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LG G-Slate review

Can a 3D camera, fast dual-core processor, and onboard 3G make up for the fact that the LG G-Slate is the priciest tablet on the market?

It looks like tablet season is getting started early. LG’s G-Slate is having its T-Mobile coming out party on the same day that RIM’s PlayBook is set to slide into the hands of consumers, making for tough decisions for some. The device — powered by Android’s latest incarnation, Honeycomb — is the first in a slew of me-too devices that follow in the spirit of Google’s first stab at this game, the Xoom. Like the Xoom, this slate runs a stock build of the OS, has the same Tegra 2 CPU inside, and features both a front- and rear-facing camera. While the Xoom is available on Verizon here in the States (for now), the G-Slate is a GSM device sporting T-Mobile’s “4G” HSPA+ service. Unlike any tablet that I’ve seen, LG has slapped a 3D camera on the backside of this device, meaning that you’ll be able to shoot and show off your own multi-dimensional videos (with the included red and blue glasses, that is). Following in the footsteps of its other Android tablet brethren, however, T-Mobile requires that you buy the G-Slate on contract and also file for a $100 mail-in rebate, meaning that you’ll lay down a cool $629.99 before you walk out of store with this device. So, is the next Android tablet actually worth your cash? Can the addition of a 3D camera make this wow consumers? Or this another tablet with a case of The Sames — a rounded corner clone in search of an audience? Those answers are just beyond the break… in my full review!

Hardware

Hardware / display

It’s not a slate one feels particularly compelled to hold onto

As I intimated in the opening paragraph, the G-Slate probably won’t get famous for being the most unique looking tablet on the block. While the edges are a little softer and the materials a little smoother here, the overall look and feel is akin to the Xoom. In fact, the devices are almost the identical thickness.

As with the Xoom, the front of the tablet is taken up by a big, beautiful display. Oddly, LG has placed the webcam off to the left corner of the slate (if you’re holding it in landscape mode, which Android 3.0 encourages you to do). This is also where the company has put the power / sleep / wake button, a somewhat awkward location, as well as the headphone jack and one of the stereo speakers. A volume rocker is nearby on the top left edge of the frame, but weirdly works inverse to the volume slider display — tapping left raises the volume, right lowers it. On the right there’s another speaker, and along bottom you’ll find a mini HDMI port, and Micro USB port, as well as a set of dock sensors.

The gun-metal gray back of the device is intersected by a bold, silver strip which looks like a kickstand, but is actually just a spot for the Google logo to be emblazoned, while the stereoscopic lenses sit on either side. You’ll also notice a small flash and compartment which houses the SIM card.

The device feels unnaturally long; though it has a 8.9-inch screen, it’s longer and thinner than the Xoom (9.56 inches by 5.88 inches). Holding it in your hands in landscape mode seems comically unwieldy, especially when dealing with Android 3.0, which forces your eyes and fingers to jump from corner to corner. In portrait, it predictably feels too tall. It’s unclear why this strange, elongated shape was chosen, but it never felt quite right in my hands. At 1.3 pounds and 0.49 inches thick, it’s not necessarily heavier or thicker than other tablets out there… but it never feels comfortable.

In all, LG has done a reasonably nice job at making a handsome slate, but it’s not a slate one feels particularly compelled to hold onto, nor does its design suggest much in the way of originality.

Internals

Internals, sound, and battery life

The G-Slate has the now-standard array of Android 3.0 specs

What’s inside the G-Slate is unsurprising, but not wholly unimpressive. Besides that 1GHz Tegra 2 CPU, there’s 768MB of RAM (why not 1GB?), 32GB of storage (not upgradable, why?), a handsome 1280 x 768 capacitive display, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, UMTS / HSPA / HSPA+ support, a 5 megapixel rear (stereoscopic) camera, and a 2 megapixel front cam.

Overall, performance matched roughly what I saw on the Xoom — which is to say that the device runs Android 3.0 just fine, and excels when it comes to software coded for Tegra chipsets. I never had any memory issues, and experienced little-to-no slowdown. Of course, this wasn’t a surprise. I did have one full-on, complete crash. The device went black and I couldn’t get it awake again; I had to pop open the back cover and push the reset button (at least it has one). The 3G radios worked well enough, but I never saw any of those promised 4G speeds in my neck of the woods. Your mileage may vary.

Performance matched roughly what I saw on the Xoom

Sound quality left something to be desired on the device. While it’s nice that LG has included stereo speakers here, the volume range and general tinniness of the sound didn’t make for a thrilling experience. Compared to the PlayBook, the LG fell short of expectations. Furthermore, there seemed to be some issue with some of the more minor system sounds reaching an appropriate level, like lock screen sounds, audible selections, and keyboard taps. All seemed far quieter than the rest of the tones, with no discernible way to adjust. I checked against the Xoom, and it wasn’t an issue there. A minor quibble, but something that bothered me throughout my experience with the device.

Because I received my review unit on Saturday, I didn’t have a chance to run down the battery doing a standard test. Instead, I put the tablet through its paces in typical use. From the moment I took it out of the box with a 100 percent charge till just before this post went live, I never plugged the slate in. In fact, it still has a 38 percent charge right now. That’s from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday around 12:10AM — and still going. I would say the G-Slate can hold its head up high next to most devices in this category right now in terms of battery life, including the iPad 2 and PlayBook (both of which performed excellently in battery tests, nabbing 10+ hours of non-stop video playback). The indications are that LG’s device will perform similarly.

Camera

Camera

The 3D camera is a gimmick

The big deal here — I should say big gimmick — is that the G-Slate comes equipped with a stereoscopic set of lenses on the back. That means that you’re able to shoot 3D video and play it back. I call the feature a gimmick because that’s exactly what it feels like. I’m not saying that there isn’t a profound 3D effect if you use the included software to make a video, but I am saying that it’s a ridiculous idea that a user would put on the silly red and blue glasses (included in the box) to watch the content they make. Additionally, the severity of the 3D effect can be nauseating, and the opportunity to share your creations with others is severely limited given the headgear required.

I kept asking myself what the point of including this tech in the product could have been, and I have yet to be able to come up with a reasonable answer save for one: LG wanted to put "3D camera" on the box. I honestly find it difficult to believe that there is anyone that would find the effect generated by the cameras enjoyable for more than a short period of time. The whole thing feels like a cheap ploy to differentiate this tablet from others, but it’s so poorly executed and so unpleasant to use that it’s hard to believe anybody would fall for it. And yet… certainly people will.

Otherwise, both the rear and front cameras do reasonable duty at taking regular pictures — better than most tablets on the market — though as with the Xoom, I can’t imagine anyone seriously using a device this large for real photo-capturing duty. It is nice that you’re able to capture in 1080p (720p if you’re shooting in 3D), but given its odd size and shape, the G-Slate is actually more awkward to hold while shooting photos than the Xoom. Thus far, the PlayBook has been the only device that even feels remotely comfortable.

Software

Software

The software on the G-Slate is identical to Honeycomb on the Xoom, which means the gripes I voiced in my review of that device are still very much present. Here’s what I thought back in February:

Android is still filled with variables and choices which make general navigation a learning process, and even though Honeycomb has made huge inroads to making that process simpler, it’s not 100 percent there. The general vibe of Android is still present here — you have a series of homescreens which are scrollable, and can be loaded up with a variety of application shortcuts, folders, shortcuts, and widgets. Unlike most mobile OSs, Honeycomb places the status bar along the bottom of the device, and then fills the left side of that bar with the constant pieces of navigation you’ll use to get around the OS.

All of the key elements of navigation are front and center, usually along the top of the app’s display, which should make for an easier time when it comes to getting things done, but can create confusing situations. For instance, in Gmail, your items in the upper right of the app change based on the context; that’s good for managing messages in one view, but creates some head-scratching moments in others. Worse, the back button (which you use frequently) is in the exact opposite corner, meaning that your gaze is constantly shifting between two places on the tablet — two places that are furthest apart. The experience encourages a lot of eye-darting, which makes quickly managing tasks somewhat of a chore. We wish that Google had somehow combined the app navigation and tablet navigation into a more closely related space, so that instead of jumping from corner to corner, you were able to focusing on one place for operation of the app, and another for its content. We found ourselves having this same experience all over the Xoom.

On the plus side (and it is a big plus), the Xoom feels much more like a real netbook or laptop replacement. Being able to multitask in the manner Google has devised, having properly running background tasks, and real, unobtrusive notifications feels really, really good in the tablet form factor. Additionally, the fact that Google has included active widgets that plug right into things like Gmail makes monitoring and dealing with work (or play) much more fluid than on the iPad.

But the third-party software outlook for this Android tablet isn’t much better than it was when I reviewed the Xoom. There are certainly more tablet-formatted titles available for the platform, but they are few and far between. Furthermore, there’s no real distinction in the Android Market between what is a phone app, and what is designed for tablets. The result is that many apps you download may work, but they look terrible while doing it. Luckily, games make the transition far better than other applications (such as the Rdio app), meaning that Angry Birds scales just fine to the big screen. That may be all some people need, but I found the experience of hunting around for decent pieces of software on the G-Slate somewhat depressing. If Google doesn’t put a major band-aid on the lack of diverse and high-quality tablet apps soon, it threatens to swallow the forward march of Honeycomb whole.

The third-party software outlook for this Android tablet isn’t much better than it was when I reviewed the Xoom

The big problem for the G-Slate, LG, T-Mobile, and its customers isn’t the gimmicky 3D camera, the lack of an SD slot, or the fact that Android has little in the way of great tablet software. The big sticking point for this device will be the fact that you not only have to pony up $630 just to get in the door, but you’re required to sign up for a restrictive, two-year contract as well. A quick bit of math means that even with the dinkiest plan (200MB for $29.99 a month), you’re shelling out $1250 over two years… that’s not counting taxes and regulatory fees, and with the $100 mail-in rebate (and come on, a mail-in rebate in 2011?). That’s a lot of money for a tablet that will be last season in six months or less. You could always go off contract — then you’re paying $750 for this tablet. Of course, if you’re in the market for an Android slate with GSM service, this is a fine device — it doesn’t have the software selection of the iPad, the size and shape is awkward, and the 3D camera won’t impress anyone but your 8 year-old nephew, but it’s a solid Honeycomb tablet that has more than enough horsepower to tackle what you throw at it. And that’s… something, I guess.

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