New display technology in a ultra-slim form factor, the LG Optimus Black brings a high level of style to Android.  But is it the phone for you?

LG Optimus Black

The LG Optimus Black is the latest offering from LG Electronics, bringing a stylish form factor, the new "Nova" display technology, and some unique features on top of Android 2.2.  If you're looking for the latest dual-core gigabyte of RAM monster phone, you're looking in the wrong place, but not all of us are looking for that.  One quick inspection of the phone will tell you -- LG wasn't trying to win a specifications race here, they have other models to fill that hole.  Instead, it feels as is they were focused on design, and try to bring a new level of elegance to the Android platform. 

The real question -- did they succeed?  That's a loaded question, as we all have differences of opinion when it comes to what looks and feels high-end.  Hit the break, and see what I think of the Optimus Black, and decide if it's something you will need a little alone time with and form your own opinion.

Initial impressions

You know how we roll here -- we get them, make sure they work, then fire up the camera so you can see our first impressions of the hardware.  Check out Phil's first look with the Optimus Black, fresh off the plane from Korea.


YouTube link for mobile viewing

Very cool packaging, a couple great features in the app drawer, and that "G" button looks awesome.  We'll go a bit deeper into some of it down the page a bit.

The hardware

LG Optimus Black, front  LG Optimus Black, rear

The first thing you'll notice when you hold the Optimus Black is the size.  It has a 4-inch display (and we'll talk about that display in a minute), but it feels like it's a much smaller package than we're used to in a 4-inch device.  It's not the dimensions (122x64 mm) that give you that impression, it's the weight -- 109 grams, and the thickness -- a mere 9.2 mm.  That's at the thickest spot, too.  The phone is tapered, and even thinner (a miniscule 6 mm) when you get to the edge.  No "chin" of any sort on this one folks. 

LG Optimus Black, top design

On the front of the Black, under the full sheet of glass, you have a 2MP front facing camera, and the usual array of light and proximity sensors near the earpiece.  The fit is very tight, but as always is the case, the spot where the glass is cut-out for the ear speaker will trap some lint and a bit of gunk. 

LG Optimus Black, capacitive buttons

At the bottom of the phone's face, you have the four usual buttons -- menu, home, back, and search.  The capacitive buttons are also outlined on the glass, so you know which one does which thing even when they're off.  And they glow blue when you tap them, which I thought was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen.  Don't judge me -- it was unexpected, and you know you wish your current phone did the same.

As much grief as we like to give phone manufacturers for the seemingly random order of the buttons, in this case the order matches the rest of LG's Android line -- from the Optimus One right up to the Optimus 3D.  It's still not the order I am used to, but I'm not going to complain this time, as the continuity is there.

LG Optimus Black, camera  LG Optimus Black, speaker

When you move to the back of the phone, you're treated to a satin finish that both looks and feels great.  It's interrupted in the upper left corner by the 5MP camera and LED flash, and in the bottom left by the cutout for the Black's external speaker.  Also worth noting: The only logos that appear on the phone are very small, and very tasteful -- the Optimus Black doesn't have that NASCAR look from all the stickers and branding.  Of course, this is not a carrier-branded model, so if and when the Black comes stateside this will likely change.  That makes us sad, because it shouldn't be that way. 

LG Optimus Black, left side

On the left side, you have the volume rocker and the "G" button.  They work well, but the "G" button is a bit awkwardly placed to use easily with your thumb.  It's just a hair too low, and requires you to reach down to use it.  I would have much preferred the button on the upper right-hand side, and use my index finger to operate it.  This is a personal thing, but if the goal of the "G" button was to provide a natural way to navigate and preform tasks, it falls a bit short simply because of the placement.  The buttons themselves are solid -- no wiggle and they work as intended with the lightest of touches.

LG Optimus Black, top down view

LG Optimus Black, bottom

On the top of the phone, there's a power switch, the 3.5 mm headphone jack, a noise cancelling microphone, and the microUSB port.  I'm usually not a fan of top mounted USB ports, but in this case the placement allows the clean lines to carry around to the right side and bottom, which are smooth and have no controls, other than a small notch to remove the battery cover that also hides the primary microphone on the bottom.

Battery cover removed   Micro SDcrad and SIM card slot detail

Under the battery door, you'll find just what you would expect -- a micro SDcard slot (which you don't have to remove the battery to replace), a SIM card slot, and the 1500mAh battery.  Sorry, no cool exposed vibration motors or fire-engine red components to be found. 

The Nova display

One of the major features of the Optimus Black is the new display technology, dubbed the "Nova" display.  According to LG, it's the brightest and most readable display ever.  This is straight from the LG press release announcing the Optimus Black:

Available for the first time in the mobile market, LG Optimus Black’s NOVA display is designed to be the brightest, clearest and most readable among mobile screens with 700 nits of brightness for optimal visibility. LG Optimus Black provides users with an easier and more natural experience when browsing the web, reading emails, or writing documents with higher levels of brightness and pure white tones that deliver true black and white colors for ideal handset viewing. NOVA technology featured on LG Optimus Black also enables users to maintain visibility whether indoors or outdoors under strong sunlight.

But does the hype hold true?  Mostly, yes.  It's not as groundbreaking as we had hoped it would be, but there is a visible difference between a standard IPS LCD display (that's a lot of letters, and they mean "good"), and even a Super AMOLED display.  Below see a comparison between the "standard" IPS display of the T-Mobile G2X, the Super AMOLED display of the Nexus S, and the Nova display of the Optimus Black, all at full brightness:

Display comparison

In full sunlight

Indoor display comparison

Indoors

Yes, the difference is small, but it's there.  The display on the G2X, which I feel is excellent in its own right, is almost unreadable in direct afternoon sun.  The SAMOLED and the Nova display fare better, but not much better.  Comparisons are fine and dandy, but real-world performance is what matters.  Step somewhere that the full sun isn't beating straight down on you causing a sweaty thirst for frosty beverages, and the Nova display works as advertised, as seen below.

Browsing in the sun

Would I want to use the Optimus Black out in the bright, harsh outdoors all the time?  Heavens, no.  But when you have to, there's just enough of a difference to be noticeable.  This is tech that I hope gets explored further, as there is still room for improvement.  When all is said and done, I think LG is successful here -- excellent color rendition and smooth pixel edges, plus a little more readability in the sun. 

The specs

  • Operating System: Android 2.2.2 (Froyo)
  • Size: 122mm x 64mm x 9.2 mm
  • Display: 4-inch NOVA display with 700 nits of brightness
  • Resolution: 480x800 (240 ppi)
  • Processor:  Texas Instruments OMAP 3630 @ 1GHz, PowerVR SGX530 GPU (think Droid X or Nook Color)
  • Battery: 1500 mAh
  • 1GB ROM/512MB RAM
  • Camera: 5MP rear-facing, 2 MP front-facing
  • Video recording: up to 720p HD
  • Wifi 802.11 b/g/n, Wifi Direct, DLNA, A-GPS, Bluetooth A2DP/EDR
  • Radio frequencies:  GSM 850/900/1800/1900, HSDPA 900/1700/2100 *

* The unit received for review did not connect to the standard 850/1900 frequencies for AT&T, though a Cingular network was identified when searching and using a known good AT&T SIM card.  These specs are provided by the manufacturer, and radio bands or interoperability are not verified by Android Central.

Performance

The Optimus Black will handle just about anything you throw at it, provided you keep in mind that it wasn't designed as a gaming powerhouse.  Calls sound clear on both ends, and the speakerphone volume and clarity is excellent.  Bluetooth works as advertised, with an approximate range of 10 meters, and my headset paired and connected fine -- including music and to the phone book.  No weirdness with the Wifi radio, although we were unable to test the Wifi direct feature -- it's not available on any other handsets just yet.

Battery life is fair, and having such a bright screen is a reasonable trade for the need to charge daily.  To put things into perspective, I sync the following:

  • One Gmail account, including contacts and 4 calendars
  • One IMAP mail account
  • One POP mail account at a 3 hour interval
  • Two Twitter accounts at 15 minute intervals
  • Picasa
  • Google Reader app
  • Google Docs
  • Google Music Beta
  • Google Voice
  • Google Talk
  • Google Tasks via Astrid at 4 hour intervals
  • LightBox beta at a 3 hour interval
  • Pulse reader at 3 hour intervals
  • Tapatalk at 1 hour intervals

Yes, that's a lot.  Yes, it's more than anyone needs.  Yes, it's an excellent stress test on any smartphone battery.  I can get about 11 hours of real use (i.e. unlocking the phone and checking every time a notification comes in, some web browsing, some Android Market browsing, and a handful of phone calls every day) before I'm in the yellow and have to watch what I'm doing.  If I sit and play games or do serious web surfing, drop that to about 8 hours.  This is just about the same battery life I get from any stock Android phone.  Is it great, no.  But I feel it's acceptable.  You hackers and battery tweakers will get more than a day, easily.

The camera

The camera software in LG's Optimus 2.0 skin is excellent.  Every option the average user would want is in there, and it's laid out nicely and simple to use.  The pictures are better than average, but not anything that will wow you.  For a cell phone camera, it works.

Optimus Black camera app

Raw camera shot   Raw camera shot

Raw camera shot   Raw camera shot

Raw camera shot

 

The software

LG's Optimus 2.0 home

The Optimus Black features version 2.0 of LG's Optimus UI.  As mentioned everywhere, by everyone, it looks a lot like Samsung's TouchWiz user interface.  It is what it is, and to be honest, it's pretty darn nice.  Power users will scoff, and they can just load any of the alternate Home apps from the Android Market and never see it again.  The UI is basically what you would expect from any premium manufacturer's skin, complete with widgets, social networking built-in, and tied together deep in the Android OS.  At the core, all the major UI overlays are about the same, differentiated only by the look.  I'm not trying to sound callous here, but all smartphone manufacturers have done their homework, and have the same general idea of what the average smartphone user who buys an Android device wants. 

I'm not saying that's a bad thing.  Out of the box, the Optimus Black has all the functionality that your average Android user will ever need, built right into the OS.  It also has two really cool features, one in the app drawer and the other is the "G" button.  We saw both those in Phil's first look, but I want to revisit them, and the easiest way is with video.


YouTube link for mobile viewing

Nothing in the way the app drawer is customizable is exactly new.  We've had those options with third party Home apps for a while, and they are working their way into manufacturer skins slowly, but surely.  But LG does it in a very simple, user friendly way. 

The "G" button on the other hand, well that's just plain awesome.  And it's something I want to see more of.  Using sensors and a button for a new way to navigate, open applications, even customize your homescreen to an extent is really cool.  The basic tasks like silencing the ringer or alarm by flipping the phone over are built right in, and we've seen that with other Android phones, but the "G" button takes things up a notch.  Answering the phone, while it's locked by pressing the button and giving it a shake, then hanging it up the same way, are the types of innovation we like to see.  I'm sure the folks at LG are just as excited as we are, and they'll keep playing with the "G" button to see what else they can get done with it.  And I'll be here, ready to try it.  As I mentioned earlier, the button placement isn't perfect, but the idea is, and for a first try LG did an excellent job adding something to the Android experience. 

App drawer -- 1   App drawer -- 2

App drawer -- 3

LG has added a few things in the application drawer, some of it is nice, some of it is things we'll all complain about.  The LG music player and video player are both very well done, as is the SmartShare application (media sharing with connected devices).  Polaris Office is something that many will use, and the RemoteCall app lets LG techs have a look and troubleshoot any issues you may be having.  App Advisor and LG World aren't going to make any power users happy with their presence, but all-in-all LG isn't feeding us a ton of crapware.  Of course, when the carriers have their way with the Black, this could very well change.  C'est la vie.

Optimus UI 2.0 browser   Optimus UI 2.0 notifications

There are a few other parts of the Optimus 2.0 UI that stand out.  The web browser is excellent -- the OMAP CPU and software enhancements make for a very smooth web browsing experience, flash runs as well as it does on any device I've used, and it's a clear step above the stock Android browser in my eyes. 

The notification shade draws on what we've seen in custom ROMs and offers quick settings buttons, as well as music player controls.  These take up a bit of space, but having quick access is pretty handy. 

The UI is bright and colorful, but offers a lot of functionality -- especially for the new user or the person who uses their phone as a communications hub.  Try not to hate it until you use it, you may be surprised. 

The fact that it's shipping with Froyo and not Gingerbread is much harder to swallow.  LG -- we love your new phones.  We would love them more if they had a current version of Android under your UI.  Please start doing this, instead of marking it as a "coming soon" feature.

Hackability

Root

No lockdowns, none, nada, zilch.  Like the rest of LG's Android offerings, the Optimus Black is hacker friendly.  Rooting is a simple affair, and once done you're free to do as you please with the hardware you paid for.  LG is also quick to release GPL source code, so all the tools are available for those inclined to roll their own Android phone using the Black's hardware.

Wrapping it all up

Is the Optimus Black for you?  Depends on what you're looking for.  It's a solid performer, but the hardware isn't as future-proof as some of the other new phones available today.  The Black will play Angry Birds like nobody's business, but in some 3D games it's struggles.  We can't get away from that fact, and with newer games coming out designed for more powerful phones you may find yourself sitting on the sidelines if you pick this one up.

But not everybody plays intense 3D games on their 4-inch screen.  The Optimus Black is an excellent communications device, and offers it up in a very stylish package with a great LCD display.  LG knows how to make phones with a luxury look and feel, and I think they have hit that mark with the Optimus Black.  This is one I would suggest you take a good, long look at when it comes to the states if that's what you're looking for.

 
There are 14 comments

Only a megabyte of RAM? Pass...

ibejack96 says:

ya that's what i was thinking... i think he meant to say "gigabyte of RAM monster phone"

ekie84 says:

If you're looking for the latest dual-core gigabyte of RAM monster phone, you're looking in the wrong place <----- you need to read it slowly/carefully

I can't even blame that on auto-correct :p . Fix'd

quailallstar says:

Who is going to be selling this phone?

Best guess is T-mobile. T-Mobile in Europe is already selling it.

The specs listed show 512MB RAM; 1GB ROM for phone storage... Like the review said this isn't a powerhouse, just an elegant solution from LG to compete with the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy line. I would speculate that only 300-380MB of ram is actually available for applications.

It's nice to see some middle-class devices coming to the market as not everybody wants a 4G, Dual-Core battery draining monster... plus I am sure the cost (with contract) will be mild.

@Phil... any news as to when/if this is coming to the US?

Cyrilmak says:

Still no clue why Android phones are still being made with 2 or less GB's of app memory. You'd think 8GB would be standard now like it is on all of Motorola's high end phones. Games are pushing for a lot more space now, just like iOS games.

Also what exactly is that "Android Cleaner" app?

Cyrilmak says:

Thanks Jerry! Your the best as always!

VCL says:

Looking at the specs on the Black it's running on T-Mobile's HSPA+ Network. This looks like a nice fast phone. I don't play games on phones, this is a very classy looking phone with plenty of zip. Hack plus, this is right up my alley. I must take a closer look at this phone. Great job LG.

The review unit was. After the fiasco with some reviews saying the G2X was quad-band, I'm not calling it until I see a press release though :)

And you're correct. If you aren't interested in playing games that will need the horsepower that comes with some of these new phones, this one is a jewel. Let's hope T-mobile doesn't screw it all up, and LG gets some Gingerbread on it soon :p

BobbyPhoenix says:

The app drawer is the best thing I have seen since sliced bread. I hate the new app drawer on Sense 2.1. HTC made it "paged", and it takes forever to scroll from top to bottom with 200 apps, and you can't change it. At least before you could fast scroll, but now all you can do is go page by page. Having all these options would be awesome!

BobbyPhoenix says:

Oh! I'm glad I check this review out. I was so wanting to change my drawer I started playing around, and found how to change it back to one long list. Just press menu, and change it from grid to list.