We can barely move for brilliantly made, tech-filled Android phones recently, from the ruggedly gorgeous HTC Incredible S to the shockingly slender and capable Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc. Filling a mobile with all the tech under the sun is one thing however, but it counts for nothing if you can't actually see what's happening on the darned thing.
LG wants to dominate in the display stakes with the LG Optimus Black -- a mysteriously named smart phone with a display so bright LG reckons you'll be able to able to make out on-screen action even in direct sunlight. But costing around £400 SIM-free, is the Optimus Black a bright spark, or a flash in the pan?
The new Black
In terms of design, the Optimus Black isn't too ambitious, rocking the shiny black rectangle look that's become the default styling for smart phones. A 4-inch touchscreen sits in the centre of a slim black plastic surround, beneath which you'll find the four touch-sensitive buttons common to Android mobiles.
The back of the Black is charcoal grey, ironically enough (wait, is that ironic? We can never tell...), with a silky metallic finish. In recent months we've seen a version with a white back, so that's something to look out for if you're averse to the charcoal look. There's a 5-megapixel camera housed around the back too, but more on that later.
Dimensionally, the Black is one slender smart phone, and at 9.2mm thick, it's certain to slide into even the tightest of trendy jeans. It's impressively light too, tipping the scales at a delicate 111g. That's just thinner than the 9.3mm iPhone 4, and significantly lighter than its 137g.
While the Optimus Black looks good sat on our desks, it feels less graceful in our eager palms. Squeezing the casing we can hear the plastic creaking a little, and the edges around the bezel feel a little sharp for our liking. The phone doesn't feel like it's going to fall apart, but it's not the exquisitely hewn smart phone-sculpture that the iPhone 4 or HTC Incredible S are, for example.
Let there be light
We're pleased to report that the Optimus Black's much-touted display is indeed very bright, and impressively clear, with a decent level of contrast, so text on webpages stands out.
Disappointingly though, performance in direct sunlight isn't much cop. The Optimus Black's display might be brighter than its rivals, but under the punishing glare of the Sun Gods, the screen is just as invisible as that on every other phone, laptop and tablet, and the only thing that shows up clearly in direct sunlight is fingerprint grease. Yuck.
The display is good in other respects though. Its resolution of 480x800 pixels isn't as high as the iPhone 4's impressive 640x960-pixel retina display, but despite not looking quite as pin-sharp, it would be a cruel gentleman that called this display blurry. Everything on-screen looks tidy and precise, and lettering is rendered very clearly, so peering at smaller chunks of text in the phone's browser isn't too rough on the eyes.
Colours are vivid, with more than a touch of saturation, making photos and videos look almost unnaturally colourful. Side-by-side with an iPhone 4 there's a striking difference in the way the two mobiles portray colours. The Optimus Black has a tendency to display whites with a yellowish hue, but when looking at colourful photos it seared images into our retinas with a fierce intensity. Apple's device is more muted, and while still very colourful, images on the iPhone 4 didn't look quite as brash.
A final observation is that the Optimus Black's display isn't set as close to the surface of the screen as some other mobiles. Keeping the actual panel flush with the top of the touchscreen looks very classy -- it's something we particularly liked about the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, for example, so it's a shame the Black doesn't meet that standard.
We're not going to say the Optimus Black's display is better than than those of rival mobiles, but it is very bright, and very colourful. We'd understand if you wanted to opt for something a tad more demure though.
The Optimus Black is running Android version 2.2 Froyo, which isn't the latest version of Google's OS -- that honour goes to version 2.3 Gingerbread. There's not a great deal of difference between those two versions (they both offer Flash support for instance, so you can watch Flash videos in the phone's browser), but it's a shame not to have the most up to date version. LG has promised to update the phone to version 2.3 after launch, however.
Happily, the Optimus Black feels fast to use. Navigating through menus is a snappy affair, and we didn't notice too many instances of slowdown or stuttering while using the phone. We found it ran games just as smoothly.
LG's made a few tweaks to the default Android interface, and apart from some rather basic, Fisher-Price-esque icons along the bottom of the screen, we've no real complaints. Often a unique spin on the Android interface means a phone is slower to receive updates, but at this point all we can really do is cross our fingers and hope this isn't the case with the Optimus Black.
Letting things slide
One interesting feature is a gesture button on the left side of the phone, which lets you perform gesture-based shortcuts for various actions. For instance, if you hold down the button and rock the phone from side to side, it'll slide its way through your various homescreens. If you press the button while viewing a photo, it'll zoom in, and then you can scroll around the image by tilting the phone.
We'd be surprised if using this button is ever faster or easier than just using your fingers, but it's a cool addition, and at the very least it's something to idly toy with while you're waiting for Angry Birds to update, or while your boring friends are trying desperately to engage you in conversation.
The 5-megapixel camera takes reasonably good snaps, while footage we recorded using the camcorder mode played back very smoothly. It won't be troubling proper compact digital cameras, but this is a decent mobile snapper. There's a 2-megapixel version on the front as well, for stylish self-portraits, or for video calling if and when the Optimus Black eventually gets this feature.
As for battery life, we didn't notice the bright display taking an overly large toll, though as with all smart phones you won't get more than a day's worth of juice if you're using the phone constantly -- playing games and downloading stuff will cause the Optimus Black to quickly guzzle through its power reserves.
There's not a great deal that stands out about the LG Optimus Black, and while the screen is certainly very bright, it's hardly strides ahead of rival smart phones. Still, while it doesn't break new ground, this is a decent all-round phone that would make a good first step into the heady world of Android.
Edited by Nick Hide