In a world that seems to be dominated by high-end and expensive smartphones, do the lower, mid-range devices still stand a chance? The LG Optimus L9 (Amazon) offers a rather bold answer to that question. If you’re interested in purchasing this phone for yourself, it’ll run you $48.99 up front with 24 monthly payments of $8. If you’d rather pay full price, which includes a courtesy unlock, it’ll run you $240.99.
Please note that this is definitely a mid-range device, so to compare it to higher-end phones, such as the Galaxy S 4 or iPhone 5, simply isn’t fair.
To help set the stage for this review, let’s lay out the device’s specifications.
- 1GHz dual-core CPU
- 1GB RAM
- 4.5-inch qHD display with Gorilla Glass 2 (960×540)
- 5MP rear-facing camera with flash and 1080p video recording
- VGA front-facing camera
- 4GB of internal storage (expandable to 32GB via microSD)
- 2,150mAh battery
- Android 4.0.4 “Ice Cream Sandwich”
Unfortunately, LG designs their devices with not much in mind. The Optimus L9 is rather dull and boring, but gets a little more interesting around back, where the device features a soft-touch/rubberized coating. This helps provide some grip, but ultimately helps minimize both fingerprints and visible scratches. Also on the back is the 5MP rear-facing camera, its LED flash, some LG branding, and the speakerphone.
As with most recent LG smartphones, the device is a bit blocky, or rather “square-ish.” Fortunately, the rounded edges on the back make the device easier and comfortable to hold.
Along the bottom of the phone, you’ll find the micro USB port, which is what you’ll use to sync and charge the phone with. To the right of that is a small microphone pinhole. At the top, you’ll find the 3.5mm headset jack, with another microphone pinhole. Both microphones work in tandem to provide you with the best audio quality, which also helps reduce the amount of background noise. The left side of the device features the volume rocker, with the power button on the opposite side. Unfortunately, there isn’t a dedicated camera button. I feel as though all phones should include a dedicated camera button standard, as it really does make taking photos more convenient and efficient.
The main attraction, the front, is where you’ll find the 4.5-inch display, front-facing camera, earpiece, sensors, LG & T-Mobile branding, the middle “home” button, and two standard Android touch buttons for back and menu. Despite the home button being a bit long, it still feels solidly built and works well, giving you a light but satisfying click.
If you’re looking for a phone with looks, this honestly wouldn’t be the choice for you. However, most people will see themselves getting a case for their smartphone, so I wouldn’t let the dull design of the L9 get in your way, as many other things make up for that.
Despite the display being just 960×540, it honestly isn’t too bad. Because the pixel density isn’t too high, text and images won’t appear as sharp as they would on, let’s say, an iPhone 5 or an HTC One. To help make up for that, the display offers great viewing angles and color/saturation accuracy. It’s not the easiest thing to view in direct sunlight, though, but most displays aren’t sun-friendly. With most modern phones at any price range, the display brightness is good.
Speaker, network, and call quality
The rear-facing speaker isn’t something to praise. While it gets loud, the audio quality could be a bit better. At loud volumes, the audio can easily get distorted. You’ll want to make sure that you use the speaker only for short phone calls. Music and movies? Get headphones or an external speaker of some sort. Call quality, though, when using the earpiece, is pretty good. Call performance is about as good as currently cellular technology can allow.
T-Mobile’s network performance here in San Antonio, TX., was pretty reliable and speedy. Of over 70 speed tests, I’d say that the average speeds were around 6Mbps (download) and 2Mbps (upload). Supposedly, T-Mobile’s 42Mbps service is here, but I wasn’t able to reach speeds anywhere near that, with the fastest being a little over 13.5Mbps down and nearly 3Mbps up. Nevertheless, their network performed fairly well under varying conditions, which results in smooth streaming performance.
One thing to remember, though, is that T-Mobile offers unlimited, unthrottled data. This is a huge perk (of many) that T-Mobile offers. In fact, during the two weeks that I’ve been using the L9, I never once connected to Wi-Fi, as there simply wasn’t any need for it. Knowing that you’ll never have to worry about how much data you use is a really good thing, one that I wish that I could experience, but AT&T’s contracts has me stuck for another year.
Despite the device having a simple 1GHz dual-core CPU, it can actually open up applications fairly quickly. Games will obviously take a little bit longer, but they perform fairly well once loaded. For games that offer different graphics settings, you’ll probably want to tone them down a bit to help increase frame rates. For web browsing, I’ve been using Google Chrome, which is very stable and speedy. Although, the app itself takes a good 3 to 5 seconds to open up until you’re actually able to use it. If you want to do quick web searches or checks, using the stock “Browser” app might be a bit better. Otherwise, Google Chrome is very reliable.
(Unfortunately, I neglected to transfer the photos and video samples off of the device before restoring it back to factory settings, as my time with the review unit is up. Hopefully, the description of the camera will suffice!)
Perhaps the weakest feature of the L9 is its rear-facing camera. The VGA front-facing camera is just that–a VGA camera–so there’s not much to talk about regarding that. Anyway, the 5MP rear-facing camera does okay when outdoors, but indoors or in areas with low light, you’re better off taking a photo of the scene in your mind. Recording 1080p video is okay as well, but the phone doesn’t let you manually focus while recording. Instead, you’ll have to wait for the phone to focus itself for you, which can take quite a while to happen. If you’re into taking photos while recording video, you can do that with the L9. It’s not the speediest shooter either, but ultimately, it’ll probably be fine for most people.
(Unfortunately, I neglected to transfer screenshots off of the device before resetting it back to factory settings, as my review period with the device is up. You can see what LG’s skin looks like by watching our video review towards the top of the post.)
The L9 comes pre-loaded with several T-Mobile applications, aka “bloatware,” which are applications that come already installed onto your device that you’ll most likely never use. Many of these can be disabled within the Settings application, but some can’t. If I were to use this as my actual personal phone, I’d end up installing a custom Android ROM that’s as stock as can be, so that I can use my phone the way that I want to, and not the way that the carrier wants me to.
Looking beyond the bloatware is a very usable, skinned version of Android. LG’s changes are pretty good, and don’t get in the way of using the phone, unlike some of LG’s competitors. They’ve done a nice job to skin Android with their own particular style, and it’s something that most will probably enjoy using.
Unfortunately, T-Mobile has no word (or indication) regarding an Android 4.1/4.2 “Jelly Bean” update. But, Android 4.0.4, “Ice Cream Sandwich,” looks as though it’s perfectly fine.
A bit to my surprise, I was easily able to get through the entire day (and then some) with moderate-to-heavy usage. LG looks as though they’ve done a number of behind-the-scenes software optimizations to achieve this, and they’ve done an excellent job. My settings included the GPS being turned on, Wi-Fi being off, screen brightness at 50%, and background apps pushing new data in as it’s received. I never once had to worry about whether or not I’d have enough juice to last me through the evening.
I must say that I’m quite impressed by what LG has delivered, which is a mid-range device with an affordable price and a nice, well-performing feature set. If you want to keep your smartphone budget down, but still want something with plenty of performance and features, the LG Optimus L9 would be a wonderful pick.
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