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Prada Hero Final
Prada Hero Final

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LG Prada Phone 3.0 review

Does the latest Prada phone have the substance to match its style?

The original Prada Phone, LG would have us believe, was the inspiration for the iPhone. Just four months after LG won the iF Design award for its groundbreaking design, Steve Jobs took to the stage at Macworld and turned the entire industry on its head. There were similarities between the two devices, but while both had touch-based UIs, capacitive displays, and strong black bezels, there was a key difference: software. Whereas the iPhone introduced the world to pinch-to-zoom, Google Maps integration, and desktop-quality web browsing, the Prada ran a Flash-based OS that looked great, but accomplished very little. The Prada Phone 3.0 is LG's attempt to finally nullify that disparity.

LG has traded in the original Prada UI for Android 2.3, making this the first true modern smartphone in the line. But its 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage don’t exactly set the heart racing. When coupled with an out-of-date OS and a tired 4.3-inch WVGA display, the Prada 3 simply can’t match the current pack of smartphones vying for your attention, on paper at least. Instead, LG is hedging its bets on a collaboration with design house Prada swinging the tables in its favor.

The original Prada wasn't cheap or powerful, yet its strong design and Prada’s brand cachet led to it selling over a million worldwide. Is this phone the natural evolution of a strong franchise? Or should the Prada line have remained a fond memory?

Design / Hardware

Design and hardware

So elegant, yet so flawed
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The Prada 3.0 comes in what I can only describe as a giant jewelry box, covered in a textured pattern reminiscent of Prada's signature "Saffiano" leather. It's an acquired taste for sure, but it's definitely striking, and begs you discover what's inside. On opening the box you'll find the phone, which looks very special neatly nestled inside a felt-lined tray. Delve deeper, however, and you'll find that the illusion was only skin-deep — inside is a collection of standard LG paraphernalia, barring a pair of Prada-branded headphones, which sound horrible and are best left untouched.

From afar the Prada is quite an unremarkable sight — just a grey and black slab, it simply doesn't have the wow factor present when you first see the Nokia N9 or iPhone 4. But first impressions can be deceiving, and on closer inspection you’ll see that this is a truly elegant device. Strong lines subtly curve with effortless grace, and the removable back cover, rather than being an invisible function, is a simply beautiful form. It tracks and extends the curves started at the device's extremities, before cutting in at a sharp angle on reaching the upper and lower most metallic grey edges. Like the box it comes in, the phone’s back cover is again adorned with Prada's Saffiano pattern, which provides a good grippy surface and feels great in your hands, despite being made of plastic. Visually, it splits the device into two distinct but complementary segments, further accentuating the thinness of device's 8.5mm frame.

Svelte it may be, but this is still a substantial device. The expanse of the 4.3-inch display is enlarged by huge bezels above and below, and although its horizontal bezels look thin enough, the outer rim of the phone bulges outwards, further expanding the Prada's footprint. At 5.02 x 2.72 inches, this is both taller and wider than the Samsung Galaxy S II, and is very close to parity with the HTC One X, despite the latter having a 4.7-inch display. Its considerable bulk doesn't take away from its looks, however, and this is a beautiful phone.

The sides of the Prada are strong and free of interruptions, aside from a pair of volume buttons set tight to the phone's frame. Its front face is similarly barren, featuring only a pearlescent Prada logo, four capacitive buttons, and the front-facing one-megapixel camera. The headphone port sits atop the device, alongside two precisely-machined metal buttons, for power and camera, and a similarly-styled metal toggle which slides back to reveal a Micro USB / MHL port. There's an aesthetic balance at play here that's rarely achieved in smartphone design, and it's certainly above and beyond LG’s US flagship models, the Nitro HD and Spectrum.

However, the same design that once enthralled will quickly infuriate when you start to actually use the phone.

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The first issue that crops up is the sleep / wake button — it's simply in the wrong place. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I can deal with a top-mounted button on a large-screened phone, but LG has placed it so close to the right edge of the device that even my piano-playing fingers couldn't contort round to activate it. When I approached the button from the rear, the beautiful angles of the rear cover became a barrier that prevented my finger from reaching it. I’m going to start a petition to have this button become the official definition of "form over function."

Thankfully LG also allows the device to be woken by a press of the volume down button, but that doesn't alleviate the hassle you'll encounter when trying to power the display off. When you finally do turn it on, a subtle white ring glows around the power button. It’s very pretty, but it doesn’t function as a notification light — its sole purpose seems to be to congratulate you for turning on the phone.

Turning on a phone shouldn't be this hard

The one final point of discontent is build quality. Although this is by far the best-built LG phone I've ever used, there're still a couple of niggling issues. While the phone in general is remarkably rigid, the same can't be said of its back cover. It's not poorly made, or flimsy, but there's some dead space between the case and the device itself in certain places that leads to some irritating creaking on occasion. Popping off the cacophonous cover reveals a microSD slot, removable battery, and space for a standard SIM. Both the microSD and SIM slots can be accessed without the need to remove the battery, which is handy.

Cameras

Cameras

As I previously alluded to, LG has placed the dedicated camera button right on top of the Prada 3.0, as opposed to following the norm of mounting it vertically. Strange it may be, but it turns out that this is actually a stroke of genius.

Although the traditional shutter key placement makes sense on an actual camera, more often than not, pressing the key on a smartphone causes it to shift a little, just at the moment photo is being taken, which often leads to a slightly blurry image. With this setup, however, your right hand will be sitting opposite the key, preventing it from budging. Although the placement makes one-handed shots a near-impossibility, two-handed operation is greatly improved with the setup. The only flaw is the lack of travel in the button — there’s no mid-press focus here. Tap to focus is speedy enough though, and pressing the software shutter button will focus well and shoot in under a second. The other minor annoyance is pressing the hardware button from within the OS activates the front-facing camera, and there’s no setting on the device for you to change this setup, making it unsuitable for grabbing quick snaps.

The images produced by the Prada's eight-megapixel sensor range from stunning to passable, and LG's custom software, while lacking the bells and whistles of HTC's new ImageSense app, is well thought out and easy to use. Due in part to the unseasonably sunny weather we're experiencing in London, I was able to take some fantastic photos in good lighting conditions. At night, the Prada aggressively brightens images, capturing noisy but always usable images. It's a trade-off I'm happy to make — I'd much rather capture a slightly fuzzy moment than be faced with the dim, underexposed images some smartphones produce. There's also a powerful enough LED flash available if that's your thing, but as with all smartphones, you're best off leaving it disabled unless you absolutely need it.

The front-facing sensor performs better than most, offering less-noisy (but still very much so) video, which is ideal for video calling, but beyond that is pretty worthless — despite being capable of recording at 720p, I don’t recommend you bother. The main camera shoots at 1080p, and quality was surprisingly good. In daylight or well-lit areas, I captured clips that bested both the iPhone 4 and Galaxy S II, although fell short of the perpetual industry leader, the Nokia N8. The rolling shutter effect evident on so many devices is almost completely eradicated here, but video is recorded in fixed focus, so you're somewhat limited creatively. This also isn't a device to film with at night — the software magic that fixed up my low-light photos doesn't extend to video recording, and I was often left with dark, dingy clips. The software does do its best to make up for the sensor’s flaws, offering a slider to ramp up the brightness and the option to use the flash as a video light, but both solutions hindered quality as much as they helped. You’ll also find options to set white balance, a useless digital zoom function, and the usual range of resolution options to choose from.

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Stunning to passable photos, Stunning to unusable videos

Display

Display

Everything needs to be just a bit sharper
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You could make the argument that this device isn't aimed at those that care about specs — this is a phone designed by a fashion house, after all. But it’s supposed to be a smartphone, and there's no getting away from the fact that this display doesn't belong in a modern device.

The main problem with the display lies with its WVGA 480 x 800 resolution, which was already looking tired in Samsung's flagship Galaxy S II this time last year. Everything you see on the display could just do with being a tiny bit sharper, and there are occasions where you’ll see individual pixels, most notably on the stock weather widgets clouds, which drove me insane.

LG's Nova LCD technology produces an incredible amount of brightness (800 nits to be precise), but retains surprisingly deep black levels. Color reproduction and viewing angles are good, although when viewed from oblique angles the whole screen takes a slightly blueish hue.

Although we’d all love to see higher resolution displays in every device, I’d still pick this display over the PenTile qHD AMOLED unit found in the Motorola Razr and HTC One S every time. The only reason for improving resolution in devices is to attain sharper images, and this display doesn’t have the colored fringes and color hazing present in all but Samsung’s Super AMOLED+ displays. That’s not a free pass for the phone’s poor resolution though — plenty of devices this size have qHD LCDs, which make LG's decision all the more disappointing.


Software

Software

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In choosing software, LG has again gone with last year's technology, fitting the Prada Phone 3 with Android 2.3 Gingerbread. A cursory glance at the gallery above will inform you that this isn't stock Android, however.

As customizations go, this is at least one of the more interesting — it's almost entirely monochrome, and apes the appearance of the original Prada phones. From basic icons and typography, to apps, lock screens, and custom widgets, almost everything that could conceivably be skinned, has been. The theme is almost exclusively a high-contrast, white-on-black affair. For the most part it looks great, but it's very subdued, and definitely not for everyone — those TouchWiz apologists among you may want to look elsewhere for your kicks.

LG has pre-installed a fair amount of software on the Prada, including Polaris Office, Yahoo News, Weather, and Finance, all of which are impossible to remove without rooting the phone. Given that most of the apps installed are at least semi-useful, their presence wasn't such a big deal to me. Slightly more irritating is the LG SmartWorld app market — for when Google Play isn't enough — which serves no purpose whatsoever. There's also an app called LG SmartShare, which is pretty well put together, and lets you stream photos, videos and music to and from any DLNA-compatible hardware (any computer, your console, a growing number of TVs, and a ton of other stuff). It's not exactly a unique feature, but at least you're DLNA-ready without having to search Google Play (or LG SmartWorld, of course) for an app that does the same thing.

LG has skinned its browser to match the rest of the phone. Scrolling and pinching to zoom for the most part are smooth, but sites that have a ton of graphics take an awfully long time to load. This phone shouldn’t be outperformed by an iPhone 3GS, but in a straight-up page loading speed test, it was. There are plenty of free browsers available that perform admirably, but LG shouldn’t be shipping a device that forces you to look elsewhere.

How can you get a stock browser so wrong?
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It really wouldn't matter if this skin was perfect — and it isn't — I'd still bemoan the lack of Ice Cream Sandwich

Without Android 4.0, your browser options will be limited slightly by the absence of Chrome for Android, which has fast become my browser of choice. Another downside to Gingerbread (one of many, if I’m to be honest) is task switching, which is a tiring affair without the swipe-away menu found in Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Prada does have NFC capabilities, but unfortunately the suite of apps available to UK users isn't particularly wide, so I was unable to test out Google Wallet and the like. I did however manage to write my name to an off-the-shelf tag using the phone's built-in NFC app, so it's definitely working as it should.

In general, if you stick to LG’s portfolio of apps, you’ll have a very polished experience, although skinned widgets like Accuweather will still just take you into the regular bright and colorful app. Which brings me to biggest issue with the software, and in fact the phone in general — visual inconsistency.

It starts with app icons. Prada has skinned all of the basic programs, but when you download a new app, you get the regular icon. To try and create a universal aesthetic when adding an app to the homescreen, a long press allows you to choose a new icon from a custom set. LG has actually provided quite a well-rounded collection, covering some apps specifically, some generally (a nondescript logo of a book, for example, could be applied to a number of apps), and offering stylized letters to fall back on. Comprehensive it may be, but having to manually assign each app its own icon isn't ideal.

Skinning an icon also doesn't affect its appearance in the app launcher, which means if you want pretty logos on your homescreen, you'll end up with two separate icons for the same app. Scrolling through the launcher itself is a harrowing experience, as your once monochrome companion suddenly presents you with a wide gamut of colors. One UI designer I spoke with called this effect "sensory overload," and that's exactly what it feels like after navigating your way through a colorless UI for so long.

Things also fall apart when entering different apps — they all contain different fonts, colors, and design elements that don't just fit with LG's skin. Perhaps, instead of fighting against the look and feel of Gingerbread, LG could have better spent its time porting Android 4.0 to the Prada. Like the litany of manufacturers attempting to gloss over their mistakes, LG has promised an upgrade in the second quarter, but this device was released three months after the Ice Cream Sandwich source code. It’s unbelievable that a company as big as LG couldn't prioritize an update in time for release.

Performance

Performance, call quality, and battery life

Stock browser aside, the Prada delivers an extremely fluid user experience. Sure, its dual-core 1GHz OMAP 4430 SoC won't challenge today's high-end devices on raw performance, but it handled most everything I could throw at it with ease. I was able to run 20 or so applications without any issues, most likely thanks to the phone's 1GB of RAM.

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
HTC One S 5,141 2,420 57fps 29fps 7,107
Galaxy Nexus 2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079
LG Prada 2,114 825 28fps 14fps 5,335

Gaming

The Prada utilizes a PowerVR SGX540 GPU for gaming, which again is a little behind the curve, but still more than capable. It showed its age in our graphics test, only managing 28fps at 720p and a miserable 14fps at 1080p, but thanks to the low resolution display, real-world performance was better than expected. I played through a good hour’s worth of both ShadowGun and Samurai II without any dips in framerate or graphical issues.

If it can handle ShadowGun, that's good enough for me
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Battery life

One thing that did dip in the hour that I played ShadowGun was battery life — by around 30 percent in fact. Obviously, mobile gaming is pretty resource intensive (you can drain 45 percent of an iPhone’s battery with an hour of Infinity Blade), and in general you won't find yourself in need of a charger too often. It's no Razr MAXX, but the Prada manages to last more than a day under reasonably heavy use, although you'll likely be wanting to charge it every night.



3G Performance

Perhaps the only area in which I had no complaints about was call quality. The dual microphones do a great job of cutting out background noise, and my diligent test subject sounded much clearer than she did with either an iPhone 4S or Galaxy S II. I frequently had better reception that either of the aforementioned devices, as well. My speed tests over 3G maxed out at around 7.4Mbps down and 2.4Mbps up, but that’s more indicative of the quality of service in London than anything else. I’d describe the results as in line with what I usually pull in on Three's 3G network.

LG set out with a clear goal here: to reboot one of its best-selling lines, and make it relevant in today's smartphone-orientated market. The Prada Phone 3 marks a leap forward in aesthetics, build quality, and user experience for a company whose current lineup is sorely lacking in all three. I want to love this phone, I really do. It gets so much right — it even had me liking an Android skin up to a point — but yet it all falls apart under scrutiny.

HTC has just released its One series, which is being universally praised for its design. Apple’s iPhone 4S is as near to perfection, visually, as it can be, and Samsung will likely reveal a new design for its Galaxy S III that competes with both on specs and aesthetics. It’s no longer enough for a manufacturer to just release a good looking device — it has to deliver a truly cohesive experience. I’d be surprised if this generation sells as much as the last, but I hope this isn’t the last Prada phone, as LG is tantalizingly close to making one that I might actually buy.

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