Virgin Mobile presents an alternative to how most cell phone carriers conduct business. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all offer the latest and greatest handsets, and oftentimes for dirt-cheap prices. The downside is that you're locked into a lengthy contract to obtain one of those dope, new phones.
These agreements are what allows such devices, which in reality are quite expensive, to be served up for such a seemingly low or nonexistent asking price. While the phone's full price is essentially subsidized you're actually paying full price throughout the course of your contract.
Often or not, when that time is up, the phone has long been paid off, and all money from that point forward is going directly going into your carrier's pockets with no real bonus to the consumer. Enter Virgin Mobile, which offers phones with no strings attached, meaning no contract necessary. But because the prices of their devices are not subsidized, they must be paid in full and up front. Which is why most of the offerings are not the current, feature rich devices that the big guys use to attract business.
Hence the stigma (which has some basis in reality) that Virgin Mobile's customers just want a phone that works, period. That they have little to no need for cutting edge smartphone hardware or software. The recent addition of the iPhone 4S would indicate that this is not true, or at least any more; their customers simply desire freedom from carrier shenanigans, and are willing to pay a premium for a top of the line device while they're at it. Period.
Yet regardless of all that, people deserve the most bang for their buck, no matter the actual amount. One of the most popular smartphones in Virgin Mobile's catalogue has been the LG Optimus V. When that Android device hit the streets back in early 2011, it offered solid, albeit unspectacular functionality; any shortcomings were mostly excused by the reasonable asking price for a non-contract smartphone. The LG Optimus Slider is its follow-up, adding a sliding QWERTY keyboard into the mix.
But it's mid 2012 and standards have changed quite a bit, even for low-end smartphones. Is the Slider a worthy follow-up, one that can compete in an increasingly crowded marketplace? The answer is no. Not one bit.
The LG Optimus Slider, like many budget devices, packs a considerably low profile. Coming it at just 4.53" x 2.32" x 0.58," it's noticeably small when compared to most other handsets sporting Google's mobile OS today. Which results in something that fits right in the palm of your hands. Though the diminutive sized device is considerably hefty; it's 5.51 oz. and actually feels bulky, despite its modest dimensions.
This is entirely due to the physical keyboard, the key-differentiating feature between the Slider and its predecessor, the aforementioned V. The sliding mechanism is basically solid; we've definitely handled better, but it's by no means flimsy feeling either. Unfortunately, the keyboard itself is at the bottom of a long list of problems that plagues the device.
The keys feel nice; they're plastic, yet sport a vaguely rubbery finish. The problem is, they're grouped too closely together, which forces one to type rather slowly and deliberately, less they want to have tons of typos when all is said and typed. If there was just a tiny bit of space separating the keys, or better yet, if the key themselves were ever so slightly wider, there would be no problems. But as is, it's still functional.
The top of the phone has the power/sleep button to the left, the headphone jack to the right. Like other Android devices with a compact profile, when a pair of headphones is inserted, a portion of the plug is visible. But unlike certain other phones, such as the Samsung Conquer 4G (Sprint), the fit is nice and tight. One of the primary focuses of the machine is it music capabilities, so it's especially appreciated.
To the left is the volume rocker and a cover for the USB port, for recharging and hooking it up to a PC, for media transfers. To the right is the dedicated shutter button that activates the camera app when you're inside the phone. The problem is, it's not entirely dependable, and is an issue that is consistent throughout the device.
There are no buttons at the bottom, just where one can grab hold of the back cover for easy removal. In addition to the removable battery, you will also find the micro SD card slot; a 2GB card comes with the package, which you will need to replace with a higher capacity one, if you wish to use the Slider as a music capable machine. Especially since the on-board RAM is a paltry 512MB. But for the low price, that's to be expected.
On the back you will also find the 3.2 megapixel camera lens, yet another concession that is made for the sake of affordability. There is also no flash, which makes passable picture taking indoors or in low light situations a challenge. Right next to the lens is the speaker grill. The audio quality is surprisingly high, with no muffling or crackling. But the max volume is also far too low, which is rather surprising for a device that, again, is built around an audio experience.
The front of the phone will not win any beauty pageants either, to put it mildly, and goes far to reinforce the stereotype that those who want a contract free phone just want something that's functional, not pretty. The overall design is based upon the V's, but whereas that phone had a certain degree of charm, despite its clearly utilitarian aesthetic, the Slider's style is even less fashionable.
The display is a 3.2-inch captive touch screen, sporting a 320x480-pixel resolution, and pixel density of 180ppi, yet another trade off that is consistent with similar budget smartphones. Image quality is fine, though definitely pixelated, meaning no HD visuals whatsoever. Another disadvantage of the almost non-existent screen real estate is how the onscreen keyboard can be difficult to manage. But that's where the physical keyboard, despite its shortcomings, comes in to save the day.
Below the screen are the familiar set of standard Android buttons, but in physical form. Its unique look is pretty much the only interesting thing about the Slider's overall vibe. And for those looking for the front facing camera, don't bother: there isn't one.
Interface and Apps
Inside the Slider is where things officially begin to fall apart. Everything is powered by an 800 MHz Snapdragon CPU, which is simply not up for the job of keeping things running, to an even moderately smooth degree. Despite the thoroughly less than modern flavor of Android, Gingerbread 2.3.4 to be exact, everything is slow, jittery, and generally unresponsive.
There is a considerable, some might say intolerable amount of lag between inputs and executed actions on screen. Scrolling and screen transitions are where the lack of horsepower is most noticeable. Things are generally fine once you're inside an app or game, but switching back and forth will often result in the Slider freezing for a number of seconds, leading to assumptions that the phone has completely locked up.
The lackluster performance is perplexing. While a single core 800 MHz processor is meager by today's standards, it should still run Gingerbread well enough, especially when it's a mostly stock variant. There is no custom UI to speak of, other than a Virgin Mobile specific intro animation that only happens when the phone is turned on or off.
On the plus side, for some at least, is how the Android experience is mostly unfiltered. Those who are not a fan of custom overlays will be able to breath a sigh of relief. Though one has to wonder how much a custom UI might have either further hindered the Slider, or perhaps helped its case, provided if one was properly optimized for the platform.
But because it's an older version of Android, and on a device that cannot allow for upgrading, you can forget about some of the more recent apps in the Google Play Store. The stock web browser is okay, but it can't hold a candle to the Android version of Google Chrome. Which, alas, is not available to Slider owners. It's a situation that will continue to worsen over time.
As noted earlier, music is one of the primary focuses of the device. The Slider comes pre-loaded with a variety of ringtones and notifications and alerts that are actually decent. The default tones might not be most people's cup of tea, but there are plenty of alternatives to choose from. Though the emphasis on music is mostly felt in the pre-loaded applications.
Carrier provided apps is an annoyance for most Android users, mostly because they cannot be un-installed. And their presence on a Virgin Mobile device is especially perplexing, since it somewhat betrays the M.O. of the no strings, mostly autonomous experience. But given their primary focus, they can at least be rationalized.
My Accounts is fairly self-explanatory; it allows the customer to monitor account activity, view balance, and pay for additional service. Too bad both the phone number and password, both necessary to access account information, is not saved by the phone, which is a bit of a pain. The worst part is how it is not a true application, but simply a web alias. One that, curiously enough, cannot be deleted.
Downloads allows users to purchase ringtones that are based on hit songs and wallpapers featuring today's hottest musicians. One can also find shortcuts to a variety of online portals, which provide sports scores, info pertaining to local nightlife, and places to find a date. It's something straight out of 2002 and might actually be the case.
The idea behind Downloads, that being a one-stop resource for anything you would need from the web, made sense back in the day, before phones were designed for web surfing and a variety of applications that expertly provided specific bits of content were in place. The overall look and feel is equally archaic, and feels like something you remember from your very first cell phone, which was powered by J2ME. In fact, it's clear that it's a holdover from Virgin Mobile's past that they have completely neglected to update to today's specifications.
Virgin Mobile also places heavy importance on social networking, hence the presence of Twitter and Facebook clients, both pre-installed. These are not custom applications, but the same stock version you'd find in the Google Play Store. With one lone exception: they cannot be uninstalled. For many, this is a non-issue, but for those who actively hate both services, this is will be a major source of annoyance.
Three other social networking apps that are not nearly as well known are also found. First there's Poynt, which serves up movie times, restaurant reviews, places to find gas, and the like. SCVNGR is a location-based game that rewards players for completing tasks that are tied into local businesses, with perks stemming from them as rewards. And airG is yet another mobile social network, one that is primarily built around dating.
But the centerpiece pre-installed app would have to be Virgin Mobile Live, which is the primary hub for Virgin Mobile specific content. It allows one to stream audio, much like an internet radio station, and can run in the background. Given how unlimited data is a cornerstone of the carrier's sales pitch, there should never be a concern when it comes to eating up too much for the app. Whereas actually finding a signal is the actual concern.
If one likes what they hear, there is a Buy button, which automatically takes the user to an Amazon page, where that particular song can be purchased. Or at least that's what is generally supposed to happen. Sometimes, you'll come across a page on Amazon stating that there is no trace in their library.
The selection of music that is offered is mostly contemporary indie pop, with some classic alternative tracks and rap tossed into the mix. It's a great way to discover new acts that you might not have heard about otherwise, but it is disappointing that there's no real control from the users' end. One would have expected at least a small handful of stations to choose from, specializing in rock, R&B, and country. But no, it's just one curated station.
The Virgin Mobile Live app also has a video component, but those assuming that it contains music videos are sorely mistaken. Instead, it's simply a list of clips featuring the adventures of Sparah, a made up celebrity couple that is Virgin Mobile's corporate mascots. The videos, by the way, do not play in the app and instead either sends you to the default browser or the YouTube app.
The overall look and feel of the Virgin Mobile Live is also disappointing. When streaming music, a small thumbnail of the album art is provided, with necessary information, such as the artist and song title, presented in the form of a very slowly moving ticker at the bottom. Again, something that is supposed to be stylish is anything but.
Virgin Mobile, despite being an alternative to the major carriers, is actually part of one; it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint Nextel, and uses their spectrum to provide service. In the case of the Slider, which is a 3G capable device, it's on Sprint's CDMA 1900 MHz, EVDO Rev-A network.
Testing was conducted throughout parts of New York City: upper Manhattan, lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn. In each area, voice quality was more than acceptable. While not exactly crystal clear, both parities were able to maintain a conversation with little to no background noise. There were no instances of dropped calls.
But subpar data is the Slider's second major failing, alongside the unresponsiveness of the phone. Upload and download speeds greatly fluctuated from area to area, but they were all very much slow across the board. In recent years, Sprint has begun investing in high speed LTE 4G bandwidth, and the poor performance of this particular device makes one realize why; their EVDO Rev-A infrastructure is not up to snuff anymore.
Of the multiple tests conducted, the very best result was 3688kbps downloaded and 672kbps uploaded, in downtown Manhattan. The average, taken from both downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, was 110kbps downloaded and 45kbps uploaded. The absolute worst result took place in upper Manhattan, which saw 7kbps downloaded and 2kbps uploaded.
When tested side by side a Sprint device running on its own LTE network, and an AT&T handset running on its own 4G spectrum, the Slider came in dead last in every single instance. In all areas, data performance was abysmal; not only is streaming music from the aforementioned Live app virtually impossible most of the time, but one cannot surf the web or download very modest updates via the Google Play Store with any degree of consistency or reliability.
It is no exaggeration to say that the connectivity issue that the Slider suffers from, when it comes to data, is simply unacceptable.
Camera and Video
As already noted, the Slider has a 3.2 megapixel camera. When it comes to virtually all budget smartphones, picture taking is one of the features that is almost always crippled when it comes to saving money, generally speaking. In all honestly, its performance is not horrible, at least when compared to other cost conscious Android handsets.
The quality of the image will almost entirely depend on the lighting conditions. If taken outdoors, and under a bright sun, colors and details should be more than sufficient. But indoors, its an entirely different story. At best, you'll have washed out colors and noticeable amount of digital grain. And forget about taking pictures when the sun goes down, unless you have a very strong light source; the phone lacks a flash.
Oddly enough, the straightforward Android UI is where the camera app shines the most. Without a custom skin getting in the way, you have a large number of options at your disposal, which are otherwise obscured in other instances. Including a number of white balance pre-sets, focus modes, picture quality, color effects, and more.
It's just a shame that the camera itself is not up to the task. But at least you have a fighting chance to make that picture the best it can be. Though the biggest issue is, once again, the overall sluggishness and unresponsiveness of the phone itself.
There's a dedicated shutter button that is supposed to automatically send you into the camera app from anywhere else, in case a picture taking opportunity arises from out of the blue. In similar Android handsets, it takes about one to two seconds for the camera app to be launched. But in the Slider's instance, it's three to four. Sometimes more. Which can lead to frustration if the moment has been lost.
The camera app can also shoot video. Given the VGA resolution, the results are equally unexciting. But the strange thing is how it has its own dedicated icon in the Slider's application folder, called Camcorder. Which, again, is just the camera app, with the slider that goes between still shot and video mode being adjusted already. Very strange.
Battery life and verdict
Battery life is, unquestionably, the biggest issue with the LG Optimus Slider. The two other major problems are nothing to sneeze at. But a sluggish UI and poor data speeds are two issues that can, ultimately, be gotten used to. But the device's inability to hold a charge for a halfway reasonable amount of time is a major issue.
Even during standby mode, when the phone is not in use, with no applications running in the background (except for essential Android processes), the Slider will not last more than 24 hours. And doing almost anything will kill the battery life even faster.
For testing purposes, the Slider underwent light usage for just a single hour on a full charge. This included a 15 minute long voice call, a 15 minute session with a downloaded game, and another 15 minutes spent surfing the web with the WiFi enabled, the end result was a decrease of battery life of almost 50 percent.
In the end, battery life results, along with its data performance, is unacceptable.
Often when a budget phone is evaluated, it's easy to be either too kind or too harsh with a particular device's shortcomings. But not in the instance of the Slider; its issues are undeniable, no matter how one views them.
Sadly, there is not much to actually like about this device. The idea of it being a musically driven device is one that we wished we could have gotten into. Along with the surprisingly tasteful audio trimmings, in the form of notifications and ringtones that are actually enjoyable, is the means to discover new musical acts. Too bad it doesn't work nearly as well as it could.
We didn't like
The unavoidable truth is how the Slider is an absolute mess. The visually unappealing aesthetics is just the tip of the iceberg, one that at least has zero impact on its performance. Even the subpar resolution of the touchscreen and low megapixel count are hardly worth mentioning, in light of the legitimate issues that plague the device.
The absurdly slow speed of the phone is its first major red flag. The overall experience is not nearly as silky smooth as it could be, especially considering how it's an older version of Android, one that has no needless eye-candy getting in the way. Another major issue is its ridiculously inconsistent and across the boards slow data.
Given the issues we had downloading just a modest amount of content in a major city, one has to wonder how it would fare in other parts of the country. But without a doubt the most serious issue is the nonexistent battery life. If a phone can't be on standby mode for a full day of doing nothing, without completely dying, there is a serious problem.
There really is no nice way of putting it: the LG Optimus Slider is not a very good phone, and should be avoided at all costs. No matter what price point you're looking at, and no matter what your views are towards carriers, contracts, and everything in-between, there are most definitely better options out there.