Consider your last trip to the car dealership. Let's say you saved up and hit up BMW. While you might've looked at -- or even test driven -- the M3, there's a good chance that your better judgment (and your budget) led you to drive off of the lot with a 328i. Sure, it's only got a four-cylinder engine inside, but the car offers great handling and good gas mileage. Better yet, you didn't have to spend an atrocious amount of money to get behind the wheel. The same goes with mobile phones. While it's fun to dream of owning a One X, a Galaxy S III or an Optimus 4X HD, they're called superphones for a reason: they cater to power-hungry individuals with a fair amount of disposable income. Like supercars, they're designed to bring people into the store, even if shoppers ultimately leave with something else in hand.
Enter the LG Optimus L7. Positioned at the higher end of the company's entry-level lineup, it aims to be the 328i of smartphones. Sure, no one's lining up to drool over it, but LG is aiming for this to be a practical choice with just enough elegance and pizzaz to keep consumers grinning. Of course, that sweet spot is difficult to achieve, and we've seen plenty of smartphone manufacturers miss the mark in attempting to balance performance and amenities with a palatable price. So, does the Optimus L7 rise to the challenge? We've spent the past week with it as our daily driver, and we're ready to make the call. Read on for the answer.
LG Optimus L7 reviewSee all photos
The LG Optimus L7 is undeniably handsome. It's the leader of the pack in the company's L-Style series, which places an emphasis on a modern, sophisticated appearance, and it certainly looks the part. In fact, much of the design philosophy can be traced back to the more expensive LG Prada 3.0: both have boxy faces with large black borders and subtle chrome-like trim. It's a similar story around back, where you'll find a textured plastic cover that's tapered to create a greater illusion of thinness (the handset actually measures 8.7mm thick). These beveled edges also help the Optimus L7 feel quite comfortable in hand.
Naturally, there are differences. While the Prada 3.0 features only capacitive buttons up front, the Optimus L7 sports a physical home button that calls to mind the global Galaxy S II. On the rear, the horizontal camera pod struts a faux-brushed metal finish that nicely compliments the pinstripe enclosure. The design is both boring and beautiful. In a word, it's elegant.
If the phone were rocking more powerful internals, it'd be known in the car world as a sleeper -- something you don't see coming, but that punishes you just the same. With only a single-core 1GHz CPU, however, you'll need to ground your expectations from the get-go. It performs respectably for its class, but as with the BMW M3, once you've had your hair blown back by a quad-core processor, you'll be forever screwed to draw the comparison. Much of the spec sheet tells a similar story, which includes an Adreno 200 GPU, a 5-megapixel camera and HSPA network speeds that top out at 7.2Mbps. As the benchmarks will later reveal, this is fine for casual usage, but the antiquated architecture will leave many wanting a little more horsepower.
The Optimus L7 may not be the fastest phone in the world, but it sure does look pretty, and the same can be said of the display. Granted, it would be foolish to draw comparisons to some of the more premium options out there, but for a budget phone, LG nailed it with its 4.3-inch NOVA display at 800 x 480 resolution. Curiously, this isn't based on IPS technology like the company's other NOVA offerings; instead, it's based on the much more common TFT-LCD. Still, viewing angles are better than average, text is rather crisp, colors are vibrant, and when the brightness is maxed out, the phone is completely usable in direct sunlight.
We did identify one glaring omission with respect to the display, however, and that's the lack of an ambient light sensor -- a feature so pervasive that it's often taken for granted in smartphones. As such, an auto-brightness setting is nonexistent and users will need to manually adjust the levels to suit their surroundings. LG has included a bit of a workaround for this -- which we'll discuss later in the software section -- but the correct decision would've been to include the ambient light sensor. Needless to say, we're hugely disappointed that LG deliberately excluded the feature.
Take a quick tour of the phone's exterior and you'll find all of the usual amenities in their routine placements: the volume rocker is on the left, there's a micro-USB port on the bottom, both the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack are up top, and a speakerphone is on the rear. Try as you might, though, one thing you won't find is an access tab for removal of the back cover. That's not to say it's difficult to remove, but you'll need a decent set of fingernails to pry it free. Once inside, you'll be treated to some funky industrial stylings, along with access to the standard size SIM, an empty microSD slot and a removable 1,700mAh battery. You'll also find a pair of NFC connectors, as the antenna makes up part of the back cover.
As it stands, the Optimus L7 comes in two flavors: one suitable for use in the United States and Canada, and another for Europe. Both models support quadband GSM / EDGE, but the HSPA radios are unique to each continent. For this reason, an unlocked L7 would be usable -- but not terribly enjoyable -- for global travelers. Other hardware-enabled features of the Optimus L7 include an FM radio, NFC with Android Beam, along with WiFi hotspot and WiFi Direct. The GPS hardware was able to find satellites rather quickly, and the compass performed very well once calibrated.
|LG Optimus L7|
|Pricing||Approximately £249 / €269 / $300|
|Dimensions||4.9 x 2.6 x 0.34 inches (125.5 x 67 x 8.7mm)|
|Weight||4.3 oz. (121g)|
|Screen size||4.3 inches (109mm)|
|Screen resolution||800 x 480 pixels (217ppi)|
|Screen type||TFT-LCD NOVA display (450 nit)|
|Internal storage||4GB (2.7GB available)|
|External storage||MicroSD, none included|
|Rear camera||5MP, AF, LED flash|
|Radios||Quadband GSM / EDGE; HSPA 900 / 2100 (Europe); HSPA 850/1900 (North America)|
|Network speeds||HSDPA 7.2Mbps|
|SoC||Qualcomm MSM7227A (Snapdragon S1)|
|CPU||1GHz single-core ARM Cortex A5|
|Operating system||Android 4.0.3|
|Supported multimedia formats||MP3, AMR, AAC, AAC+, WAV, AC3, MPEG-4, H.263, H.264, DivX, Xvid|
Performance and battery life
As we've alluded to, the Optimus L7 is a bit of a slowpoke in the performance arena. This is largely due to the Qualcomm MSM7227A chipset, which is based on the Snapdragon S1 platform. For comparison, this is the same chip that's within phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace Plus and HTC Desire V.
The benchmarks reveal a similar story. While the L7 fared well in Quadrant, with an overall score on par with the dual-core Optimus 2X, this is largely in part due to its excellent performance in the I/O category. Other areas, such as CPU, memory and graphics reveal a phone that's more closely in line with the Nexus S -- which leads us to an interesting point. In real-world, day-to-day usage, the Nexus S with Android 4.0 feels more responsive than the Optimus L7. Granted, these phones are based on different architectures, but we couldn't shake the feeling that the Optimus L7's performance was in part hindered by LG's software. And if we're being honest, the company doesn't have a great track record when it comes to optimizing its Android skins for specific hardware architectures.
|LG Optimus L7||Samsung Nexus S||Sony Xperia U|
|SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)||5,429||3,461||2,696|
|GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)||11||19||19|
|SunSpider: lower scores are better.|
All things equal, Android 4.0 is a resource-intensive operating system that really demands beefier specs. It's sad to say, but anyone who insists on decent performance in Ice Cream Sandwich should look to a dual-core phone. We must emphasize that while overall performance isn't bad -- navigating through the launcher and working within basic apps like Gmail feel relatively snappy, for example -- you'll also need to deal with stuttering animations on the home screen, inconsistent touch response, a subpar browser experience and video capture that tops out at VGA. As a basic phone, the Optimus L7 fits the bill. For those wanting more, you'll need to pay for the privilege.
Call quality on the Optimus L7 is middling at best. While other people's voices were free of distortion, even calls to landlines sounded muted and muddy. Similarly, our callers commented that while our words were clear, our voices sounded flat. Even with a strong signal, calls would intermittently cut out. It's difficult to determine whether the phone or the carrier is to blame for these hiccups, however, so we'll reserve judgment on that one. Our experience with the speaker phone was similar: callers tended to sound tinny. Unsurprisingly, people told us the call quality over the speaker was distant, and some had to strain at times to make sense of our words.
With a 1,700mAh Li-Ion cell and just a single-core processor, it's no great surprise that battery life is one of the better aspects of the Optimus L7. In our standard rundown test, the phone lasted six hours and 40 minutes, which is solid, but unspectacular. Our real-world tests yielded much better results, and those with modest usage habits should have no trouble getting 36 hours or more off a single charge. Battery life can be extended even further with LG's power saver software, a feature which kicks in at a user-set threshold to more conservatively manage brightness, radios and data settings. For our part, we never felt compelled to enable the feature, and were still able to get an impressive 54 hours from a single charge with medium usage.
Along with Ice Cream Sandwich, LG threw an interesting twist into the Optimus L7 known as UI 3.0. With the new software, the company set out to introduce new functionality in an unobtrusive manner, and to that extent, it's succeeded. Granted, UI 3.0 is still a departure from stock Ice Cream Sandwich, but the look is now much cleaner than LG's prior efforts. Immediately apparent is the new lock screen, which allows users to swipe in any direction to unlock the device. Similarly, the lock screen brings quick access to four customizable apps, along with three different clocks for the choosing.
LG UI 3.0 screenshotsSee all photos
On the home screen, Google's omnipresent search bar can be found up top, which has been customized with an "add" button that gives users another way to populate their five home screens with apps, widgets and different wallpapers. While the dock includes only four icons by default, you'll be able to drag in a fifth application and create folders, which nicely replicates the functionality of Ice Cream Sandwich. Many other changes are less visible, accessible only through the settings menu. Here, users can choose between different transition effects and enable an infinite carousel of the home screens. In fact, the only additional feature that we'd like to see is the ability to increase or decrease the amount of home screens.
Remember how we complained about the lack of an ambient light sensor? Well, there's a partial solution. One feature that LG's added as a legitimate improvement over Ice Cream Sandwich is the quick settings menu in the notification tray. It's customizable, but by default, users may control sound, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. Although it must be manually enabled, a handy toggle also exists to switch between low, medium and full brightness -- nothing short of a life saver. We're also happy to see that quick access to the settings menu remains in the notification tray.
The launcher itself is more or less on par with Ice Cream Sandwich, which requires users to scroll horizontally between apps and widgets. LG has also added a downloads section, which is fine if you need quick access to an app that you've just installed. This will cause confusion to some users, though, as downloaded files won't appear here, and instead must be accessed through the downloads app. Within the launcher, infinite scrolling is enabled by default, and we genuinely appreciate that a user won't be immediately kicked over into the widgets section when they reach the end of the apps list. Another interesting addition -- and somewhat of a nod to CyanogenMod -- is the ability to more tightly pack the launcher screen with a 5 x 6 grid of icons.
You'll also discover a gear icon in the launcher, but instead of providing access to the settings menu, it opens an environment that allows users to rearrange their icons, create folders and even delete unwanted apps. The only quirk about the launcher is its inability to automatically sort apps. So, if you're the type who prefers your launcher in alphabetical order, you'll inevitably be doing a bit of rearranging each time you install a new application.
As for the software itself, we received an unbranded version of the Optimus L7 directly from LG, so naturally your experience may vary if you purchase the phone through a carrier. While many of the apps can't be uninstalled, they can be disabled, which will cause them to not appear in the launcher, although they'll continue to occupy storage space on your phone. This includes Application Manager, a utility to add live wallpapers and a task manager, or uninstall some bundled apps; Cell Broadcast, which allows you to send and receive mass alert messages to other cell broadcast-enabled phones; LG Tag +, which lets you configure and write location-based settings to NFC tags; RemoteCall Service, an app that grants tech support reps full control over your phone; and SmartShare for WiFi Direct connections. Other apps that can be disabled -- but not uninstalled -- include two apps from Yahoo! called Finance and News, along with a voice recorder utility. As for pre-loaded software that can be uninstalled, you'll find Memo for notes, Polaris Office, Weather from Yahoo! and SmartWorld, which is LG's own marketplace for apps, ringtones and wallpapers.
Put simply, the camera on the Optimus L7 seriously underwhelms. While a 5-megapixel sensor seems at home in an entry-level smartphone, even the most passive photographers are going to experience a letdown with this phone. The camera delivers lifeless, unnatural colors, and in distant shots, it's unable to capture anything beyond the most basic of details. Closeup snapshots fared a bit better in this respect, which is assisted by the touch-to-focus software, but you can forget about artistic effects such as bokeh. The camera's low-light performance is abysmal, and even reasonably well-lit indoor scenes brought about an unusable amount of blur and noise. Naturally, the built-in flash was able to compensate in close-up scenes, but it's altogether useless for subjects more than a few feet away. The front-facing VGA camera is thoroughly miserable, delivering dark, muted and inaccurate colors, along with perceivable jagged edges.
LG Optimus L7 camera samplesSee all photos
Two software features that seem nice on the surface enable users to capture both panorama scenes and a quick burst of six successive shots. In the case of the former, while the software is both easy and reasonably accurate, the results are less-than-VGA quality. Likewise, users are similarly limited to VGA resolution in quick burst mode.
Video capture on the Optimus L7 doesn't fare much better. While colors are surprisingly more accurate within video mode, the clips have a jelly-like quality and are likewise limited to VGA resolution. Those capturing video indoors would be wise to use the persistent LED light as an auto-focus assist, as the camera will otherwise struggle mightily with the scene.
As much as we wanted to like the Optimus L7, we must strongly urge those who want an entry-level smartphone to look elsewhere. It's quite a shame, really, because LG's design efforts hinted at something so much greater. We genuinely appreciate the phone's display, handy NFC capabilities, excellent battery life and even its software, which features LG's UI 3.0 layered on top of Android 4.0.
Unfortunately, that's where the party ends. The Optimus L7 is a sluggish performer that is further hindered by unnecessary animations and transition effects in the UI. While that alone wouldn't qualify as a deal-breaker in the budget category, its slow data transmission speeds, incompatible trans-Atlantic 3G bands, woeful camera, lack of an ambient light sensor, subpar voice quality and flaky touch response all point to a regrettable purchase. As it stands, if your budget dictates your next smartphone, look instead toward the HTC One V, Sony Xperia U and Samsung Galaxy S Advance for more compelling options. Similarly, if you're able to avoid the contract subsidies and go SIM-free, the Galaxy Nexus is now more affordable than ever.