LG’s not exactly the first name that comes to mind when you think of smartphones. Nor is it the second or third, I’d wager. But the company wants to change that with the Nitro HD, its first attempt at a flagship cell phone in a long time — the $249.99 (with contract) handset is AT&T’s first phone with a 720p display, and one of only three that connects to the carrier’s nascent LTE network.
The Android 2.3 phone has other impressive specs to match too: a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, an 8-megapixel rear camera, and 4GB of internal storage (with a card slot for up to 32GB more). Is all that enough to bring LG back into the smartphone game? Read on for the full review.
Hardware / design
The Galaxy S II may get a lot of flak for looking like an iPhone, but that’s nothing compared to the resemblance between the Nitro HD and Samsung’s big-screened handsets. Of course, there’s only so different a phone this large can be, but LG makes no effort to look at all unique — the roughly textured back even makes the phone feel like a dead ringer for the GSII. The Nitro’s different-sized bezels on the top and bottom of the Nitro’s screen set it apart, and not in a good way — most phones have identical or nearly identical space above and below, and the way the Nitro is built feels slightly unbalanced.
If you've seen the Galaxy S II, you know what the Nitro looks like
Aping the Galaxy S II isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though: the Nitro is definitely a good-looking phone, one of the best I’ve seen from LG and certainly easier on the eyes than the LG Revolution. It’s 10.4mm thick, imperceptibly thicker (but lighter) than the iPhone 4S, but notably thinner than the HTC Rezound, another recently-launched 720p phone. It feels thinner than it is, though, which I suspect is due to its sheer size as well as its nice taper, which makes it easy to hold. Its 5.27-inch height, on the other hand, is huge any way you slice it, and I actually had trouble finding a position that let me comfortably touch the whole screen. The Galaxy Nexus has an even bigger screen, though, so I’m sure this is the right size for some.
All the requisite buttons and ports are here, but most of them are for some reason crowded on the top of the phone, which is weird because there’s plenty of other space for them — the top’s also the wrong place for a power cord anyway, since it makes it much harder to use comfortably when plugged in. The power button, Micro USB port, and headphone jack are all up top; the volume controls are on the left side, and the rest of the edges are barren. (The Micro USB port, by the way, is covered by the most breakable piece of plastic I’ve ever seen — just snap it off when you get it, and save yourself the hassle of trying to keep it on.) There’s a slot at the bottom that pries off the phone’s entire back so you can swap batteries, SIM cards, or microSD cards — it catches a bit on the top of the phone, and I thought I was going to break the cover every time I yanked it off, but I never did. You don’t have to remove the battery to access the microSD card, which I liked, but you will have to pull it to get at the SIM card. There’s nothing on the front other than a camera lens, AT&T logo, and three capacitive Android buttons (Menu and Search are combined into one button), which don’t look like any I’ve seen before. Customization, as we’ll see, is a significant and damaging trend for the Nitro.
A 720p display should be a must-have
The Nitro has a 4.5-inch, 1280 x 720 IPS display, and it’s certainly something to brag about: it’s beautiful, crystal clear, and has super-accurate colors. The Galaxy S II’s Super AMOLED display has a tendency to oversaturate colors, giving them a too-warm temperature, but the Nitro never does that — what you see is really what you get. The glass is also slightly curved, so it moves cleanly and nicely into the bezel without any sharp edges or obvious seams; it also makes it friendlier to sideways swipes. Its viewing angles are excellent, with very little discoloration as you get off-center (Samsung’s AMOLED displays start to glow blue as soon as you move to the side).
Since its screen is larger, the Nitro’s 326ppi pixel density is slightly below the HTC Rezound, but it’s still really high, and I had absolutely no issues with the Nitro’s display when I was using it. It still has large icons and large text, not quite making use of how much real estate it actually has, but everything is readable and clear, and video in particular looks fantastic. I could occasionally make out individual pixels in the RGB stripes layout, but only in particular situations (blue-heavy images, for instance) and with a lot of effort; it's a much better display than on phones like the Droid RAZR, which uses a PenTile layout. Reds are very slightly overexposed on a macro level, but it’s not apparent to the naked eye. At this point in the smartphone market, when most high-end phones run the same apps on similar processors with similar memory and build quality, display quality is a make-or-break feature, and a screen like the Nitro’s should be a must-have for everyone’s next handset.
You'll get good pictures, and great video
The 8-megapixel shooter on the back of the Nitro isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s as good as the cameras on most other high-end smartphones. It takes fairly clean and crisp photos, though it’s effectively useless in low light, and has a really slow shutter speed that makes it tough to use for any kind of motion. It takes a page out of Motorola’s book and offers really simple autofocus — just pause over your subject, and the picture bounces to let you know it’s focused — but it doesn’t work all that well, particularly when trying to focus on smaller subjects. Fortunately the tap-to-focus feature works a little better. You get lots of manual control over things like white balance, ISO, and exposure, which is somewhat rare for a smartphone camera, and you can zoom with the volume buttons, which is cool even though I don’t ever recommend using digital zoom. The camera’s biggest upside is how good the big, sharp screen is as a viewfinder. The front-facing, 1-megapixel camera is — you guessed it — bad but fine for video chat.
On the video side, the story is more impressive: the Nitro HD takes really excellent video. It shoots at 1920 x 1088, which is a little off from the standard 1080p video but not a noticeable difference, and shoots it at 30 frames per second. Fast-moving subjects stutter at 30fps, but that’s the case with any camera. Recorded audio was excellent, too, with the secondary mic doing a good job of noise cancellation.
Thank goodness for LauncherPro
LG made a beautiful phone, and then nearly ruined it by adding its UI skin, which is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen on an Android phone. It takes the worst of TouchWiz — the ugly borders around ugly icons — and makes it even worse. The power manager in the notification window is useful, but the colors don't look good, and the icons aren’t obvious to figure out. Two of the app drawer’s three views make no sense in their organization, and the other takes too long to scroll through. Even the menu for adding widgets to the home screen has been arbitrarily redesigned to make it harder to navigate and worse-looking. I did actually like a couple of the changes, like the calendar display on the lock screen, but the vast majority of the Nitro’s interface "enhancements" fall flat on their face. Suffice to say the Nitro HD has made me eternally more grateful for LauncherPro’s interface overhaul.
An app like LauncherPro would also help in hiding the bloatware, which comes aplenty on the Nitro HD. It’s not the worst example I’ve seen, but there are plenty of apps like AT&T FamilyMap, Navigator, and Code Scanner on the phone, as well as preinstalled third-party apps like Mog, Polaris Office, and Zynga Poker HD. Some of them are just a link to download the app, too, which is the worst kind of bloatware. The one non-standard app that I really liked is SmartShare, a super-simple Wi-Fi file sharing app that makes sending a file from your phone to your computer, or streaming a movie in the opposite direction, really easy. It’s not as seamless as, say, AirPlay, but I got it to work on a number of devices without much effort.
Ice Cream Sandwich
The 800-pound gorilla in the room when you use the Nitro is its lack of Android 4.0. LG has announced that four of its phones will be getting an upgrade to the brand-new OS, and for now the Nitro HD isn’t one of them (though its international equivalent, the Optimus LTE, is on the list). After using a Galaxy Nexus it’s hard to recommend what now feels like an old operating system, and I think it’s worth deciding how long you can wait to get an Ice Cream Sandwich phone — waiting for a promised Android upgrade is a dangerous game.
Performance, call quality, and battery life
The 1.5GHz dual-core processor inside the Nitro HD is about as good as you’ll find in a smartphone these days, so it’s no surprise that it’s a pretty zippy phone. Apps ran quickly and smoothly, taps always registered, and things generally moved along as snappily as I expected them to.
The only problems I ran into seemed to be software-based, and largely related to this skin — like how the icons in the app drawer randomly disappeared every once in a while, and I had to go out of the drawer and back in to see them again. There’s some sluggishness on any Android phone, but the Nitro was no worse (and often better) than other top-of-the-line phones, even with the massive number of pixels it’s pushing all the time. Benchmark tests showed the Nitro’s fast, too: though it didn’t score quite as well as the Samsung Galaxy S II, its 2,400-2,500 Quadrant score range puts it right in line with the HTC Rezound or the Droid RAZR, about which no one would have speed complaints. The browser stumbled a bit on heavy websites (like this one), but in general performed fine. (I hated the real-estate-hogging bar at the bottom of the browser, but that’s again a skin problem.)
It performs well, but not exceptionally so
Call quality was solid. For the most part people on the other end of the phone were clear, and loud enough — though I did find myself trying to push the phone harder onto my ear a few times so I could hear better. You don’t hear your own voice through the earphone when you’re talking, which is unfortunately increasingly common; that tactic keeps you from screaming into the phone because you’re not sure how loudly you’re coming through. But calls were clear and reception was good, even in places I’ve gotten bad coverage with other handsets.
Speakerphone performance wasn’t very good, mostly because the Nitro’s speaker is so bad: it’s not very loud, a problem made worse by the fact that it’s placed on the back of the phone, in a spot where my hand naturally covers it. Headphones will definitely be your friend with the Nitro, whether you’re watching a movie or making phone calls.
I was lucky enough to start using the Nitro HD right after AT&T’s LTE network went live in New York City (though it’s still not officially out), and it makes an absolute world of difference. I had the good fortune of testing LTE on a basically traffic-free network, so my experience is probably a unique one, but I was able to consistently get scores above 30Mbps download speed and 10Mbps up. I even got 60Mbps down at one point! If you’re not in one of AT&T’s few LTE test areas, you’ll get on AT&T’s 21Mbps HSPA+ network. Though LTE’s not yet everywhere, as it gets more prevalent you’re going to want an LTE phone, which makes the Nitro one of the more future-proof AT&T phones out there.
There’s one big, huge, giant tradeoff to using an LTE handset, and that’s battery life — if you’re using LTE with any kind of regularity, the battery meter can barely go down fast enough. I’ve never gotten a full day’s battery life out of the Nitro HD, even when not using it regularly; the phone seems to lose its battery even while in standby, which means leaving it unplugged overnight is going to make for a rude awakening (or a missed one, if your phone dies) in the morning. Using Wi-Fi whenever possible largely solves this problem, but it also defeats the point of LTE. When you do use it regularly, beware: streaming a 20-minute episode of Arrested Development lopped 12 percent off my phone’s battery. There’s no way to toggle LTE on the device itself, but third-party developers have made apps that do so for other phones, so keep your fingers crossed that one comes for the Nitro too.
The bleeding edge of Android specs currently boils down to three things: a 720p display, LTE support, and Ice Cream Sandwich. The LG Nitro HD has two of them, and thanks to Google’s new 18-month-update policy it should nail the third — but 18 months is a long time and I’m always wary of assuming timely and easy updates. Even if and when the Nitro HD does get updated to Android 4.0, it won’t be worth much if LG’s skin makes the transition too. If you live in one of AT&T’s LTE test markets, you’ll want a phone that can support the super-fast network, and right now this is AT&T’s best LTE phone. But if you can wait a few weeks or months, you’ll be much better served by a phone with better battery life and without the Nitro’s software problems.