LG’s play for US smartphone market share is simple: bring over the popular Optimus LTE from Europe, and tweak it for different carriers. The $199.99 (with a two-year contract) LG Spectrum for Verizon is the second such handset, after the Nitro HD for AT&T.
When I reviewed the Nitro, I called it the best LTE phone available on AT&T, and the Spectrum is every bit as good on paper: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, 1GB of RAM, a 4.5-inch IPS display, LTE connectivity, and an 8-megapixel camera. But the handset competition on Verizon’s LTE network is considerably tougher than on AT&T, with the Galaxy Nexus, Droid RAZR (and RAZR Maxx) and HTC Rezound stocking Big Red’s shelves. Can LG’s flagship phone jump into a more competitive ring and hold its own? Read on for the full review.
Hardware / design
Different isn't always better
The Spectrum is enormous. That comes with having a 4.5-inch display, of course, but it's the same size as the Galaxy Nexus (a hair thicker, and slightly lighter), even though the Nexus has a bigger screen. A hefty chunk of the Spectrum's 5.33-inch height is due to the three capacitive buttons below the display (the menu and search buttons are combined into one), real estate the Nexus doesn't need because Android 4.0 uses on-screen capacitive buttons. The Spectrum's buttons, by the way, are designed in such a way that they make the Spectrum look like a cheap knockoff: all three look different than the standard Android keys, and there's an odd silver border around the home button that makes it look like a physical button, even though it isn't.
LG definitely tried to be different in its design, like with the silvery ring around the side of the Spectrum that’s actually a nice change of pace from the all-black look of most phones. The different-sized bezels above and below the screen make it feel unbalanced in the same way the Nitro does, and its ports and jacks are also similarly off-putting — the power button, Micro USB slot, and headphone jack are all crowded on top, while all the other edges are empty except for the volume controls on the left side. (Also, the same insanely breakable piece of plastic covering the Nitro’s USB port sits atop the Spectrum’s as well.)
Though I really don't like the cheap-feeling textured backs on smartphones, the Spectrum goes way too far in the opposite direction: its smooth, checkerboard-patterned back actually feels greasy and slimy as you hold it. I found myself wiping my hands on my pants every thirty seconds, trying to make the Spectrum a little easier to hold, but it's so slick that it might as well have butter rubbed on it. The phone's solidly built to be sure, but I genuinely disliked holding it in my hand.
A 720p display should be a must in your next phone
As with the Nitro, the display is the key feature of the Spectrum. For good reason, too: the 1280 x 720 IPS display is excellent; sharp and clear with extremely accurate colors. Samsung's Galaxy S phones in particular have a tendency to give everything a warm color temperature, with a slightly red and orange tint, but LG's displays are much more accurate. Viewing angles are also really good, with virtually no discoloration even when you're off axis. My only real complaint is that the LCD looks like it's set way below the protective layer of Gorilla Glass. Unlike the iPhone's screen, which is laminated to the glass to make it seem like it's right on the surface, the Spectrum's display looks like it's far away from your finger as you tap it. I do love Gorilla Glass, though — especially its ability to not scratch when I accidentally toss my keys and phone in the same pocket.
I could occasionally make out individual pixels on the display, but only at particular times — an all-white background, for instance — and with a lot of effort. I much prefer the Spectrum's RGB striped layout to the PenTile display you'll find on other high-end smartphones like the Droid RAZR and Galaxy Nexus. Even very small text was readable — more so, at some points, than on the Galaxy Nexus as I held them side by side. The blacks on the Spectrum's screen render more like dark gray, though, so the Galaxy Nexus' screen looks slightly better when you're showing video or photos. The phone's UI is filled with tiny text and big icons, which feels like it's missing the sweet spot of this resolution, but as usual that's a software problem. The Rezound, Galaxy Nexus, and Spectrum all have pretty much equally excellent 720p screens, and once you've used one of them it'll be hard to accept a phone without a display this good.
The 8-megapixel camera on the back of the Spectrum takes decent pictures, but I wasn't wowed by its performance.
Autofocus is quick and simple, locking on without you needing to do anything — it just bounces when it's ready to shoot. But it doesn't work that well, and most of the photos I shot look as if the camera couldn't ever find a real focus, and just shot something that seemed close enough. Using the tap-to-focus feature to force it to lock helped a bit, but even it wasn't a total fix. There's also a lot of noise in the photos, and in low light you might as well not even try.
Basically, it's a cellphone camera
On the plus side, colors are really accurate, and the Spectrum is shockingly fast for a smartphone camera, taking less than a half-second to "focus" and fire a picture. It's not quite as fast as the Galaxy Nexus and its "zero shutter lag," but it's still much improved over most cellphones. Of course, speed's relatively meaningless if the results are this mediocre, but it's nice to know you've got at least a chance of capturing motion.
The front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera is similarly fast, but pumps out unusably noisy photos in almost any situation — though it is set at a nice angle for video chatting, which is the only thing you'll do with this camera anyway.
Video was similar: fine, but not noticeably better than any of its competition. The Spectrum shoots 1080p (actually 1920 x 1088 for some reason, but it doesn't seem to make any difference) video, as well as 720p and a series of lower resolutions. As long as you've got enough light, video looks fine. Things get worse when you move around: the Spectrum's lighting adjustments are pretty jarring, and the lack of image stabilization makes things pretty shaky, but as long as you're not too ambitious with your shooting it should look okay. Recorded audio sounded good, too, with great noise cancellation.
If you value your sanity, you'll do two things immediately upon booting up the Spectrum: change the hideous moving wallpaper to something (anything) else, and install a third-party launcher like Zeam or Launcher Pro. The former is necessary because the live wallpaper further clutters the already-busy skin LG added on top of Android 2.3.5, and the latter because LG's skin is really, really awful. It's actually a bit better than the Nitro HD's terrible skin — the icon borders have been removed, for one — but LG still pointlessly redesigned apps, menus and icons, and made things like the notification window and the app drawer unnecessarily confusing and cumbersome. As with the Nitro HD, there are a couple of redeeming elements: having power controls of any kind in the notification menu is nice, as is having calendar information on the lock screen. But I'd trade it all for a less-intrusive skin in a heartbeat, and would even settle for one that's less of a blue-on-blue eyesore.
Verizon loves bloatware, and there's no shortage of it on the Spectrum. Some of it is third-party content that you might actually like, like TuneWiki, Kindle, Netflix and NFL Mobile, but there are still plenty of game demos, apps for managing your phone and Verizon account, and the like. Especially given how complicated and confusing the app drawer is anyway, having it filled with apps you'd rather ignore is a frustrating move. (Speaking of Netflix, if you do buy the Spectrum make sure you check for updates immediately — LG just updated the phone to fix an initial problem with video streaming.)
When LG announced the Spectrum at CES, an oddly large part of the press conference was devoted to ESPN's Stuart Scott mugging on camera, telling us how great the Spectrum is because of its integration with ESPN's ScoreCenter app. Of course, ScoreCenter is available for any Android phone, but the Spectrum is the first to be able to stream HD video through the app — highlights, live footage, and the like, all in 720p. It looks fantastic — ESPN's mobile video content has previously left a lot to be desired, and it works great on the Spectrum. I can't imagine higher-res Dunk of the Day clips will be a deciding factor in the phone you buy, but it's a nice bonus for sports fans.
Ice Cream Sandwich
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: any company that launches a "flagship" phone today without it running Android 4.0 is making a huge mistake. Android 2.3.5 isn't even the most recent version of Gingerbread, and though LG has promised to upgrade its phones to Ice Cream Sandwich in the first half of 2012, there's far more evidence of upgrades being missed than I'm comfortable with. My advice has always been that if you can wait for Ice Cream Sandwich, you should — and if you're a Verizon customer, you don't even have to wait, since you can just buy the Galaxy Nexus today.
Rooting is your friend
Performance, call quality, and battery life
Snapdragon and LTE is a nice combination
Thanks to the 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor and 1GB of RAM humming along inside, the Spectrum's general performance is rock solid. There was the occasional lag after I hit the home button, or while swiping between home screens, but those are minor quibbles and they're certainly not unique to the Spectrum. In general, nearly everything happened fluidly and instantly, and the phone didn't even stumble with intensive games. Its specs match the Nitro, and so do its performance scores: I got Quadrant scores between 2,350 and 2,650, which is as good as any phone I've tested save for the Galaxy S II variants that have an Exynos processor inside.
Browser performance was equally impressive: though it lags slightly on image-heavy sites, it works as well as any Android browser I've used. Scrolling was particularly good, smoother even than on the Galaxy Nexus and without any of the jitter I'm used to seeing on Android handsets. LG also did away with the bottom navigation bar that's always visible in the Nitro HD's browser, and I'm grateful it's gone.
In general, the Spectrum's call quality is pretty good. Calls were very clear on both ends, and though I wish the earpiece were the slightest bit louder there was enough volume to hear even in relatively loud spots. Noise cancellation is excellent, drowning out even the sound of someone else on the phone a few yards away. You can't hear yourself as you talk, which is a shame — a bit of feedback keeps you from screaming into the phone — but all in all, quality was really solid. I never dropped a call while using the Spectrum, either.
Speakerphone performance was less impressive, though it was usable once I figured out that the speaker is on the bottom right of the back of the phone, which is exactly where my palm naturally goes as I hold the phone in my right hand. That muffles everything, and the speaker's not nearly loud enough to overcome it, but the speakerphone is usable once you learn where to hold your hand. I sounded good to callers as long as I was close to the phone, but even at an arm's length I became virtually inaudible. Which kind of defeats the point of a speakerphone.
Verizon's LTE network is considerably more crowded at the moment than AT&T's, so the data speeds I saw weren't nearly as impressive as those from the Nitro. It's still a blazing fast network, though: I saw download speeds between 7 and 17Mbps near the Verge office in midtown Manhattan, and upload speeds between 2 and 5Mbps. Those are about what I'd expect from a Verizon LTE device, and given how widespread the faster network is I'd definitely choose Verizon's network over AT&T's, which is insanely fast but only available in a couple of places. There's a toggle in the phone's settings that will let you turn off LTE and use CDMA only, which is great for battery life and a nice thing to have — with LTE off, I saw speeds around 2Mbps down and 1Mbps up.
As we've all learned by now, fast speeds mean short battery life. And that's as true with the Spectrum as any phone I've ever used: the phone never held its charge for a full 24 hours, even with only mild use, and streaming videos or any kind of heavy LTE usage cut that down to only a few hours of use. As with the Nitro, the Spectrum also had a disconcerting tendency to use a lot of battery even when it's idle — my battery drained 40 percent overnight, without me ever touching it, and without any apps running. Using Wi-Fi or turning off LTE whenever possible is a must, but this still is a phone you'll need to charge every night, and you'll probably want to carry a charger around as well just in case you decide to spend a quarter of your battery streaming an episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix.
The LG Nitro HD succeeds in spite of its UI skin because it has great hardware, a great display, fast LTE speeds, and only a few other phones on its network that can claim the same. Even that phone was a pretty blatant imitation of the Galaxy S II, though, and frankly, I wish LG had stuck with that strategy — the Spectrum’s a much more unique phone, and not in a good way. It works well, and its internal hardware is impressive, but it still has a terrible UI skin, plus ugly buttons, an awful back, crowded ports and a poorly placed speaker. None of those problems can be solved with a root or a launcher app. Considering all that, plus its seriously steep Verizon LTE competition — the Galaxy Nexus, Rezound, and the Droid RAZR, to name a few — I can't think of a single reason to buy the Spectrum.
Want to see how the LG Spectrum stacks up next to the Galaxy Nexus, Droid RAZR, LG Nitro HD, HTC Rezound, and Droid RAZR Maxx? Check out the comparison in our database!