Gone are the days when people's judgements over which phone to choose were based on whether it played Snake and had interchangeable fascias. The new breed of elite handsets that are getting people excited are all about big screens and burly processors.
The LG Optimus 4X HD is no exception and comes packing a 720p resolution screen and a quad-core processor.
The 4X went on sale in the UK last week but hasn't yet made it onto any operators' shelves. If you want to bag this blower you'll (currently at least) have to shell out for SIM free. And as you'd expect for a high-end slab, the 4X ain't cheap.
Clove has it up for grabs for £456, while Expansys wants to relieve you of £480. That's around same price as HTC's quad-core beast, the One X. Samsung's own four-to-the-floor behemoth, the Galaxy S3, is even more pricey -- typically costing over £500 SIM free.
Should I buy the LG Optimus 4X HD?
The 4X's Tegra chip will be music to the ears of lovers of 3D gaming. If you're after a portable games console-cum-phone in one large -- but still just about pocketable -- gadget, then the 4X could get your pulse racing. Just don't expect great feats from it's battery when you're hammering it hard.
If you want an Android powerhouse that can go the distance, Samsung's Galaxy S3 also packs a quad-core chip but its battery proved more capable than the Tegra 3 chipset in our battery tests. The S3 is a tad more expensive though. If you want quad-core power at a slightly less bank-breaking price, the 4X is worth considering.
It may also appeal if you're a fan of vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich -- because it's only got a relatively lightweight Android interface topper. LG's software additions aren't super-slick or stylish but they don't clog Android's arteries too much by larding it with loads of unnecessary flourishes.
Another benefit of having less on top of Android -- at least in theory -- is that the 4X should be well placed to get future Android updates in a timely fashion.
Alternative powerhouse Androids in the quad-core club are the aforementioned S3 and the HTC One X. Huawei has also lined up a quad-core blower -- the Ascend D Quad -- though it's yet to land in the UK.
Under the 4X's plastic bonnet is Nvidia's latest Tegra 3 processor, offering four main 1.5GHz processing cores, plus a fifth for battery-saving purposes. This same chip can be found lurking inside the Asus Transformer Prime tablet -- so it's a serious amount of welly for a pocket rocket.
The chip's fifth core is used for less demanding tasks, such as when the phone is idling in standby but still running live widgets in the background. The idea behind it is that the phone can switch to this lower-powered core to make more economical use of battery life, turning to the main cores when you fire up more demanding apps.
Overall operation on the 4X wasn't as blisteringly quick as I'd been expecting. Apps open and download nice and fast and web browsing is smooth and quick, but I was surprised to see a brief loading screen sporadically popping up between menu swipes and switches (even when there was little going on in the background). It's likely LG's Android software skin is the laggard here, rather than the 4X's engine).
There is a bigger question mark over whether quad-core phones are overkill. Certainly at present, most apps have not been optimised to take advantage of the four-way chip split. Multi-core chips don't add much to basic apps or operation, they're a help with more demanding activities like multi-tasking. This means most people's mobile needs are amply served by a fast dual-core device such as the lightning-quick HTC One S for Android fans, or Apple's iPhone 4S for iOS lovers.
Samsung's latest top-of-the-range Galaxy S3 includes a feature called Pop Up Play, which makes good use of its super-powered engine by letting you multi-task by playing video in a smaller window on the screen, while doing something else on the device. As more apps are built to take advantage of quad-core power, quad-core mobiles will become more useful. In the 4X's case, LG hasn't included any dedicated software features to take advantage of its power. It's up to you to find ways to use it.
The processor is designed to handle 3D gaming better than regular mobile processors. If you're a fan of titles such as Blood & Glory, or any of the high-definition racing titles on Google's Play Store, the 4X should deliver a smoother gaming experience than single-core blowers. One thing to note is it can get quite warm when you're taxing its engines.
In GL Benchmark's Standard Egypt test, which probes 3D graphics capabilities, the 4X ran the demo at 45 frames per second. This is certainly better than the mobile average -- but it does lag behind the S3 (which ran this test at a whopping 59fps). The HTC One X also managed a faster frame rate of 52fps.
In Vellamo's browser test, the 4X scored a very good 1,644 -- just beating the HTC One X. Once again, it was pipped to the post by the S3's 2,077.
On Antutu's test of memory, CPU speed and graphics, the 4X scored an impressive 10,956, just besting the HTC One X (10,827), but again left to eat the S3's dust (12,112). While on Quadrant's benchmark, the 4X totalled a pretty stellar 3,022, it was beaten by both the One X (4,904) and the S3 (5,289).
If you're not a fan of 3D gaming, there's less to recommend getting a quad-core device such as the 4X over and above one of the many highly capable dual-core smart phones out there. The 4X is certainly a powerful device for web browsing and can tackle graphically intensive, full HTML5 websites without stuttering or slowing to a crawl. But this power is not paired with a slick enough software interface to make the phone an out-and-out joy to use. Having this quad-core phone also means compromising on battery performance.
With a quad-core chip and a giant 4.7-inch screen, it's no surprise the 4X's battery life is not something to shout about. If you're using the phone carefully and modestly, you should just be able to eke out a day before having to juice it up. But what's the point of having a big engine if you're too afraid to use it?
According to LG, the 4X has a 2,150mAh battery. This is actually a smidge larger than the S3's cell -- which performed well in our battery tests. The 4X's battery size is also roomier than the HTC One X's 1,800mAh tank.
LG's official battery stats for the 4X promise up to 14.9 hours of talk time, 9 hours of browsing or 4 hours of video recording on a single charge. You can listen to music on it for as long as 52 hours and standby time -- when you're not using the phone at all -- is up to 527 hours.
In an attempt to see how long the 4X can last when it's being used a lot, I set it playing an HD nyan cat video over Wi-Fi, with the screen at max brightness. In this psychedelic state, the phone took just under 3 hours to exhaust a fully charged battery. In a similar test, the S3's battery had dropped from 100 per cent to around 70 per cent after 3 hours of video streaming -- suggesting the S3 has superior power management skills and/or a more power-efficient chipset.
Of course, you can extend the 4X's battery life by dialling down the screen brightness and using other preservation techniques such as closing open apps you're no longer using and avoiding running power-draining live wallpapers. But if you forget to charge the phone overnight, don't expect to get much joy out of it the next day.
I also did a battery test with the 4X running a graphically taxing 3D game. In this test I set the screen brightness to half. Even so, it took only 1 hour of continuous play for the battery to drop from 100 per cent to 50 per cent. You can probably only expect 2 hours of high-end gaming on a single charge.
Ice Cream Sandwich and software
The 4X is blessed with the latest version of Android, known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). A lot of new phones -- including LG's own Optimus 3D Max -- have launched with the older 2.3 Gingerbread software on board, pledging only that they will update to the newer software soon.
It's therefore nice to see LG has had the good sense to launch its top-of-the-range blower with ICS on board. It's pretty galling to spend a small fortune on the latest kit, only to find its software is out of date.
As standard, ICS offers Android's multiple home screens that you can fill up with all kinds of apps and live widgets. They can be resized to be as prominent as you want -- a feature that has been pulled over from the tablet-specific version of Android called Honeycomb.
You also get full access to the Google Play app store to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of apps, games, widgets and wallpapers on offer.
Pretty much every company applies its own skin over the stock Android experience and LG is no exception, skinning ICS with its Optimus 3.0 interface. LG's software skin is nothing to write home about. You get the basic multiple home screens of Android to swoop between and add apps and widgets to, but don't expect super-attractive widgets or supremely intuitive interfaces. LG has taken a leaf out of HTC's book with its widget preview menu though, which is nicer to navigate than more rudimentary Android skins that just give you a text list to pick from.
The best you can say of LG's skin is that it doesn't add too much clutter on top of ICS. Android purists may even prefer it to HTC's slicker Sense interface. For example, LG gives you the stock ICS stack of thumbnails to scroll back through your recently used apps. The stock browser also has a straightforward stack of scrollable thumbnails for switching between your various browser windows. And there's a handy toolbar at the top of the notification tray so you can easily toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a few other functions on and off.
All of this is solid, if not especially slick Android fare. The keyboard layout and word predictive engine on the 4X did annoy me though -- resulting in strings of irritating typos. There's also no Swype or Swype-style keyboard option to switch to for a slicker typing experience. You can, of course, download alternative keyboards from Google Play such as SwiftKey.
Doing basic stuff like cutting and pasting a block of text was far more fiddly than it should have been. And I also experienced glitches -- with some sites causing the phone's screen to go dark for no reason. At one point, as I tried to edit a draft Gmail email, the phone refused to let me type anything. These niggles were more irritating than major deal-breakers but they would annoy me if I'd shelled out for the phone.
As well as access to Google's Play Store for downloading apps, LG has pre-loaded some of its own software onto the 4X. There's nothing too special here but some apps could be handy. Task Manager is a useful way to see which apps are currently running, stopping any you're not using and viewing installed apps to see how much of the phone's 16GB of storage is used up. Application Manager displays the apps you've installed in a list and offers an easy way to remove them.
Other pre-loaded apps include LG's SmartShare for playing and sharing films and files between DLNA certified devices, a RemoteCallService for remotely diagnosing problems with the phone, and LG's SmartWorld app store -- in case you can't find what you're after on Google Play.
Design and build quality
With a screen size of 4.7 inches on the diagonal, the 4X is banging on the doors of the enormo-phone club, demanding to be let in. It's not pushing the gargantuan proportions of the Samsung Galaxy Note's whopping 5.3 inches though. Or even its ludicrously large sibling, the LG Optimus Vu -- which has a 5-inch screen that feels even bigger than the Galaxy Note (thanks to its book-like 4:3 aspect ratio).
The 4X is undeniably a big phone but stack it up against the Samsung Galaxy S2 and it's not actually that much bigger. Most of the extra screen real estate on the 4X is at the bottom, meaning the screen is longer but not much wider than the S2. The 4X is also about the same thickness as the S2. If you're comfortable with the size of an S2, you'll have no trouble handling the 4X.
The benefit of a screen of this size is that it means you can happily browse full versions of websites, rather than have to snack on mobile sites. Watching your favourite YouTube clips -- or even eyeballing full-length HD films -- is also enjoyable rather than an exercise in squinting.
On the downside, owning a larger blower means more gadget to lug around and cram into your pocket. Those of you with teeny-tiny hands may find it annoying to stretch your digits to reach everything on the screen.
The screen itself is an IPS LCD affair, which offers an excellent resolution of 1,280x720 pixels. That equates to 312 pixels per inch. It's the same resolution and screen size as the HTC One. Look at both panes side by side and the 4X's screen doesn't look quite as vibrant and colourful as the One X, which has a Super LCD pane. Whites do look whiter on the 4X though.
From a hardware point of view, the 4X's display is also less fancy looking than the One X, which has a curvaceous 'waterfall' design that wraps the screen over the phone's two sides. LG has opted for a basic flat rectangle for the 4X's screen. It's pretty vanilla to look at but is easier to hold, thanks to straight chrome-edged sides. The sides are also rigid so there's no risk of phantom selections just because you're holding the phone (something I encountered on the One X).
While there's no shortage of screen real estate to eyeball full websites on the 4X, the resolution isn't as pin sharp and refined as some very high-end screens -- such as the retina display found on Apple's iPhones. Sony's Xperia S also has a sharper panel.
The viewing angle of the 4X, while good, could be better as the screen is set a noticeable few millimetres below the surface. Overall though, the display is bright, clear and colourful. The touchscreen is nice and responsive, although there's a fractional lag before it registers your fingertip and starts shifting pixels where you want them.
Looks wise, the 4X doesn't push any boundaries with its industry-standard-rectangle-with-slightly-rounded-corners design, available in black or white. It's best described as slightly bland. LG says the 4X has a 'prism-edged' design -- which presumably refers to the dual chrome banding running all the way around the edge.
In the middle of this chrome sandwich is a very thin strip of plastic which, on the phone's two long sides, has a textured pyramid pattern stippling it -- much like the chocolate that falls off patterned wafers. It's not really a tactile addition since the bands of chrome are slightly higher, although at one point the mini pyramids do carry on up and over the raised volume rocker.
There are no physical buttons on the front of the 4X. Instead, you get three touch-sensitive controls to navigate the Android interface -- back, home and menu. These keys spend most of their life being entirely invisible. Indeed, you have to touch them to make them light up -- not much help if you've forgotten which is which.
There's a physical power key on the top of the phone sandwiched between the chrome. I found this a little stiff because it's quite low lying and is located between slightly raised chrome strips.
On the back of the phone, there's more of LG's trademark textured plastic. Here it has what looks almost like a bark imprint. It certainly makes a change from hyper-shiny smart phone surfaces but it does highlight the phone's plasticky character.
Here, you'll also find a rather tinny rear speaker. Crack open the back of the phone and you'll find a removeable battery, a SIM slot and a microSD card slot for expanding the 16GB of board storage.
Also on the back of the device is an 8-megapixel camera -- set ever so slightly back into the casing but surrounded by a protective, grooved metal collar. This lens has a back-illuminated sensor that's designed to offer better results in low-light conditions. Together with the LED flash, this should make it a good snapper for parties in grimy underground pubs -- although I found the single LED could dazzle subjects if you got too close, resulting in washed-out colours.
There's also a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video calling using services like Skype, and for Android ICS's Face Unlock feature.
The 4X also includes a near field communication (NFC) chip. This contactless technology can be used in conjunction with NFC tags as a quick way to fire up apps or change preferences on the phone, simply by tapping your handset to a tag (LG has included a car mode NFC sticker in the box).
NFC can also be used to support contactless payments. Here in the UK, we're still waiting for the banking apps to come along to enable this.
Call quality was average with people sounding slightly muffled. I didn't experience any dropped calls during testing.
The 4X's camera is a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde creature. When it's good, it's very, very good but when it's bad it's blurrily out of focus. Indeed, staying focused was the big problem it had during testing. It shifts in and out of focus seemingly at random so half the test shots I took were blurred -- such as this shot of a Southwark jogger with the Shard in the background.
However, when you can get the camera to stay focused, it can turn out some truly excellent shots with artful depth of field.
In general, 4X shots have a soft appearance, rather than the super-sharp clarity and levels of detail of a camera-phone lens such as the Sony Xperia S.
It's up to you whether you prefer this slightly softer look, or the sharpness of the Xperia S. The 4X's lens is superior in lower light conditions, with much less noise speckling photos.
The camera interface also includes a neat time-shifting feature -- if you snap a photo with this turned on, it will actually capture a sequence of shots starting from before you press the shutter to a few seconds after. You can then scroll through the snaps and pick the best one (or, all too often, the non-blurred one).
One particular annoyance is the 4X's shutter sound -- I couldn't find a way to turn this off. The only options offered were to alter the tone from a shutter click to a slightly weirder shutter click, including one which sounds like a female android saying "you lick".
Video capture wasn't great as the 4X's oscillating eye causes footage to rove in and out of focus. Test footage also produced a lot of artefacting during these out-of-focus episodes.
So although you can record 1080p HD video, nobody will be marvelling at the detail. They'll just be asking you whether you were drunk when you shot it.
The LG Optimus 4X HD is a phone for hardcore gadget junkies who demand top-drawer specs and don't mind paying a serious wack of cash to get them. These guys are also happy to carry a few spare batteries to keep their pocket rocket juiced up. The Samsung Galaxy S3 offers more impressive benchmark results -- so if you want to own the Ferrari of the Android world, rather than a more workaday supercar, you'll need to save up a few more pounds.
Potential buyers should be aware the 4X isn't perfect. The camera can be great but it also has a focus glitch, while LG's software skin isn't the most elegant Android topper around and can be finicky.
If your mobile needs are more modest than hardcore 3D gaming then there's no shortage of supremely capable dual-core phones to take home instead -- which are lighter on the wallet and less likely to conk out before the day is done. Android fans could consider the super-nippy HTC One S or even the perennially popular Samsung Galaxy S2 -- which has now had an Ice Cream Sandwich update.
Andrew Hoyle contributed to testing and writing.