I’ve learned that there are two things about being a mobile-phone reviewer.
The first thing: you get to handle awesome gadgetry days or weeks ahead of its official release date, and you’re not just allowed to use the heck out of it; you need to, in order to do your job. That’s the awesome thing.
The other, less-awesome thing: you eventually have to give it all back.
“Empty Nest” is a recurring column discussing what I miss -and what I don’t- about the devices I’ve had to return.
The Optimus G for AT&T was a surprise to me in nearly every respect. It was my first experience reviewing a device from LG, and I was excited to explore all the unique assets the hardware and software had to offer. But that excitement was tempered by a bit of trepidation; as I’ve mentioned more than once, the LG brand isn’t one that’s historically gotten my motor running. My hands-on time with the Optimus L9 at IFA was pleasant, but I didn’t find the device terribly memorable … and despite its specs, the bigger, badder Optimus G looked rather unremarkable in photos. Our brief time with the LG Intuition didn’t help my perception of the company, whose many stumbling blocks I outlined in a piece a few weeks back. So when the Optimus G arrived at my door, I was pleased, but not enthralled.
It wasn’t an instant reversal -I didn’t fall in love in the first five minutes or anything- but over the next few days I came to respect, then admire, and then genuinely like the Optimus G. You can read the whole story in my full review of the device, but Empty Nest is where we examine the longing -and the relief- that comes only after we’ve parted company with a review device. Now that the Optimus G is no longer in my possession, then, let us press onward. To talk about our feelings.
It’s Good To See You
The Optimus G had the unique quality of being absolutely beautiful — but only if you looked closely. At first glance, or in too-dim light, it was an ordinary black slab, dull and pedestrian in its dark casing and glossy, angular construction. Indeed, in my experience as a smartphone reviewer, the Optimus G was one of the least commented-upon devices I’ve ever carried. People just didn’t notice it.
That is, until I called their attention to the device’s subtle beauty, or let them hold it in their hands. Under better lighting, the G’s backplate glistened, its beautifully designed carbon-fiber-esque patterns brightening, dimming, or disappearing under the glossy Gorilla Glass 2 backplate, depending on what angle the device was held at. The unit felt hefty but not heavy in the hand, evoking the feel of a well-constructed pocketwatch or other piece of jewelry. Even AT&T’s carrier logo was beautifully crafted. The Optimus G felt expensive and premium in a manner not quite matched by the devices currently inhabiting my pockets, Samsung’s Galaxy Note II and Motorola’s Droid RAZR M.
The love affair didn’t end at the hardware; the unit’s software, though an LG skin running atop yesterday’s Android 4.0.4, delivered easily the most responsive experience I’ve ever encountered on an Android device. (Yes, that’s including stock Jelly Bean on the Nexus 7.) The skin offered enhancements both useful and aesthetic, with special delights like the “dew drop” lock screen tucked away out of sight but wonderful once discovered. Even enhancements that would have heavily taxed lesser hardware, like running the elaborate “carousel” home screen transition effect atop a live wallpaper, couldn’t make the Optimus G skip a beat. The phone was an incredible speedster.
It’s Good to See You Go
I didn’t hate anything about the Optimus G, but that’s not to say I loved everything about it. In particular, the device was physically a little on the wide side; I was prepared to let this pass in the official review until I learned that this was a distinction unique to AT&T’s model, which added a few millimeters to the global version’s girth. The result was a more awkward feel in the hand, exacerbated by the all-glass construction’s slick feel on the skin. Whether on dry fingertips in cold climes or sweaty palms in warm rooms, the Optimus G was a slippery devil. It routinely slid off tables, couch arms, and even out of pockets. And all that glass, Gorilla or no, didn’t give me the sense that it could endure too many clattering collisions with the concrete.
Also, though the software’s responsiveness was excellent and its added features were often useful, the Optimus UI isn’t the prettiest on the block. It’s not the only skin to stray into cartoony territory -Samsung’s TouchWiz is no looker, Nature UX or no- but LG’s effort is probably the ugliest of the major manufacturers.’ That didn’t diminish the experience of using the device too much, thanks to the responsiveness I can’t stop mentioning (seriously, it screamed), but whenever I found myself in a screen done up in the stock-ICS Holo theme, I was reminded of the visual cohesiveness and cool digital UI I was missing out on.
Finally, though this is in no way unique to LG: the stock keyboard was abysmal. If OEMs ever take my note on this and start shipping their skinned devices with the stock Android keyboard, I swear I’m throwing a party and you’re all invited.
Till Next Time
Ultimately, the Optimus G’s pros outweighed its cons– and that’s not just thanks to my lowered expectations at the start of the review period. The G delivered an experience that was uniformly very good, something not many smartphones can claim. More important, that experience often strayed into excellence in more than one area, on each side of the hardware/software divide: an even rarer find in today’s mobile devices. Backed up by a solid camera, great battery life, and AT&T’s reliable Boston-area LTE network, the Optimus G made me realize what LG is still capable of, despite its recent disappointments. More important, it further bolstered my belief that a future full of skinned Android devices doesn’t have to be a dystopian wasteland full of laggy, stuttering UIs.
Most of all, though, LG’s newest flagship was a great smartphone to carry. When you can honestly say that about a device, you have no choice but to miss it when you part company. And I miss the Optimus G.