Wednesday, December 7, 2011

LG Nitro HD Review

LG Nitro HD Review
LG Nitro
By on December 8, 2011

The new LG Nitro HD represents the company's premier Android smartphone in the United States. Without a doubt, it has a stellar spec sheet that includes 4G LTE data (AT&T), a 4.5-inch 720p HD resolution display, a dual-core 1.5GHz processor, and a 1080p HD video-capable 8 megapixel camera. It's also fairly thin, light, and attractive.

The Nitro HD should fear no other device when it comes to specifications.
But when it comes to real world performance, not all of its specs live up to user expectations. Yes, LTE data transfers are mind-blowingly fast, and the 720p display is drop-dead gorgeous. The 8 megapixel camera takes some of the best shots I've seen on a smartphone, too. But the phone is not without issues. Lag on a dual-core 1.5GHz processor equipped phone is not something I understand, and three hours of talk time from a massive battery is no easier to comprehend.

There is a lot to love about the LG Nitro HD, but all the 'oohs' and 'ahhhs' come with a couple of 'ughs' thrown in. Read on.

The HD part of the LG Nitro HD's name doesn't stand for the 1080p full HD video it can record, but rather for its gorgeous 4.5-inch, 720p HD (1280 x 720 pixel) capacitive touchscreen display. Photos look amazing, even the most tiny of fonts are smooth and crisp, and it's a solid performer in the viewing angle department. In spite of the phone's ferociously fast 4G ~LTE performance, the Nitro's HD display is its defining element.

In addition to the screen, there's plenty to like about the Nitro HD's hardware. The build quality is very solid. It's a big phone, at 134mm x 68mm x 10.3mm (5.3in x 2.7in x .4in), but it's still narrower than the Motorola DROID RAZR and it weighs an easily tolerated 136g (4.8oz). I'd prefer that the top-mounted power button be located on the right hand edge, in Samsung style, since the phone is so long, and I could certainly do without the cover on the micro-USB port. I wish an MHL adapter was not needed for outputting to an HDTV, but if I stretch any further looking for things to complain about, I'll sprain something.
So instead, how about something I love? LG has dropped the dedicated capacitive button for the search function that normally sits under the display on Android phones. Instead it integrated that into the menu button. Why is this great? Because now you really know where to press to get the function you want -- without looking. You can mash a thumb down anywhere near the center and get the home function, the right side is back, the left is menu/search. You don't have to be accurate, you just slam it and get what you expect. That's far better than the 4-button layout found on most every other Android phone. You do lose the ability to long-press the search button to access voice commands, though.

LG Nitro

The rear cover on the LG Nitro HD has a somewhat difficult to look at texture that I ended up liking for its feel. The cover has to be removed to gain access to the battery, SIM card, and microSD memory card slot. A 16GB card is pre-installed, which augments the roughly 2GB of available built-in storage.
While I find that the user interface tweaks LG placed on top of Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread are entirely usable, there are some issues with the phone as a whole. In spite of a dual-core 1.5GHz processor and a reasonable 768MB of RAM, the Nitro HD user is subjected to the occasional lag or stalls when navigating through the phone. It's not chronic, and won't leave you pulling out hair, but the phone just isn't as smooth as its peers from Samsung and HTC.

Apart from that, I really like the shortcuts for wireless settings and ringer mode that LG placed in the notification area, and I like the lock screen music controls quite a bit. Speaking of the lock screen, LG lets users drag down missed event notification icons on the lock screen to jump to the appropriate application, such as the SMS app or the call log, this works quite well. There's no real theme support on the Nitro HD, but LG pre-installs a number of system fonts that you can quickly switch between to customize the look of the phone beyond the normal assortment of wallpapers and home screen widgets. LG also lets you configure multiple home screen "layouts" and widgets that you can switch between easily.

LG Nitro

There are 7 home screens available. They can be viewed in thumbnail fashion with a pinch gesture, and the order of the screens can be easily changed from there - as can the default panel that appears when you press the home key.

Text input is handled by the Android Gingerbread keyboard (default) and the LG keyboard. Both are solid, and the large touchscreen makes hitting the right key easy enough. It also aids the use of the copy and paste functions which are pretty good. Voice input on the phone is overall accurate, and the surface of the touchscreen display is particularly well suited to swiping and scrolling. LG's homegrown social networking integration is decent, as it integrates status updates, text messages, and email into a tab on the the contact screen for each of your contacts. Twitter and Facebook are supported out of the box.

Calling / Data, Messaging, Browser
Calling / Data
At an LG-sponsored launch party in New York for the Nitro HD, the app reported 20Mbps downloads on my first run on AT&T's still-unannounced LTE network. That's the fastest I've ever seen on a phone, and faster than I saw on Verizon's LTE network when it was still closed to the public. Upload speeds typically ranged from 6 to 7.5Mbps as well, and all tests were performed with fewer than a reported "full bars" signal. That's some major speed. Even when on a regular HSPA+ network, download speeds in the 5 to 6Mbps range were reachable. The phone supports hotspot sharing mode (at an extra monthly cost), and naturally supports 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well.
LG Nitro

Sadly, voice calls on the Nitro HD are sometimes problematic. There appears to be something loose in the ear speaker on the phone that rattles under the right (wrong) circumstances - noticeably when speaking with women who tend to have higher pitch voices. At first I thought this was just a one-off problem phone, but some of my colleagues in the industry have had similar issues. Call volume is a bit low, as well, and the rattling problem would be even worse if the phone's volume were stronger. Outbound audio is very good, though. Signal strength is slightly weaker than on the HTC Vivid, but still reasonably good.

LG has equipped the Nitro HD with a fairly standard array of messaging applications. The threaded SMS/MMS application is simple and clean, but lacks any real style. It works as you'd want it to, though. The email client supports a cool split-screen view that turns the Nitro HD into what looks like a small tablet. It makes pretty effective use of the large, high-resolution display. LG pre-loads Twitter and Facebook applications on the phone and instant messaging through Google Talk, though apps for other systems can be found in the Android Market.

Apps / App Store
The LG Nitro HD's Android Market provides its users with access to hundreds of thousands of applications, many for free. AT&T has a number of its own apps installed out of the box, but many of them can be easily removed. The full suite of Google-branded apps: Maps, Navigation, Gmail, and YouTube, are available on the Nitro HD, as are some other gems, like the read/write version of Polaris Office. In spite of generally being a fair performer, Google Maps on the LG Nitro HD is terrible. The app hangs often when zooming and panning, as if it gets stuck for five seconds or so before continuing.

LG Nitro

The LG Nitro HD's web browser falls just short of being great. The display, large and sharp, lends itself wonderfully to web browsing, and the user interface on the browser, which differs greatly from stock Android, makes it easier to get around pages quickly. Even Adobe Flash content loads fairly quickly and runs smoothly. The problem is that the pages themselves just don't zoom and scroll/pan smoothly, and the double-tap zoom feature doesn't always zoom to the correct level. It often zooms too tightly and fails to re-flow the text. Turning Flash off helps a lot (with the smoothness, at least), but I just expected better performance from the Nitro HD.

LG Nitro

Camera, Battery Life, Conclusion
The camera found in the Nitro HD for AT&T is without doubt the best camera LG has ever put in a smartphone. The 8 megapixel camera records super sharp images even in low light, provided the autofocus cooperates. That can sometimes be a problem since it attempts to focus automatically instead of when you press the on-screen shutter button, but overall it works fine. The LED camera flash is well modulated, though perhaps a bit narrow in beam, but the white balances on the Nitro HD's camera is, by far, the best I have ever seen on a smartphone. It gets the colors right 95% of the time, at least.
LG Nitro color
LG Nitro color
LG Nitro color

While the Nitro's camera takes great stills, it only creates good videos. It's true that it can record in 1080p mode, but it appears to be saddled with a fixed focus point when doing so. The fixed-focus forward-facing camera can be used for stills or video, and can even record in 720p mode, which is a seldom seen feature.
The Nitro HD's music application is rock solid. It presents album art in a coverflow-like manner when the phone is held horizontally, and the wide selection of equalizer settings make it easy to tune the sound exactly the way you want it. The audio quality was very good, and the easy to access lock screen and notification area music controls kept the tunes easily within reach.
LG Nitro

The biggest letdown with the LG Nitro HD could be its battery performance. In spite of the fact that the phone contains a massive 1830mAh battery, the Nitro HD is rated for a measly 3 hours of talk time and could survive no more than 24 hours with reasonably light use, which means it will require daily charging for most people. This wouldn't be bad if the recent Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket and HTC Vivid, both LTE devices on AT&T, hadn't proved that true 4G phones could do much better than just make it through the workday.

LG Nitro

Final Thoughts
The LG Nitro HD has an awful lot going for it. It offers blazing data speeds, a great still camera, and one of the nicest displays on the market - all in a physical design that works. The phone is hamstrung a bit by weak battery life when compared with its peers, but it still is a really solid device. I can't say I love it as much as I expected to initially, but I really do like it a lot.

Pros: Beautiful display, blazing LTE data speeds (where available), solid hardware build, excellent camera, 3-button layout under display is easier to use.
Cons: Poor battery life compared to other LTE phones, call audio issues, some user interface lag.

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