LG's recent efforts in the US phone market have been somewhat... underwhelming. The company's been a stalwart supporter of 720p displays, which is great, but some combination of poor software, underpowered internals, and bad build quality have consistently brought LG's phones crashing back to earth.
Over in Europe, there's a phone that appears to have shed all those limitations and is ready to take over the world: the Optimus 4X HD. Software? Check — it runs Android 4.0, a much-improved version of the OS. Hardware? Check — it's powered by a quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM. Build quality? At least it's not made of slimy plastic.
Call me jaded if you will, but coming from LG it all seemed too good to be true. Has LG finally gotten all its ducks in a row, and made a stellar handset with the Optimus 4X HD? Read on.
Hardware / design
Big, bold, and (almost) beautiful
The Optimus 4X HD is big, but it's not larger than its 4.7-inch display requires. 5.21 inches tall and 2.68 inches wide, its footprint is about the same as the Galaxy S III or the One X, and thanks to a slightly more squared-off, 8.89mm-thick design, it actually feels a bit smaller in your hand. Make no mistake, though: this is still a huge phone. The phone is white on all four sides, with two silver stripes running along the edges. It doesn't look or feel as good as the One X, or a phone like the Lumia 900 or iPhone 4S, but it's certainly attractive, and nicely made.
The back of the Optimus 4X HD is lined with slightly raised diagonal ridges, and looks almost like painted wood — it still feels like plastic, and the back is oddly easy to pull off, but it both looks and feels better than the slimy back on most plastic phones. There's a big LG logo on the back, along with an off-center camera lens surrounded by a square silver border and adjacent to a small LED flash. The speaker is also on the back, in the bottom left corner; that's exactly where your palm goes as you hold the phone in your right hand. In fact, there's no good way to hold the 4X in one hand without covering the speaker. On the Droid 4 and other phones with similar speaker placements the speaker can actually reverberate off your palm and enhance the sound, but I noticed no such effect here.
Between the two silver stripes on the left side of the phone is a single-button volume control, which is so well-hidden that you almost don't notice it, though it's raised enough that your fingers will find it fine. The 3.5mm headphone jack rests up top next to the power button — in my mind that's the right place for headphones, but on a phone this large the power control makes more sense on the right side, where it's accessible to your right thumb without contortionist-level stretching. The Micro USB charging port rests on the bottom of the handset.
There's another LG logo on the front above the display, just underneath the silver stripe for the speaker. Front-facing camera and proximity sensor flank the speaker — each part looks identical to the iPhone's, they're just laid out more or less symmetrically here instead of grouped in the middle. Below the display are three capacitive Android buttons, which only light up when pressed — you'll never notice they're there until you tap the seemingly empty space, and even when they light up they time out so quickly that I simply trained myself to tap a section of the bezel rather than seeking a button.
LG's made great hardware before — I still like the Nitro HD's look and feel a lot — and the Optimus 4X HD is one of its best efforts yet. It's not sleek, but it's handsome, and with different textures and materials it's something even rarer: distinctive in the sea of Android phones (even if it does look a bit like LG's own L7).
The Optimus 4X HD comes with a 4.7-inch, 1280 x 720, IPS display. 720p isn't itself an impressive feat anymore, and that's awesome — screens this large really can't be any lower-res and still be usable. The 4X's display is excellent, but that's not surprising: the Nitro HD and Spectrum both proved that the company knows how to make a good screen, and the fact that LG's been a major TV manufacturer for many years certainly helps.
The IPS display isn't quite as high-contrast or vivid as the Super LCD on the One X and Evo 4G LTE, but it's still very good, with near-180 degree viewing angles and excellent color reproduction. It's bright enough to be readable in sunlight, and its 312 PPI pixel density is well into "retina" territory — you definitely won't notice individual pixels, a fact also helped by the RGB layout rather than the dreaded PenTile look. Even small text is very readable, and the screen is sharp enough that even the subtle texture on the Contacts icon is noticeable. It's not the best phone display I've seen (that's the One X, and it's not close), but the 4X's screen is as good as you'll find outside HTC's flagship.
The one downside here is more about the handset's production than a problem with the display itself: there's a thick black stripe between the LCD and the bezel, which makes the screen feel like it's set far back into the recesses of the Optimus 4X HD's body. The screen's Gorilla Glass coating is a good addition, but the perceptual distance between your finger and whatever you're touching counteracts some of the immersive powers of such a large display.
Reception and call quality
Technologically sound, held back by design
The 4X HD is available unlocked in Europe and elsewhere around the world, and should work with any GSM network. I used it on AT&T, and results were about what I expected: I got download speeds averaging about 1.5Mbps and upload speeds about 300Kbps — those are firmly 3G speeds (there's no LTE support in the international 4X HD), but they're about what I'd expect from that connection. Reception was solid and consistent, even hanging onto full (or at least "full") service when other handsets started to drop. I suspect LG's padding its bars, and the handset didn't keep service while other devices lost it, but it's still a solid performer.
Audio performance is severely hampered by the unfortunate placement of the speaker, but once you learn the optimally uncomfortable way to hold the 4X... actually it's still pretty bad. Sound is clear enough, but it's quiet. So quiet that I constantly mashed the Volume Up button even when the on-screen indicator was full, because I didn't think it could possibly be at maximum output. If you're in a quiet space, you can hear it fine, but it's pretty hopeless in any other situation.
Other than the speaker (and thus speakerphone) problems, call quality is pretty good. The microphone is loud and clear, so other people heard me really well; the earpiece is a tiny bit muffled, but not enough to be a problem, and though it's not the loudest earpiece out there it at least gets loud enough to be audible (unlike the speaker).
There's an 8-megapixel camera poking out the rear of the 4X HD, and a 1.3-megapixel shooter peering out the phone's front face. The rear camera is better than many, thanks to solid color accuracy and surprisingly decent dynamic range. It's still not great, though: photos are soft even in bright lighting, and pictures never feel sharply in focus as a result.
The 4X HD will also shoot 1080p video, but it's even less impressive. Footage is similarly soft and slightly unfocused, though again colors and dynamic range are pretty good. The camera will dynamically adjust focus and exposure, but it does both so abruptly that you'd be better off without those features — every time it autofocuses, the whole image bounces. A lot. There are some fun effects for your video, like "Big Mouth," which gives your subject a mouth... that is big. Those are fun, but the 4X HD's video prowess in general is lackluster.
Turns out there ARE designers at LG after all
If I remember correctly, the first word out of my mouth after turning on the Optimus 4X HD was "finally." I've reviewed a number of LG phones in the last several months, and every single time found the device's biggest flaw to be its software: LG shipped its phones with Gingerbread, and added a horrible skin to boot. It was frustrating to write about, and even more frustrating to use.
Finally, though, LG seems to have figured it out, or at least come much closer. The Optimus 4X HD comes with Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0.3 to be exact), plus the latest version of LG's UI skin. First let's get the bad stuff out of the way: the customized icons for Messaging, Contacts, and the like are still hideous, and I'm not a fan of LG's incessant need to add a white skin to the otherwise dark and attractive Android look. Fortunately the icons are easy to change (just long-press and hit the paintbrush icon), and you probably don't spend much time in the settings menus anyway.
Aesthetic frustrations aside, there's actually a lot to like in the ways LG has customized Android 4.0. We covered a number of these in our review of the Optimus L7, and little has changed here. The lock screen is particularly cool: place your finger anywhere on the screen, and a translucent circle appears around it showing what you'll see when you unlock. You can also unlock straight into one of four apps. I also like the app drawer tabs, which make it easy to only see apps you've downloaded — it's a much faster way to find Twitter than looking through all the pages of preloaded Google apps and bloatware.
It's a clean skin, but LG still leaves its trace
I'm really torn about the Optimus 4X HD's skin. It's unquestionably an improvement over LG's past efforts, and adds a lot of really useful things, but at this point in the game Android doesn't need a lot of aesthetic help. LG changed colors, menus, icons, and more, and it flies in the face of the impressive Roboto-led look that Google finally achieved with Ice Cream Sandwich. I love the extra features and tweaks, but I still look enviously at the sleek, consistent Galaxy Nexus look I see around the Verge office.
Since this isn't yet a US device, there's not a lot of bloatware to be found, though that will almost certainly change if this device ever comes to the US. For now, you get about a half-dozen LG-added apps, which vary wildly in their utility. SmartWorld is just an extra app store, and I can't think of why anyone would ever use it. SmartShare is a DLNA app, RemoteCall Service lets LG fix your phone remotely, and MediaHome is an odd-looking dashboard for all your photos, music, and videos. You get the idea here.
On the other end of the spectrum is the awesome Tag+ system, which works with the Optimus 4X HD's NFC chip to enable a really nifty tool lets you tap your phone on a programmable sticker to open apps, change settings, and more. LG, Sony, and Samsung are all doing essentially the same thing, and it's a great use case for NFC.
Performance and battery life
Tegra 3 is pretty much a known quantity by now
Unlike the L7, which has an antiquated Snapdragon S1 processor that can't keep up anymore, the Optimus 4X HD has specs that rival any other handset on the market. It's powered by a quad-core 1.5GHz Tegra 3 processor, which as we've seen in the One X and other devices is as fast as any other SoC out there (though the Snapdragon S4 is slightly more power-efficient). Coupled with 1GB of RAM, the Tegra 3 is more then up to the task of powering Ice Cream Sandwich. As we've noticed before and as Project Butter confirmed once and for all, the remaining slowdowns and lags in Android — rotating the screen, or launching the app drawer — are Android issues, and can't be fixed with a faster processor. So it's not surprising that even with such a powerful chipset there are still some slight scrolling and animation issues in Android 4.0, but the Optimus 4X HD's processor does as well as any we've seen. It's a hair below the Galaxy S III and its quad-core Exynos SoC, and just about even with the One X.
|Quadrant||Vellamo||GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p)||GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p)||AnTuTu|
|LG Optimus 4X HD (Tegra 3)||4,808||1,510||62fps||30fps||10,562|
|HTC One X (Tegra 3)||4,430||1,614||65fps||32fps||11,322|
|Galaxy S III (Exynos 4 Quad)||5,283||2,008||101fps||59fps||10,568|
|HTC One S (Snapdragon S4)||5,141||2,420||57fps||29fps||7,107|
|Galaxy Nexus (OMAP4460)||2,002||1,065||28fps||14fps||6,079|
With great power comes great power consumption, so the Optimus 4X HD isn't exactly standard-setting in the battery life department. With normal use that bordered on the slightly conservative — lots of web browsing and email, a couple of phone calls, and maybe a YouTube video or three — I squeezed a full day of life from the device, but any night I didn't charge it, it was dead in the morning. The Tegra 3 is such a gaming powerhouse that the phone didn't seem quite as taxed by my Shadowgun sessions as I anticipated, but games, Netflix and the like are still quite power-hungry. Basically all I ask from a phone is that it last me the whole day without me needing to worry, and like too many phones the Optimus 4X HD isn't quite there; it'll last me the whole day, but only if I'm constantly thinking about it.
For once, LG gets almost all the pieces right
LG's been all over the map with its phones recently. The Nitro HD is great hardware, but runs outdated (and frankly terrible) software. The Optimus L7 fixed the software problem, but is severely underpowered. The Spectrum is powerful, but poorly made. It seems like every time LG ties up one loose end, another one pops open.Well, they're all tied up now. The Optimus 4X HD has great software, and it's blistering fast. It's a well-made phone that's comfortable to use, and despite its skin's remaining aesthetic offenses it does add some useful new things to Android. The Optimus 4X HD feels like a flagship phone in a way none of LG's recent efforts have. If this device makes it to the US mostly unchanged (except to add LTE), LG might finally earn a spot near the top of the Android heap.