Samsung’s original Note singlehandedly created the segment of smartphones that is commonly referred to as Phablet. These are devices that are larger than most conventional phones, but smaller than tablets. I have never been a big fan of phablets. They are essentially compromise devices – too large to be conveniently used as a phone, yet too small to confer the multimedia benefits of a tablet. I found the original Note to be simply a bloated version of the S2. However, clearly, a large section of the populace didn’t mind the giant screen, as the original Note sold quite well. The recently introduced Note 2 has been doing even better – selling more than three million units in less than a month.
Now, other manufactures are also getting in on the act, and last month, LG introduced its first phablet – the Optimus Vu P895 in India. Soon Kwon – MD of LG India, believes that the Vu has everything that the competition fails to offer. I used the Vu as my primary device for the better half of the past week to find out if it lives up to the promise.
Even though LG’s 2012 series of smartphones have been a bit all over the place in terms of overall quality, one thing they have consistently delivered on is design. The Optimus Vu is no exception. It is exceedingly thin (8.5 mm), and feels solidly constructed. There’s a lot of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap and flimsy. I have been a fan of LG’s bold rectangular design principle, and the Vu holds onto much of what I liked about the Optimus 4X. The matte finish of the back cover makes the Vu easier to grip, and the sliding door covering the micro-USB port is a nice touch. However, the most striking feature of the Optimus Vu is just wide it is. At 90.4 mm, the Optimus Vu is about a centimeter wider than the Note 2. The extra width means that unless you have a really big hand, you are going to have a hard time gripping the Vu. I found it extremely uncomfortable (almost painful) to hold the Vu during long conversations. Thankfully, in spite of the bulk, the Vu is fairly light, weighing just 168 grams.
LG has utilized the extra width to pack in a couple of additional buttons. At the top left there is an additional button that triggers the QuickMemo app. At the bottom, there is an additional capacitive button for launching the new Android task switcher. Both of these are non-essential additions, but are nice to have.
LG could have slimmed down the Vu a bit more by shrinking the rather wide bezels. However, the extra bezel space has eliminated the accidental button press problem that I encountered in the Optimus 4X.
The Vu features a 5’’ HD-IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1024-by-768 pixels. LG claims that the PC-like 4:3 aspect ratio is ‘perfect for multitasking’. I will take a closer look to see if that claim has any substance in the Software section of this review. The screen is bright and offers good outdoor visibility with excellent viewing angles. It’s not as vibrant as the Note 2’s or One X’s display, but doesn’t appear washed out like some of the other LG displays.
The Optimus Vu ships with a 5.5’’ Rubberdium stylus. Vu’s stylus falls somewhere between the original Note’s and the Note 2’s stylus. It’s thicker than most styluses, but not as think as the new S Pen, which can be actually gripped like a pen. Since, the Vu needs to be used with two hands anyway, it’s a smart move to include a stylus. Unfortunately, all the benefits that the stylus could have offered is rendered moot by sheer stupidity. LG has thrown in a stylus, but the phone itself doesn’t have any slot for storing the stylus. Instead, you have to actually carry around the stylus in your pocket. This is of course a major annoyance. I already almost lost the stylus once, and after a couple of days, I simply stopped carrying around the stylus. Samsung on the other hand, not only provides a mechanism to store the stylus, but actually reminds you if you forget to tuck your stylus into the phone before walking away. The second sore point is that the Optimus Vu stylus is not pressure sensitive. The S Pen stylus for the Note 2, on the other hand, can differentiate between 1024 pressure levels. So, the Vu stylus can only be used as a pointing device or for scribbling. Don’t think about drawing or doodling with it. The final and the biggest point of annoyance is that you can actually tap on the capacitive buttons with the stylus. So, while using the stylus, you will have to consistently toggle between using your finger and the stylus. The stylus really seems to be something that LG tucked on to the Vu at the last moment for namesake.
The Optimus Vu ships with Android 4.0.4, and is slated to get Android 4.1 (Jellybean) in first quarter of next year. No word on whether it will receive Android 4.2 or not. There is the customary LG Optimus UX running on top of stock ICS. While some aspects of the Optimus UX – like its overuse of bright colors – are annoying, there are plenty of thoughtful additions. LG has a TouchWiz like scrollable notification bar, but unlike in TouchWiz, it’s completely customizable. In fact, customizability is one of the strongest points of Optimus UX. For example, everything about the lock screen can be changed including how the clock looks or what shortcuts appear in the dock.
LG’s QuickMemo, which we earlier saw in the 4X and the L-series handsets, has made it to the Vu too. It is essentially an enhanced note taking app that is now accessible through its dedicated physical button. You can annotate presentations, documents, webpages, and just about anything with QuickMemo. You can save your memos for later reference or share them with your contacts.
In addition to QuickMemo, LG has added another note taking app called Notebook. In fact, all QuickMemos go into a single folder inside the Notebook. The Notebook allows you to create elaborate notes with images, drawings, and text. Other bundled apps include a backup tool, a news reader, Polaris office, and a video editor called Video Wiz.
One aspect of the Vu where LG has put in a lot of thought and effort is the keyboard. The keyboard has four distinct modes – a classic feature phone layout (that I am sure no one will use), QWERTY layout for tap typing, QWERTY layout for Swype style shape writing, and a handwriting recognition mode. Normally, typing with single hand is impossible on the Vu. However, the keyboard has a special singlehanded typing mode that can be triggered via convenient gestures. When in this mode, the keyboard automatically shrinks and sticks to one edge of the screen (left or right). Although, I found the stylus to be pretty unusable in its current form, I did give handwriting recognition a fair spin and came away impressed. It was able to pick up my shabby handwriting with surprising amount of accuracy. Not only is the recognition engine accurate, but also quite fast. It’s a pity that the stylus is so unusable. The only complaint that I have is that most keyboard settings are buried several levels deep in the Android interface.
LG claims that the 4:3 interface is best for multitasking. After taking the Vu for a spin, I can’t say that I am convinced. LG might be onto something, but the Vu’s software fails to drive that point home. In fact, the Note 2 with its multi-window multi-tasking is a lot more productive. Even, QSlide from Optimus G with added support for streaming videos, would have been quite handy. However, with the standard interface, I don’t see how the Vu is better suited for multitasking than any of the other current generation smartphones. In fact, the 4:3 aspect ratio has a negative impact on the multimedia experience, since almost all video content is in widescreen aspect ratios. Some apps like Subway Surfer also have a problem with the Vu’s resolution and need to be scaled. The only aspect where the Vu really benefits from its resolution is web browsing in portrait mode.
LG Optimus Vu P895 ships with an 8 megapixel camera, which may not be the best mobile camera in the market, but produces good quality images and acceptable videos. Its weakest point is low light capture, where it performs significantly worse than the S3. However, under proper lighting conditions, the Vu takes well balanced, detailed images. The algorithm that LG is using is really smart and manages to get the settings bang on in most cases. In keeping with Optimus UX’s focus on customizability, the camera interface is also adjustable. The usual features including panorama, HDR, and burst modes are present. The Vu lacks an option for macro-focusing. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking that the Vu can’t take close up pics. The auto-mode is really good at figuring out when you want to use macro mode. The camera app’s biggest draw is ‘Time Catch Shot’, which we first saw in the Optimus 4X. When you enable this feature, the Vu captures five shots in a quick succession, including shots from moments before you clicked on the shoot button, from which you can select and keep the best shot. With Time Catch, even if you are too late or too early with the shoot button, you can still capture the moment you wanted. Another gimmicky feature called Cheese shot captures the pic when you say ‘cheese’.
The Vu shoots videos at 1080p with 30 frames per second. LG has thrown in a couple of interesting video effects. You can remove the video background and instead use a disco, sunset, or space background. You can also pick a video from your own library to use as a background. Be warned though, in order for this feature to work, your background needs to be stationary and the phone needs to be extremely stable. You also have bunch of face wrap options for playing with your friends.
The video player in Vu boasts of all the excellent enhancements we saw in the Optimus 4X. They are –
- Fingertip seek, which shows a YouTube like preview of the frame you are about to jump to while seeking.
- Speed controller, which allows you to slow down or speed up the video on the fly.
- Split-Screen view, which allows you to quickly browse through your library.
- Pinch-to-zoom, which allows you to zoom into any video you are watching. While this is not something that you will use regularly, it is a nice to have enhancement.
LG Optimus Vu features a number of connectivity options including NFC, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, and Bluetooth 4.0. Like Sony, LG includes a couple of NFC Tags called Tag+, which can be used to automatically change your phone’s settings to a preset mode. These tags can be configured with the companion Android app.
The Optimus Vu includes a 2080 mAh non-user replaceable battery. This can be a real headache, given that the Vu doesn’t really last all that long. I only got about nine hours with moderate usage on 3G. This is unacceptable for a phablet, since its strong point is supposed to be watching videos and surfing the web. The Note 2 on the other hand comes with a 3100 mAh battery.
LG has also opted to not include an expandable memory slot. However, this is unlikely to be a major problem for most users, given that Vu ships with 32 GB of internal storage.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I am not a big fan of phablets, and the Vu did nothing to change that. However, if I keep my preferences aside, then I must admit that the Vu is an interesting device. It certainly has a lot going for itself. It’s fast, well designed, sports a good camera and a feature-packed video player. It also makes a few mistakes. Unfortunately for LG, the Vu’s oversights are really big, and they end up hurting what would have otherwise been an excellent product.
I tried really hard to understand why LG would go for a 4:3 screen, but failed to come up with anything concrete. My takeaway is that with this odd proportion, LG has sacrificed too much to gain too little. The next slipup is with the Stylus. In fact, LG gets the stylus so wrong that you should pretty much ignore it all together. You are unlikely to be using it a lot. And, even if you want to use it, you will probably lose it very quickly. My final grudge is with the battery. If you are going to make the battery non user replaceable, you better make sure that it has enough juice to last a day.
When I began to use the Vu, I really liked the device. Yes, it was too big, but it had a nice display, was really smooth and fast, had a nice speaker, and took great snaps. Unfortunately, the poor battery subconsciously affected how I used the Vu. I started watching YouTube less frequently as I was afraid that I would run out of battery before I reached home. This is a real pity, because the Vu had a lot of promise. It’s sensibly priced and can currently be picked up for Rs. 30,000. Yes, it costs the same as Samsung’s previous generation Note. And, that’s the biggest redeeming factor for the Vu. On the whole, the Vu fails to live up to Mr. Kwon’s promise. It simply can’t compete against the Note 2. However, it’s also significantly cheaper. If you want the best phablet that money can buy, you should get the Note 2. However, if you want something cheaper, take a long and hard look at both the Note and the Vu. If you can live with Vu’s odd proportion, and don’t mind carrying your charger around, it might make sense for you to go for the Vu instead of the Note. It’s hardware is a generation ahead of the Note. Otherwise, the Vu might end up frustrating you.