Are you in the market for an Android smartphone? Good luck. There has never been a time that we can remember where there has been so much competition, with a multitude of new handsets all jumping up and down for your attention. The Optimus Black joins over a dozen other Android phones to launch since the beginning of the year, so does it have what it takes to catch your eye?
Physically speaking, the Black is a very eye-catching model, especially as you turn it over in your hands and find the angular battery cover on the underside. LG does a good job of disguising the stiff plastic battery cover as being something metallic, with its smooth finish and its dark charcoal colouring. Though we like the look of the raised angles on this surface, we do wish LG had smoothed and rounded the edges a little further; for us the Optimus Black is a little uncomfortable to hold with its corners digging into our fingers and palms.
Differentiating the Black from the dozens of other smartphones in the world today, LG opts for a new display technology it calls NOVA. This screen uses the same in-plane switching technology we've seen in other recent LG releases, but it adds increased brightness to the mix to improve the visibility of the display under direct sunlight. LG reports that the NOVA display shines at 700 nits, or at least 50 per cent than its nearest competitor (the iPhone 4). The result is clearly apparent outdoors on a bright day, though this won't make a huge difference when you're indoors. Given that most people will want to set their display brightness to its lowest level for battery saving, it's strange that LG didn't include an easy option for adjusting screen brightness in its customised software.
The appearance of the display is good, but it hasn't blown us away. Colours look fairly natural, but the contrast of the screen is somewhat jeopardised to achieve the brightness. Next to the Super AMOLED Plus display on the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Black's blacks look dark grey, in fact we prefer the image we get out of the LG Optimus 2X better than that of the Optimus Black.
As we mentioned when we reviewed the Optimus 2X recently, LG's modified Android user interface is a vast improvement on previous releases. The user experience is consistent across LG's range this year, so these comments hold true for the Optimus Black as much as they do for the 2X.
The LG Android workspace contains up to seven pages for widgets and shortcuts with static, customisable shortcuts bar at the bottom. When you pull down the notifications curtain you'll find quick settings buttons for connectivity options and a fixed music player fragment for quickly controlling your tunes. The apps drawer options allow you to choose when you want your apps listed in one long horizontal list, like stock Android, or in horizontally ordered pages, like the iPhone.
On the whole, the user experience works well, though it lacks the silky smooth animations we've seen from more powerful phones this year. Swiping between home screens and app pages is fine, but it can feel a little sticky at times. Scrolling speeds are fine in other apps, like the address book and Gmail.
An interesting extra to note is the inclusion of a "Gesture" button on the left-hand side of the phone. Holding down this key activates gesture-based navigation in certain parts of the phone. For example, tilting the handset to the sides while holding the key will scroll from one home screen to the next, or flick between images in the gallery. This is a pretty neat party trick, but it is terrible for accurately navigating your phone. The Gesture has a "G" written on it, which we assume stands for gimmick as much as it stands for gesture control.
LG packs a 5-megapixel camera into the Optimus Black, including a single LED flash and the standard image adjustment settings. The photos we've taken with this camera are fine for a phone, but they won't be winning any awards. Like the phone's display, the camera's image sensor leans too hard towards the white, blowing out brighter areas of our photos and washing out the colours. The auto-focus works fairly well, so your photos should be sharp, even if the colour reproduction feels wrong.
Unlike its Optimus siblings, the 2X and 3D, the Optimus Black is a single-core handset with a 1GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 3630 processor and a slightly older PowerVR SGX530 graphics unit. This combination doesn't hold back the Black too much, though you can feel the difference between using it and the dual-core Optimus 2X and Samsung's Galaxy S II, both of which have a much smoother feel throughout the user interface.
Web browsing is good on the Black; pages load as quickly as your connection will allow and it doesn't struggle too greatly with complex elements on full-size sites. The phone is compatible with Adobe Flash, so web videos will play within the pages you are viewing and web-based games will work too if the controls are set up for mobile devices.
Video playback is also good, though there is a limit to what the Optimus Black can handle. LG includes native support for DivX, XviD, WMV and MP4 files, but we found that the 1GHz processor struggled with our 720p test files. Also, while it would render our MKV test file, the results stuttered and were unwatchable. Also, there is no HDMI port to share your videos with friends on your TV. There is a Wi-Fi sharing option, however, if you have a DLNA-compatible device hooked up at home.
Battery life is one standout from our testing, even with the super-bright display. Though the Black will chew through battery at a standard rate while in use, its standby power consumption is great — discharging only a couple of percentage points overnight, for example. Against our standard usage tests, the Black would last for up to two working days and need a charge on the second night.
The Optimus Black is a solid smartphone, but one that could get lost in this increasingly noisy market. Its unique features, the NOVA display and its gesture controls are both a bit gimmicky, adding something to the smartphone experience that doesn't actually improve the experience in most common use cases. The enhanced outdoor screen visibility will appeal to some, but we'd prefer a richer image over a brighter image any day of the week.