(Pocket-lint) - For every three budget phones there are another couple of handsets that have better screens, more attractive design and some extra processor speed. So, the LG L7 is the upgraded version of the L3. It's got a much prettier design, has NFC built-in and has a screen that's much, much, much better.
The problem is that, at around £250, it's also more than £100 more expensive than the cut-down L3 which we reviewed recently. The question is, do the upgrades to design, screen and features make this phone worth that extra cash?
Our phone was finished in white, but black is also also an option if you'd rather. In many ways, it reminds us of the Samsung Galaxy S II, with that large home button and decent-sized screen dominating the front of the handset. It also looks like a slightly more basic version of the new LG Prada handset, which we fell in love with when it launched.
It's light and thin too, small enough for any gentleman's pocket or lady's handbag - or lady's pocket and gentleman's handbag, should you prefer. On the left side, a volume rocker awaits user interaction, while the power button and headphone socket reside on the top edge of the handset.
USB charging via a socket on the bottom edge. Lift the back off you'll see the full-sized SIM socket, along with the microSD card slot. You can use cards of capacities up to 32GB here, should the musical need take you.
On the back of the device is a slightly average-specification 5-megapixel camera and a speaker grille. And that's all that breaks up the surface. There is no clue here to the phone's ability to read NFC tags, although if you pull the back off, you'll be able to see some of the workings on the inside of the cover.
Not a speedy phone
The first, and probably biggest, disappointment we noted was the speed of the handset. From the first moment we used it, we were painfully aware of how much lag there was. Swiping through the home screens alone was enough to make the phone stutter. In menus, pressing an item caused a seconds-long wait, that was incredibly frustrating. We really were incredibly disappointed by this.
In many ways, it's not a surprise. The phone is running Android 4, and it is doing so on hardware that was current this time last year, long before any Ice Cream Sandwich phones were launched. It has just a 1Ghz processor with an Adreno 200 GPU. Everything is held together by a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, specifically the MSM7227a.
In common with the design of the phone, the screen is pretty good. It's a fairly standard 480 x 800 resolution, but that's not shameful at all. To look at, the display is bright, colourful and there's plenty of detail.
We streamed some video via Plex, and it looks good. The biggest problem is the LG's sluggish processor, which meant we had to dial back the stream quality. Not doing so meant that video was very choppy. But at a more modest rate, we liked the image quality of the L7 - along with the design, the screen is certainly one of the phone's better features.
Sound is also decent. There's Dolby Mobile here, which should keep everything sounding tip-top, but listening to music with a decent pair of headphones yielded pleasant results, so if you're looking for a music phone, you probably won't be disappointed by what the LG has to offer.
Ice Cream Sandwich, although you wouldn't know
In a very odd move though, not only has LG under-specified the hardware aspect of this phone, it has also opted to install Android 4, or Ice Cream Sandwich. This, in itself isn't unusual, but what is strange is that the company has stripped all of the visual elements out of the OS.
This means that you're running ICS, but it looks like Gingerbread. So your phone is slower than it would be running Gingerbread, and you'd never know you weren't, from the outward style.
For example, there are no software keys displayed. Instead, back and menu options are controlled via capacitive touch controls on the lower part of the phone, to the left and right of the hardware home key. There is also no button for the "recent" apps menu, built in to ICS. Instead, you have to press and hold the home key. None of this is a disaster, but it really makes us wonder why LG bothered with this version of the OS. Perhaps it's simply to support NFC?
Elsewhere in the phone, the Ice Cream Sandwich underpinnings are more obvious. In the system menus, for example, you get everything as you would expect, including the ICS detailed data and battery monitoring. This is good, although it's all quite sluggish.
And here's another oddity: we don't think the call quality on the L7 is anywhere near as good as it is on even the L3. Calls seemed muffled, with less detail and it was harder to hear what was going on.
Also, we noticed that both the earpiece and speaker volumes were far too low for use in noisier environments. And we aren't talking about concerts here, we're talking about normal outdoor locations with a smattering of road noise.
And update could tweak both of these issues, but we aren't going to hold our breath.
There seems to be a consistent problem with mid and low-range phones and their cameras. The issue is, these phones take photos that have absolutely no fine detail in them whatsoever.
We've tested a few handsets recently that have all mushed up our lawn into a sea of indistinct green devoid of any individual grass detail. These photos are fine for Facebook, and - eugh - Instagram, but if you're looking for a cameraphone that will snap reality, in all its glory, you'll need to look elsewhere.
You can tease video out of the 5-megapixel camera too, but it's only VGA, which says a lot about the processing power of this phone. Again, these clips are likely good enough for uploading to the internet, but they won't be good enough to do much else with.
The app that manages photos and video is decent enough though, although in common with most touchscreen phones, operating the shutter with one hand is near impossible, so if you're trying to do two things at once, don't expect great results.
As with several new cameras, the L7 features NFC. This technology is a bit of a mixed bag, but someone, somewhere in the mobile industry decided it was going to be a big deal, and it's been cropping up ever since. We remain sceptical, and have yet to see anything groundbreaking be achieved with it.
On the plus side. LG included an NFC tag with the phone. Here, this is used to tell the phone when you're in the car. It then engages a mode that is most suitable for what you're doing. As tested, this puts the phone in to navigation mode, but you can set up actions to do other things. Annoyingly, the actions you can define aren't all that comprehensive, so if you want a tag that will go to a specific webpage, call a phone number or perform a more complex task, you're out of luck.
In theory, NFC can be used for a lot of other things too, like card-free payments and syncing with accessories and sending information to other handsets. For the most part, NFC's potential is unfulfilled, and looks as if it will remain so for the foreseeable future. And, indeed, Transport for London has confirmed that phones are too slow to use as a replacement for Oyster cards, meaning you won't be swiping your phone on the Tube any time soon.
As far as style goes, the L7 can't be faulted. It's a nice-looking phone - we'd rather have it in black, but even so, it's well-designed and well-built.
But when it comes to the stuff that matters, the L7 falls down because it has a slow processor running the latest version of Android. This is daft, and was never going to end well. And true to expectations, the day-to-day use of the L7 is hampered by lag and general slow performance. It's a real shame.
We like that LG has thought about the design, and has brought NFC to a mid-range phone, we just wish it had thought to include more ooomph to keep the frustration at bay.