(Pocket-lint) - It's not a huge surprise that low-cost mobile phones are popular. There are a lot of people in need of smartphones, but not all of them have the money to spend on them. Most operators have a phone that costs about £100 or so, on pay-as-you-go, which is a decent price for a phone that can do as much as many phones that cost four or five times that much.
And that's where the LG L3 E400 comes in. It's an Android-powered smartphone, in a compact device for just a bit more than £100. The question is, should you be spending your money on this device, or one of the other cheap smartphones on the market?
The L3 is clearly designed for budget users who don't really want a big screen and large phone. It's compact, and there is just one button on the front - for going "home" - although this physical key is complemented by menu and back capacitive buttons
On the back, there's a 3-megapixel camera and a textured cover, which helps grip. Behind this, the battery is stored, along with a full-sized SIM socket and a mircoSD card slot.
On the left-hand side, there's a volume rocker switch, and on the top a power button. And that's your lot for switches. A headphone jack lives at the top, and a micro-USB for charging and data transfer at the bottom of the phone.
In terms of the user interface, LG has made some minor customisations. The app "tray" has separate areas for stock apps, and those you've downloaded. This can be very helpful if you're looking for something, as your brain should have no problem telling you if it was an app you downloaded, or one pre-installed on the phone.
It's actually a very likeable design. For a cheap phone, it's well put together and there are no obviously cheap materials being used here. It feels solid, and there's no creaking or other unpleasantness to deal with.
The L3 isn't overwhelmed by a custom UI. There are some tweaks to the underlying Android OS, but it's all done quite tastefully.
In the app tray, programs are stored depending on if they were shipped with the phone, or downloaded by you. We rather like this, as it makes it easier to find things - it complements the way our brains work.
LG also provides a "notification tray" tweak which gives access to music playback controls as well as toggles for the most common features. Here you can switch GPS, Wi-Fi, sound, Bluetooth and data off or on at the touch of a button. When we use phones that don't have these shortcuts here, we really miss them, so it's good to see LG including them.
The smallish LCD screen is large enough for most uses. Even when you've got the keyboard on screen, it's large enough to see the text message you're typing, along with the keyboard. The keys are also large enough for most hands, even the chubbier of fingers, like ours.
The problems start with the panel though, which is depressingly low resolution at 240 x 320. That's just 125ppi for those who follow such numbers. Really, this isn't sufficient for a modern phone, even a budget handset like this. Look at the T-Mobile Vivacity, Orange San Francisco or the Huawei G300. All of these phones cost £20 less than the LG, and all have much bigger and better screens.
In addition to the less-than-brilliant resolution, the viewing angle is also cack - put the phone on a desk, and from a normal sitting position the blacks all turn in to very washed out greys. It's the visual equivalent of student bar beer: it might be cheap, but it's very watered down.
On the plus side, there's very little blur on fast-moving on-screen items, which is good. Sadly, it's not enough to make up for the other shortcomings of the screen.
Not a supercomputer in your pocket
The LG is powered by a pretty modest 800mHz CPU, with a dedicated Adreno 200 GPU. Happily, this quite modest power isn't much of a problem in day-to-day use. The phone is pleasantly responsive and the touch screen doesn't have any of that nasty lag you might see on other, cheaper handsets. We certainly don't think you can tell this is a budget handset by how it performs or by the external design.
Memory is limited too, with just 1GB on board, you may find yourself unable to install and use as many apps as you might like. Support for microSD is provided, but you'll have to supply your own card, and remember that not every app can run from this storage, so there might still be some space frustrations in your future.
Music and video
If you're looking to listen to music, you'll need a microSD card installed, but these are cheap these days and you have have 16GB for less than £15. The really good news is that, as a music player, the L3 is very capable. We rather liked the audio quality, which had plenty of range and detail when listened to on our mid-range headphones. This is good for the target audience, which is likely to be younger users, looking for a phone that does it all.
Video is a disappointment though. Neither Plex nor Skifta would play ball and show us streamed video over our network, with the former showing a blank screen and the latter stuttering badly under the load. But that's actually the least of our worries, as that screen isn't anywhere near good enough to do justice to decent video. So, if video is a big part of your life, then don't spend your money on this handset.
There's a 1500mAh battery in the L3, so you shouldn't struggle with battery life. As always though, it's hard for us to test this properly. Life will depend on how you use the phone. But on the basis that most users won't make much use of apps or push services, we'd say a day of life is easy to achieve. The small screen should help keep consumption down.
We've seen much more expensive phones come with a much worse battery.
And as a phone...
Budget smartphones might have a lot to offer, but if they make horrible telephones, then they're really no use at all. Happily, this is another area where the LG does well. It's not the most comfortable phone to hold to your ear, because it's quite small and seems to get lost in your hand. We also noticed that the earpiece is too close to the top of the phone and it somehow manages to make holding it to your ear quite uncomfortable.
However, once you're in a call, the quality is very clear. The earpiece is loud enough, even for our music-damaged lugholes and we could hear everything that was being said to us via the magic of radio waves.
We aren't surprised to be saying this, but the camera in the L3 isn't great. At 3-megapixels we didn't expect it to bring about a revolution, but megapixels are rarely the most important part of a camera.
Here, the problem is that detail is indistinct, with grass appearing as a sea of green, rather than as a surface made up of lots of individual blades. This is common in cheap camera phones, but it doesn't make it any less upsetting.
Also, the colour balance is atrocious. There is no real joy to the images, they look soft and washed-out with muted colours. It's not a massive surprise, but it's still a shame, and we have seen cameraphones do better, even budget ones. Check out our reviews of the San Francisco II, Vivacity and G300 if you want to see how the cameras on those devices perform, but each of them is better than this LG.
When you consider your options, there's just no reason to buy the LG L3. It is outperformed and outclassed by other budget phones. Unless you are a massive fan of its form factor, it's unlikely to be an attractive option for you.
If this were a £50 handset, then we could get on board. Indeed, we'd probably score it twice as highly. Usually, cost isn't a huge issue for us, but when there's such stiff competition in this part of the market, it's hard not to look at other phones, and think of them as a far better deal.