Just when we thought LG was done with its Optimus L-series for the year, the Korean company surprised us with the LG Optimus L9, which replaces the Optimus L7 at the low-end range. The L-series devices are positioned as LG's stylish yet affordable line of entry- to mid-level phones, so they definitely don't compare to the company's quad-core offerings like the 4X HD or the Optimus G. Instead, the L9 runs Android 4.0 and boasts a 4.5-inch qHD display along with a dual-core 1 GHz TI OMAP 4430 processor and 5-megapixel camera. At $79.99 with a two-year contract on T-Mobile, it's designed to appeal to shoppers on a budget. But is it a good buy? Let's find out.
When we first laid eyes on the Optimus L9, we experienced a bit of déjà vu. It's almost identical to the L7, with its chrome trim and piano-black, Gorilla Glass-coated face. It even has the same button layout, with a physical home button flanked by capacitive back and menu keys. The back cover is a different story, however. The L9 has a textured matte surface comprised of multiple tiny raised dots, a departure from the L7's striped backing. As such, it has a nice, grippy feel that reminds us of leather (or vinyl, maybe). Its sloped edges and slender 9.1mm profile makes for a surprisingly comfortable feel in the hand despite its wide 127.6mm x 66.9mm footprint. All told, the boxy shape struck us as boring at first, but we were ultimately won over by the phone's dapper design.
Adding to the L9's good looks is that 4.5-inch qHD (960 x 540) TFT LCD, a clear improvement over the L7's 4.3-inch, 800 x 480 panel. Though not quite as crisp as the TrueHD display we saw on the Optimus G, we found the L9's vibrant display perfectly adequate. The viewing angles are decent, text is sharp and colors are rich. However, we can't help but feel a little cheated -- the international version of the L9 boasts a better-specced 4.7-inch IPS display, and it appears we're unlikely to see that stateside. We've seen these sorts of carrier shenanigans before -- the AT&T version of the Optimus G totes an 8-megapixel camera instead of the 13-megapixel shooter found on other Optimus G handsets, for example -- but it doesn't mean we approve.
Under bright sunlight the Optimus L9 is quite usable, but only if you ramp up the brightness to 100 percent. Otherwise, it looks like a slab of black glass. Sadly, we had to adjust the brightness manually every time lighting conditions shifted due to the lack of an auto-brightness setting. Indeed, the phone lacks an ambient light sensor, an omission we find terribly annoying. The rest of the usual sensors are on board, including ones for proximity, orientation, rotation vector, magnetic field and three-axis acceleration.
Aside from the aforementioned buttons, the front of the L9 is home to a front-facing VGA camera on the upper right, directly above the T-Mobile branding. The volume and power buttons sit on the left and right edges, respectively, while a 3.5mm headphone jack resides on top. Nestled inside the textured back cover are a square 5-megapixel camera lens and an LED flash. There's also an external speaker opening on the lower left. If you wish to expose the phone's innards, you'll have to squeeze a fingernail into a tiny cutout at the bottom, near the micro-USB port. You can then pry the cover open to reveal the 2,150mAh lithium-ion battery, the SIM card and the microSD card slot. Those who yearn for a notification LED will be disappointed however, as there isn't one.$79.99 with a two-year T-Mobile contract5.03 x 2.63 x 0.36 inches (127.6 x 66.9 x 9.1mm)Quadband GSM / GPRS/ EDGE; quadband 4G UMTS/HSPA+ (2100 / 1900 /1700 (AWS) / 850)MP3, AMR, AAC, AAC+, WAV, AC3, MPEG-4, H.263, H.264, DivX, Xvid
While the L9's performance can't match the quad-core Optimus G, its dual-core 1GHz ARMv7 CPU isn't too shabby. Indeed, we found it more than acceptable, as we'll explain in the performance section below. The L9 adds a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU to the mix, along with a 5-megapixel camera and support for T-Mobile's "faux-G" HSPA+ network that tops out at 21 Mbps. Those specs aren't too bad for an $80 mid-range handset. As you might expect, the Optimus L9 supports quad-band GSM / EDGE, along with quad-band 4G UMTS/HSPA+. You won't find an NFC radio here, though there is, of course, WiFi and Bluetooth. The L9 even boasts WiFi calling thanks to the partnership with T-Mobile. The GPS works remarkably well -- it marked most of our locations precisely as we ventured around San Francisco.
The L9's 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP4430 chip is fairly out-of-date; it's the same processor used on last year's Droid RAZR and Droid Bionic, and it's definitely not as zippy as the dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor found on newer handsets. That said, screen transitions are snappy enough, and the phone doesn't take long to switch between open apps. Zooming in and out of web pages feels mostly smooth, though we did notice a bit of lag with image rendering. The camera app, though, is slightly sluggish in launching. Cold-booting takes a little more than 22 seconds, which is plenty fast for us.
Benchmark scores are about what we expected -- the L9 compares well against TI OMAP handsets, but pales in comparison to similarly specced phones that use Qualcomm's latest. Its Quadrant scores are higher than the Galaxy Nexus', but the L9 doesn't perform as well in the other benchmarks. In general, the performance is befitting the L9's budget status.LG Optimus L9Samsung Galaxy Nexus (HSPA+)Pantech FlexGLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)SunSpider: lower scores are better.
The 2,150mAh battery inside the L9 offers fairly short battery life. In our standard rundown test, the L9 lasted a little longer than five hours, which is a poor showing compared to most phones we've tested recently (eight hours would be more acceptable). Still, with less taxing usage (i.e., taking photos, using Maps and browsing the web, with push notifications set up) the L9 still had around 50 percent capacity left after eight hours.
At least in San Francisco, where we conducted our testing, we enjoyed a pretty solid signal. Call quality was good -- callers heard us loud and clear, and vice versa. However, we did encounter the occasional static buzz, and voice quality was more digitized than we would like. It's interesting to note that the L9 supports T-Mobile's WiFi calling capability. When we turned this on, call quality improved slightly -- there was, perhaps, a little less static -- but not enough that our callers noticed. Still, it's a nice option to have if you want to save those monthly minutes. The built-in speaker sounds rather tinny, but we could crank up the volume high enough. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network in San Francisco fluctuates wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood. In the southern and western parts of the city, we got around 1.5 Mbps down and 1.1 Mbps up. In downtown and more central parts of town however, we enjoyed download speeds that averaged around 14 Mbps while upload speeds hovered around 4 Mbps.
Though we would've preferred Jelly Bean, we don't really mind Ice Cream Sandwich on a budget handset like this. As with most other LG phones, the L9 has a skin overlay known as UI 3.0, which is quite light as far as Android skins go. The lock screen, for example, lets you swipe in any direction to unlock the phone. It also incorporates quick access to four customizable apps -- we especially like the camera shortcut -- and different clock designs. We'll admit we think UI 3.0 is rather staid and boring, but it's not terribly offensive either.
T-Mobile's influence on the L9 is immediately apparent as soon as you start up the phone -- you'll find a magenta-tinged wallpaper and widgets as you flip through the seven home screens. You do get ICS mainstays like that infamous Google search widget along with the ability to create folders. The dock holds five icons by default and is easily customizable. You can further tweak things by adjusting the screen swipe effect, the scrolling wallpaper, the animations and the theme.
One welcome addition is a Quick Settings menu in the notification drawer. With a simple swipe of the finger, you can adjust the sound, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and get handy access to LG's QuickMemo app. You can also add a brightness toggle that lets you switch between low, medium and full, which is extremely useful considering the lack of auto-brightness mentioned earlier.
We have to admit we're not big fans of the L9's default, LG-designed keyboard. It appears to be a modified version of Swype, where you form words by sliding your finger across the keys. It works well enough when you're using it that way, but when you're just entering text the old-fashioned way, it can be finicky and imprecise. There's no option to switch to the stock ICS keyboard, which is a big disappointment in our eyes.
The app launcher is relatively similar to stock ICS, which you can navigate by side-swiping the screen. You get three different tabs at the top: Apps, Downloads and Widgets. The sections exist independently, so you won't be kicked over to the next tab once you reach the end; you would just scroll back to the beginning again. We should note that the Downloads area represents installed apps, not downloaded files -- those can be accessed via the Downloads app instead. You can choose to fit a 5 x 6 grid of icons and you can arrange them however you wish. (To do this, simply hit menu while in the launcher and select "Show small icons.") Those who want to sort through apps alphabetically are out of luck, however -- you'll have to do that manually.
Perhaps our biggest complaint about the L9 is the amount of bloatware T-Mobile decided to toss in. You get 411 & More, Caller Tunes, Game Base, More for Me (a discounts/deals application), T-Mobile My Account, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV and Visual Voicemail. Like most pre-installed apps, they can't be uninstalled and they take up precious storage space. Other pre-installed apps include the Amazon app store, Application Manager, FileShare, WildTangent Games, Polaris Office (which can be uninstalled), SmartShare for WiFi Direct connections and Slacker Radio. LG included its own QuickMemo on here as well, which lets you draw and annotate what's on the screen. The default browser includes an interesting toolbar at the bottom with the usual navigation keys like Back and Forward along with a Zoom key. If you want, you can hold your finger down on the Zoom key and tilt the phone forward to zoom in on a page. We think this is so you can handily navigate a large Web page single-handedly, but it's quite a limited use case.
The camera UI here should be familiar to anyone who's previously owned an LG smartphone. The controls line the left side of the viewfinder, and you can adjust the image size, scene modes, ISO settings, white balance presets, timer, geotagging settings, shutter sound and color effects. You can opt between autofocus and face-tracking, where the camera will try to focus in on what it thinks is a face. We especially enjoy panorama mode, and continuous shot is also nice if you're attempting to shoot a moving subject. The rear camera can record up to 1080p HD, though the front-facing webcam maxes out at VGA. We found the 1080p video quite sharp and satisfactory with its autofocus, though it doesn't handle low light and shadows too well.
We'll be frank: if you want a phone with a top-notch camera, the L9 isn't for you. The 5-megapixel sensor works fine for simple snapshots, but users who want something that can replace their point-and-shoots would probably scoff at the amateurish image quality on display here. Most of our sample shots showed dull, washed-out colors and there's an unfortunate amount of noise even in pictures taken under adequate light. Low-light performance was alright -- sunsets looked decent, for example -- but grain and blur continue to be an issue there as well. Touch-to-focus works fine, but don't expect a shallow depth of field in your macro shots. As you might expect, the camera works best under bright sunlight, but even then, colors are rather lackluster.
The Optimus L9 isn't totally without merit. We appreciate its boxy yet dapper design and its sharp, colorful display. And while the performance didn't blow us away, it's good enough for everyday tasks like browsing the web, updating Facebook and checking email. We also enjoyed the addition of T-Mobile's WiFi calling feature. Yet, its mediocre camera reminds us of its entry-level status, the carrier's bloatware is a disappointment and LG's UI 3.0 belongs in the past. Its short battery life is also a practical issue that buyers should be aware of before signing any contracts.
Perhaps its biggest saving grace is this: it costs just $80 with a two-year T-Mobile agreement. Those new to Android might find that $80 buys a serviceable phone, but savvier users will likely be disappointed. If you're sticking to a tight budget, we'd suggest the HTC One S instead, which is available for free with a T-Mobile contract. An extra $20 could snag you the superior HTC One X if you're willing to go with AT&T instead. Or, you might want to consider saving up for a Nexus 4 instead, especially if two-year contracts are not your cup of tea.