Review : LG Optimus 7 and Windows Phone 7

LG kicks off Windows Phone 7 with a strong design.

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Product Manufacturer: LG

Price: $100 (3 yrs, Telus), free (Vodafone 29 plan)

The Good

  • Fresh, fun Windows Phone 7 UI.
  • Good build quality.
  • High quality LCD.
  • Better than usual voice quality.
  • Play To app works in surprising ways.
  • Capable camera.
  • Reasonable battery life.
  • 16GB of storage built-in.
  • Mac syncing.

The Bad

  • Windows Phone 7 still rough.
  • Gamble on whether Microsoft will catch up.
  • Camera settings won't save.
  • Camera has room to improve.
  • Most bundled apps not really added value.
Design and the display

What's most surprising about the Optimus 7 is its build quality. Like other Optimus phones, such as the Optimus S and Optimus One, LG has made a concerted effort to give its smartphones a level of polish no matter how much they cost. With the exception of some rubberized plastic trim, much of the body is metal and glass. There are very tight panel gaps, and the phone has a reassuring level of heft without being too heavy. About our only gripe is the center, raised Windows key, which is made of plastic and has enough give that it could theoretically pop off if treated roughly.

In the hand, it's very comfortable to use and doesn't feel like it will slip away mid-phone call. The three main Windows Phone navigation buttons and the volume rocker are easy to reach, and we liked that the battery cover and micro USB port were well-protected but still very accessible. A hardware camera button is appreciated, although it's simultaneously one of the few quirks; we found ourselves inadvertently touching the button, although never so far as to accidentally launch the camera app.

Combined with the overall thinness, the effect of the Optimus 7 is to come across as the anti-Eve. Where just a year ago LG was releasing a bulky and somewhat cheap-feeling slider, today it has one of the better all-touch designs on the market. We'd also say that this form is a definite step up from the Quantum (Optimus 7Q), which is both thicker and not especially sleek.

The screen is one of the better examples we've seen from the initial Windows Phone 7 roster. At 3.8 inches, the 480x800 resolution stays sharp, but it's not so big as to potentially become unwieldy; we're not fans of gigantic displays like the 4.3-inch model on the HTC HD7, since they can be harder to hold in a call and may not even fit in some pockets. LG has used a very smooth glass finish, and mutii-touch gestures are very graceful here. It's reasonable to assume that LG used an oil-resistant coating that keeps smudging from getting too out of hand, although we'd still recommend bringing a lint-free cloth to wipe it clean.

As an LCD, it doesn't have as high a contrast as the AMOLED screen in the Dell Venue Pro or the Samsung Focus/Omnia 7. In low light, the black is more likely to be a very dark gray. What it does have over AMOLED, however, is accuracy. Samsung's display has very vivid colors, but it's borderline gaudy and slightly "fuzzy" due to the PenTile display. The Optimus 7 still has vibrant colors, but it's clear they're more neutral. Outdoor visibility is about the same, which is to say good. You may have trouble looking at the glossy surface in very bright sunlight, but we didn't have problems even on a fairly sunny day. The image was actually more legible in person than our photos can show.

One odd issue popped up in our experience that we have yet to replicate. For a few minutes outside, we could see a few of the individual backlighting LEDs through the display and could tilt the phone to see the rest. Thankfully, this wasn't a real problem even with extended time outside, but it's something we'll look out for in the future.

Windows Phone 7: the main interface

The changeover from Windows Mobile 6 to Windows Phone 7 is a near complete rethink of Microsoft's entire strategy, if not the entire concept of a smartphone. Gone is the attempt to shoehorn desktop Windows into a phone or to focus solely on business users. WP7 blows all this away and replaces it with a UI which, while tentatively connected at best to the idea of windows, is fundamentally much more intuitive and enjoyable.

Much of the interface is a heavily expanded version of the same Metro concept that we saw a year ago in the Zune HD. Rather than a grid of icons like Android or iOS, most navigation comes through lists with categories created by a horizontal bar of text that "spills" off-screen to indicate that there's more to see. If there's a top level to revisit, it appears in oversized text that you can tap to go back. It at times feels like you're navigating a magazine spread, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; it's sometimes less cluttered and faster simply because you aren't presented with every choice at once -- and the finger-driven navigation an infinite improvement over Windows Mobile, where most of the OS was often unwieldy without a stylus.

The home screen and notification systems represent the most radical breaks for Microsoft, even if they recall trace elements of Windows 7 on the desktop. The entire concept of the home screen centers around providing as much information as possible through tiles, not icons. While they launch into apps and hubs (more on hubs later), they can simultaneously serve as widgets and notification badges. Depending on the context, it shows different information as well. Most tiles just show numbers, but you'll see images for contacts, websites and of course pictures.

Much of the time, this works very well. It's much more elegant than iOS or even Android to know which e-mail account has new mail, whether there were any missed calls or messages, and to see the temperature from a weather app's icon without having to load a separate widget. We especially liked the calendar tile: it shows your next upcoming event, so you know where you have to be and when. A regular app list, settings and other content is available with a swipe to the right; think of it as the equivalent of clicking the Start button.

There are some definite drawbacks to this approach, however. You can customize and add to the tiles if you like, but the home screen can quickly grow a bit cumbersome the more you add to the home screen. We're also slightly annoyed at how many of the built-in notifications are almost too minimal. Why show me the number of unread messages if I can't tell whether one of them is worth reading? And oddly enough, the status bar area is minimal for little reason. It always shows the time, but you have to tap the area to get basics such as signal strength and battery life. These almost always get checked, so it's clear Microsoft went a bit too far to keep the clean look.

Before we delve into deeper aspects of the OS, we also have to complement Microsoft on its approach to contextual actions and navigating backwards. When needed, an app has a tray that shows both common tasks (such as composing or sending) and, when dragged up, reveals more options. It's a clever way of having all secondary features tucked into a common area that doesn't take up much space. The approach to the back button is intelligently handled at the same time. While Android can occasionally make surprise leaps as to what will happen when you hit the back button, WP7 seems more straightforward.

Windows Phone 7: browsing, e-mail, the keyboard, the People hub and calendars

Anyone who's used a Windows Mobile device will recall that web browsing was symbolic of everything wrong with the OS at the time, if not Microsoft's philosophy. It was so inaccurate that even the pre-overhaul BlackBerry and Symbian browsers were faithful by comparison. When many websites rolled out WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) version of their pages to strip down and simplify the content for basic mobile browsers, Windows Mobile was often just as much a reason as a free-on-contract flip phone.

Thankfully, Microsoft has also revamped its browser as much as everything else. The engine is now based on Internet Explorer 7 from the desktop. While we wish it were based on the faster and more accurate IE9 code, it's the first real mobile browser from the company to render pages properly. We didn't notice drawing problems other than a relatively poor handling of fonts from a distance. The browser is noticeably slower than on an iOS 4 or Android 2.2 device, but it's still quick enough to be very acceptable, at least on the Snapdragon processor guiding the Optimus 7 and virtually every other WP7 launch device.

As you'd now expect, the browser is multi-touch aware and lets you pinch to zoom, flick to scroll and double-tap to center on a particular page element. Microsoft's approach here is much smoother than in Android; Google's OS often has very rough zooming and a certain amount of lag, but WP7 has a near one-for-one responsiveness like on an iPhone. Multiple tabs and other modern features are present, although the sharing feature curiously only allows SMS and e-mail sharing. Given Microsoft's emphasis on Facebook tie-ins, we'd think sharing on the social network would be important.

E-mail is, understandably, one of the more refined experiences in WP7, and there are a handful of things the new OS does better that peers could learn from. The experience is reminiscent of the iPhone's and provides a very straightforward (if highly stylized) list of messages with content previews. We most liked how the OS handles mass deletion or moving; while you can swipe to erase messages, selecting multiple pieces of mail skips a step and just needs a single tap on the left edge of a message to start selecting batches of mail. It's quick without cutting into the available screen area and definitely something Apple and Google would be wise to follow. Picture attachments are always optional, so those on slow 3G (or less) can move on quickly.

As you'd expect for the creator of Outlook, Exchange e-mail integration is tighter than it often is elsewhere. Besides having the option of filtering by unread messages, you can limit messages to flagged or high priority messages. Many of these won't carry over to non-Exchange accounts, but they're a quick way of sorting messages if you spend most of your time in the inbox. E-mail in WP7 is mostly hindered by the absence of a unified inbox or special accommodations for non-Exchange accounts. Each account has to be checked one at a time -- though this is mitigated somewhat by home screen notification tiles -- and there's no such thing as labelling for Gmail or other services. If you live in Google's universe, Android is still probably better.

It's in e-mail that you get a good sense for the on-screen keyboard. The input here is a leap beyond what we saw for the Zune HD and is comparable to the best. At least on the Optimus 7's 3.8-inch display, the keys were nicely spaced and very responsive. It's possible to be a quick typist if you're experienced, especially since the keyboard is multi-touch aware and doesn't need you to let go of one key to move on to the next. Auto-correction is accurate, and there's a well-executed list of word suggestions as you type that can save time. We had to adjust slightly coming from an iPhone, but the learning curve is gentle.

Contacts are managed through the first of multiple hubs in the OS, the People hub. At its heart, it's much like a typical contact manager, but it also carries a layer of Facebook integration. If signed in, you can see others' status updates in a "what's new" section, make your own or check contacts you've recently accessed. Drilling down into an individual contact will show you both the requisite contact info and give you the option of checking their status updates or writing on their Facebook wall.

The People hub isn't the most extensive hub in the OS, and we'd like to see alternate services such as Twitter or LinkedIn make their way into the area. But it's more than what most offer, and it can even optionally filter to only add Facebook data to people who were already in offline contacts. Other smartphone platforms with Facebook tie-ins can often dump hundreds of unwanted contacts into the list, so it's appreciated to know that you can only see Facebook updates from real-world friends and associates if you like.

Calendaring is straightforward and taps into Exchange if you have it. The view of the next appointment on the home screen is its biggest selling point, though. It doesn't support multiple calendar types such as "home" or "work" and thus doesn't really prioritize events or handle overlaps very well.

Windows Phone 7: the Zune hub, syncing and the Games hub

Having had little success toppling Apple from its throne in dedicated media players, Microsoft has since turned Zune more into a platform than a whole device. Not surprisingly, the experience will be very familiar to Zune HD users, and the Metro interface is very well suited to filtering down by type, such as only TV shows or only certain music genres. There's a bonus if you have a Zune Pass for music, too: in those countries where it's supported, you can stream songs without having to download them. Microsoft is one of the few outside of Apple to have explicit podcast support, and on at least the Optimus 7 there's an FM radio. We're glad there's 16GB of built-in storage here; most WP7 hardware has just 8GB, so the lack of official microSD support early on won't be a barrier for most.

Controls have changed, but despite the more complex OS, largely for the better. There's no need to press a button to bring up on-screen audio controls. If music is playing, just going to the lock screen gives a quick set of controls and track details.

Like the Zune HD, you're limited to a proprietary app from Microsoft to sync your content, barring special apps that get around WP7's limitations. There's no drag-and-drop as there is on Android. The best experience, as you might imagine, comes from using the Zune software on a Windows PC. Apart from the usual media sync, including over Wi-Fi if you like, it gives you direct access to a storefront to buy apps, music and movies from the computer. None of the Zune Social components carry over, though, which definitely hurts adoption of what was once Microsoft's trademark music player feature.

Mac users will be surprised to note that Microsoft's mobile devices are no longer living in a Windows-only universe; there's now a dedicated syncing tool for them called Windows Phone 7 Connector. The app at its heart is a conduit that will pluck media from the iTunes library and relevant sources to send to the phone. It's very detailed considering the often simple nature of these apps and lets you filter syncs to particular playlists, artists or other criteria. Photos, podcasts and video also work, although Microsoft not surprisingly doesn't remember the last position in podcasts or videos to resume them later.

There's no calendar or contact sync owing presumably to different formats, but WP7 Connector is perhaps the only official sync app we've seen that gracefully shuttles photos and videos to iPhoto. Take new shots and, on sync, WP7 Connector will jump to iPhoto, import the images, and give the resulting event a helpful title. We didn't expect so much consideration; even iPhones have a longer (if more flexible) import process.

Although it could technically fall under apps, Microsoft has broken gaming out into its own dedicated hub that deserves some attention of its own. The decision helps keep the OS clean and puts games in a convenient section, but it's also key to some very tight integration with Xbox Live. Since you can sign in with the same account you'd use on your Xbox 360, you can play games (where supported) with your same friends list and earn achievements in-game that will contribute to your overall gamerscore. Even your avatar carries over, and a small number of games have full Xbox Live Arcade equivalents where experience in one counts towards the other.

Apple may have seen this coming and closed the gap considerably with iOS 4's Game Center, which has its own achievement system, friends list and multiplayer matching. Still, there's no denying that a frequent console gamer will get much more of a sense of continuity, even if Apple still has the advantage of a larger game library.

A quick note on gaming performance: we tried a few games to gauge the experience and performance, including 3D titles like Need for Speed: Undercover. Gameplay is as good as you'd hope for on a current smartphone, although we could tell that the frame rates in the most intensive 3D games wasn't as good as it would be on an iPhone 4 or a newer Android phone like a Samsung Galaxy S. Every initial Windows Phone 7 device is using a Snapdragon chip with relatively slow Adreno 200 video, which is certainly good enough to drive contemporary games but won't do as well as the PowerVR SGX535 or SGX540 in some other phones.

Windows Phone 7: Maps, the Office hub and Windows Marketplace

Bing plays a heavy role in search on the phone, and the Maps tool is a direct tie-in to the search engine's own code. It's here that some of the rush to get WP7 out for the holidays is fairly evident. Microsoft has a solid mapping system with satellite views (here "aerial view"), traffic and step-by-step directions, but Maps just isn't as thorough as on Android or iOS. There's no street-level view, no mass transit directions, and certainly no spoken directions as with Google Maps Navigation. The GPS did get a position lock quickly but needed to be outside to be accurate.

If there was one app or hub that truly disappointed us, though, it would be the Office hub. The portal provides basic editing and viewing for Excel, Powerpoint and Word documents, but the emphasis is certainly on "basic." Only a handful of font, cell value and other layout options exist in any one app, and the Powerpoint tool doesn't even allow creating a new presentation; you can only edit the text and other minor details. Aside from the ability to tap into a Sharepoint server, there's little that can be done in the Office hub that can't be done better in Documents To Go on multiple platforms or (eventually) iWork apps on the iPhone, even if these do or will cost money.

Windows Marketplace fares better. Like the iPhone's App Store, this is a much more controlled experience than the frequently chaotic experiences of Windows Mobile; apps have to be approved, and those that make it are given highlights or other special attention. Organization here sits in between Apple and Google. Apps get much more specific categorization than in Android Market and can have sub-categories, but discovery definitely isn't as easy as it is in the App Store's environment. We had a hard time finding apps that weren't either top sellers or recent.

This may prove a problem for the long term future of the store. Windows Marketplace has gotten off to a good start with over 2,000 apps as of this writing, but if users can't buy apps and make overnight successes like ngmoco (Rolando) or Rovio (Angry Birds), it may be difficult for the store to reach the 300,000-plus apps of the App Store or the 100,000 of Android Market.

A definite advantage does exist in the business model, though: trial apps. Android has no clear model, and Apple requires that developers build separate "lite" and full versions or else make a "freemium" app that requires an after-the-fact second download. WP7 can make a trial a subset of a full version; you can download the same content for free to test it out and pay to unlock the content already in the app on your phone. This may eventually have a standardized implementation in Android and iOS, but for now it's a Microsoft edge.

Windows Phone 7: what's missing

As mentioned earlier, Microsoft pressed hard to get its OS out the door for holiday 2010 and had to shed some features to get there. The stripped down Maps and Office components are some of these, but certain underlying OS features are gone that are either in competitors' offering or were in Windows Mobile.

For most, the conspicuous omission will be copy-and-paste. If you see a great quote, a convenient link or a funny photo, there's no way to simply grab that information and move it to the app of your choice. Microsoft does have some data detectors that will let you tap or press-and-hold to save the trouble of copying and pasting information. Even so, while we didn't have to worry about it often, it came up enough to realize that Android and especially iOS were setting expectations that occasionally let WP7 down. In a much appreciated gesture, however, Microsoft won't make users wait a whole year to get it back and is promising an update in early 2011 to add it back.

Less than comforting is the near-term hope for multitasking. Today, WP7 is in much the same state as iOS was from 3.x and before. Microsoft's own apps have multitasking privileges and can fetch e-mail or play music in the background, but you can't stream Slacker radio like an iPhone now can or download a new e-book in the background like Android can. The omission isn't a showstopper, much as it wasn't early on in the iPhone's history, but with multitasking now implemented in simple fashion across most smartphone platforms, it's a definite disadvantage.

And for a company that emphasizes choice on the desktop, there isn't a lot of choice for services in mobile. You can't choose anything beyond Bing for built-in search (though Google has an optional app). Microsoft's financial stake in Facebook is conspicuous. We already mentioned that other social networking won't integrate into the People hub, but there's also no integration with Flickr or other photo services in the Pictures hub. The triage needed to get WP7 out on time may have played into this, but we'd like to see the broader choices from Google and, ironically, Apple.

LG's bundled apps and a Play To surprise

Microsoft has a tight rein on what companies can do to the OS and prevents them from customizing the interface itself. They can still preload apps, however, and LG has a number of tools out of the box.

Play To might be the most interesting, not least for a discovery we made out of curiosity. The Optimus 7 can stream content to another DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) device, such as a PlayStation 3 or many networked media hubs, including photos and video if it's technically capable. That level of sharing is only occasionally useful, but we were surprised to discover that it worked with a Sonos ZonePlayer S5 as well; the devices showed up as destinations and, as you would hope, would play music from the LG phone's collection. It's not as advanced as the iPad or iPhone apps, but having some functionality without an app at all was a minor treat.

Other apps are interesting, but not necessarily as effective or exciting. ScanSearch from olaworks is an augmented reality, GPS-based finder much in the vein of Layar or Yelp (the latter of which doesn't do augmented reality on WP7, at least not yet). Panorama Shot is slightly more clever, but also slightly flawed. It creates its namesake photos by taking a reference photo and then using the phone's relative facing to tell you where to move the camera next and automatically take the next shot until it finishes a 180-degree view. The app in our case made a panorama, but a broken one with images that didn't quite line up.

Finally, LG has decided to build in its own store-within-a-store section of Windows Marketplace. To be blunt, we're not certain why it exists other than to serve as a location for LG's free app giveaways. Only about 10 apps exist in the store as of November 2010, some of which were already preloaded while others were relatively simple (if useful) tools like Workout Tracker or a London Underground navigator. We like getting extra non-carrier apps with our phones, but with the exception of Play To, there's not much that immediately calls out to us on the Optimus 7.

Camera control and quality

Much of the camera interface for the Optimus 7 is Microsoft's own and gives a fair amount of power over the shot, including color filters and white balance. LG adds a few extras of its own, such as the Panorama Shot app we mentioned earlier and a beauty shot mode that tunes settings to favor portraits. That's largely good, and we like both the very simple swipe between capture and playback and the ability to start the camera app just by holding the camera button for a few seconds; concert goers or impulse photographers may like this phone and WP7 for that reason alone.

A few other perks manifest themselves as well. Every WP7 user gets a free Microsoft SkyDrive account with 25GB of storage. If you want, you can have photos or videos automatically upload to the SkyDrive or to Facebook and make them as private or as public as you'd like. It's a double-edged sword, so we'd advise against making media public if you're prone to taking embarrassing shots, but there's no question that it's a step above the manual steps needed for Android or iOS photos. Again, we do wish more destinations were available.

One major flaw dampens the experience, though, and that's the inability to save camera settings. Every time we took a photo, we had to turn image stabilization on; every time we recorded a video, we had to change the resolution to 720p. At first we though this might be an LG-specific bug, but it's also an issue for Dell Venue Pro phones as well. Hopefully this bug will be fixed in short order, but until then, be prepared to lose image quality when you don't have time to readjust the settings.

Actual image quality out of the five-megapixel camera is good, if still symptomatic of classic camera phone problems. Images only produced mild evidence of the "smear" effect from a low-cost lens, little noise and relatively little color fringing in high-contrast scenes, but we noticed that the Optimus 7 sometimes didn't expose the shot as well as you'd expect. Macro photography also seemed to be off-limits. We tried to get close and refocus, but the camera preferred medium to long distances for its subjects. There's no lens measurements, so we can't tell what its minimum focusing distance is other than more than one foot.

Video quality encounters similar issues, although it passed muster often enough. The image quality itself is good compared to most phones and keeps up with a minimum of blur, compression artifacts or juddering, but LG's choice of sensor tends to overcompensate for changes in the necessary exposure as you move from light to dark. Audio is also strictly adequate and, in our checks, occasionally overwhelmed the microphone with moderately loud sounds. We'd recommend against taking the Optimus 7 to a concert if your goal is to preserve the audio as much as the view of the stage.

Call quality and battery life

As an actual phone, the Optimus 7 manages above-average quality. It wasn't exceptional during our testing, but calls were clear on both ends with some moderate noise in the background. The speakerphone isn't very powerful, so we wouldn't depend on it for holding a meeting or a conversation in a busy office.

Battery life is solid in spite of WP7's early nature. It's still the case that you'll want to recharge the phone every day if you want to guarantee a typical full day, but moderate use during an average stint at the office wouldn't empty the battery. We also noticed that the default e-mail sync interval of 30 minutes didn't have a major impact on battery life, and the phone if left overnight would lose about 15-20 percent of its charge. LG may not have had a choice but to use LCD, but given the battery-hungry nature of Samsung's Super AMOLED technology in the Focus, we suspect things have worked out for the best.

Wrapping up

As this review is as much about the OS as the phone, our thoughts can't help but turn to Windows Phone 7 and Microsoft's future first.

In its current state, the OS is rough around the edges and isn't quite where it needs to be to spark much fear in Apple and Google. Without multitasking and a number of apps that were clearly rushed along for the sake of making a deadline, this OS is more of a 1.0 than a 7; Microsoft admitted as much before launch. Updates will change that in time, and thankfully WP7 is designed to avoid the delayed updates and fragmentation that have plagued Android and Windows Mobile.

Nonetheless, buying a phone on a promise of improvements is always a big gamble. Just ask HTC Hero and Samsung Behold II owners who found themselves stuck on old Android versions less than a year after a purchase. There's no guarantee that Microsoft will be fully caught up to Apple and Google in the completeness of the interface, underlying features or app support in the near future, if ever. The iPhone already has built-in video chat with Google close behind, for example, while support for a front camera isn't even known to be on the horizon for Microsoft.

With all this cynicism, we had to admit that we genuinely enjoyed using WP7 most of the time, which is something we could never have said for Windows Mobile. It's highly visual, it's intuitive, and it might even be called fun. More importantly, it's astounding to realize that historically over-conservative Microsoft has just put out a mobile OS that clicks and yet which doesn't fit into any traditional expectations for what a phone interface should look like. If the developers can keep up the pace, WP7 can be a leading OS in the next few years.

As for the Optimus 7, we're inclined to believe that it's one of the better launch phones and one of the best smartphones LG has ever made. Camera quality could still improve, and that Windows key could be made of sturdier material, but the phone design comes across as a labor of love that would have been unthinkable of LG a year ago. Tossing aside the dubious value of the extra software, the hardware quality is a step above that of competitors like the HTC Surround and Samsung Focus.

Should you spend $100 on contract in Canada or choose the phone as your free-with-plan example in Europe? At those prices it might not be enough to get you to give up an Android phone or an iPhone if you already know your preferences, but if you're not committed and don't have exacting requirements for navigation and Office documents, it could well be worth a try. When it's such a promising start, riding the first wave of a new platform can be exciting by itself.