LG Optimus Black

27th May 2011 | 14:34

LG Optimus Black

Super thin, feather-light - but can it rival the new dual-core brigade?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

A brilliant display screen on this Android 2.2-powered smartphone helps it to rival Apple's iPhone 4

Like:

NOVA display; 4-inch screen; Thin and lightweight chassis; Quick to navigate; 2MP front-facing camera;

Dislike:

Gesture UI is fun but mainly pointless; Not latest software; Casing is a little roughly hewn; Disappointing video recording capability; Occasional microSD card problems;

LG Optimus Black: Overview, design and feel

Sitting alongside the LG Optimus 2X, the LG Optimus Black is a top-end smartphone, slipping in at just over £400, attempting to compete with the Samsung Galaxy S2 and Apple iPhone 4 for the smartphone crown, but with considerably fewer features and less processing power than its LG stablemate.

First things first – the LG Optimus Black is light. Weighing a featherweight 109g, it even reaches a skinny 6mm side edge curvature, and 9.2mm thickness at its deepest point, besting the Apple iPhone 4 by a millimetre. Some may feel the lightness cheapens the feel of this handset somewhat, but our jeans pockets were thankful and it was nice to tote around something that didn't weigh us down.

The slightly metallic back cover is smooth, and the phone's few soft keys are well-blended into the chassis, giving it a minimalist aesthetic. We have to say, however, that a few of the edges felt a little too rough, detracting from the overall feel of the phone.

Yet where it's light and thin and joyous, it's also somewhat long. This makes the LG Optimus Black a little uncomfortable for small hands to hold it portrait, although curved corners help it sit nicely in the paws in landscape orientation.

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Those with bigger hands will likely feel it sits in the hands just fine either way. But, given the Android UI is designed to be used mainly in portrait mode, those with small hands will find it difficult to use one-handed. Despite its impressive lightness, the length makes it feel a much bigger phone than it is.

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The LG Optimus Black's 4-inch capacitive NOVA display screen is as bright as an AMOLED – reaching up to 700cd/m2 – but with increased battery efficiency, thanks to "luminance reduction technology". The 480 x 800p display is indeed beautifully bright and clear, perfectly fine indoors or out, even in the most direct sunlight we came across while testing.

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Looking much like the LG Optimus 2X, it packs less power, with a 1GHz processor running Android 2.2. The Optimus Black boasts the usual Android touchscreen buttons, and the three external buttons – a slim volume rocker, power/lock button and the gesture key, part of the LG Gesture UI designed to aid using the phone with one hand (more on that later).

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As with most minimalist handsets the ports – micro USB slot and 3.5mm headphone jack – sit at one end, alongside the lock and power button.

At the bottom end of the LG Optimus Black is an irritatingly tiny slot for removing the battery cover. Good luck opening the thing if you're devoid of long fingernails. In fact, even if you have got long claws, prying off the back cover is a difficult task. Once you get underneath the hood, you'll find the SIM holder, microSD slot and, of course, the battery.

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This is a sleek handset which packs an impressive 2MP front-facing camera plus a 5MP auto-focus-tons-of-toggling-fun camera with LED flash on the back.

LG Optimus Black: Interface

The LG Optimus Black runs on Android 2.2 Froyo with the Optimus 2.0 UI overlay.

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There are seven home screens on this sweet machine, and the 1GHz single core processor is more than capable of happily sliding through them all with ease, and running any apps you might wish to pull up.

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There's little to no juddering and some nice widgets – the weather one especially calls to mind the HTC equivalent.

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The pull-down notifications screen looks nice and spiffy, with an update that now includes music player, volume and connectivity setting controls.

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A long-tap to the screen brings up the home screen edit mode for customising. And a pinch displays all seven home screens at once.

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Apps are easily managed by tapping into 'Manage app' and moving them into desired categories in a list or page view.

So far, so usual. But the most interesting thing about the LG Optimus Black interface has to be the Gesture UI. Fun and useful, the idea is to make it easier to use the phone and flip through functions with one hand. And, if you have big enough hands to make it work, it's great.

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The G Key doubles as the camera button in that it opens the app from the lockscreen (although you can't use it to actually take the snap, which is disappointing). Simply press the key, on the side of the phone, and shake. Press and tilt to slide through the seven home screens, press and tap the side of the phone to move the cursor left and right when texting and press and shake to answer or hang up on a phone call.

It's a particularly nice addition if you're not a fan of touchscreens without soft buttons. If you're not a fan of shaking your phone about like a loon in public, these additional features can be tweaked in the settings menu.

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There are tiny details that are counter-intuitive on the LG Optimus Black, such as sliding up to unlock but then immediately having to slide down to pull down the notifications tab, and it's not as easy to use one-handed as you might like. Overall, though, there are no grumbles from us – it's mainly swift to respond and easy to pick up.

LG Optimus Black: Contacts and calling

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Contacts, easily accessed on the LG Optimus Black from a dedicated shortcut widget on the home screen or the phone widget, are nicely integrated with the two main social networks (Facebook and Twitter), as well as Gmail and Myspace.

Syncing them with contacts is as simple as a simple thing, requiring you to check the 'Auto-sync' box to see your contacts magically become populated with images, updates and statuses.

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The contacts list will display the most recent status update, along with the network logo to tell you where it was posted.

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A nice touch is tapping the profile picture of your contact to bring up a shortcut menu to take you straight to SMS, MMS, phone calling or the contact's social networks.

While there is the possibility of duplicate contacts being shown, this is easily remedied by importing SIM contacts to the Optimus Black and knocking off the 'Display SIM contacts' option in the display settings. Or, if you want to manually change just a couple, editing the contact and clicking 'Join' will enable you to edit single contacts.

Dipping into a contact itself displays four tabs: Info, History, Photo and Agenda.

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The Info tab collects all possible ways of contacting a person on the same page. The History tab draws together messages and call logs between yourself and the contact.

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The Agenda tab displays any events you might have with the contact, synced from the LG Optimus Black calendar.

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The dialler supports smart dialling, finding both corresponding names from the numerical pad and matching digits in phone numbers.

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Individual shortcut contact widgets can be added to a home screen, displaying the contact's image (if available) and providing a handy way to tap straight to texting/ dialling said person.

Calling on the LG Optimus Black isn't a particularly fun experience, mainly due to the uncomfortable rim close to the speaker.

Holding it to your ear for even vaguely long periods of time makes it feel as though the top of your ear is slowly being sliced off with a blunt instrument. Not very pleasant. The speaker is nice and loud, if you're in a private place to use it, but if not you might have to become that guy with a headset.

That said, its ability to find a signal is impressive, which also aids greatly in browser speeds, and it's clear and easy to hear in loud surroundings.

LG Optimus Black: Messaging

Messaging capabilities on the LG Optimus Black include SMS, MMS, email and Twitter/Facebook for LG with the options of downloading additional apps from the Android Market such as Google Voice, Skype and Meebo.

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The messaging interface is bright and aesthetically pleasing, if nothing new. The messaging widget sits on the home screen, taking you into the inbox where your conversations – rather than singular texts – are listed, with the option to create a new message at the top.

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QWERTY keyboards abound prove LG is keeping up with the simple details (unlike the similarly priced Nokia E7). In portrait mode, a small text input box and QWERTY keyboard sit below a visual of previous messages above.

Or landscape mode is designed for those who prefer to see the entire text they're typing, without a view of the message they're replying to.

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The LG Optimus Black can be a little slow to move from portrait to landscape, but otherwise the keys are nicely spaced and easy to type with. The one complaint would be the space bar, which seemed somehow less responsive than the rest of the keyboard – which could be because of the thinness of the key or just us not having the hang of it.

The messaging app includes predictive text and spellcheck, while attaching media files and converting to a multimedia message is as easy as clicking the menu button and selecting 'Attach', in either portrait or landscape mode.

If you see something while you're messaging that just can't wait, you can open the camera from the Attach menu, snap a picture and insert it into the text you were typing.

There's a crowbar separation between MMS/SMS and email inboxes via the appropriate apps, but this may be something you prefer. A gesture for flipping between the two would certainly come in handy here.

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In terms of email, if you're a Gmail user, the droid app for this is pretty sweet, giving you both Priority Inbox and Inbox view. It's also easy to find your organised folders and label emails. Setting up the app is as easy as signing in – you've got to love it, and on the 4-inch screen, it's a nice view indeed.

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Long-tapping an email brings up various editing options, including Delete, Mark unread and Report spam.

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And clicking into the email itself brings up the reply button and, of course, allows you to read the full email.

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Setting up the pre-loaded email app is just as simple – just follow the on-screen instructions and add the accounts you'd like to see in a combined inbox.

IM isn't included in the LG Optimus Black's list of apps, but the Market is nicely stocked and apps such as Meebo and AIM are easy to download. All in all, it's an easy to use messaging system with plenty of features and nicely laid out.

LG Optimus Black: Internet

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Connectivity-wise, the LG Optimus Black is decked with Wi-Fi, 3G (7.2Mbps HSDPA and 5.76Mbps HSUPA) and Bluetooth. Attached to Wi-Fi, the browser speed is excellent, and while the 3G speeds aren't by any means instantaneous, they're not painful either.

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Connectivity-wise, the LG Optimus Black is decked with Wi-Fi, 3G (7.2Mbps HSDPA and 5.76Mbps HSUPA) and Bluetooth. Attached to Wi-Fi, the browser speed is excellent, and while the 3G speeds aren't by any means instantaneous, they're not painful either.

Thanks to the NOVA technology, websites look sharp and gorgeous, with colours really popping on the screen, whether zoomed in or out.

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Double tapping will auto-zoom out to refit the whole website to the screen.

Web pages are quick to navigate on the LG Optimus Black, except for a slight juddering when scrolling through image-heavy sites.

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Reflow is supported, instantly fitting the text to the screen, whether in portrait or landscape mode, which makes image-heavy sites (such as say, your Sunday dose of PostSecret) a pleasant browsing experience.

We think the pre-installed browser is more than adequate, but if you're dead set on downloading another, Mozilla Firefox and Opera are available from the Market.

Flash is supported. However, the single core processor means viewing isn't entirely smooth. The BBC iPlayer app, for example, loads quickly but occasionally stutters while playing, and is far too pixelated. Flash inside websites gave the LG Optimus Black no pause for thought on a Wi-Fi connection, but a little trouble on 3G roaming.

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Bookmarking is easy on the LG Optimus Black – clicking on the star symbol next to the current URL takes you to an attractive thumbnail bookmarks page, including a Most visited and History tab.

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In the browser, they're easily reached through the Menu button. Simples.

LG Optimus Black: Camera

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With only 5MP, the LG Optimus Black's camera is about on a par with the Apple iPhone 4 but doesn't reach the 8MP spec of the Samsung Galaxy S2. Yet somehow, that doesn't seem to matter for daytime shots, as the images produced look gorgeous on the NOVA screen.

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BRIGHT:The blue of the sky is retained in the picture, though some brighter contrast sections are a little bleached

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OVERCAST:The sky is washed out, but the detail of the building is retained nicely

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You can't zoom in particularly far before the picture becomes pixelated, but looking at them as-taken they're good enough for a 5MP phone camera. The colours are mainly true to life, except for a little washing out of the sky on an overcast day, and there are several shooting modes to play around with.

There are five different focus modes on the LG Optimus Black, including Auto, Macro and Face Tracking. You can steadily decrease the MP size, plus choose from several scene modes such as Landscape, Sports, Sunset and Night.

If you prefer fiddling with the manual settings, the camera allows you to change the White Balance (within reason) and the ISO (to 800). Then there are the shot modes (Shallow Focus, Beauty, Panorama and so on), geolocation and the volume rocker doubles as a zoom key. It's more than enough for the amateur photographer to play around with.

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ART SHOT:The camera has an art shot mode which can employ one of four colour washes. This is the 'warm' wash, mimicking a cross-processed image

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AUTO SUNSET:This picture, taken during a sunset in auto mode, retains none of the colour of the scene, with the sun washed out entirely

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SUNSET MODE:The same picture, taken with the 'sunset' mode, captures an almost identical shot, with the sun still washed out

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MACRO:This mode aims to mimic a shallow focus shot, but doesn't manage to focus on any particular spot, thus blurring the entire photo

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Inside, however, the 5MP camera really shows – the resulting pictures are grainy, dampened with a yellow tint or completely over-exposed from the LED flash.

The camera also has a similar problem with night time shots, both outdoors and indoors, with far too much noise.

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NIGHT FLASH: Taken with a flash, indoors at night, this picture is completely over-exposed and the colours are too bright

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NIGHT NO FLASH:There's no over-exposure when taken without a flash, but plenty of noise

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Where the G key would have really come in handy, instead of just being the camera launcher, is if it doubled as a capture button. Instead you're left tapping the screen in the usual way of touchscreen smartphones, which causes hand-shaking when attempting to capture photos.

The secondary camera, however, is the star – a front-facing 2MP camera currently bettered only by the BlackBerry PlayBook's 3MP, for video calling.

LG Optimus Black: Video

With a video recording capability of 720p HD (30fps) we expected a little more from the LG Optimus Black. When filming, the focus would judder around, making for horrible playback. Plus, there's no ability to zoom while filming.

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When zoomed in even a little way, the video is horribly pixelated and blurred. Sure, the colours were rendered decently true to life, but that's the only good thing we have to say about this video camera.

Settings to tweak include: video size (HD, TV, VGA, QVGA or QCIF), white balance and colour effect (not just black and white or sepia but several cartoonish options, if those are your thing). Interestingly you can also mute the microphone when filming, should you wish.

LG Optimus Black: Media

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Watching films on the LG Optimus Black seems to be what this phone was made for. The 4-inch NOVA screen comes into its own, showing deep, deep blacks and crisp, bright colours that really pop, if not a little too garishly contrasted at times.

The lightweight, curved chassis now makes sense, sitting comfortably in the hand, not weighing you down like a rock. MPEG4, H263, H.264, DivX, XVid and WMV are all supported by the player and the playback is smooth, the audio nice and loud. As a media player, the LG Optimus Black is excellent.

Memory is a paltry thing for the LG Optimus Black, however. Supplied with the phone was a 2GB microSD card, so on the face of it, it has a tiny amount of memory, but this is easily swappable for a bigger memory card. You'd think with such a beautiful screen and excellent media player that memory space would be a bigger priority.

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The music player is accessible from one of the seven home screens, with a widget now available in the drop down notifications menu, allowing ease of use. Here the Gesture UI ought to come in handy, allowing you to flick through tracks by simply holding the G key and tapping twice on the side of the handset. However, this only seemed to work for us when in the music player itself, at which point the G key becomes almost pointless as you might as well manually slide the tracks along.

The LG Optimus Black supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WAV and MIDI with a well-balanced sound quality, excellent loudness and very little distortion at the highest volumes.

The provided earphones are surprisingly clear and comfortable, but the sound quality was marginally better when we tested with different earphones. Dolby mobile surround is an option, but seemed to dull the sound, making us feel as if we were hearing the music underwater.

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The music library looks vaguely familiar, owing much to Apple's influence, arranging files in standard songs/albums/artists lists. The landscape view offers a curved flow of album covers and alphabetically-listed artists.

As for photos, access to the gallery is smooth and simple – from widgets that can be placed on a home screen to the menu shortcut.

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Switching between the camera and gallery is also nicely integrated, with a corner button that flips between the two.

A funky little addition to the LG Optimus Black's gallery interface is the ability to pinch-out the camera folder and view the images in it as they shuffle through like a pack of cards. Cool, but ultimately pointless given that you can't click through to an image once you spot the one you want – you have to tap into the folder to do that.

There's little to no editing ability on this phone for images or film, but – for the camera anyway – there are so many shooting modes that post-editing is rendered unnecessary.

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Content is easily shared via Bluetooth/email/MMS and Youtube for video files and via any image-supporting networks such as Facebook, Twitter and PicPlz. The LG Optimus Black also carries SmartShare software which allows you to share files wirelessly.

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Also included in the LG Optimus Black's media capacity is an FM radio. This is bog standard, with no outstanding features. The reception quality is low, often with fuzzy distortion.

LG Optimus Black: Battery life and connectivity

Battery life

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The LG Optimus Black's 100mAh battery life is fair to average. We definitely had to charge it every day, which isn't ideal, although that was after heavy usage, including a few hours of Wi-Fi. It seems on a par with its more powerful brethren, the LG Optimus 2X and daily charging has become standard for most smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S2.

The battery is drained significantly by running games, even for 10-15 minutes. If the NOVA screen is saving battery consumption, we'd hate to see it without that technology.

On the upside, it charges quickly and if you're less of an internet browser and networks addict then perhaps you'll squeeze a little longer out of the battery.

Connectivity

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The LG Optimus Black is fairly full of connectivity options, including micro USB (but no HDMI port), HSDPA (to 7.2 Mbps), Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and standard Bluetooth 2.1. The 3G is enough to keep you browsing at a decent rate if you're in a good spot for signal. The Wi-Fi is also strong and will speed up the browser upload rate no end.

The LG Optimus Black is also loaded with Wi-Fi Direct technology (just like the Samsung Galaxy S2), which in theory allows you to transfer files up to 20 times faster than Bluetooth if you can find other Wi-Fi Direct capable devices. The handset can also be used as a Wi-Fi Hotspot.

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Connecting the phone to a PC seems easy enough – just plug in the USB and be eased through the setup menus. It became a little tedious when we were guided through umpteen installation screens, but eventually we were set up and ready to go with a simple drag and drop.

Connecting the LG Optimus Black to a Mac was a little more difficult, as the Android File Transfer app only works for those devices running Android 3.0, whereas the Optimus Black runs 2.2. Once installed, however, it's a simple drag-and-drop game and is easy to transfer files.

One glitch we did come across, however, was with the microSD card. After adding a movie no problem, testing it and deciding to switch it for another one, we deleted the first film file from the SD card, only to be met with a series of 'Memory card full' error screens.

To remedy this, we had to remove all images and files from the card that we wanted to save to and then reformat it, after which it worked fine. This isn't ideal, especially if it were to happen every time you swapped the files around on your handset.

LG Optimus Black: Maps and apps

Maps

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Standard Google Mapping software is included on the LG Optimus Black handset, which means GPS navigation, Layers (such as overlays of tube lines and terrain) and Latitude (Google's attempt at a location-based social network).

Thanks to the Optimus Black's 3G capabilities, the GPS is decently quick to latch onto your location, and will handily cache maps you use the most for use offline.

Apps

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There are few pre-loaded apps on the LG Optimus Black that really stand out from the norm of Google apps and social networks on this handset – the only one really being the SmartShare DLNA streaming app mentioned in the Media section of this review.

We will say, though, that the pre-downloaded LG Social Networking apps aren't worth it – download Twitter and Facebook for Android instead to get the full range of usability.

The LG Twitter app feels particularly dire if you're used to the functions of Twitter's official app. It's slow to load and opens to your Twitter stream, which then counter-intuitively requires the use of the back button to get to your @ mentions. Nah, download the actual app instead. Much better.

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Obviously the Android Market is a great app store, and one of the only ones that can compete on a similar level to the Apple app store. However, unless you know the exact app you're after, you may not come across it simply by browsing through the menus.

Once you've browsed the Market and downloaded apps of your choice, they can be nicely organised into either portrait lists or side-swipe pages, like you see on the Apple iPhone 4.

LG Optimus Black: Hands-on gallery

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LG Optimus Black: Official gallery

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LG Optimus Black: Verdict

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The LG Optimus Black has some great things going for it – namely its sleek, lightweight chassis and lush 4-inch NOVA display in all its colourful glory. Outside of this there are no particularly outstanding features, but it's a slick, capable handset that does well in the core smartphone media categories.

Of course, if you want a more powerful machine you'd opt for the LG Optimus 2X, but if you're looking for a dependable all-rounder, we'd say this matches up to the likes of the Apple iPhone 4 and the display qualities of the Samsung Galaxy S2 with its AMOLED screen.

If you like gimmicks, you'll probably love the Gesture UI, though we thought many of the options – such as tapping to skip music tracks – were a little pointless when you really got down to it.

Overall though, and despite running Android 2.2, we'd say the LG Optimus Black's worth the money if you're looking for an efficient, easy to use device that's easy on the eye and light on the pocket.

We liked:

The LG Optimus Black's screen – all four inches of it – is bright and clear. And despite the occasional rough edge, the lightness of the phone meant it was comfortable in the hand, even when watching video for decently long periods of time.

The ease with which we could scroll through home screens, menus and apps without juddering or pauses was much appreciated, plus we always seemed to be able to get a decent enough signal to browse the internet, which is excellent.

We disliked:

The fact that the LG Optimus Black runs Android 2.2 seems a shame when there are more recent Android updates available, although it coped with most processes perfectly fine.

The Gesture UI should have seemed a snappy addition, but we were left rather unimpressed by the G Key, with the only truly useful gesture being the ability to snap into camera mode from the lockscreen. The rest seemed merely exercises in vanity.

Verdict:

If you're both a fan of the black bar aesthetic that seems to be the current go-to design of smartphones, and a fan of lightweight machinery that does exactly what it ought to, then the LG Optimus Black will suit you great.

While its only truly outstanding feature is the NOVA display screen, it performs well enough in other areas to stand as a competitor to the Apple iPhone 4 for those who prefer Android phones.

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