LG Optimus V from @virginmobileus [Review]

After years of rolling without a cellphone, I’ve recently broken my fast. I was lured back to the connected life by Google’s Android operating system, the LG Optimus V mobile phone, and Virgin Mobile’s peerless prepaid monthly plans.

Let’s get the bragging out of the way up front. No one beat’s Virgin Mobile on cost-of-ownership: $150 for the phone sans contract and $25 per month for unlimited web and text messages. I’ve only got 300 minutes of talk time per month, but I’m not a big phone-talker, so it works for me. Signing up for Virgin Mobile by way of the Optimus V will run you roughly $450 in the first year ($25 x 12 months plus $150 for the phone). I got the phone on sale for $110, and VM top-up cards frequently go on special at Target. As an added bonus, I can eliminate the cost of sales tax with my employee discount.

The Optimus V is just enough phone to deliver a satisfying smartphone experience. It’s not top-of-the-line like an iPhone or a Nexus One, and it doesn’t need to be. At the end of the day, I want three things from a smartphone: communication, swishy-swipey touch screen interaction, and apps and options for entertainment and geeking out.

LG made several key compromises to keep the Optimus V entry-level and affordable, but these shortcomings don’t detract from the day-to-day experience. The 3.2-inch touch screen is smooth and responsive. After two weeks of use, I have yet to see any scratches, and I have yet to feel the need to add a screen protector. I have no problems reading the display in bright sunlight. The screen is among the smallest on any smartphone, but the phone doesn’t feel diminutive. It fits in one hand nicely for single-thumb navigation. Rotating into landscape orientation allows for fine two-thumb interaction.

The soft-touch finish on the back and sides feels comfortable and grippy. The thin plastic cover on the back conceals a sturdy metal frame which gives the phone a nice weight. It’s not burdensome; it’s just enough mass to remind me that I’m carrying a little computer in my pocket. One issue I’m anticipating: holes in my pants from storing the phone in my front pocket. The phone fits easily in the pockets of my jeans and slacks, but I’ve already noticed a rectangular outline of dirt after I’ve spent time working outside or stocking shelves at work. It’s only a matter of time before that outline gets threadbare from the daily presence of the phone, but it’s an issue I’m familiar with. Perhaps canceling our over-priced landline service from Qwest will offset the cost of new pants.

The Optimus V runs a fairly stock version of Android 2.2 Froyo out of the box. Home screens snap from side to side immediately on swiping, apps launch with little wait, and Launcher Pro adds all the customization options I crave as an Ubuntu user. The Optimus V even displays live wallpapers, although I stick with a textured black image that comes with Launcher Pro to save on battery drain. After a healthy install-fest in the first week, the Optimus V started to complain through notifications that it was “Low on Memory”. I had filled up the 160 MB of on-board memory quickly; another strategic compromise by LG. Enter Froyo: saving apps to the SD card allowed me to squeeze a few more on to the phone. The spartan memory is a limitation I’ve come to embrace: I’m learning to choose best-in-class apps and delete the rest to keep the phone light and nimble.

There are other welcome touches. The four physical buttons below the screen provide a nice, tangible contrast to the ethereal soft keyboard. Speaking of the keyboard, LG includes the Swype keyboard as the default input method. I’m terrible at texting, so Swype’s quick and intuitive input application along with Google’s web-based voice recognition and transcription really save me a lot of frustration. Other button wins: an accessibility option lets me push the power button to end calls, and a long press on the dedicated camera button launches the camera app for quick capture.

Of course, Android on the Optimus V plays nice with Ubuntu. Connecting the phone via USB to my laptop shows a “Turn on USB storage” option for easy file transfers. Ubuntu recognizes the photo and video folders on the phone’s SD card and offers to import them into Shotwell each time I connect. By adding a blank file called “.is_audio_player” to the root of the SD card, I’m able to use Banshee to manage and move music onto the phone, including album artwork.

After two weeks of use, I would highly recommend this phone for a solid smartphone experience without the beastly monthly payment and stifling contract. I used reviews from CNET and PCmag.com to inform my decision.