Budget Android handsets are getting so good that it's making us all tingly. The LG Optimus One P500 is available now for free on the low contract price of £20 per month, which means it will soon become even cheaper. It's also available for £250 SIM-free. For those prices, you'll get nine-tenths of the great features of Android 2.2, the latest version of Google's mobile operating system.
Android hit with the ugly stick
The Optimus One isn't the best-looking budget smart phone (check out the HTC Wildfire for a budget Android phone that looks the business). But it's not hideous either. It's just rather plasticky. We like the clicky physical buttons on the front, despite their ugly chrome trim, because they're easier to use than the touch-sensitive kind that are popping up with increasing frequency.
We could go on and on endlessly about the great features of Android, but we'll limit ourselves to giving just a few examples. Its email support is excellent, offering the ability to add all your accounts, including Outlook email using Microsoft Exchange. There's a separate email client if you use Gmail or Google Apps, and Android supports multiple accounts too.
Android is Google's mobile OS, so it's no surprise that Google services are the best part of this phone. Google Maps has advanced features that you won't find on non-Android phones, such as support for My Maps and layers. Google has also released plenty of good apps in the Android Market, which you can download and install for free. We love Google Listen, a podcasting app that downloads your favourite podcasts over Wi-Fi, and Google Sky Map, which will appeal to star gazers.
We're not so impressed with the skin that LG has put on top of the default Android user interface. It does offer a couple of handy features, though. For example, you can divide the menu into categories so you can sort out your apps and icons. We also like the handy switches in the notification bar for turning Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off. This idea does seem to have been pinched from Samsung, though. It's also interesting that you can choose between having five home screens to swipe between or seven.
Unfortunately, LG's tweaks generally aren't pretty. The quick-launch bar along the bottom of the screen isn't as good-looking as the default Android bar, since the dialler icon almost spills out of the dock. And the special widgets that LG has included look clumsy, especially in comparison with the groovy widgets that HTC phones come with. You don't have to use the widgets if you don't like them, but the result of their poor design is to make the Optimus One look as cheap as it is. LG either needs to hire a decent graphic designer, or leave Android alone, as on the equally cheap Huawei Ideos.
LG has also slapped its own keyboard on the phone. It has a 12-key arrangement in portrait mode, rather than the default Android Qwerty keyboard. We can see the logic here -- big buttons make more sense on a small, 3.2-inch screen. But it's easy to change back to the Android keyboard, and, after testing both, we think the Qwerty keyboard works well even in portrait mode. The keys are small, but the software did a great job of figuring out which one we were aiming for. We suggest you try out both keyboards for yourself, which you can do by holding your finger in any text box and selecting 'input options'.
Another feature missing on the Optimus One is Flash Player 10 support. Although it's supported by Android 2.2, the Optimus One's screen resolution is too low for Flash to work. You can still catch up on YouTube, though, thanks to the YouTube app that comes pre-installed on the phone.
Stick to your resolutions
The Optimus One has a 3.2-inch, 320x480-pixel screen. Although Android has one of the best browsers in the business, this resolution makes it difficult to read text when viewing a whole Web page. But zooming in and out is easy, via either a double tap, or a pinch of your fingers, taking advantage of the reasonably smooth multi-touch zoom capability.
The Optimus One also supports Wi-Fi and HSDPA for fast downloads over 3G. Combined with the fast Web browser, the Optimus One is an excellent budget phone for surfing the Internet, despite its low-resolution screen.
Its zippy connectivity also helps when using apps for services like Facebook and Twitter, both of which come pre-installed on the phone. Android can also pull your friends' info from those services once you've logged in, so you can see their profile pics and updates in your address book on the phone.
The Optimus One cuts costs by sticking to a 3-megapixel camera, but we were impressed by the clear and bright shots that it took. It's not going to win you any photography awards, but it's okay for the occasional snap destined for sharing via MMS or Facebook.
Sharing photos via email, Picasa, Twitter and Facebook is as easy as proverbial pie, with all those services built into Android. If you use Picasa, Google's photo-sharing site, you'll also get the benefit of your Web albums syncing automatically into the phone's gallery, so you can show them off or share them.
Getting photos, as well as music and video, on and off the phone is a simple matter of dragging and dropping, once you've got the handset connected to your PC with a USB cable. A 2GB microSD card is included with the phone for storage, although you could bump that up to 32GB if you blow cash on a new card.
The LG Optimus One P500 is cheap and exceedingly cheerful. It's no oil painting, but it quietly delivers smart-phone thrills. A low-res screen means there's no Flash support, but, otherwise, you get all the brains of the latest version of Android, wrapped up in an inoffensive package. LG's custom skin even adds a handful of helpful features -- it's just a pity that its design makes Android uglier than it has to be.
Edited by Charles Kloet