Anyone living in one of America's largest urban areas in 2013 has undoubtedly seen the claim: "Everybody's moving to Metro." And the claim isn't that far off; in the past year, contract-free, budget-friendly carriers have boomed both in terms of subscribers and coverage. The industry's growth can be attributed to a lot of things, including incredible rate hikes from the nation's three largest carriers, though the most important factor has been the rapid evolution in smartphone technology.
Case in point: the LG Spirit 4G, a knockout device in terms of both style and functionality. Where the Spirit really shines, though, is its price tag—at $199 with no contract and MetroPCS' unlimited plans starting at just $40, the Spirit is perhaps the most capable of all economy Android devices on the market today.
The LG Spirit 4G is leaps and bounds above the slew of pay-as-you-go Android options we've seen to date in terms of both hardware and performance. MetroPCS' rates are ridiculously affordable, and if you live in one of the carrier's LTE markets, you'll enjoy speeds that can go head-to-head with even the most expensive competition.
The Spirit 4G's camera is underwhelming, and LG's custom UI is more cumbersome than it's worth. Both LG and MetroPCS have included their fair share of bloatware that's neither necessary nor useful. The Spirit's camera leaves a bit to be desired.
Inside this review
As someone who is consistently unimpressed by LG's hardware, I admit that the Spirit 4G is one of the nicest devices to ever grace the OEM's portfolio. It's got an undeniably budget-conscious plastic design, and lacks the wow factor that come with flagship devices, but this device doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't, and smartphones have finally reached a point that flagships aren't the only devices worth carrying.
At .37 inches thin, the Spirit 4G feels phenomenal in the hand, thanks in large part to its curved design. The slate grey design with silver accents and bezel give the device a handsome quality, although the plastic finish isn't quite durable enough for heavy-duty wear-and-tear. I'd be happy to flash this phone to my friends and colleagues—I'd be wary of dropping it on the ground.
One of the things I was most skeptical about was the Spirit 4G's display—on paper, its 960 x 540 resolution is truly disappointing. In use, I had a hard time finding much fault. It's got beautiful viewing angles thanks to LG's signature IPS technology, ample saturation and accurate color reproduction., along with a sturdy and durable coating of Corning Gorilla Glass. It's not nearly as sharp as it could be, but again, this is probably the best display $200 off contract can buy.
One of the things I liked most about the display is its size. At 4.5 inches, I'll concede that the Spirit 4G strikes a balance of size and usability that larger devices simply cannot capture. As I use more and more Android devices, the more I realize that 4.7, 5, and 5.5-inch displays are simply more attractive in concept. In day-to-day usage, I'd much rather watch a video on half an inch less real estate than struggle to type a message with one hand.
Beneath the phone's rear door lies a microSD slot that can handle up to 32GB of storage (in addition to its already-included 4 GB), as well as a 2,150 mAh battery that gives the Spirit 4G admirable stamina. The combination of a healthy battery size, low pixel count, and super-efficient Snapdragon processor gives the Spirit 4G the "spirit" (get it?) to easily make it through a full day of heavy usage. I wasn't able to run the battery down before 11 p.m. despite how hard I tried. In a nutshell, this phone will easily get you through your day without a need to search out a power outlet.
Speaking of that Snapdragon processor, it's a dual-core S4 model clocked at 1.2 Ghz—the same processor that powered the flagships of early 2012. It's just as powerful here, and paired with a full gig of RAM,the Spirit 4G feels fast, fluid, and consistent. Sure, these are last-gen specs, but that doesn't make them any less efficient or powerful—this phone has the guts (and the benchmark results) to compete.
What really caught my eye, though, wasn't so much the blazing-fast benchmarks or the stellar usability of this device as it was MetroPCS's LTE performance. Here in New York City I had robust and extensive coverage complete with super-fast LTE and pitch-perfect voice quality. To be quite honest, I didn't notice much difference between MetroPCS' performance and Verizon's LTE on my personal phone. I wouldn't have an ounce of hesitation about finally making the move to prepaid service once my Verizon contract expires-- that's a testament to both the quality of budget-friendly hardware and the stellar performance of MetroPCS' ever-growing LTE coverage.
The Spirit 4G is equipped with LG's signature Optimus UI 3.0 running atop Ice Cream Sandwich, a familiar combo we've met on nearly all of LG's major 2012 releases. We dived into it on the Optimus G and the Intuition, and things are fairly identical here on the Spirit. As refreshing as it is to see a low end device powerful enough to run a flagship UI, it doesn't change the fact that LG's skin adds unnecessary fluff to Android 4.0. Some may say it's attractive and adds a playful sense to Android, though I tend to think that most of its tweaks are too cumbersome.
What I do like the Optimus UI, however, is its included QuickMemo, something I've grown to enjoy quite thoroughly since I first used it on the Intuition. It's quickly accessed on the Spirit by pressing down the entire volume rocker, and despite the lack of a stylus, it's still quite useful. The more processor-intensive QSlide, the other cornerstone of LG's custom experience, is unfortunately missing here.
For those easily offended by bloatware, prepare to get your knickers in a twist. Both LG and MetroPCS have loaded the Spirit chock full of custom apps like M Studio, an ugly portal for ringtones, music, and video, and Metro 411, a sort of YellowPages/Google Maps hybrid that seems like it's right out of 2005. You'll find some of these apps (like LG's media-sharing Smartshare) more useful than others (Yahoo Sports Spectacular? Really?), though keep in mind that unless an extremely ambitious developer decides to spend time on rooting this device, you won't have any options to remove them.
I hate to sound greedy, but after a rather pleasant experience with the Spirit 4G, I almost expected an equally impressive camera, despite my better judgment. After shooting around for a few days, I can say that while the Spirit 4G's 8MP, 1080-capable camera didn't live up to my hopes, it actually isn't terrible. You'll notice abysmal low-light performance in the samples below taken in NYC's Grand Central Station, though in ample lighthing, overall quality is rather good with accurate color reproduction and minimal noise. LG's optics have never been even close to best in the biz, but their technology is definitely beginning to catch up. Both the front and rear cameras are undoubtedly budget shooters, but all told, perform better than you'd thing.
LG has included its typical goodie bag of camera extras here, including its "Cheese Shot" automated shooting and a remarkably easy-to-use panorama mode. Unfortunately, none of these add ons are worth fiddling with unless you've got a still, well-lit subject.
As much as I'm in love with the Spirit 4G, I have to say I'm more in love with that the device represents. Budget devices are finally worth your money, and in some cases they're a better choice than even the big carrier's flagships. And thanks to this massive improvement in lower-end devices, regional and pay-as-you-go carriers finally have portfolios worthy of ditching your contract for.
The Spirit 4G is an awesome addition to MetroPCS' lineup. As excited as I was to see the Galaxy S 3 arrive on the carrier's shelves, I'm more excited about the Spirit 4G. Its uber-affordable $199 price tag is a sight for weary eyes, and for $480 per year, it's hard not to love unlimited talk, text, and data on the carriers robust and growing LTE footprint. Thanks to my time with the Spirit 4G, this is the first time this diehard Android junkie has ever considered ditching my enormous Verizon bill and living my cellular life month-to-month, and I doubt I'm the only one out there who feels the same.