multicore mobile architectures up until late last year, but sometimes that's all it takes to get those zany engineers engineering. So here we are, in early February 2011, beholding the world's first smartphone built around a dual-core processor, the Optimus 2X. This is a landmark handset in more ways than one, however, as its presence on the market signals LG's first sincere foray into the Android high end. Although the company delivered two thoroughly competent devices for the platform with the Optimus S and T in 2010, they were the very definition of mid-range smartphones and the truth is that Samsung, HTC and Motorola were left to fight among themselves for the most demanding Android users' hard-earned rubles. So now that LG's joined their ranks, was the wait worth it?
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LG Optimus 2X review
- The best smartphone hardware yet
- Camera picks up great amount of detail
- High quality LCD screen plus HDMI mirroring
- Sluggish UI
- Buggy software
- Dual-core CPU doesn't add much value (yet!)
Nothing much has changed since we first met this phone under its codename of Star a couple of months back. One uninterrupted slate of glass covers the entire front, broken up only by the earpiece grille at the very top. Four capacitive touch buttons keep the 4-inch WVGA LCD company, along with a front-facing camera just to the right of the LG logo. As we said in our preview, this is an uncomplicated and restrained design, evidence perhaps that LG chose to spend its time and money on what lies beneath the skin.
That HDMI cable -- bundled in the box, as it should be -- is also put to good use with 1080p video content, which looks sharp and plays back flawlessly on the 2X. As we noted above, the mirroring capability is dropped when handling video, but that's unlikely to be an issue because we can't imagine a usage scenario where you'd need to see a video feed on both displays. Getting the HDMI connection up is a zero-setup affair and playback switches between devices on the fly -- disconnect your HDTV while watching a video and it flips over to the Optimus 2X and its integrated speaker; hook it back up again and within a second it's back booming at you from the HDTV. Just seamless. Scope out the video below for a demonstration of this phone's video-crunching credentials.
Once you get past those well executed headline features, however, there's a certain scarcity of real utility to be had from this dual-core chip. The trouble is that smartphones haven't really lacked for processing firepower in a good long while. What applications do you run on your mobile that can choke a 1GHz CPU, whether it be a Snapdragon, Hummingbird or an A4? There aren't many, right? And there are even fewer that have such a demanding overhead while running in the background -- which happens to be NVIDIA's big selling point for Tegra 2, that it allows you to multitask without ever getting bogged down. The chart below illustrates this well, but it also provides your absolute best case scenario -- you'll need to be engaged in a CPU-intensive process while decoding music in the background, another CPU job, and downloading / installing applications. As soon as you back off, say by switching off the background music and allowing your foreground process to have all the processing power (and thereby complete its task more quickly), the benefits of having a dual-core machine will become far less tangible.
A 4-inch WVGA (800 x 480) LCD might sound like standard fare for modern Android phones, but LG's panel is a notch above the average. It's bright and well saturated, retaining its color fidelity even at oblique viewing angles. We wouldn't say it's competition to the IPS displays available on Apple's iPhone 4 or Sharp's IS03, but then again, not many are. In the absence of such advanced display tech or Samsung's snazzy Super AMOLED, we reckon LG has given us the next best thing with the 2X's screen.
Update: As it turns out, LG's 4-inch LCD on the 2X is actually an IPS panel! That would be the reason it looked better than the run of the mill LCD, however we'd still caution against expecting iPhone-level quality. It isn't up to the same standard.
All that said, our testing unit had a manufacturing defect that exposed some backlight bleeding at the very top (see image below). We don't expect retail units to suffer from the same flaw, so we'll let this one slide unless and until we hear of the issue showing up in other handsets.
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LG Optimus 2X camera sample images
We do have a couple of dissatisfactions to express, however. The first is that colors look a little washed out. London can be a dreary place at this time of the year, but the Optimus 2X made it look that extra bit bleaker than it really was. This isn't a massive issue as there's a litany of color adjustment programs out there (plus the phone offers a vivid mode of its own) and we'd sacrifice some saturation for all the extra detail quite happily. The second thing that ailed us was that the camera app takes a little while to process each image before being ready for the next, yet leaves you without a visual clue to the fact it's still working. Consequently, users bashing the "New" button to start composing a new image are left frustrated and a little confused as to why the phone isn't responding to their input.
The front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera should be thought of strictly as a video calling facilitator. Chromatic noise sneaks in almost as soon as you step out of perfect lighting and the pictures you take with it won't be of use for too many purposes. As to video on the Optimus 2X, it can be recorded at resolutions up to 1080p -- we saw no obvious processing lag or frame rate stutters at all -- and does a good job of emulating the camera's stills performance by capturing plenty of visual and aural detail. Check out the video below for an idea of what to expect, it was shot using the Super fine quality setting.
Loudspeaker, earpiece and battery life
Battery life was an important aspect for us with this phone, for obvious reasons. Our happy discovery was that the Optimus 2X can keep up with the current crop of Android multimedia powerhouses, perhaps even outlasting some of the less frugal among them (Desire HD, we're thinking of you). This is mostly down to Tegra 2 having a minimal power draw when idling. We managed to cross the 24-hour standby mark on a day when we did about an hour's worth of calls, a few minutes of HD video, and some sporadic music playback, all while keeping push email notifications and the 3G and WiFi radios constantly on. Note that for the majority of that time the screen was turned off and the processor didn't really have much work to do, but the experience illustrates that you can take a dual-core smartphone on the move, provided you don't expect anything more from it than you would from its single-core brethren. The camera turned out to be the biggest battery drainer, with 1080p decoding and encoding following up in close second, both predictable outcomes. We can't conclusively say whether the Optimus 2X is more or less power-efficient than its contemporaries -- efficiency being a function of both power consumption under load and the duration of load times, the latter being shorter on a faster chip -- but we didn't feel any more restricted by its longevity than we did when using the likes of the Galaxy S, Desire HD or Droid X, its direct competitors in the Android big leagues.
Not to put too fine a point on this, LG, but why does your dual-core beastphone feel like an 18-month old HTC Hero?
The final code simply doesn't look to have been optimized as well as it should have been -- a suspicion corroborated by our unfortunate knack for finding ways to crash applications.
Reading the spec sheet, you'd expect lag on the Optimus 2X to be measured in flaps of a hummingbird's wings, but the mildly tweaked Android homescreens plod along in a fashion that's appreciably worse than what you'd get on the real Hummingbird devices, Samsung's Galaxy S variants. UI responsiveness on the 2X can be described as mediocre, which we find a mind-boggling development as the hardware is certainly fast enough. It's important to note that applications load up as fast or faster than most other Android handsets we've come across, it's just that navigating to them and through the 2X's menus didn't feel as snappy as we would have liked. The final code simply doesn't look to have been optimized as well as it should have been -- a suspicion corroborated by our unfortunate knack for finding ways to crash applications. For example, our review unit's Gallery app crashes each and every time we exit it via the Back button after entering it through the Clock application. We found that bug without even looking for it, never a good sign.
The Optimus 2X's saving grace is the same as that of many a Motoblur handset: LauncherPro. Anyone familiar with the remedial effects of installing this little Android skin on their phone will know that a laggy default UI is just something you look at for the 30 or so seconds it takes you to open up the Market and download Federico Carnales' masterwork. Any qualms we have about the Optimus 2X's smoothness evaporate into thin air with LauncherPro in effect, and we even noticed the phone's unlocking animation -- whose appearance remains unchanged -- felt snappier.
LauncherPro patches over, but it doesn't fully heal LG's gaping software wound. We still managed to clunk applications into dysfunction, which was an unfortunate reminder of what lies under the skin. LG's evident weakness on the software front shouldn't be overstated in terms of its impact today -- app glitches were sporadic rather than regular -- but it's a major sticking point if you're hoping the company will deliver a competent Gingerbread for the 2X. After all, Froyo has been around for over half a year, yet the best thing we can say about LG's treatment of the OS is that "it doesn't crash too often." Would you really bet your mobile updating future on a track record like that?
The recurring theme through our hardware testing was that Tegra 2's full potential has yet to be tapped. NVIDIA is working hard on correcting that and has enrolled the makers of the Unreal Engine into its development program to ensure that upcoming graphically intensive games make full use of the extra power its new hardware offers. The Tegra Zone, a preloaded app on all Tegra 2 devices, will be central to this effort. It'll present NVIDIA-curated games, videos, trailers, and app recommendations that showcase its chip's superiority. Devs are being encouraged to create graphically fancier versions of their games specifically for Tegra 2 -- as the makers of Galaxy on Fire 2, Dungeon Defenders and Samurai 2 have already done -- with a presence in the Zone serving as their reward. You might call it fragmentation, but NVIDIA would call it just good business.
Update: LG has gotten in touch to say the Tegra Zone app was left on our review handset by accident and won't ship with devices. NVIDIA is still in the process of testing its application out and you'll likely have to download it from the Android Market if you want it on your retail 2X. On the other hand, NVIDIA itself has promised to preload the Zone on phones and tablets running its silicon, we're just guessing it'll do so once said testing has been concluded.
Either way, NVIDIA's clout with developers and considerable budget look likely to secure Tegra 2 a bright and increasingly useful future. In the short term, however, this powerful new chip's biggest contributions to the smartphone realm are going to be 1080p video recording and output plus a dash of added gaming oomph.
We started off by talking about LG's failure to make itself known among the Android elite to this point. Up till now, the Korean giant has never so much as hinted at threatening the incumbents atop the Android pile, and the 2X is therefore its most significant smartphone launch, well... ever. It carries the hopes and aspirations of an entire multinational corporation, and if you want any evidence of how important mobile hardware is becoming, just go check out LG's latest quarterly and annual fiscal results. This phone matters. And it should matter to us just as much as it does to LG, because everyone benefits from having another legit big-timer competing at the high end. Then maybe we won't have to sit through umpteen different variations on the Galaxy S formula from Samsung or HTC's exhibition of "13 ways to repackage a Desire HD."
The Optimus 2X offers great, benchmark-elevating hardware, but can't earn our seal of approval until it gets its software kinks straightened out. As it stands today, it's a great toy for developers and enthusiasts that offers the rest of us a tantalizing glimpse at what the likes of the Atrix 4G and Galaxy S2 might bring as the smartphone world continues its move toward multicore devices.