A couple of years ago, if you had told us that the top tech companies in the world would be warring over devices, that are phone-tablet hybrids (nicknamed ‘phablets‘ since), we would have handed you a tenner with directions to the nearest shrink. Today, there’s no denying that there is room for the phablet – there are a number of people who simply seek a large screen device that can also double up as a phone. The credit for unleashing the phablet demon goes to Samsung, whose first Galaxy Note was greeted by a number of sneers (most prominently by Yours Truly) but which went on to sell millions of units, proving the doubters thoroughly wrong. Samsung has since come out with another edition of the Note, and other manufacturers are vying for a slice of the phablet pie. And one of the foremost contenders comes from Samsung’s Korean rival, LG – the Optimus Vu. But does it do enough to carve a niche for itself in the market?
Looks: Is it a notepad?
The success of the Galaxy Note spawned a number of similar looking clones. We have to hand it to LG here – they have decided to go with a device that looks NOTHING like the Note. The Optimus Vu is a much more square-ish and wide device, looking more like a notepad than a phone with a large display. And that is because unlike the Note which has a 16:9 aspect ratio, the Vu has a 4:3 one. Five inches of display goodness packed into that ratio means one wide device – it is 90.5mm wide, which is a hefty 10mm more than the Note 2.
That said, it is not an eyesore. At 8.5mm, it is thinner than the Note 2 (9.4 mm), and its 168 gram weight is again lighter than the Note (183 grams). The 5.0-inch Gorilla Glass display dominates the front, with volume buttons on the right. Running around the phone is a metal band, with the screen/power on/off button at the top, alongside the micro USB port (with a neat cover to save it from dust), a 3.5mm jack, and a QuickMemo button (more of which later). The back is made of solid, non-glossy plastic with a slightly matte-ish finish and houses an 8.0-megapixel camera and the speakers.
The overall impression, we have to concede, oozes far more class than some ultra plasticky members of phablet land. Yes, it is wide, but then so was the Nokia E61i, a device which the Optimus Vu reminds us a lot, thanks to its slightly squared shape. It is too wide to fit comfortably in your hand or your trouser pocket, but turn heads it will. Simply because it looks very different from other phablets.
Innards: Oh man, muscle!
Lying beneath that wide body are some of the most powerful specs in mobile territory. The device is powered by a 1.5 GHz quad core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, and comes with 1 GB RAM and 32 GB of non-expandable storage. Connectivity options doth overflow – this big boy comes with 3G, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC and Wi-Fi. The camera is capable of recording full HD video and on the sound front, there is support for Dolby Mobile. There is also a Rubberdium (jargon alert!) stylus for those who prefer to scribble rather than type – it is not as sharp as the S-Pen that accompanies the Galaxy Note, but is a lot less snub nosed than the stylii we see for most capacitive display devices. You can write comfortably with this baby. The only part of the Optimus Vu’s hardware we were less than satisfied with was the 1024 x 768 resolution of the 5.0-inch display, which is well behind the 1280 x 720 sported by the Note 2, and LG’s own Optimus 4X. A minor quibble though – a certain iPad mini has the same resolution! A more serious reservation is the fact that the Vu itself has no slot to store its stylus – a recipe for losing it, we think.
Appy side: What?! STILL Ice Cream Sandwich!
The Optimus Vu comes with LG’s Optimus UI overlay, which we must confess we like for not being as complex as Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense. There is not too much fiddling with the basic Android interface. There are seven customisable home screens, and some of LG’s own software such as the note-taking Notebook, a task manager, a finance and weather app, and Polaris Office for those who want to meddle with MS Office files. And of course, there is QuickMemo, which is activated by the button on the top of the phone, and essentially takes a screenshot of the current screen, giving you the option to write on it with a stylus, if you so wish. All of which is neat and pretty much par for the course in a high-end device – what isn’t is the fact that the Optimus Vu runs on Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which is very very functional, but hardly the latest version of Android. Surely 4.1 would have been better, especially given the fact that the Note 2 runs on it. Another oddity is the absence of handwriting recognition – so your scribbles are going to remain scribbles!
Performance: Neat, but not Note-worthy
And how well does all this add up? Well, not too badly. The device might seem oddly shaped, but we must admit that reading on it was a much better experience than on any other phablet. The fact that the device is wider also means that writing on it using a stylus is very comfortable, as is typing – the keyboard is spread over a large area. LG has given users the option to view apps either in their native resolution or in the 4:3 aspect ratio – you just need to press and hold the home button to switch resolutions. Honestly, we have no idea why anyone would not want to view it in the 4:3 ratio – altering it results in a slightly “boxed” view, which really is an injustice to the display. Speaking of the display, watching video and playing games on it are a delight – the device handled Shadowgun and other high-res content we threw at it with ease. The camera, alas is a bit on the ordinary side – noise creeps in and detail is not the greatest even in decent light conditions. Sound quality however is very good – you can use this for watching films on the move without headphones – as is call reception.
The stylus is a bit of an oddity, though – yes, it is great to use, but unlike Samsung, LG has built no functionality around it, which reduces its status to the same as any stylus one might buy off the rack. And heck, we found typing a whole lot easier, thanks to the wider display. The width of the device does make it difficult to use as a phone for the small-handed – it envelops your entire cheek when you plonk it on your ear. Battery life is a bit on the mediocre side – if you steer clear of any HD stuff, you will easily see through a day of use, but watch videos and play high-def games and you will find yourself looking out warily for a power outlet within a dozen hours of usage.
Decision time: Do ye need it?
So, did we like the Optimus Vu? Blame it on our massive hands, but we did. We are the writing and reading types and after downloading WritePAD (and paying a princely $9.99 for it), we found it performing brilliantly for us. It comes across as a solid performer and we can see people who like wide screens flocking to it – if the Note is more phone and less tablet, the Vu is more tablet and less phone.
Still, we cannot help but feel that it could have been a lot more formidable with a newer version of Android and a more versatile stylus. Also, at Rs 34,500 (around $635) in India, it is priced perilously close to the Galaxy Note 2 which is available for approximately Rs 37,000 (around $ 680) packs a newer version of Android, a better camera, a larger display and a stylus that does more than scribble (and can be lodged in the phablet itself!). There are multiple ironies here – the device packs awesome hardware, but comes with an older version of Android; it comes with a shape that makes it perfect for writing on, but lacks handwriting recognition out of the box; it is big and powerful enough to take and edit images and videos on the move, but comes with an ordinary camera.
The Optimus Vu is not a bad device. Not at all. It carries its weight well and performs most functions creditably. It just does not do enough to challenge the current king of Phabletland. Our advice: wait awhile for its price to drop or for it to get a software update, especially if you have biiig hands.