Not everyone wants the biggest, fastest smartphone – especially when such models usually come with an inflated price tag to match. If you want an Android handset offering big smartphone bang for zero bucks up front, Verizon's LG Enlighten VS700 may be just the compact handset for you.
The LG Enlighten harkens back to Android's salad days with its hardware slider QWERTY keyboard, which tucks neatly inside the modest 4.5-inch high and 2.3-inch wide frame. The handset seems a tad plump at 0.58-inch thick and 5.54 ounces when compared to recent models with software keyboards, but it feels solid in the hand and just a hair smaller than the iPhone 4S.
The big tradeoff comes with the display, a 3.25-inch slab of plastic tucked between Verizon and LG logos, packing a mere HVGA resolution at 320x480 pixels. Using the stock on-screen soft keyboard will be a bit of a challenge for beefier digits, but surprisingly, we preferred this method to the slider keyboard.
The front of the LG Enlighten features a slim earpiece near the top and four hardware buttons below for Menu, Home, Back and Search. At top is the Power/Lock key and 3.5mm headphone jack.
The right side of the Enlighten is empty save for a dedicated camera button – a rare treat from an otherwise low-end smartphone. The left side features a volume rocker positioned at top, with a micro-USB accessory/charging port near the bottom covered by protective cap.
On the back there's a 3.2MP autofocus camera which doubles for video recording, but LG had to cut corners somewhere, so like the Pantech Breakout there's no flash paired with it. A small notch on the bottom allows the entire back to be easily removed, revealing a 1500mAh Li-Ion battery; tucked away at left is a micro-SD card slot (2GB included, expandable to 32GB).
The hardware keyboard slides out from underneath the left side of the phone; it moves easily and doesn't feel cheaply made. The keys are decently sized and fans of hard keys will be pleased to have them.
The LG Enlighten can be had for absolutely free from Verizon's website with two-year commitment thanks to a pair of $50 online and promo discounts; normal contract price is $99.99 or $329.99 retail.
We're not exactly jumping for joy over the LG Enlighten's Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread software, but considering the price, we expected no less. There doesn't appear to be any current sign the Enlighten will be receiving Android 4.0, but LG has done a few interesting things here to make the best of what they do have.
Sliding up on the lock screen brings us to the Enlighten's home screen, featuring time and date at top and icons for Voicemail, Email, Market and Browser.
At the bottom sits a "Quick Keys" dock with icons pinned for Phone, Contacts, Messages and Apps, but these can be swapped with any available app by simply dragging a new one over the one you'd like to replace.
Swiping down from the familiar status bar at top displays notifications, with a row of icons for quickly toggling mute, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS or airplane mode on or off.
Upon first launch, the Music Player app will also offer to install a row of playback controls here, should you want them.
Actual notifications appear on the remainder of the screen, which can be easily dismissed with a tap of the Clear button.
Tapping the Apps button reveals six collapsed categories: Communications, News & Search, Media, Tools, Applications and Downloads.
Users can add, delete, rename or reorder these categories with the Manage Category button, and each one displays the number of items that can be found within.
To access categories, use two fingers and pinch out – the list then fans out accordion style to reveal icons for the apps you have installed.
It's kind of a neat alternative to folders used in Android 4.0 and definitely beats swiping through pages of apps, especially when categories can be organized to your liking.
Holding down the Home key displays icons for recently used apps, while the dedicated Search key is a great shortcut for jumping straight into the browser in search of knowledge.
Swiping left or right on the home screen displays up to six additional pages, which can be used for storing apps or widgets; three of these are blank by default.
The LG Enlighten boasts a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, but it's only clocked at 800MHz, so it's not exactly a speed demon. However, swiping through a lengthy contacts list was quite fluid and we rarely experienced hiccups in our time with the device.
Contacts and calling
Jumping into the Phone app, LG Enlighten owners are treated to well-organized tabs up top for Phone, Call Log, Contacts and Groups.
The keypad below takes up the majority of the screen real estate, with rows of wide numbers that are plenty easy to hit with most any finger size.
Phone numbers can also be entered from numeric keys on the top row of the slider keyboard, which automatically hides the soft keyboard and switches to landscape view. Punching in numbers starts throwing up possible matches from your contacts; tap on a suggestion to choose it, then hit the green dial button to place the call.
A dedicated voicemail button resides at the bottom left next to the Call button, but users can also use the number 1 key or an icon pinned on the home screen as well.
We prefer LG's button layout to those used by other Android handset makers such as HTC, as it makes for a much cleaner UI overall.
Call quality was surprisingly good with the LG Enlighten, so much so that we often found ourselves reaching for it over other choices in our arsenal, including the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Calls were loud and clear from both the earpiece and speaker.
Placing a call displays a contact's photo in the center of the screen with a pleasing green background. When the call ends, this information remains on screen for a moment while the background switches to auburn red before vanishing back to the home screen.
Verizon adds convenient shortcuts to your contacts for account balance (#BAL), remaining data (#DATA), remaining voice minutes (#MIN), payment (#PMT) and warranty information, but these can be deleted (along with other actions) by tapping and holding on any selection.
Messaging and internet
Text messaging is a fairly straightforward affair with the LG Enlighten.
There is traditional SMS as well as picture and video MMS, all neatly laid out in threaded bubbles reminiscent of iOS.
Multimedia messages can be added from pictures, videos, the onboard camera, audio, slideshow or even vCard contacts, and we had no trouble sending or receiving between devices on multiple carriers.
The standard suite of Google apps comes preinstalled and that includes Google Talk, while others such as Google Voice can be downloaded from the Play Store (formerly Android Market).
As usual, Google Voice integrates nicely with the operating system here, allowing users the choice of placing calls or sending text messages through the carrier or Voice, with the option to choose a default method of your own liking.
Otherwise, the LG Enlighten is refreshingly free of any preinstalled apps for messaging, although all of the usual suspects can be downloaded from Google's Play Store, including Facebook, Twitter or any number of IM chat clients.
Verizon's aging CDMA network isn't exactly legendary for offering zippy 3G data speeds, so we weren't expecting all that much from the LG Enlighten. Big Red's EVDO Rev 0 failed to make much of an impression here.
Using the free Speedtest.net app, we barely cracked 0.75Mbps download and 0.64Mbps upload over 3G.
Those numbers are a far cry from what we'd equate with the term 3G, especially in this day and age.
As usual, your mileage will vary depending upon where you're located (in our region, AT&T tends to rule the speed roost).
Switching back to Wi-Fi, the LG Enlighten fared better, but the handset is clearly not taking full advantage of everything a network has to offer.
Our AT&T U-verse broadband easily hits 16Mbps down and 1.4Mbps up on the desktop, but the Enlighten eked out roughly 5Mbps down and around 1Mbps up.
We were also similarly unimpressed by the stock Gingerbread browser, which was creaky to load and display pages, but often equally slow at scrolling.
The Enlighten also touts "Flash 10 Support" as a key feature.
Suffice it to say, the LG Enlighten is aimed at only casual internet users – yes, you can connect, surf the web and maybe even watch some streaming video, but you're definitely not getting the best experience available.
We put this theory to the test with the Netflix app and were able to play video smoothly over Verizon's 3G, but with a great deal of quality loss.
If you thought the slider keyboard on the LG Enlighten was a throwback to a kinder, gentler era, just wait until you get a look at the images produced by its 3.2MP autofocus camera. In the Enlighten's case, we'll use the term "autofocus" loosely, since few of the images we snapped with the phone could realistically be described as "in focus" in the first place.
Even at the Enlighten's highest resolution (2048x1536, the default setting), images were on the grainy side, with a noticeable lack of definition and almost universally soft focus.
Four additional resolutions ranging from 1600x1200 down to 320x240 are also available, but it's unlikely you'll want to downgrade when the best quality setting already fails to git 'er done.
While the images produced by the LG Enlighten may not rival those of its higher megapixel brethren, it's not for lack of trying.
The camera's software includes a variety of helpful features such as 3x digital zoom, six different scene settings (including auto), macro mode and three different image quality settings (Normal, Fine and Super Fine).
Unfortunately, none of these made much difference in the end, although the Enlighten's built-in image editor does allow users to crop or rotate photos. Customizable brightness, white balance, color effects, ISO, timer, shot mode and shutter sound settings round out the package.
The real shame is that the Enlighten's photo software actually tops that found in more expensive hardware. The dedicated camera button is a rarity for this level of phone, although you'll have to unlock the device first before using it – there's no setting to press the camera button and jump straight into shooting while the Enlighten is locked.
We'd like to say that video recording showed a significant improvement over still images on the LG Enlighten, but sadly that's not the case. Nor should it be, because the 3.2MP sensor can only handle video resolutions up to 640x480 – yes, there are still modern smartphones that record this lowly resolution, but 320x240 or 176x144 are also available if you really want to pixelate your memories.
Videos are recorded using the 3GPP format, fairly common among lower and mid-range Android handsets. This helps make videos recorded with the handset more MMS ready, but certainly does nothing for image quality.
Sure enough, videos recorded on the LG Enlighten suffer from even worse noise and grain as still images. However, videos seemed to have a higher contrast level even in darker scenes, which helps mask some of the compression artifacts inherent with 3GPP.
Since there's no onboard LED flash, there's also no light when the Enlighten is switched into video recording mode. The camera software does include a fairly weak 3x video zoom and the same scene modes used with photos: Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night and Sunset.
By default, the LG Enlighten opts for Auto Review, a feature that stops shooting after each photo is taken, giving you the option to share an image, set it as contact icon/wallpaper or rename it. Thankfully, this can be turned off, otherwise you'll need to tap the "New" button each time you want to shoot another photo or video.
Finally, we had no problem porting sample videos over to the Mac, as the LG Enlighten mounts as a mass storage device just like every other pre-Android 3.0 device. We just didn't have much incentive to share them, since they weren't that great to begin with.
The LG Enlighten's 3.25-inch display doesn't exactly scream to be used for multimedia, especially when the trend now leans toward big screen smartphones. However, LG hasn't entirely ignored the possibilities here.
The Enlighten comes equipped with a humble Video Player app. True to its name, it literally just plays back video content you've shot with the phone or sideloaded onto a micro-SD card. The only available option is to delete video content, aside from bare-bones player tools when actually watching video.
There's also not a lot of leeway here with video formats, since the Enlighten only supports Divx, WMV, MP4, 3GP and 3G2. YouTube is preinstalled with the standard Google apps, and the aforementioned Netflix is one of several other streaming possibilities from the Play Store.
Things are a little brighter when it comes to music playback, however. The Enlighten supports MP4, WMA, WAV and unprotected AAC or AAC+ formats, and a barebones but functional Music Player app allows you to play music in the background while you're using the phone, with library content sorted by artist, album, song or playlist.
LG's Gallery app is a little beefier (but not by much), displaying photos in a revolving grid or stacked by date for easy sorting. Videos also appear in the Gallery app, although they're not given any additional superpowers here.
There's not much else on display here aside from Google's Play Books, but we downloaded Play Music (formerly Google Music), Spotify and iHeartRadio from the Play Store and had no problems using them. Playback from the Enlighten speaker is plenty loud enough, although admittedly on the tinny side of the spectrum.
Battery life and connectivity
The LG Enlighten packs a modest 1540mAh battery inside its chubby frame, but considering the smaller display, battery life was quite acceptable. LG and Verizon tout 360 minutes of talk time and 810 minutes of standby time, which sounds like a lot until you do the man (six and 13.5 hours, respectively).
In our experience, those estimates are a tad conservative, however. We pushed the battery fairly hard with talk, messaging and internet browsing over the course of the day and still had plenty of juice the next day, even after leaving the device on standby as we slept.
Surprisingly, the Enlighten comes preinstalled with Verizon Mobile Hotspot, capable of sharing the carrier's poky 3G data with up to five other devices over Wi-Fi.
We had no trouble using it, although frankly we can't image ponying up the extra dough each month for the privilege, considering how slow it is.
Neither LG or Verizon detail what kind of Wi-Fi the LG Enlighten is using, but considering the budget nature of this handset, it's presumably 802.11b/g only. We had no issues connecting to our network, which utilizes not one but two AirPort Extreme Base Stations in tandem.
The LG Enlighten also includes Bluetooth 3.0 as well as the stock Android Voice Dialer and Voice Search apps, all of which worked as expected in our tests.
Maps and apps
There's one thing we'll say for the LG Enlighten – it's refreshingly sparse when it comes to carrier bloatware. What does come preinstalled unfortunately can't be removed (a common curse of even the best carrier in the US), but chances are you won't want to anyway.
In addition to the aforementioned Mobile Hotspot app, Verizon includes some standard-issue apps: Backup Assistant, Setup Wizard (found in the Tools category) as well as My Verizon Mobile for checking your account status.
Setup Wizard and Guided Tours are the only others you may wish to purge, since they won't be very useful once you get familiar with your Enlighten.
LG and Verizon also include Polaris Viewer, a file manager of questionable use, since it literally only shows the file structure on your device, but doesn't allow you to actually do anything with it.
Otherwise, standard apps for Clock, Calculator, Calendar, Voice Recorder and Settings round out the traditional Android 2.3 Gingerbread package.
Verizon didn't bother to include any kind of branded navigation app, although Google's always trusty Navigation (which ties into the company's Google Maps) comes preinstalled.
Assuming you're traveling in areas where there's at least some kind of Verizon data coverage (and that's most of the United States these days), Navigation is about as good as it gets – assuming your vision is good enough to squint at the Enlighten's tiny screen, that is.
With so many smartphones to choose from, it's hard to imagine the target audience for the LG Enlighten. After all, there are plenty of vastly superior choices from Verizon, especially when you'll have to pony up for a monthly data plan whether you like it or not.
We've never been fans of slider keyboards, and this one doesn't offer any significant improvements in that regard.
Verizon's 3G speeds have never been a thoroughbred, but now that we're used to 4G LTE, it's hard to go back to the wireless Stone Ages.
The four hardware buttons feel rather antiquated in the era of Android 4.0, and they take up room that could be otherwise used for a larger screen.
The camera produces neither photos nor videos of decent quality.
The screen resolution is merely serviceable, which almost forces users to abandon the soft keyboard in favor of the slider.
The handset is a nice, familiar size overall and it's not too bad for holding up to your ear during extended conversations.
While we question the inclusion of a Mobile Hotspot feature in a phone that barely connects to the internet to begin with, at least you have the option.
Call quality was quite good, making this a good choice for those who talk more than surf the web.
The device isn't overloaded with unnecessary apps.
We had little to complain about when it comes to scrolling and tapping – the touchscreen is surprising accurate and the modest processor speed gets the job done.
The LG Enlighten isn't going to attract power users lusting after the latest and greatest devices. However, it may appeal to those same users' parents, grandparents or other loved ones taking their first plunge into the world of smartphones.
It's hard to recommend the LG Enlighten as an internet device, especially while it's tied to Verizon's hobbled 3G network – but it works quite nicely as a phone that just so happens to perform a number of other tasks on occasion.