LG Optimus 3D review

4 out of 5
Dependent on contract

For

It's a 3D phone, HDMI, LG's customisations make for a nice user experience

Against

Size will be too big for some, design isn't quite premium, some unexpected slowdown takes the shine off things

Last year we were talking about 3D TVs and this year, it seems, 3D is fighting its way into other devices. We’re yet to really see people proclaiming that 3D is essential so it remains somewhat niche in its appeal, but for how long? The LG Optimus 3D was an early entry into the 3D mobile phone market - we first saw it back in February - but it’s only just coming to market, and has a new rival in the guise of the HTC Evo 3D. But is this novelty value with no substance, or is it a revolutionary device in 3D content creation and consumption?

Design

The LG Optimus 3D is a beast, there is no doubting that. It’s chunky, measuring 128 x 68 x 11.9mm it might not sound huge, but compared to the Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC Sensation or Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, it feels big. For some big is beautiful and you do get some recompense for those extra millimetres: a 4.3-inch display for starters, putting the Optimus 3D up there with the biggest Android phones.

For some the Optimus 3D will be too big in the hand. Of all the phones we’ve looked at this year, the Optimus 3D has been the one that takes the most stretching of the thumb to operate. Typing one-handed is more of a stain because you’re gripping around the bulk of the device whilst still trying to thumb the screen. It isn’t impossible and for those with larger hands it will be less of a problem, but if you have small hands, you might find it uncomfortable. 

Like the LG Optimus 2X, the 3D doesn’t offer you the latest, greatest, construction. This isn’t a precision-machined body befitting its futuristic features, instead it is finished in plastics. It does feel solid though which is more the point and there is no creaking from the body as you use it.

The layout of controls are all regular, with the four soft buttons under the screen giving you menu, home, back and search, with a sleep/standby button on the top along with the 3.5mm headphone jack. On the left-hand side you’ll find both the Micro-USB and micro HDMI ports covered by little flaps and on the right-hand side you get the volume rocker and a key marked “3D”.

Feature packed

Flip the Optimus 3D over and you’ll see what sets this phone apart from the rest of the phone world. Around back you have two lenses, each offering 5-megapixels. This adds one dimension to the 3D name, the other comes from the lenticular display on the front. This means you’ll get glasses-free 3D from it, opening the door for the consumption of 3D content. 

Let’s set the record straight right from the off: the LG Optimus 3D offers 3D features, it isn’t entirely 3D. You get a regular 2D experience for the majority of the time, with 3D swinging in when you want it. Making phone calls, browsing the Internet, running Voice Search - all these things are in 2D as normal. 3D is available for photos, video and gaming as we’ll detail below.

Sitting at the core of the Optimus 3D is a 1GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 processor, making a break from the Tegra 2 we’ve seen in most other high-end devices. The processor still packs in the dual-core ARM 9 architecture you’ll find elsewhere, offering hardware acceleration, 720p 3D capture and 1080p capture and decoding. 

But LG haven’t just left the dual action to the processor. You’ll also find it has dual memory. Although this only comes in at 512MB, this is composed of two 256MB banks and the arrangement allows each processor core to access each (or both) of the memory banks. LG tell us that this means there is a higher memory bandwidth as a result.

You'll find internal storage offering you 8GB, with the option to add an external microSD card up to 32GB. Application storage comes in at 1GB, so it looks relatively strong on the storage front.

In reality, it means that the LG Optimus 3D performs as you’d expect a high-end handset to. Typical operation is smooth and there is little sign of the stability problems we’ve encountered with the LG Optimus 2X, but there was a run of unexpected little things that took the shine off the performance.

There was a little slowdown during large data events, like when we sent it off to download and install a collection of apps from the Android Market so you’ll find you can’t do much else. Whilst general navigation is fast enough, it doesn’t seem to have the urgency to open menus, or offer up the lockscreen to let you in, as other phones do. On the other hand we found that sometimes the keyboard would throw out double letters with little we could do to reel it in. Something doesn’t quite feel finished, not to the standard set by its rivals.

Interface experience

LG’s take on Android is lighter than HTC’s, more akin to the experience you get from Samsung’s Android phones. Whilst HTC customise pretty much everything, flood it with changes, LG’s user interface sticks much more closely to the native Android.

The biggest changes include a permanent dock at the bottom of the screen offering shortcuts to phone, contacts, SMS and the apps menu, which is present on all the homepages. The number of homepages can be tailored to your needs, with a range of respectable widgets on offer. The weather clock, from AccuWeather, apes some of the feel of HTC Sense, but is clean and effective. The calendar and favourite contacts widgets are pretty good too, making it easy to get to details quickly and easily.

    

Elsewhere the app menus gets split down into sections as we’ve seen before from LG, with customisation again an option. The division into “Applications” (preinstalled) and “Downloads” (those that you add) essentially means you have two different alphabetical lists. That’s not a huge problem given that you can easily add app shortcuts to a homepage, but to begin with you’ll find yourself looking in the wrong place for things.

The other thing that is likely to annoy some is that the LG Optimus 3D is rolling out with Android 2.2.2, so it’s a step behind some of its top-tier rivals, although in reality that doesn’t make a huge impact on the day-to-day experience. But it does leave LG in the position where they are fighting off the back foot as these are things you’ll experience in daily use, even if they aren’t insurmountable. 

Entertainment me…

If you’re looking for an entertainment device, then the Optimus 3D may just fit the bill. Before we get to 3D content, it’s worth pointing out that the Optimus 3D is a great 2D device. The inclusion of a micro HDMI opens the door for playing back your HD content on the big screen, essentially mirroring the screen. Switching to 3D will change the output to side-by-side for your TV to convert back into 3D if you also have a 3D TV.

Beyond the cabled input, you’ll find that the Optimus 3D also offers you LG’s SmartShare app, which offers you DLNA streaming of content you might already have on a network drive to another compatible device. Strangely on the Optimus 2X, this app will let us play network content on the phone, but on the Optimus 3D, it failed to offer the phone itself as a playback option. Fortunately our perennial favourite Skifta had no such problems, swinging into place to offer seamless performance. 

Video playback looks good on the 4.3-inch 800 x 480 pixel resolution display. It’s size gives it a pixel density of 216ppi, typical of Android devices at this size. It is nice and vibrant, and plenty bright enough, but it doesn’t give us the cleanest whites we’ve seen, looking slightly yellow when set alongside the Optimus 2X. We also noticed a couple of yellow patches in the corners on the right-hand side of the display, although this is only really noticable when you’re on something with a white background. 

Video support is pretty good, although the Optimus 3D wasn’t interested in any of the higher-bitrate 1080p MPEG4 files we fed it, claiming that playback wasn’t supported. It did, however, tackle DivX and DivX HD without issue and made a good showing of 720p MPEG4 content. It’s a great size of screen for watching video, and things like YouTube and catch-up TV, either from apps like BBC iPlayer of ITV Player, or direct from Flash-based websites, all look fantastic. 

…in a new dimension

But the real novelty here is 3D. The phone comes preloaded with some 3D video samples, which really do look fantastic. As with your 3D TV, switching to 3D sees the display change, the brightness dips and it the sharpness falls away. Without the need for glasses, you’ll have to find the sweetspot for viewing, although that isn’t difficult at all and feels entirely natural. You’ll then find that the 3D effect is very good. One point we feel worth mentioning is reflections. Viewing 3D content whilst mobile does suffer when you get reflections or smeary fingerprints over the screen.

Press the 3D button on the side of the phone and you’ll launch a 3D carousel offering up the main 3D avenues you have to explore. You get a 3D guide, YouTube 3D, 3D Gallery, 3D Camera, 3D Games & Apps. These are the main areas that 3D comes into play on the Optimus 3D and everything is also offered individually at the top of the apps menu in a 3D section.

YouTube has a growing number of 3D videos and you’ll be able to able to identify them by the “3D” logo as a large number have a title claiming 3D when it isn’t actually a 3D video, although some do slip through the net. You’ll quickly find that some 3D videos work well and other do not.

Of course you also get the option of 3D conversion, so any 2D video you have can be switched to 3D if you are viewing it through the regular Galley video player. You can change the strength of the 3D effect using an on-screen slider (as you can within the camera) and we had varying levels of success. The smaller size seems more forgiving of conversion that results we’ve seen on larger screens, but in many cases you sacrifice clarity and sharpness for that depth effect.

Watching video also has the downside of putting some strain on your eyes. 3D photo browsing doesn’t suffer in the same way and we suspect that 3D photos will be where the main wow factor comes from with the Optimus 3D. Everyone we have shown 3D photos to has been impressed with the clarity and 3D effect on the display. If nothing else, then the Optimus 3D is a great way to display your 3D snaps to friends.

3D gaming of course is one of the selling points of the Optimus 3D, with LG teaming up with Gameloft to bring you three pre-installed titles, NOVA, Let’s Golf 2 and Asphalt 6. An additional selection can be purchased from Gameloft, but they’re not new titles, so if you’re into mobile gaming you may well have seen them before. They look ok and you can adjust the 3D settings to essentially turn the effect off if you find it too much for you, but essentially 3D doesn’t really make for a better game, from what we’ve seen so far.

There is also a 3D gallery, which lets you rotate through all your 3D photos and videos on a 3D carousel. It’s neat enough as an effect, but in reality you can easily distinguish your 3D content because it is all labelled as such in the regular gallery. This is great for picking out images especially when showcasing what the phone will do.

3D shooting

3D capture is going to be one of your novelty features on the Optimus 3D. Using those stereoscopic lenses you’ll be able to take 3D snaps at resolutions up to 3 megapixels. There are various settings to be adjusted, but specific to 3D shooting you’ll find the choice of centre or border focusing, as well as the ability to change the 3D depth on a sliding scale as seen elsewhere. This can be altered once the shot is taken, but sits as the default for the camera once set. We found that around halfway got the best general results, but it is something to play around with when experimenting with 3D photography. 

3D video capture comes in at a respectable 720p and again you get the same settings to adjust your 3D composition. The results look pretty good, although as a “casual” 3D videographer it seem much more difficult to get anything as dramatic as we managed from stills photos. The final result suffers from being a mobile phone, naturally, with some limitation on adjusting exposure automatically and a general dislike of low light or very bright conditions.

Creating 3D stills is generally easy and we got some great results from portraits. When it comes to sharing you get the option to upload in 2D or 3D with photos you've shot in 3D. It’s nice to have that option, but the results aren’t great if you choose 2D as you only get a 512 x 384 pixel image from your 3-megapixel 3D original 3D. At this size there is little scope for the sort of detail that the regular 5-megapixel snaps offer you. 

With video, of course, you can upload it directly to YouTube in 3D with a few button presses to share with the world.

Or 2D shooting

Regular photos fair better and the Optimus 3D is a fair camera phone, capable of giving you some decent shots. It does suffer in bright conditions however, and doesn’t have quite keep up with the best phones out there, but for sharing and candid photography it’s good enough. It is worth shooting 2D shots as well as 3D shots to take advantage of the difference in quality.

On the 2D video from the Optimus 3D will give you up to 1080p at around 30fps, which is reasonable quality but no match for your camcorder. It offers continuous focus, so things will slowly sharpen up as you move around a scene, but this isn’t as speedy as some, which has both pros and cons. Low light video is naturally noisy, the LED doing little to alleviate things.

Adding 3D to the camera does make it slow by comparison to its regular 2D counterparts. Launching the camera takes a little longer than we’d like and switching to 3D from 2D adds in a delay. Then you have something of a delay when you press the start and stop buttons on the video, so you need to remember to keep nice and steady beyond what you think should be the end of the video.

The 2D camera offers up some additional settings, from focusing modes (auto, macro, continuous, face tracking), down to colour effect. There is little in the way of fun features, it’s all very straight laced, eschewing the current trend for retro or art effects that are creeping in to phones and cameras.

The rest 

The music player is pretty regular, offering easy navigation of your albums as well as offering SmartShare integration so you could potentially share this music with other DLNA devices. Again, we could see network music here, but the phone couldn’t be selected as the playback device. You get music control in the notification bar, as well as on the lockscreen, so you are well catered for, and the external speaker is pretty good too. Unfortunately there is no FM radio.

Dive into the browser and you’ll find that navigation is slick and fast. The browser has had a little customisation so you get easy access to different browser windows and to bookmarks. As mentioned, this being an Android 2.2.2 device, you’ll get Adobe Flash support for a more complete internet experience and plenty of screen space to roam around in.

As we’ve mentioned, LG’s keyboard was a little too sensitive out of the box, throwing up double letters on a number of occasions. We found it settled down a bit when we turned on prediction, meaning that mistakes are more easily cleaned up with a press of the provided words. It isn’t the most sophisticated keyboard around, with no alternative characters provides on keys, requiring extra key presses to get to punctuation which makes it a long job when typing out an email. 

As a phone, the LG Optimus 3D performs well, but it’s a noticeable lump to hold to the side of your head. We also found it a little slow awaken the screen using the proximity sensor, meaning a delay on hanging up, which is irritating. Callers, however, come across loud and clear and we didn’t experience any problems with call quality. 

Where we did experience problems, however, was with the battery. This is a feature packed phone, but even without pushing it hard, we found the battery draining itself before the working day was done unless serious power saving measures were made. We don’t normally resort to turning everything off and down, but this is a handset that demands it. In fact, leaving the house with it fully charged for a Saturday afternoon and evening on the town, you’ll be lucky to get home with any power in it, especially as you’ll no doubt be showing off the 3D to all and sundry.

Verdict

Pushing the envelope will always leave you open to criticism so we have to acknowledge what LG have achieved here. They have created a 3D-capable phone that doesn’t destroy the 2D experience in the process. In that sense we love the Optimus 3D. The 3D is fun, 3D videos look great and 3D capture will wow everyone you show. It’s also a capable media phone, with a huge screen and good basic video codec support. 

But with these things come some negatives. The software could be tweaked a little to make it better. We like LG’s take on Android, but in some places it fails to keep pace with Samsung and HTC. Little delays here and there could be sorted out with updates and the troubles we had with DNLA were easily sidestepped.

There is also no getting away from the fact that this phone will be just too big for some people, no thanks to the chunky design, which is bettered by its current rivals. The battery also puts in a poor showing, which may well be a concern for anyone who doesn’t fancy carrying a spare, and doesn’t have the luxury of sitting next to a charger all day.

Put alongside the Samsung Galaxy S II or the HTC Sensation, then the Optimus 3D only really has its 3D card to play and that may leave it as something of a niche device. It’s a technological achievement and takes its place in the 3D creation story, but for many there will be too many compromises in day-to-day use.