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LG Optimus Pad and T-Mobile G-Slate

August 14th, 2011
LG hopes to stand out in tablets with 3D and a rare size.

LG was one of the few companies to readily acknowledge that it had started work on an Android tablet as a direct reaction to Apple making the iPad. When it launched the Optimus Pad -- better known to the US as the T-Mobile G-Slate -- it set out to not only have a smaller design than the iPad but to offer a more productive model than what Apple offered. We'll discover in our review of the Optimus Pad and G-Slate if it came close or if it's lost in a sea of look-alike Android tablets. LG was one of the few companies to readily acknowledge that it had started work on an Android tablet as a direct reaction to Apple making the iPad. When it launched the Optimus Pad -- better known to the US as the T-Mobile G-Slate -- it set out to not only have a smaller design than the iPad but to offer a more productive model than what Apple offered. We'll discover in our review of the Optimus Pad and G-Slate if it came close or if it's lost in a sea of look-alike Android tablets.

Design and the display

Most of the initial crop of mobile tablets have been split almost uniformly between the big and small: they've either been 10-inch tablets like the iPad and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, or else much smaller seven-inch tablets like the BlackBerry PlayBook. LG is attempting to almost literally split the difference. In theory, the 8.9-inch Optimus Pad and G-Slate are larger enough to have a meaningful screen area but smaller enough to be less unwieldy for reading or one-handed use.

Some of that balance pays off. Whether it's held in portrait or landscape, the Optimus Pad is comfortable both one-handed or two. Dropping an inch avoids a common flaw of most larger widescreen tablets, where the aspect ratio and the size make it hard to prop them up for long periods. If you don't like the iPad's taller 4:3 ratio, this size is where you want to be. We found it large enough to still be very workable for fast typing in landscape and yet just small enough to make portrait thumb typing easy.

And yet, in practice, it doesn't quite reach that golden mean that LG was hoping for. For the more portable size, it's oddly bulky: at half an inch thick and nearly 1.4 pounds, it's closer to an original iPad in just about every respect other than that screen. You may still want a knee to prop up the tablet during a long session. Because it's larger than seven inches, too, it won't really fit in a coat pocket. A lot of that size advantage doesn't change that you'll have to pack the Optimus Pad in a bag like its larger rivals. The iPad 2 might have an inch larger screen, but it's so much thinner and slightly lighter that it sometimes feels like the smaller of the two.

More importantly, that widescreen view sometimes produces a worst-of-both-worlds effect in some apps. It's great for videos and certain apps where lots of simultaneous pieces of information are useful, but it falls apart when the content really needs an even balance. When browsing, landscape often lops off a significant amount of height and leads to a lot more scrolling. Many types of reading also just don't work at all in portrait: websites and magazines are too narrow to be readable without zooming where an iPad could show them properly. Books can be a problem of their own. The iPad's ratio isn't as efficient with space as the Optimus Pad, but only the iPad is really usable in two-page view; certain apps, like Amazon's Kindle reader, don't even take advantage of the extra space.

At least the display quality is good. It might not be an IPS (in-plane switching) LCD panel that gives the iPad its rich color, but it's still a fairly vibrant screen with reasonably good color accuracy, a bright image, and wide viewing angles. Compare the Optimus Pad to the Motorola Xoom and others with fairly dim or poor-color screens and LG clearly has the edge. Its one hiccup is gloss, a flaw that's common to a lot of tablets. Taking it outside, we found it very hard to read in healthy sunlight, and we don't think this issue will be solved until there's either stronger anti-glare coating or alternatives such as Pixel Qi's displays really catch on.

We'll note that our review unit did seem to have an unresponsive screen in the center: typing in the middle of the keyboard needed more force than usual to work. This is likely just a manufacturing glitch, but we hope it isn't a recurring one.

Expansion is better than the iPad and is just enough for typical tablet use, even if it won't threaten competitors with desktop-sized ports such as the Toshiba Thrive or Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet. A standard micro USB port provides a good way to sync without being locked into a proprietary cable; there's a micro-to-full adapter cable in the box,. Mini HDMI out also makes it easy to get HD video out on to a TV, and again there's a cable ready to go to hook up to the regular variety.

At 32GB of built-in storage, the stock Optimus Pad has ample room for most users. What you won't find versus some rivals is a microSDHC slot, though this is somewhat forgivable. With Google rushing to get out competition to the iPad at all costs, Android 3 didn't get microSD support until Android 3.2, which shipped months after the very first countries began getting LG's slate. Not that there was much room for it. While the Optimus Pad has a back panel that can be easily removed, there's just enough room for the SIM card slot for those using 3G.

That's partly made up for by uncommon docking support. If you can find it where you live, LG sells a special HDMI charging dock that can be used to play video without having to let the Optimus Pad sit loose. Simliar to the PlayBook, there's a set of flush contact pins on the bottom edge that add to the power input and let users charge up even while watching a video.

Android 3 and fragmentation

The tendency in the first wave of Android 3 tablets has been to run mostly stock versions of the OS, much as was the case back when Android itself was new. That's very nearly true of the Optimus Pad, where the only concessions are for 3D recording. In our mind, stock Android has usually been better than customized variants, so LG has done us a favor keeping its first tablet clean. It often makes for faster updates, and many of the device makers are either making changes that are cosmetic, include inferior apps, or are meant to imitate someone else's product (Samsung's iPhone-like TouchWiz, for example). We don't need another impractical social networking aggregator app; what we do need are the latest official features.

Having looked at Android 3 since it first shipped on the Motorola Xoom, we won't completely rehash the interface much. It's a solid interface and has appreciated touches like subtle notifications and the OS flexibility that Apple doesn't allow, but it's also clear it was rushed to make the February target. Even with the dual-core Tegra 2 processor that other Android tablets share, there's a certain amount of lag to many actions, whether it's screen autorotation, moving around a widget, or in some cases just typing. Apps (including stock apps) seem more prone to crash. Many built-in apps also aren't designed to run in portrait mode at all or don't reflow properly to make the best use of the available space.

The OS falls short of that on the iPad simply because of the constant roving across the entire screen. Certain elements like contextual menus or special toggles sit at the top of the screen, but notifications and the core menu bar sit at the bottom. As such, you're often reaching to opposite corners of the screen all the time. Especially with the bottom taskbar, it feels more like desktop Windows than Android, let alone a tap-and-go interface like iOS. Certain features like the auto-correct in typing just don't work the way you'd hope they would.

This isn't to dismiss Android 3 too much. It's still more polished than the PlayBook's BlackBerry Tablet OS, since it at least includes basics like native e-mail, calendars, and contacts, as well as media sharing and other very commonplace extras. It's just important to stress that Google has made an OS that's still best used by the technically savvy. They get more power than they could on iOS; for everyone else, though, the iPad is more direct.

Android fragmentation also isn't over. in spite of the largely stock interface, the version you can get on your Optimus Pad varies widely. T-Mobile G-Slates are on to Android 3.1, but many regular Optimus Pads (including ours) are still on 3.0.1 -- and, because of the rushed release, don't have an option to force an upgrade beyond weekly checks. There's a real possibility you'll miss out on the deeper multitasking, USB host support, and other features that come with 3.1 or later, and you may get them late if they do show. Whether or not the Optimus Pad moves up to Ice Cream Sandwich is very much up in the air.

Preloaded apps and the dearth of native titles

We'll get to LG's 3D apps soon. Outside of those, the apps you get can vary widely. T-Mobile users buying the G-Slate get the best deal, since they get a copy of EA's Need For Speed: Shift racer. On Rogers, the pick includes My Account, the urMusic player and store hybrid, and Rogers On Demand video. None of these are really special, and the On Demand 'app' is actually just a shortcut to the website rather than a tablet-native interface.

Every version gets a copy of Polaris Office. It's a competent mobile office suite with editors for text, spreadsheets, and similar files. While it's a good start, we hope this isn't what LG meant when it said the Optimus Pad would be more productive than the iPad. Owners of Apple's tablet already have options like Documents To Go that do as much or more, not to mention the iWork apps, so LG is just saving a few dollars and some extra time.

It wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't for the app selection from Google itself. Even half a year on, the selection of tablet-native Android apps is very low; we've heard a few thousand at best. We'd provide an exact number, but Google continues to make discovering tablet apps in Android Market a very difficult task. Other than a "featured for tablets" category that shows just a sliver of the total selection, there's no way at all to split off just tablet apps from the rest of the group. Asking the user to wade through 250,000-plus apps just to find a hundredth as many isn't acceptable in our eyes.

Moreover, the best slogan for Android tablets in mid-2011 could best be coined as "there isn't an app for that." The absence isn't just for games, where iOS has usually dominated. Many core areas are underserved. There is no Flipboard, no mature audio editing tool, and only a sliver of apps in categories like magazines and productivity. There's not of a lot of what you'd expect. Android does have the potential to be a platform for deeper apps than what Apple offers, but it's hard to say Android is more open and powerful when it just has a few percent of the 100,000-plus native apps of the iPad. Real freedom is the actual ability to do something, not just the theory.

Should you need to run an app that doesn't recognize the larger resolution, the quality is hit or miss. Games often handle this the most gracefully, although they've also been quicker to getting tablet-native games like Angry Birds HD or Cut the Rope. Others don't fare so well. Android can automatically scale certain kinds of apps to make them fit the larger screen but often do so with out-of-proportion elements, like too-wide lists or tiny buttons. Android 3.2 fixes this to some extent with an alternate scaling method, but no Optimus Pad user can try that as of the time we write this.

Camera apps and 3D

Shooting conventional 2D videos will be familiar to anyone who has used an Android 3 tablet before. The official Google app isn't overly complex but does give control over exposure, white balance, and shooting presets and filters.

The Optimus Pad's signature trick, of course, is its 3D. To call the related apps basic would be an understatement, however. When using the 3D camcorder, your only option is to either record video or not. In playback, options are mostly limited to whether to see video in red-blue stereoscopy or in separate left- and right-eye images. Getting the videos off of the tablet usually requires switching to the regular Gallery app. LG hasn't even outfitted the slate with a still photo app, so 3D movies are all that are available.

Image quality is unspectacular, though in the current tablet market, that's a positive. Photos from the back camera come out slightly soft, and colors slightly muted, but they're well above what the iPad 2 produces. From the front camera they're worse and, as with most tablets, better suited to video chat than stills. Video in 2D is reasonably artifact-free and fluid, but it doesn't handle exposure changes or fast movement all that gracefully. We noticed a slight amount of the rolling shutter ("tower of Jell-O") effect when panning quickly.

Trying 3D underscores one of the fundamental issues with the Optimus Pad: there's not a lot to do with it. You thankfully have more choice than linking to a TV and can upload video directly to YouTube with its 3D intact, so you're not stuck figuring out how to process the clips on your computer. But most of the public still doesn't have a 3D TV, and the only surefire way to get it to work on a 2D screen is to use red-blue 3D glasses. The larger screen on the tablet prevents LG from using glasses-free parallax 3D like it does on the Optimus 3D, so it becomes a minor headache to watch video even on the tablet itself. Simply put, 3D is a gimmick to help sell the tablet, not something you'll likely use more than once or twice.

Click the top video's title to launch it in red-blue 3D

Having said all this, it's still true that the Optimus Pad has a useful camera in a way the iPad 2 and others don't. Many other tablets with ostensibly good cameras can't claim to have quality input from one rear camera, let alone two. Just be aware that 3D is a minor bonus and not the selling point LG would like it to be.

Battery life and 3G

One of the cornerstones of the modern tablet is the ability to go all day, and sometimes multiple days, between charges. There's certainly no danger of running out too quickly here: it was difficult to whittle battery down, even after heavy activity.

In moderate use of about 1.5 to two hours a day, it wasn't uncommon to get four and possibly five days of use from the Optimus Pad before needing to find the nearest wall outlet. We also had the opportunity to use it over the course of a full day -- not constant, but frequent use -- and managed to work it down to just over half, even after a substantial amount of photography, video capture, browsing and raw downloading. LG can't manage quite the near-epic battery life of an iPad 2, which can last five weekdays quite easily, but it's certainly within reason for a slightly smaller tablet.

One note about charging: the AC adapter uses a single, headphone-like connector rather than USB. It charges quickly enough, at the roughly typical four hours for an empty-to-full charge, but consider getting a second adapter if you're prone to losing accessories, because a replacement won't be easy when on the road.

We switched in a data SIM and briefly tried the HSPA-based 3G on the Optimus Pad. Despite what T-Mobile says, it's not 4G: it tops out at 14.4Mbps, or twice the speed of usual 7.2Mbps 3G, but is a far cry from 21Mbps HSPA+ and certainly the 'real,' 50Mbps-plus 4G of LTE. You'll have no trouble downloading pages reasonably quickly and holding two-way video calls; just don't expect the performance of a modern landline.

Wrapping up

Coming to a verdict on the Optimus Pad wasn't easy, because it's as much Google's development as LG's device that's being judged. From a hardware standpoint, the Optimus Pad is mostly well done. It sorely needs to be thinner and lighter than it is, but it's one of the more usable Android tablet shapes, the build is solid, and the cameras are competent, if veering a bit too much towards the novelty factor. Although we rated the Xoom higher, we'd now pick the Optimus Pad first because of the better balance.

As with other Android 3 tablets, though, it's the software that lets it down. App availability is filling out some of the gaps, but it's still too hard to find those apps, and sometimes the gaps are just too cavernous. Google still has a lot to do to address polish on its own, whether it's just getting its own apps to work in portrait mode or to improve the responsiveness. Touch is everything in a tablet, so not getting that quite right can be a major setback.

Price is a wildcard depending on where you buy, too. Rogers has by far the best deal. While the three-year contract to get it down to $255 is outrageous, the $550 off-contract price is very good for a 32GB, 3G-capable tablet. Apple, for reference, charges $729 US or $749 Canadian for the same thing. Americans get a much less competitive deal; a G-Slate costs $250 on a two-year T-Mobile contract, but getting it independently costs a much steeper $700. With such a slight price difference, it's hard to justify getting the G-Slate over an iPad unless you're willing to make sacrifices in weight, thickness, and software to get a slightly smaller profile.

We're rating the Optimus Pad and G-Slate three and a half stars out of five, though that's partly because of where it should be with 3.1 and later 3.2; right now, it's closer to three. If you really like the prospect of an 8.9-inch tablet and want to get one right away, LG has made a worthwhile choice. The truth is, however, that those not tied to one platform might get a more portable and overall much more complete tablet in the iPad 2. Android fans who have patience would also be best off waiting for the delayed but more portable Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 given that it has much of what makes the Tab 10.1 great in a smaller size.

- Just the right screen size for Android 3.

- Decent cameras still rare in the tablet world.

- Good price for 32GB and 3G.

- Pleasing screen.

- Good battery life for the size.

- 3D if you like it.

- Potentially more flexible when apps come.

- Heavier and thicker than the larger iPad 2.

- Android 3 still flawed: few apps, buggy, unpolished.

- Aspect ratio often too short or narrow for certain content.

- 3D mostly a gimmick.

- OS fragmentation still an issue.

- No microSD slot.

- Expensive in the US for what you get.