Introduction, Design and Interface
LG likes to keep smartphone customers on their toes as much as possible by releasing different versions of the same phone in different markets, which can cause some confusion. Some versions of the Optimus L9 have NFC, an 8MP camera, and a 4.7-inch screen, while others are NFC-less, with only a 5MP camera, and a 4.5-inch screen. Although any of those models are a marked improvement over theOptimus L7 with its 4.3-inch screen with a 480 x 800 resolution, which the Optimus L9 is meant to replace.
The good news is that this phone feels more like a mid-range smartphone, which is nice since the L7 felt like the bottom-range phone it was meant to be. The L9 sports a slightly larger screen than the L7, but clocks in with a 540 x 960 resolution. On paper, that’s not a huge jump, but your eyes can definitely tell the difference. Both phones sport a 1GHz dual-core processor and run Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich, which LG has promised will be upgraded to Jelly Bean sometime in the first half of 2013.
The L7 tried to emulate the style of more expensive phones with a metal-looking plastic edge, although that illusion vanished when you picked up the device and felt the plastic heft. The L9 is a bit more successful in pulling off that trick, and while it retains a thinner, metallic plastic edge, it looks more like a black slab phone that doesn’t scream "budget." While it fairly slim at 9.1mm, we’re not sure it matches up the "sophisticated" label that LG’s marketing department slapped on it.
The front of the device is sleek and glossy, although the LG and T-Mobile logos at the top under the glass detract a bit from that. A slightly raised, oblong Home button at the bottom is the only thing that punctuates the Corning Gorilla Glass 2 front, with the Back and Menu keys under the glass on the touchscreen, and dark until you tap them. The sides are beveled, with the left side holding the volume rocker switch, which you can push in the middle to activate QuickMemo, while the right side only features the power button. The top holds the headset port and a sub-microphone, while the bottom is reserved for the charging port and the main microphone.
The back side of the device is a improvement over the L7, featuring a stacked design with the camera, flash, and LG logo lined up on the top third of the back, and the horizontal speakerphone grill at lower left. There is a thumbnail notch on the back, just by the charging port, which you can use to easily lever the back off. Inside, in a surprisingly clean layout, you can access the micro SIM card, microSD card slot (accepts up to 32GB), and the removable 2,150 mAh battery.
Interface, Contacts, and Calling
The Optimus L9 runs Ice Cream Sandwich, with a light layer of LG flavoring on top of that. It is minimally intrusive, although when you first boot it up, there are hideously annoying ads that pop up on your home screen, encouraging you to download new apps, games, and T-Mobile services. It probably isn’t the last time we will see things like this either, and while you can delete them on your own, the fact that you have to even deal with them at all is a bit of an annoyance. That’s the biggest complaint here, with the rest of the experience being fairly simple to deal with, and easily customizable.
You can set up how your home screens cycle, and choose different animations for them, but one Android annoyance remains: there is no true grid for the widgets snap to. You can align icons or folders easily, but when you add widgets to the mix, you will always be left with some wasted space on the home screen. With the improved screen, you want to take advantage of it, but the gaps between widgets and folder are a bit maddening. The on-screen keyboard was fairly easy to use, and while it does offer the swipe to type method of text entry, we didn’t mind using it at all for standard tap-entry.
The best two features by far are the ability to configure shortcuts on the Lock Screen that let swipe to activate your favorite programs, which launch as soon as the phone unlocks, and the Quick Settings menu at the top of the screen, allowing you the option to quick change Brightness, WiFi, Bluetooth, Sound and other preferences quickly rather than diving into system settings. Also handy is the QuickMemo feature that lets you snap an image of the screen, write on it, and then share it. This is accessible from the Quick Settings, or by holding down the volume rocker for one second.
Contacts, Calling and Messaging
Contacts and Calling
The base Contacts app here is a no-frills experience, but is very straightforward and easy to use. As you would expect, you can easily add and edit entries here, and use it as a jumping off point to send emails, texts, and so on. You can even initiate Google Talk video calls or chats here, as long as you have synced up a Google account with the phone. Oh, and you can also yes it to make phone calls as well.
Surprisingly, the phone was much clearer than our default iPhone, and had a much better sound quality throughout. Even switching to speakerphone didn’t give us a tinny sound with distorted audio. It felt much more like an analog phone call, where it never seemed like you were constantly waiting to speak so you wouldn’t step on the other person’s digital lag. If you’re a constant phone talker, you would be happy with the quality here.
Interestingly enough, Visual Voicemail is a service through T-Mobile that has to be activated for usage. You can upgrade it to read your text messages aloud, which wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it sounds, and quickly becomes annoying.
Messaging, Email and Internet
The standard Messaging app here is another no-frills but very functional experience, and will already be very familiar to Android users. You can easily tap out messages here, much easier in landscape mode, or use Google Voice to speak your messages. There are a myriad of attachment options, from a voice memo to a slideshow, and while there is no real gee-whiz factor here, it’s a functional and utilitarian app that does exactly what it should.
The pre-installed Email app feels useless here if you’re plugged into the Google ecosystem, as it won’t even set up a Google address automatically for you. Instead, download Gmail and you’ll have a much easier time. If you’re an Exchange user, stick to the Email app, or have your mail server information handy.
Likewise with the built-in Browser app, we still preferred Chrome for a seamless experience that tied in our pre-existing bookmarks. Both have the ability to load multiple tabs and load Java and so on, but Chrome felt a bit speedier, especially when loading large pages of content. But both will run Java, and allow you to tweak content, so it will probably boil down to personal preference here.
Camera, Battery, Connectivity
While the Optimus L7 2 sported an 8MP camera, the L9 has dialed that back to a 5MP camera, and the difference in quality shows. As with most mobile cameras, it works well under optimum lighting conditions, and will struggle to produce a quality image the dimmer the lighting is. The back camera is able to shoot fairly decent HD video (again, with great light), but the front camera is VGA only, and should be reserved for video calls, or for when you’re trapped on Mount Everest and can’t flip the phone over to send a distress message.
You can toggle back and forth between video and still photos here, and the video setting has a Live Effect menu that allows you to add backdrops or face effects, although they are all very low quality and will only detract from your video. You can adjust the brightness, image size, geotagging mode, and while there are some really useful features like face detection and voice shutter, it doesn’t feel like these images can replace a pocket-sized point and shoot camera.
Battery and Connectivity
While the battery is a generous size, it didn’t last long enough for us with heavy usage. After less than five hours, the phone was at 5% and we needed to charge via a portable battery charger to keep going. But we tend to be power users, and using it at an event with thousands of others in close proximity all on the same network seems to wreak havoc on battery life as it is. During normal lighter usage, the phone battery was enough to get us through an average workday and then some, with about 25% of the battery life left when plugging it in at night after a long day.
The WiFi on the L9 is in the a/b/g/n dual-band variety, and also supports being a WiFi hotspot. When not on Wifi, we were pleased to note that the 4G connection averaged 8 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, while the crummy hotel Wifi we tried out was only 1.19 Mbps down and a paltry .08 Mbps up. Although for some reason, Google’s Play Music app would stream music easily over the WiFi, but not over the 4G connection, continually giving us an error messages until it finally played.
Maps and Apps
For the commuter on the go, the Optimus L9 includes the TeleNav GPS app, which first prompts you to upgrade to their premium service, or use the basic version. This app even includes in-app purchases that allow you to upgrade your car icon, which shows you where to go during navigation, to a better car, or even a spaceship. Er, no thank you. Best to stick to the basic and always free Google Maps (which hey, can even show you interior mall maps!) and Navigation apps, which do the exact same thing as TeleNav, without any "we want your cash" prompts.
App-wise, the L9 is apparently a bloatware magnet, packed with tons of T-Mobile apps, and those home screen ads, along with a handful of other unnecessary apps. While these are easily deleted, it is beginning to become very annoying to have to do this with each new handset. There was nothing amidst their offering that felt like a particular must-have app, with most of the included software requiring a fee or change to your rate plan to use.
Hands on gallery
While the L9 is not nearly as powerful as any of the quad-core Optimus phones like the Optimus G orOptimus G Pro, but it also isn’t priced like them. However, the real disappointment is that it shares the same processor speed as the LG Optimus L7, which can make it feel dated at times. Most of the time you won’t notice the incremental screen lag, but sometimes when launching a larger app you can feel the system chug. Still, you’re paying a budget phone price, and it still feels adequate for a smartphone in that market.
With the newly-designed form factor and the (slightly) larger screen with a better resolution, there are plenty of reasons that this will make the low to mid-range phone shopper happy.
While our biggest like was the T-Mobile network’s 4G speed, the larger, sharper screen was also a pleasant upgrade from the L7, allowing us to watch movies and browse images at a higher resolution. The light LG interface layered over the Android OS is not intrusive, and offers many system tweaks that allow you to tailor your experience. Google users will be able to plug in their account information immediately to get started, and the Quick Settings and QuickMemo functions came in very handy when we needed to capture something on the screen, or quickly dim the phone. The ability to customize the lock screen and launch apps from there was also a welcome addition, and is a feature we wish our own phone had.
Given that this is meant to be a step up from the L7, a faster processor would have been a welcome addition, and why did they step the phone down from 8MP to 5? It might not sound like much, but those additional 3MP can make a noted difference. We also weren’t fond of the added bloatware, which made the phone feel like a sales tool rather than a consumer device that was ready to go right out of the box.
While internal hardware certainly underscores the "you get what you pay for" adage, there is a enough packed into this little gadget to impress you with what you pay for it. T-Mobile currently offers the L9 for $48.99 plus a fee for a two-year contract. Or, you can pick it up for $199.99 without an annual contract. For someone on a budget who needs a smartphone, the contract is an attractive offer, but just be sure to check the T-Mobile coverage in your area.
While we wish the camera was higher quality, and that the processor had a bit of updated speed over the L7, the bottom line is that that the price on this phone with the features it offers are what makes it an attractive purchase. If you need the latest, greatest tech, this phone isn’t for you. But, if you need a device that can handle everything a normal user would need for work or pleasure, this is a low-cost buddy that you will love to have at your side.