a good sign.

Other specs include an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with autofocus, LED flash, and support for 1080p HD video. There's a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chats and self-portraits as well. We'll dish out additional camera details after we've had a chance to play around with it more.

The Nitro HD has 4GB of internal storage, and ships with a 16GB microSD card to get you started; it takes up to 32GB total. As with many other Android smartphones, there's support for Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA.

AT&T had added a ton of its own apps, per usual, like AT&T CodeScanner and Live TV, which streams apps over the U-verse service, a $9.99 monthly fee.

LG Nitro HD
We'll be performing a deeper camera test in our full review, but here's a photo we took at the launch event, using the Nitro HD's 8-megapixel camera. Roger Cheng/CNET

Is LG back in the game?
While LG would probably never admit it hasn't been a key Android player, its efforts in 2011 demonstrate otherwise--at least as far as U.S. markets are concerned. The T-Mobile G2X, an Editors' Choice pick, got 2011 off to a strong start as the U.S. version of the Optimus 2X, the world's first dual-core smartphone. The Revolution was strong, but flawed, and overpriced in Verizon's lineup; the Thrill 4G added a 3D twist, but wasn't as powerful as other Verizon handsets; and the Marquee, while excellent and affordable, lacks 4G capabilities.

On the other hand, all of today's top features seem to coalesce on the Nitro HD, and if it performs like it promises, it could be a heavy contender as one of the best phones on the nation's second-largest carrier. However, it's here that cost could keep it down. At $249.99 (starting December 4), it'll be one of the carrier's highest-priced smartphones. If prices don't immediately dive to accommodate holiday shopping sales, gift-givers expecting deep discounts could quickly pass it by.

CNET News.com's Senior Writer Roger Cheng contributed to this hands-on.