LG Optimus 4X HD
16th Jul 2012 | 13:33
Can LG's first quad-core phone offer anything different?
LG desperately needs a reboot at the sharp end of the smartphone market - can its slim quad-core offering, in the shape of the much-vaunted Optimus 4X HD, step up to the plate?
We got a few promises from LG in the form of offerings like last year's Optimus 3D – but that just felt a bit gimmicky. LG needs to pull something out of the bag if it wants to muscle in on an arena now dominated by Samsung, HTC, Sony and Motorola.
On paper the Optimus 4X HD appears to have it all. Thin and light, a True HD-IPS screen, all the connectivity options you could ever hope for, NFC, 8MP HD camera, Ice Cream Sandwich and a Quad-Core processor.
And had this been early 2012, then this would have blown the competition out of the water. But a few months (and a Galaxy S3 / One X release) later, it doesn't feel that revolutionary. Especially when you look at the price.
SIM free and offline, you'll pay around £430 ($670). On a contract, expect a two year deal at around £26 ($40) a month to get this handset for free. Price wise, it's mildly cheaper than Samsung's flagship Galaxy S3 but is on a direct collision course for your vote with something like HTC's current baby, the One X.
As far as the dimensions go, this is a handset that should fit comfortably in the palm if you've got decent sized pincers. It's very square to look at and instantly makes us think of the Samsung Galaxy S2.
In fact, aside from the lack of a physical home button and the inclusion of an LG logo, you could quite easily get the two confused at first glance. It's only marginally bigger at 132.4 x 68.1 x 8.9mm, and heavier at 133g.
The beauty of no home button is that LG has made the screen a little bit longer (it uses the soft keys that Google much prefers but some manufacturers eschew). We did have issues occasionally when holding it with one hand as reaching down to the bottom of the screen with a thumb led to it feeling like we may drop it.
But there is a great decorative metal trim around the sides which we found gave us something to hold onto. And another warning – it is an absolute fingerprint magnet.
Want to know which quad-core beast is the fastest? Check out our test of the 4X alongside a Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X:
Round the sides, there's little to remark on: a volume rocker up left, a power/standby button and headphone jack up top and the charging port down below. We do have to give special mention to the rear panel where you'll find the camera and LED flash.
LG has really done something special here and given it a brushed, hard plastic feel which really does make it feel a premium device. It's actually the same as the back found on the LG Prada 3 and that, combined with that metal trim, gives it a feeling of quality.
As far as the screen goes, it's fairly good. Yes, the resolution is spot on – it's a True HD-IPS LCD capacitive job. And yes, LG does make amazing TVs so we expected something good. The resolution is 720x1280 (312ppi density) spread over a 4.7-inch screen. But there's a slight problem with it.
Recent handsets have had the screens moved really high up against the glass protecting them from the elements. So, on a handset like the Samsung Galaxy S3, Sony Xperia S or HTC One X, you get a really vivid, sharp, almost-too-perfect display.
But on the Optimus 4X HD, there is a huge gap between the screen and the glass. So much so that we think we could see the gap when we held the phone at an angle. And that means that some of the amazing clarity is lost in the ether.
It also meant that occasionally, taps didn't register and left us wondering if this was actually a resistive display like those we used to use. Not so often it annoyed us, but often enough to evoke a sigh and a grunt.
We also felt a little let down by the lack of a notification LED. They are a bit marmite. But there is something handy about being able to glance at your phone without touching it to see if anything needs your attention.
Third party apps like NoLED are all well and good – but they're no substitute for the real thing.
If there's one thing you have to complement LG on, it's the interface it has pasted over Android 4.0 on the Optimus 4X HD. It's not one of the better known skins, but it does a competent job.
Bear in mind that this phone is powered by a 1.5Ghz quad-core Tegra 3 processor and it means that it zips along like nobody's business. We tried to slow it down by zapping through the homescreens like Jenson Button with apps downloading and others running. Could we slow it down? Nope.
By default, you get a Yahoo! Weather, Google Search and music widgets loaded on the homescreens. Though anybody who knows how Android works will be aware that these can be moved/added to/deleted easily enough. There are seven homescreens to pick from though we couldn't figure out a way to add or remove any.
You can choose easily enough which one you'd like as your default and, as with many launchers, can get into an overview of them all by simply pinching inwards.
You're also able to add folders of apps to the homescreen and – in another example of how much you can customise things – even change the colour of said folder's background.
Something we were really impressed with was the ability to customise the homescreen extensively. Small touches like being able to pick from a variety of transitions between homescreens (for example, carousel or domino effects) to selecting a new font, to changing the theme which actually also changes the icons and the whole look of the phone.
It's the kind of choice we're used to getting from third party launchers like Nova or the excellent Go Launcher, rather than those that come as stock. It's a nice touch from LG, though we wish there was an obvious way to add more themes other than the four which come out of the box.
We also really like the lockscreen. You can customise it with various shortcuts and widgets that also come as part of the launcher experience. But it's the method of unlocking that caught out eye. You touch the screen and as you move your finger, it spreads out a circle revealing the unlocked screen below. It's gimmicky but it's also very fun to play with.
Speaking of which, we're sure LG has done something to the Face Unlock feature. We love the idea of Face Unlock but it always seems a bit of a challenge on phones like the HTC One X and the Galaxy S3.
The reason being that it always seems to take too long to kick in and, half of the time, it doesn't even recognise us. Yet, on the Optimus 4X HD, it identified us very quickly and unlocked the handset even in really dim light where we could barely make out our own face.
Apps are stored, by default, in the app drawer which also allows you to preview widgets – as per the way Ice Cream Sandwich works.
LG has added an extra tab called 'Downloads' which lets you view apps you've installed yourself. On top of that, you can access the application manager directly from the app drawer which allows you to uninstall easily enough rather than going round the houses.
One thing that did get on our nerves was the fact that every app installed automatically adds a shortcut to the homescreen and clutters things up very quickly - although this is an Android, rather than LG's, issue.
Within the app drawer, we love the fact that you can choose to have your icons more densely populated and show more on a screen at any one time.
Google's notification bar works as it always has done, with a quick, intuitive slide down to see what you have waiting for you.
There is also a selection of toggles for you to switch between and these can be altered. We like the 'short memo' one that instantly helps you to draw up what it says. Interestingly, while other manufacturers seem to have eschewed Ice Cream Sandwich's blue theme for green, LG has stayed faithful to Google.
On the whole, it's a really intuitive, user-friendly system and has the advantage of being something that a first-time Android user will instantly be able to pick up. In a market that is completely oversaturated with Google-toting handsets, this is a real plus.
Contacts and calling
Contacts are accessed via a shortcut at the bottom of the main homescreen (or accessing contacts via the main app drawer.) Or, you can add a shortcut widget to the main homescreen for someone you call frequently, like your bank manager.
Our favourite way is to just start typing the person's name into the search on the home screen and watch the Optimus 4X HD bring said friend/enemy up. This highlights the strength of Android – the fact that you can have so many ways to pick from to do something as simple as call one person.
Here's hoping Apple's constant litigation doesn't destroy this helpful feature...
The contacts section is standard Android fare. Sure, it's got a bit of a skin on it to match the look of the phone but we couldn't see much difference between it and other Android offerings with sections like 'Groups' and 'Favourites' up top as they always are.
One thing that did gripe with us was the fact that it displayed every contact you have. On most Android phones, Google will sync every contact but the phone at least gives you an option to show only those with phone numbers.
Whereas we couldn't see that on the Optimus 4X HD (if it is there, it's buried away somewhere you'll never find it.) And that meant it synchronised every contact we had. Bearing in mind, Google stores every email address you've ever sent a message too. And our inbox has 20,000 emails in it.
You can imagine how many people's names we are carrying around – many of whom we don't even know who they are. Thank heavens for that search facility.
Social networking wasn't integrated out of the box. But that's easily solved. All you have to do is download the relevant Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Whatsapp additions etc from the Google Play store and that's fixed in a jiffy with contact photos and status updates copied across.
This is where HTC really wipes the floor with its HTC Sense skin because it makes all of that effort so seamless and simple from the very beginning.
Making calls is easy enough – it's a question of tapping the relevant name and off you go. Within calls, there's the option to change the output to a Bluetooth device but nothing out of the ordinary.
We found it to be pleasant enough for making calls through. They were quick to connect and signal was fairly strong.
We don't think what you see on screen completely represents what you're getting practice since it told us we had little signal when we could talk quite clearly (It also told us we had virtually no Wi-Fi signal when we were zipping along downloading without a care in the world) but this is something we're sure LG will fix in a software update if it is indeed a bug.
All in all, we had no issues to raise which can only be a good thing.
Messaging on the Optimus 4X HD is an absolute delight.
This being an Android handset, it naturally comes with a multitude of options for making contact. Straight out of the box, you're furnished with two email clients – the excellent Gmail client (even better in Ice Cream Sandwich than Gingerbread) which supports full inbox searching and labels and another LG client that can be used for other POP3/IMAP accounts and MS Exchange.
We found the LG client to be usable and accessible. Holding it in portrait mode gave us our Exchange emails (with perfectly formatted HTML without us having to download images manually – a real bonus) and when turned to landscape, we got a split inbox view.
We loved how you can drag across to make the email list bigger or smaller. Other than that, it was not majorly different to any other email client. It did exactly what we needed it to.
The SMS/MMS client is stock Android with a bit of a colour wash over it. The actual composition of it was the same as that seen on the Samsung line and it's usable enough.
Personally, we'd download a third party one that gives you more options like Go SMS and also the ability to change themes. Despite LG's love of theming its homescreens, it won't allow any of that here.
Other than that, the beauty of Android is that you can download a whole host of IM clients and watch them seamlessly link into the OS. WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and the rest of them will actually integrate into your contacts once you get them on board and that helps make this a truly social platform.
And you can launch a new message (of any variety) simply by opening the app or by going into your contact card and selecting one of the options in there. This is where we feel Apple really is playing catch up.
For typing your messages, it's all pretty good. The keyboard is much better than stock Android and we were really happy with it.
In both portrait and landscape, the letters are easy enough to hit and it supports elements like auto-punctuation, auto-capitalisation and adding a full stop when you hit the space bar twice.
The only thing we couldn't figure out is handwriting recognition. In the settings menu, there were all kinds of options for changing the pen length and style and the sensitivity. But we couldn't figure out where to start writing – the message body didn't allow it and the keyboard isn't a Swype-style affair.
It genuinely perplexed us. We figure most people will either give up at worst or, at best, not even know it's there. Which makes the whole thing kind of pointless, especially if those purchasing the Optimus 4X HD are first time users.
The Optimus 4X HD couldn't be faster. It seriously blazes along when surfing. With full HSPA and Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, surfing is a breeze.
We couldn't believe it when, over Wi-Fi, we loaded the TechRadar homepage. We didn't even get to a second before the mobile site was all displayed and ready to go.
When we chose the full HTML site, it was up completely in just over two seconds. And that's with all animations and elements loaded completely. It really was stunning.
We expected it to slow right down away from Wi-Fi but using T-Mobile's H+ signal in London, we got the same results with just ONE second added onto those times. This really is one of the fastest phones we've used for surfing.
The LG Optimus 4X HD is also one of a dying breed in that it supports flash. We used to moan about phones not running it but since even Adobe itself decided to scrap mobile support for Flash – and even the Android Chrome browser has scrapped it – this has become less relevant.
Yet, it's still nice to have because as we go through this age of transition to HTML5, there are still, undeniably, lots of sites that use it. Which makes it really great to at least have.
The other beauty is that screen. It is razor sharp so even zoomed out, web pages look fantastic, despite the gap between the glass and display.
And it supports text reflow really well. Double tap to zoom in and out (as with most phones) and just pinch to zoom and watch it reflow to fit the screen, even if it means just having one or two words per line. This is a feature so many phones fail to manage other than HTC's line, so we're glad it's popped up on the Optimus 4X HD.
Bookmarks are laid out nicely with real thumbnails of the page though we were disappointed that it doesn't automatically sync your bookmarks with Google.
Chrome does this (which can be downloaded from Google Play) as does the stock browser on the Samsung Galaxy S3, but LG hasn't thought this far ahead which means you have to muck about more than you should have had to.
There is also the option to save pages for offline viewing in case you go underground or somewhere unobtainable. This does work but it appears to turn the page into an image rather than a webpage.
Which means links don't work. So, say you are looking at something on your saved page and decide to then click on a link when your signal comes back, you can't as tapping just zooms in.
You then have to go back into the main body of the browser which means more fiddling. Not a big disappointment but a minor irritation, nevertheless.
The Optimus 4X HD is a really competent point and shoot. Not the best we've used but passable for a bit of playing about. It comes with two cameras on board – a 1.3MP job on the front which is good for vanity and an 8MP shooter round the back.
On the whole, we weren't overwhelmed with the quality of snaps. In average light, they looked clear and sharp with good colour representation. In some cases, strong light meant the whole image just looked washed out.
In no light, the LED flash made a world of difference and illuminated a pitch black room well enough to take a snap. That flash is pretty intense – much like the Samsung Galaxy S2 and S3 and far superior to the HTC One X which tends to throw in a bit of noise for good measure, unfortunately.
Plus, you get some good features like Continuous Shot (which gives you six photos snapped in burst mode) and Time Catch Shot which also captures the seconds before you hit the shutter so you don't miss the crucial moment.
HDR mode wasn't amazing – with a fair bit of blur making the final result.
Scene modes aren't overly generous – you get the basics like Sports and Night and not much else. The Optimus can switch between auto focus mode and face tracking mode.
We found that the auto focus was slow to refocus in good light though and that meant some good opportunities were lost. At least you do have the option of tap to focus.
We did have a few other gripes too. Firstly, there's no shutter button. We know lots of phones don't have them these days but that doesn't make it right.
When you hold these phones like cameras and they have so many camera-like features, it really grates to not be able to take a photo with a dedicated button.
Secondly, tasks like changing the flash from 'off' to 'on' are not overly easy as you have to go into the settings menu with no obvious way of putting a shortcut on the camera screen. Which obviously takes time.
And thirdly, there are four variations of shutter sound for you to choose from, there is no option to turn it off completely.
Even when the phone is completely in silent mode. Which we think is ridiculous. Sometimes, it's perfectly acceptable to want to take a picture quietly without being a pervert and we feel irked that LG refuses to let us. Is this a nanny-state?
Overall, it's a competent camera that fails to match the power of the HTC One X or Galaxy S3.
One of the in-things at the moment – which we first saw on the HTC One X – is the ability to shoot HD video and take photos at the same time.
And the LG Optimus 4X HD offers this facility too which is great. Video is filmed at a maximum 1920x1080 resolution with a frame rate of 3fps. Of course, that means large files – which is why that huge internal memory is so crucial.
There are various effects that you can add to your videos like faces and fake backgrounds but we found them to be pretty rubbish and gimmicky. If this were a phone aimed at 13 year olds, it'd make sense. But here, it just wastes precious screen estate.
One problem we noticed in our videos is that the camera is constantly trying to refocus. It's a real shame because our videos kept on blurring out as the camera tried to fix itself.
It makes videos unusable in a lot of cases and we can't quite believe this passed LG's own quality control process. However, you can pinch to zoom in on a video you're taking, or do the same once the video is recorded too, which is a really handy feature.
And while you can have the LED light illuminate your video in the dark, you can't turn it on during a video. There's no option. Which means you have to stop and start again having gone into the menu and fiddled about with it all. It's a tad annoying.
All in all, it means that this isn't the best HD phone video camera out there. And it's a real shame for LG.
The Optimus 4X HD really is a true multimedia phone. Out of the box, you have 12GB storage to play with (technically, it's 16GB but the OS takes up a fair chunk of this).
For many, this'll be enough, but the beauty is that unlike handsets like HTC's current One crop, you can indeed expand the memory here by up to 32GB.
Some users have reported being able to slip a 64GB card in there with no problems, though that's not technically supported.
The stock music player does an admirable job and we found it worked well enough with every format we threw at it. It comes with a widget preinstalled for easy access and the full app allows you to view your tunes by songs, albums, playlists, artists or folders.
When listening to music via headphones, there are also several audio effects from Dolby Mobile to Bass Booster and Headset Enhancer. It's basically the stock Android player with a little bit of LG plastered on top. Unfortunately, quality isn't amazing and we found the volume to be very low – even with headphones on max.
We had no specific complaints about the music app but it did feel a little basic. We'd strongly urge you to download a third party alternative – PlayerPro, PowerAmp etc are all credible alternatives.
There's also an FM radio and while we didn't seem to be able to locate RDS support, we were impressed with the lack of hissing compared to other premium Android handsets we've used.
For a phone with "HD" in the title, you'll be pleased to know that the included video player is a belter.
It makes us laugh to look back at early Android handsets and how they didn't come with any kind of video playback installed. Whereas the offering from the Optimus 4X HD is quite an advanced bit of code.
In fact, it's brimming with features – so much so that the first time you use it, it guides you through them. Fingertip Seek is one of them and what it does is allow you to move to various points in the movie much easier.
Pinch-to-zoom (literally) is another, plus a preview mode which actually lets you view one video whilst checking another. It's all very intuitive, fluid and obvious that LG has put a bit of time into this.
Almost all video files are supported (we say almost because every file we tried - DivX, MP4, WMV, Xvid etc - worked, but there are sure to be some obscure ones that cause trouble.) And the great thing is that the Google Play store has really come of age so that you don't have to feel you're missing out if you're not in Club iTunes.
In fact, with that HD screen and the Optimus 4X HD not being too heavy to hold, whilst still giving you a great resolution, you really can use this as a comfortable and fun PMP.
Plus you have the fantastic YouTube app. We love using this on Android and think it wipes the floor with Apple's version. What more could you need?
The photo gallery is stock Android which we find to be fairly competent. It sweeps the phone for every form of photo and sticks it in a folder depending on which app it came from.
It can be a little annoying because you end up with gazillions of folders if you use gazillions of photography apps. But then again, if everything were in the same place all the time, we'd probably moan about that too.
If you want to share your media, DLNA is here as it is on most similar handsets these days. LG ships the Optimus 4X HD with an app called SmartShare which allows you to send your stuff back and forth from your phone to appliances like a Smart TV.
We used it with our PS3 and found it to be a fairly fluid experience although we hate to say it, we think Apple still leads the way with the whole iOS to Apple TV link. It's just all there and Android could catch up a bit here.
All in all though, if you're looking for a good media phone, you could definitely do a lot worse than the Optimus 4X HD.
Battery life and connectivity
Battery life is where it gets interesting. We can say that we've always labelled LG as a brand that makes mobiles with the worst battery life.
Even feature phones like the Shine which had little going on lasted barely 12 hours. The Optimus 3D was just a joke. We literally got three hours out of that in one day. You can imagine what we expected from the Optimus 4X HD. Let's say we weren't optimistic.
It's really nice to be surprised. This baby packs a 2,150 mAh power pack. Clearly, LG doesn't want to be outdone by Samsung which has also gone for a similar 2,100mAh size in the Galaxy S3.
And we can comfortably say that this is probably the first LG we have ever used where we are confident of getting through the day on a charge. You won't be able to go overboard, as battery life isn't amazing - this is no Motorola RAZR Maxx, after all. But if you stay sensible, you'll be fine until bedtime.
We took our unit off charge at 8am on Saturday morning and used it to listen to the radio for about 30 mins before switching to the music player when we went on the tube for another half hour.
Over the course of the day, we connected to Wi-Fi for browsing (about 40 mins worth in total) as well as making about an hour's worth of calls, sending umpteen tweets and sending and receiving emails. We got home at midnight with 21% left.
Had we been watching videos on the train or playing CPU-intensive games, then we'd have probably lost a lot more charge and had to connect the USB cable but that's to be expected. When not being used, the battery used practically no juice for hours at a time.
Connecting the Optimus 4X HD left, right and centre will use up a fair bit of juice but luckily, if it's your aim to do that, you can do so much. Every single method of connecting your phone is here – from the obvious Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth as well as newer iterations like Wi-Fi direct.
You also have the ability to turn the Optimus 4X HD into a wireless hotspot as you can with most Android devices, though use it wisely as your network may think it's Christmas if you go overboard with data use.
NFC is the big buzzword of the moment and LG's one of those really pushing 'tags'. The idea is that you have a tag (about the size of a large square of chocolate) and you program your phone to do something when it swipes against the tag.
It's actually really handy and we were left wondering how we managed without them. Here's what we did – put a tag in the kitchen (where the Wi-Fi signal doesn't extend) on the side of the cupboard so that every time we walked into the kitchen, we could swipe it against the tag and it would disable Wi-Fi.
We did the same in the car to enable Bluetooth. It's not all about turning radios on and off – you can send text messages automatically, start apps and so forth. It's all done through an app that comes preinstalled called LG Tag+ which allows you to write those instructions to tags.
And the beauty is that you don't have to open the app when you swipe. The phone's always listening. Our box came with two included though it's worth checking if your retail unit will do the same. Some suppliers may even throw in a few extra tags if you learn the art of bartering.
Finally, getting media onto the Optimus 4X HD is a cinch. Using a Mac is not like pulling teeth as it has been with other handsets. And using a PC is a dream with a host of connectivity options brought up the second you connect the USB cable to your phone.
Drag and drop works, quickly and easily, and that's how it should be.
Maps and apps
Android handsets are brilliant for those who want to use them as navigation devices. The reason is simple – Google Maps is hands down the best free mapping solution for mobile devices and when linked to the incredible (and free) Google Navigation, you have a full and powerful mobile sat nav with live traffic information in your pocket with no charges to pay other than the data ones.
Going out of range used to be a problem but no longer. Google has now updated Maps so that it allows users to download sections of a county for offline use.
Not only this, you can even browse maps of some indoor locations (though obviously, you won't want to drive your car indoors.)
And if all of this is not good enough, you also get a multitude of other navigation apps available on the Google Play store – some free, some chargeable.
Obviously, using GPS drains the battery so make sure you have a charger cable in your car and that should keep you going. As for the signal, we really had no complaints. It was fairly quick to lock on in under 15 seconds for the first time and managed to keep that signal in open air. When going through tunnels, it regained a lock almost straight away on emergence into the bright daylight.
App wise, the Optimus 4X HD comes with a fair smattering of offerings.
Aside from the obvious ones like calculator and clock (plus the standard Google suite), you get others like Backup (which backs up your Google apps to an SD card), Memo taker, Yahoo! News, Remote Call (which allows LG to get in touch and help you if you can't work your device) and a few other bits and pieces.
There is a Media Hub too which brings together all of your music, video and pictures but we couldn't quite see the point – it just replicates the individual Gallery, Music and Video Player apps.
Of course, these are just tasters – there are hundreds of thousands of apps available in the Google Play store and part of the fun is hunting around in there to see what you can get for nothing.
Hands on and official photos
The LG Optimus 4X HD is a really fun piece of kit. It pushes the boundaries for LG and is the first phone we think that establishes it as a serious player in the Android field. We're big fans and can find nothing bad to really say about it.
The design of the Optimus 4X HD is spot on and LG has clearly worked hard to make the interface nice and customizable.
Things like changing fonts and adding homescreen folders may be unimportant but little touches make all the difference.
Messaging is an absolute delight as is using the keyboard and that quad-core processor flies along like you wouldn't believe.
We didn't like
But the fact is, whilst the Optimus 4X HD price tag is roughly the same as comparable phones, LG doesn't have the same reputation or following to ensure people will choose it over others.
There are no real annoyances with the phone but enough little niggles like the screen being a fingerprint magnet, a poorly designed screen-and-glass combo and no LED notification to make it grate a little on occasion.
The trouble is, LG has released this handset six months too late which means it offers nothing new. Unfortunately – and it pains us to say this – LG has simply created a me-too handset – or that's how it looks. And while we like it, we're not blown away because we've seen it all before.
If you want a cheap quad core phone, this could be a real steal in a few months - and it's definitely a rival for media mobile of the moment too.
In summary, we do recommend it – it's a cracking piece of kit. And if you can get it on a good deal, we say 'go for it' but there's no real reason to pick this over a Samsung Galaxy SIII, a Sony Xperia S or an HTC One X.
We do like it a lot. But we'll save the bunting for the next LG offering which we hope sets the bar, rather than joins it.