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LG Optimus 3D Max review

LG returns to the third dimension, but is it anything more than a shallow gimmick?

The Optimus 3D Max is perhaps the most puzzling entry in LG’s 2012 lineup. Priced at €499.99 (around $635) SIM-free in the EU, it's something of a second flagship (behind the incoming Optimus 4X HD) for the Korean conglomerate, and as such represents a big risk. LG’s first 3D phone, the Optimus 3D, received only average reviews on its release last year. The company is sticking to its guns, however, and is back with another 4.3-inch 3D display, dual-core OMAP 4 processor, and a 5-megapixel stereoscopic camera.

Unlike its predecessor, the Optimus 3D Max doesn't have the luxury of being first to market. If LG is to succeed with its gambit, it needs to create a compelling package rather than just another device with a 3D display. Will LG's first major play in 2012 do enough to persuade the naysayers, or is this the final curtain of a short-lived sideshow?

Hardware / Design

Hardware / Design

A masterclass in unoriginality
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LG isn’t a stranger to accusations of plagiarism, but I've yet to see a device do so little to hide its influences. Imagine a Samsung Galaxy S II with its AMOLED screen removed and replaced with a chunky LCD; you've just designed the Optimus 3D Max. From a distance, the pair are almost indistinguishable. The phone is an all-plastic affair, aside from the Gorilla Glass display, and feels decidedly cheap. The plastic is finished in no less than five textures, which makes for a tactile and visual nightmare. While it’s certainly slimmer than its predecessor, at 9.6mm (0.38 inches) thick and weighing a hefty 148g (5.22 ounces), it's thicker and heavier than the current crop of smartphones.

The front of the device is dominated by a single slab of glass which houses the 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) IPS display, a row of four capacitive buttons, an elegantly cut speaker grille, and a VGA front-facing camera. The screen protrudes out from the case considerably, something that’s further pronounced by the piece of black plastic that encases the glass. It may seem like a small detail, but this plastic rim gets in the way when you swipe your finger off the screen. It’s an unpleasant sensation, and there’s no real reason for it to be there. The iPhone 4, with its single piece of protruding glass, led the way in this department, but recently devices with tapered screens such as the One X and Lumia 800 have come close to perfecting what interacting with a display should feel like. It’s time for other manufacturers to take note.

LG should be copying HTC, not Samsung

With the rear of the phone, LG has done its best to imitate Samsung again, right down to the hump at the bottom which houses a distinctly average loudspeaker. The black plastic removable back has a look and feel that will be instantly familiar to any Galaxy S II or Galaxy Nexus owner. It’s covered in a slippery texture that feels cheaper than Samsung's efforts, and is also a little thicker — LG seems incapable of matching Samsung blow-for-blow even when aping its worst design feature.

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Thickness Weight (Oz)
Optimus 3D Max 0.38 inches 5.22
Galaxy Nexus 0.35 inches 4.76
One X 0.37 inches 4.59
Droid RAZR 0.28 inches 4.48
Galaxy S III 0.34 inches 4.69
One S 0.31 inches 4.22
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It's not a particularly nice phone to look at and feels even worse to hold in your hands

Thankfully, the design of the 3D camera housing is a lot more tasteful than the original Optimus 3D, and although it pokes out from the casing a little, the actual lenses and flash are both recessed, which should protect them from scratches. Popping off the back cover reveals a removable 1500mAh battery, along with space for a full-sized SIM, a microSD slot, and a pair of contacts for the NFC antenna.

LG has placed the faux-metallic power button up top, alongside a 3.5mm headphone jack. The left of the device houses a pair of volume buttons and a Micro USB port, while a dedicated 3D button (more on that later) that doubles as a camera shutter key sits alone on the opposing side. Unlike its predecessor, the Optimus 3D Max has no Micro HDMI-out, but it does have an MHL-capable Micro USB port. MHL can output 1080p HD video to any device with an HDMI port; the benefit of the standard is that it can draw power from the display it’s connected to, but right now there aren’t too many TVs with the charging technology built in. Sadly, LG has decided to place this essential port behind a slider made from extremely flimsy plastic which offers absolutely no resistance when being slid back and forth — frankly, I was surprised to find it functioning after even a week's use.

This device is priced to go head-to-head with the One S, but LG just can’t match HTC in industrial design. I can forgive a misplaced button or flimsy feeling port cover, but there's just nothing redeeming about the design of the 3D Max. Everything is a rehash of something that's been done better elsewhere. The screen extends out so much that it looks like a separate entity, but unlike the HTC One X, iPhone 4S, or Lumia 800, there’s been no thought put into what that entity looks or feels like.

The 3D Max is a huge mishmash of curves and angles that don't belong together; at the top corners of the device you'll find seven different angles converging in an unholy mess. It's not a particularly nice phone to look at and feels even worse to hold in your hands. Aesthetics aside, it at least seems built to last; there’s no flex to the body, and I suspect it’ll survive a drop every now and then. Another positive can be found in the included headphones — they’re not world beaters, but are well above the standard I’ve come to expect from free pairs.

Display

Display

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The 3D Max's 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480 pixels) IPS display has great viewing angles and bright, accurate color reproduction, but falls short in a few areas. Black levels are not what we've come to expect from a modern device, and neither is the resolution. WVGA over 4.3 inches isn't good enough; icons look too large, there is some slight pixelation on large text, and it could do with being sharper in general. Because of its 3D capabilities I'd be inclined to give LG a pass on the display, were it not for the Evo 3D — HTC managed to put a glasses-free 4.3-inch qHD display in a phone 10 months ago, so why can't LG?

Glasses-free 3D still has its issues

3D performance itself is patchy. LG advises that you view the screen from between 30 - 40cm (1 - 1.4 feet) away — that's a pretty limited range for what is supposed to be a mobile device. The viewing angles are particularly unforgiving; you have around eight degrees of vertical and horizontal give before things start to get fuzzy. Things have improved slightly over the unit found in the Optimus 3D, but not enough. As you're not likely to keep your head completely stationary while using the device, things inevitably do go wrong, and you'll spend far too long trying to get back in the "sweet spot."

Software

Software

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Last year, the Optimus 3D launched with Android 2.2 a full seven months after 2.3 had been released, and LG is again behind the curve. That's right — the 3D Max comes with Gingerbread, along with the all-too-familiar "it's coming soon" promise of an Android 4.0 update. Given the company’s poor record with updates — not a single phone that launched with Gingerbread has received Ice Cream Sandwich — you have to wonder what exactly it defines as "soon."

LG has given the 3D Max one of the most chintzy skins I've ever had the displeasure to use. In fitting with its 3D moniker, LG crudely skins every icon to look like a cube — which for some reason you can customize with your own photos — and also provides a number of wallpapers that play with the idea of perspective in the most basic manner possible. The effect is laughably bad, but I could understand the decision if the launcher actually utilized the 3D display — it doesn't.

The application drawer uses LG's familiar layout, which arranges icons into vertically scrollable categories. There are also options for paginated horizontal scrolling, and a plain Windows Phone-style alphabetized text list. Given the number of options, you'll probably find a style that will suits your needs, but I see no compelling reason to persist with LG's effort over the ever-growing list of launchers available via Google Play. ADW Launcher has been a long-time favorite of mine, although Apex Launcher (which is sadly not compatible with the 3D Max yet) will at least give the illusion of Ice Cream Sandwich.

Unlike some of LG’s US devices, there's very little to complain about in the way of bloatware on the 3D Max, aside from some 3D-specific offerings. That said, I had stability issues with a number of applications, especially the camera, which at least once a day crashed and refused to reopen until I restarted the entire phone. I also had force closes using the SmartShare and Calendar apps, as well as the launcher itself. A few times, when waking the 3D Max from sleep it completely locked up, and after waiting five minutes for it to respond I had to remove the battery to get things going again — that's just not acceptable.

LG TAG+

NFC isn't of much use in the UK right now — though there'll be a big push from Visa at the Olympics — but LG includes a set of NFC-enabled stickers called Tag+ which allow you to assign certain actions on a tap. If this all sounds a little familiar, that's because it's essentially the same idea as seen with the Xperia S's SmartTags. LG bundles three tags with the 3D Max, called "Sleep Mode," "Office Mode," and "Car Mode." Each alters brightness and volume settings accordingly and can also launch a relevant app. The "Car Mode" tag, for example, automatically activates Bluetooth (it's against the law to make a call while driving without a headset in the UK), starts playing my "driving" playlist, and opens up Google Navigation. In the included LG Tag+ app there's also the option to set the tag to start navigation to a specific location, as well as tweaks to be made to all of the settings.

You can wipe any of the Tags and set up your own profiles, but you won't be able to create rich automations like LG's presets — it’s limited to toggles for volume/vibration, Bluetooth, Data, Wi-Fi, and GPS, and you can also select a single application to open. It’s certainly useful, and I used a custom profile to set my screen brightness to zero, turn off data, and open the alarm app every night. One of the complaints leveled against Sony's implementation was the lack of an intelligent On/Off function from the tags, and thankfully tapping on a tag after a mode has already been activated will bring up a dialogue box to return your settings back to normal (there's also a persistent item in the notification area that allows you to do this manually). All told, LG Tag+ was a cinch to get going, and a pleasure to use, but still comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity. If LG can include more automation options — perhaps something akin to Motorola's Smart Actions — this could be a truly killer feature.

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LG Tag+ performs better than Sony's SmartTags
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So 3D movies are great, but where do you get them?

3D

LG obviously still believes there's demand for a 3D device, but doesn't seem to have made any effort to double down with its software. A long press on the dedicated 3D button will bring up the "3D Space" carousel, which is identical to the one included with the 3D Max’s predecessor. From there you have access to the 3D camera and gallery apps, YouTube 3D, and the 3D Games and Apps section, which features full 3D versions of N.O.V.A., Asphalt 6, Let's Golf 2, and a bizarre interactive Gulliver’s Travels app.

Perhaps more interesting than the included titles is LG’s 3D Converter app, which claims to take any app or OpenGL game that runs in landscape mode and convert it into 3D. On opening the converter you’ll be presented with a list of everything installed on your device, and it’s down to you to pick and choose which you want to run. One irritation is that the apps have to be launched from within the app to enable 3D — they don’t show up in the 3D World carousel, and launching an app from the application drawer brings up the 2D-only version.

LG specifically mentions Google Maps and Earth in its PR for the 3D Max, so I gave them a spin alongside a pair of obvious choices, Samurai II and Shadowgun. Using Google Maps in 3D isn’t a lot of fun — it just doesn’t work, at all. Street View can’t be converted, and once you zoom in enough for the regular wireframe buildings to appear, you’re already too close to see the full structures. Google Earth fares even worse — the source material simply isn’t of high enough quality to convert properly, and after five minutes I felt physically sick. This isn’t really LG’s fault, but represents a larger problem — it can’t force third parties to make their apps 3D-ready, and there’s no clear solution on the horizon.

Shadowgun was completely unplayable in 3D. Granted it’s an extremely testing game for conversion, but it was impossible to find a viewing angle where things didn’t look blurry. Samurai II, on the other hand, was a ton of fun. Its cel-shaded visuals really lend themselves to 3D, and I was happily swiping away for around 20 minutes, at which point my eyes started to hurt. Thankfully, a tap on the 3D button will switch whichever app you’re in back to 2D.

I’m not exactly new to stereoscopy: I’m used to gaming on the Nintendo 3DS and donning RealD glasses at movie theaters, and have never felt sick when watching 3D. Unlike Nintendo’s portable console, there’s no way to tone down the 3D effect to your tastes on the 3D Max — it’s either on, or it’s not. In the camera and gallery apps there is a slider available to adjust the 3D levels, but it only pertains to that item; if you’re browsing through images, they’ll automatically default to the maximum 3D effect unless you’ve already set it lower.

YouTube has an ever-growing library of 3D content on offer, and passively watching videos was a much more enjoyable experience than gaming on the 3D Max. But YouTube is pretty much it when it comes to content; neither Google Play nor LG's SmartWorld store have any 3D movies or TV shows to rent or buy. SmartWorld does offer an easy way to discover 3D apps and games, but you'll have to sign up for an LG account to buy or download any of them.

The lack of content on Google Play makes sense, as this is only the third international device that supports 3D, but LG launched the Optimus 3D almost a year ago — why hasn't it offered a simple way for its customers to get movies onto their devices? In the end, I managed to sideload a 3D movie, and it was by far the best 3D experience I had with the device. This is obviously a content quality issue — movie studios have spent a ton of money on making 3D palatable for the masses. Why users are forced to sideload their own content when there’s such an enjoyable experience available here remains a mystery to me.

Cameras

Cameras

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The Optimus 3D Max has what appears to be the same 5-megapixel stereoscopic camera setup as the Optimus 3D, and image quality remains inconsistent. Photos are good enough, but nothing to write home about; unless you're shooting very well-lit scenes, don't expect to use the resulting images for anything more demanding than Facebook.

There's a built-in flash that also acts as a video light, but, as with almost all smartphone cameras, it results in the overexposure of close objects, and doesn’t help with anything further away, producing unusable images. The front-facing VGA camera is okay for quick vanity shots or video calling via Skype, but struggles more than most when things aren't perfectly lit.

The camera suite is functional enough, and has the usual range of resolution options, white balance adjustments, and basic filters. There’s also a continuous shot mode which takes six images in quick succession, but unlike other companies’ efforts, all of the images will appear in your gallery, forcing you to delete unwanted images individually.

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2D-3D conversion is a neat parlor trick, when it works

3D Performance

As silly as it may seem, capturing images and video in 3D is a lot of fun, and at the very least it's a conversation starter — even gazing through the 3D live view is enough raise a smile. As previously mentioned, the 3D button doubles as a shutter key, so while you’re in the app, the 3D button takes photos, with a software 2D / 3D toggle picking up the slack. While I generally prefer that buttons do the same thing each time they’re pressed, I’m glad LG made this trade-off — perhaps it’s just me, but I find it difficult to capture good images without a hardware button.

To capture in 3D you need around two feet between you and any given object; while that seems like a non-issue, you have to really rethink how you compose your images when shooting 3D. If anything is too close, it will ruin the photo, which really limits the creative scope of what you can achieve. Generally, as long as you have an evenly lit scene, you'll capture some nice images, but if there's even the slightest lighting issue you'll find the effect isn't great. The video stabilization that works so well in 2D capture really struggles with 3D — you'll need an extremely steady hand to get good results. 3D does make a fun side-show though, and it's definitely something that we’d like to see in future devices once the technology has been perfected.

The 3D images you produce are saved as stereoscopic .jps files limited to three megapixels, but at 2048 x 1536 they're more than big enough to fill a 1080p 3DTV. Video is stored in near-universal 720p side-by-side .mp4 files, which allows the 3D Max to upload in 3D directly to YouTube without any issues. Once they're up on YouTube, the site will offer a ton of conversion options to viewers, including anaglyphic (think age-old two color glasses) 3D, so pretty much everyone can enjoy the 3D effect.

Anything you capture in 3D can also be viewed in 2D by tapping either the software or hardware 3D button, enabling you to recover images and videos that didn't make the grade in 3D. You'll be stuck with reduced quality images though, so it's not really an option to shoot everything in 3D. LG also offers "3D conversion" for any image or video, with limited success. Video conversion didn’t produce anything watchable, but if you have a 2D image of a single object at a 45-degree angle (and that's a big if), the conversion works pretty flawlessly. The best use I found for the artificial conversion was close-up images — there's no need to keep two feet between you and the subject, which means with careful planning you can have objects seemingly pop-out from the screen in front of you. It’s fun times.

LG has done a good job at sticking to the standards, ensuring that anything you capture with the 3D Max can be enjoyed by the widest possible audience, but for now there aren't a lot of 3D-capable displays out there. Eventually, most homes will have at least one screen capable of playing back 3D content, but until that happens, you have to question the point of 3D capture for anything other than movie-quality dedicated cameras.

Performance

Performance, call quality, and battery life

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The LG Optimus 3D Max has the same TI OMAP 4430 SoC as its predecessor, although this time its CPU is apparently clocked at 1.2GHz, rather than 1GHz. In reality, no matter what I did with the device, including running our benchmarking suite, I couldn’t get the CPU to clock above 1GHz. Despite the leaps and bounds made by the industry since the 4430 debuted over a year ago, it remains a proficient piece of silicon; it powers both the Droid RAZR and Kindle Fire, and generally keeps things ticking just fine on the 3D Max.

Swiping through homescreens was for the most part stutter-free, but there were moments of slowdown that sullied the overall experience. There were no apps that refused to run, but some, especially the camera suite, occasionally took a good five seconds to open. I'm leveling the blame for the issues directly at LG; it's a case of unfinished software, rather than lack of power. Synthetic benchmarks also revealed a distinct disparity between what the hardware should be capable of and what was actually achieved: scores were down across the board from other OMAP 4430 devices.

Just not good enough
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It's the software that lets things down
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Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Optimus 3D Max 2,032 723 24fps 12fps 5,249
Prada Phone 3.0 2,114 825 28fps 14fps 5,335
Galaxy Nexus 2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079
Galaxy S II 3,022 1129 53fps 26fps 6,142
One S 5,141 2,420 57fps 29fps 7,107

As for gaming, almost everything was issue-free, but there were framerate problems during hectic scenes in Samurai II, Shadowgun, and N.O.V.A. — nothing that would make you stop playing, but enough to prevent me from recommending the 3D Max to anyone interested in gaming on the go. The issues were especially bothering as the Droid RAZR can play through all three without any such issues. Turning on the 3D mode also seems to make things a little slower in general, and framerates were visibly improved when I stuck to two dimensions.

Battery life was just about acceptable — the 3D Max reached 7 hours and 47 minutes in our battery test, which cycles through websites and high-res images with the screen at 65 percent brightness. In real-world use, it generally lasted a day without any problems. There wasn’t any extra drain on the battery when in 3D mode, but if you attempt even a little light gaming, the battery will take a big hit — I found myself reaching for a charger by early evening on more than one occasion.

Call quality was good on my end, but friends occasionally complained that my voice was a little quiet, especially when I was using the speakerphone. Data speeds over 3G were exactly as expected — devices have long since outgrown the UK’s 3G networks. UK network Three's speeds maxed out at 7.5Mbps down and 2.2Mbps up — pretty much identical to what I see with my iPhone 4S or Galaxy S II. On O2 and Orange I was able to reach the same 4.2Mbps and 3.6Mbps down as obtained on other devices.

The Optimus 3D Max feels more like an obligatory product refresh than a new device. Its predecessor was a relatively weak choice almost a year ago, and apart from a slightly slimmer body, nothing has really improved here. The HTC One S costs the same €499.99 off-contract, and bests the 3D Max in almost every department; there's really no contest. Even if 3D is an absolute must for you, last year’s EVO 3D is still a better option, and the original Optimus 3D is now available brand new for under €270.

If you've got your heart set on an LG phone, the L-Style L7 is priced SIM-free at €299.99, and is already available from Amazon at €249.99 — half the price of the 3D Max. With the L7 you'll admittedly have only 4GB of storage (expandable via microSD), but it has a 1GHz processor, a 5-megapixel camera, WVGA screen, and Android 4.0 pre-installed, all in a slimmer, more attractive package. LG may win over a few customers intrigued by the 3D gimmickry on offer here, but for the informed user, the Optimus 3D Max is definitely one to avoid.

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