The success of the Galaxy Note has spurred a lot of manufacturers to come up with smartphones with massive touchscreen displays. Although Samsung was hardly the first to do this (that honor goes to the ill-fated Dell Streak), it was the first device that became popular. So now we suddenly have plenty of smartphones with 5-inch and above displays.
One of these is the Optimus Vu from LG. Like Samsung, LG has decided to go a step ahead and instead of just giving a large display also add stylus functionality, which comes bundled with the device along with apps that make use of it.
But perhaps the biggest differentiating factor for the Optimus Vu is that it features a rather off 4:3 aspect ratio for the display, unlike the now universal widescreen aspect ratio. But will this turn out to be an improvement or is LG messing with a tried and tested formula just for the sake of differentiating? Let's find out.
Thanks to the large size and unique proportions, the Optimus Vu has no trouble standing out from the crowd. It's not often that you come across a phone that has an almost square shape.
Size and shape aside, the design of the Optimus Vu is hardly noteworthy. The design has the same general blandness that we have seen before on the Optimus 4X HD. It has some interesting details, such as the silver ring around the front edge, exposed screws at the bottom and the thin strips of grille on the top and bottom but otherwise the design is quite staid.
Going around the sides, we find the volume control keys on the right, microSIM card slot on the left, headphone jack, microUSB port, power button and a QuickMemo button on the top. The QuickMemo button lets you instantly inscribe notes on whichever screen you currently on and then save that as an image. On the back is the camera with an LED flash near the top and the loudspeaker near the bottom. The battery is sealed and the back panel cannot be removed.
Build quality wise the Optimus Vu is very good. The phone feels quite sturdy in hand and something that can take a few falls.
As far as the ergonomics are concerned, LG has completely dropped the ball here. If you thought the Galaxy Note felt awkward, then you should stay away from the Optimus Vu. Having a 4:3 aspect ratio display, especially of this size has made the phone unnecessarily wide and no matter how enormous your hands are you simply cannot reach the left edge of the device (assuming you hold it in your right hand). And this is when you hold the phone like a tablet. If you wrap your fingers around the other edge, then your thumb would have a hard time reaching the center of the display.
There are other problems with the design as well. LG has supplied a capacitive stylus with the device, but there is no slot on the phone to put it in. The stylus has to be carried separately or connected to the device using a lanyard. LG pulled this same trick with the Viewty all those years ago and it's sad that the company hasn't learned even after all this time, especially in the face of such stiff competition.
The Optimus Vu has a 5.0-inch, 1024 x 768 resolution TFT LCD. On paper the display resolution appears lower than the competition, who have been offering HD displays for a while now. But although it does not quite stack up on paper, the display looks absolutely fine in practice. The quality of the panel is also superb and images look really good, from a variety of viewing angles and the display remains visible even in bright light.
The problem, once again, comes with the aspect ratio. The display is shorter than on almost every other smartphone on the market, and thus shows significantly less information on screen. For example, the Gmail app shows six mails on screen at once instead of eight on the Galaxy S III. The Google Talk app will, once again, show six contacts at once instead of eight on the S III. This trend continues on other apps. The fact that the display is wider than most phones (in portrait mode) does not help at all in most situations.
Another area where LG has dropped the ball is with the poor implementation of the stylus. Whereas Samsung went the whole hog of having a Wacom digitizer integrated into the device for precise stylus input with multi-level pressure sensitivity, LG has provided what almost looks like a third-party capacitive stylus, that is only slightly more precise than using your finger. That, coupled with the fact that you can't really slot the stylus anywhere on the phone, means you will probably end up leaving the stylus in the box if you ever buy this phone.
Hardware and Software
The Optimus Vu runs on the same basic software and hardware as the Optimus 4X HD. The SoC is an NVIDIA Tegra 3, with a quad-core CPU clocked at 1.5GHz and GeForce GPU, paired with 1GB of RAM. The Optimus Vu also has a generous 32GB of internal memory but no option to expand it further.
On the software side the Optimus Vu runs on Android 4.0.4, far from the latest version of Android, with LG's custom skin on top. As far as custom skins go, LG's is one of the better ones out there. The icon design isn't particularly great but it's pretty functional otherwise.
The Optimus Vu comes with a drawing application that you can use along with the stylus. The application comes with a fair amount of options to take care of basic drawing or note taking needs but isn't quite as extensive as the application on the Galaxy Note II.
Considering there is a fairly respectable quad-core processor running in there, the Optimus Vu manages to chug along just fine. In day to day activities the phone feels smooth enough and you are not really left wanting for more power.
Things get a bit choppy in games, however. It's unclear why this was happening as the same hardware managed to play the same games fine on some of the previous phones we have tested but for some reason there was a bit of a lag on pretty much every game we tried on this Optimus Vu.
Speaking of games, we did ran into some trouble with some of the games on the Optimus Vu. Because of the oddball resolution and aspect ratio of the display, some of the games tend to stretch vertically to fit the extra height (in landscape mode) whereas some just spill out of the screen from the sides, leaving some of the controls out of the screen.
The screen incompatibility was seen on some of the apps as well but it was rarer. Still, the overall incompatibility situation was a lot less bad than what I had imagined it would be and most apps seemed to run just fine on the Optimus Vu's display.
As far as multimedia performance was concerned, the Optimus Vu was perfect for viewing images because they tend to be in the display's native aspect ratio: 4:3. Videos, on the other hand, look worse thanks to the significant back bars on the top and bottom and considering the fact that the width (in landscape mode) of the phone is a lot less than on phones with widescreen displays. The audio quality through the headphones was fine but the loudspeaker sounded terrible with its thin sound.
The camera on the Optimus Vu seems to be the same 8 megapixel unit that we saw on the Optimus 4X HD. As with the Optimus 4X HD, the image quality is quite acceptable in most situations but not as good as the cameras on the Samsung smartphones.
At 2,100mAh, the Optimus Vu has nearly the same battery as the Optimus 4X HD. However, it seems because of the lower resolution display, the Optimus Vu does not end up being nearly as bad. With a full charge, you can get through most of the day on the Optimus Vu, which is about what you get from most smartphones these days.
It's hard to see the Optimus Vu as anything other than a me-too product by LG along the lines of the Galaxy Note. What's bad is that LG, instead of choosing to improve upon the Galaxy Note, chose to go in the other direction and mess about things that Samsung got right with the Note.
The display, for starts, does not make sense at all. It does not add any value to the product and only makes it more difficult to use. The stylus implementation is so lazy it makes you wonder why LG bothered with it at all. And the rest of the phone is nothing to write home about either.
At Rs. 26,990, the Optimus Vu is slightly cheaper than the original Galaxy Note, which costs Rs. 27,500. But the fact that despite being more expensive and over a year old, the original Galaxy Note is still better than the Optimus Vu shows how badly LG messed up here.