While devices like the HTC One and the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S4 carry the Android banner to powerful and sophisticated new heights, there remains a strong market for lower-end handsets that don't require a huge upfront expense or long-term contract to reasonably obtain.
Enter the LG Venice, an Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich smartphone that's sold contract-free through Boost Mobile. Neither its build nor its internals stack up against the top Android offerings from this year or the last, plus it's stuck with a 3G connection. But it's a fair device for casual users to consider, since Boost's plans are much cheaper than those of traditional carriers.
The LG Venice sports a simple and unassuming front, with the 4.3-inch touch display – at a resolution of 800 x 480 – surrounded by a black border with an LG logo and small front-facing camera up top, along with a physical button at the bottom. When powered on, additional Back and Settings touch buttons light up on either side of the physical one.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly for the cost and components, the Venice's screen disappoints with visible pixels throughout, which are particularly eye-catching with some of the icons and while playing games. It's not a poor display; in fact, it's quite bright with solid contrast, but the lack of clarity is notable even for a lower-cost device.
On the flip side, the textured faux-metal plastic backing is a definite eye-catcher, though while distinct it can't help but look a bit chintzy. It almost looks like a cigarette or business card holder from the 60's, and it's rather unique among Android handsets, but also feels a bit cheap and will no doubt look tacky to some.
And while this isn't a problem that most prospective buyers of the LG Venice will encounter, we advise keeping that backing away from the screens of other phones. We had the Venice alongside an iPhone 5 in a pocket for a span, and the latter emerged with swirls of small scratches on the screen from the LG's backing. If you carry two phones and are considering the Venice, keep it in a case or a separate location – take our word for it.
Also on the back is the 5.0 megapixel primary camera lens with a flash. On the top of the phone, you'll find a power button and a headphone jack, while the bottom holds the mini-USB output. The left side of the phone houses the volume rocker.
The profile of the LG Venice is little boxy and unrefined, with dimensions of 4.92 by 2.64 inches, but it is pretty slim at a thickness of 0.34 inches while the weight is kept low at 4.41 ounces. Between the large plastic back panel and the faux-metal sides and top, though, the build doesn't feel remarkably sturdy, but it's not quite in danger of being snapped in half, either.
With just a single-core 1Ghz processor and 768MB of RAM, it's very much on the lower end of the smartphone pool, and it shows with occasionally sluggish navigation between apps, as well as decreased performance on games. It's not a phone for power users who aim to flit between apps and run high-end apps and games. It simply can't keep up.
The LG Venice is listed at $199.99 without contract, though we've seen it cheaper of late, and Boost Mobile – which uses Sprint's network – offers monthly unlimited plans at $55 that drop in price the longer you keep them paid up, along with optional daily unlimited plans.
Interface, calling, and Internet
The LG Venice runs Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich, making it not quite modern – thanks to the lack of Jelly Bean – but at least it's not stuck in the Gingerbread era. On top of the base Android OS is LG's Optimus 3.0 skin, which is a largely unobtrusive overlay. We particularly like the ability to customize the four app shortcuts on the home screen, which let you enter them immediately by tapping and dragging.
Seven home screens are available to be customized with app icons and widgets, and getting around the home screens is a pretty zippy experience. Popping into and out of apps, however, can spawn occasional waits and unresponsive hitches, likely due to the lower-end processor and limited RAM.
Otherwise, most of the components are stock Ice Cream Sandwich, including the messaging and email apps – which both use the great Swype keyboard for optionally zigzagging in your words – plus the familiar grid-based apps screen, typical settings layout, and more. If you've used Android elsewhere, you'll feel right at home here.
Likewise, the calling interface is quite similar to that seen on other Android devices without heavy manufacturer overlays, with a large block of numbers that take up most of the dialer screen. Contacts management is also pretty straightforward, with the ability to manually add contacts alongside those optionally imported from Google and Facebook, and it does a very good job of automatically merging duplicate accounts.
Call quality on Sprint's 3G network was solid in use. We consistently heard the people we spoke with on the other side and fielded no complaints on the other end, with only a minimal and expected amount of static along the way. We've heard clearer calls over 4G LTE networks, certainly, but the service was fine for 3G.
Despite pulling up some disconcertingly low numbers with SpeedTest, we actually found web browsing to be pretty solid over 3G, with sites pulling up quickly in mobile formats and only slightly slower in full web versions. Even download speeds weren't too shabby, as we snagged a 25MB app in just over three minutes over 3G.
Of course, Wi-Fi is supported and certainly encouraged for preferable browsing, downloading, and streaming speeds in most cases. And in addition to the stock web browser, the Venice comes preloaded with Chrome, which we'd recommend for its various added features and overall user experience.
Camera and video
Rated at 5 megapixels, the primary back camera of the LG Venice isn't a standout option amongst today's Android phones, and it won't replace a point-and-shoot camera for anyone seeking anything other than quick, on-the-fly snaps.
Photos taken via the camera typically turned out adequate, but unremarkable, showing a fair bit of visual noise when viewed on anything other than the compact screen of the device itself. For impromptu shots for Instagram or Facebook, it'll definitely do the trick, but don't expect anything special.
The LG Venice also shoots up to 720p video, and the results are about the same as with still shots. It's a handy option for shooting quick clips of life happenings, but if you're seeking clear and detailed footage to export and use elsewhere, you'll either want a dedicated camera with video capabilities or a handset with a better lens.
Both video and still photos are handled through the built-in Camera app, which also allows access to the 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera intended primarily for video conferencing.
The straightforward app is rather easy to use, and offers quick access to tools via a sidebar, letting you tweak the light balance, access panorama and continuous shot options, and adjust the flash, focus, image size, ISO, and more, as well as switch on three other color effects (mono, sepia, and negative). You can also enable the option to snap a photo by saying "Cheese" rather than tapping the on-screen button.
The 1700 mAh rechargeable and removable battery found within the LG Venice is rated for up to nine hours of steady usage time, with a standby time of up to 159 hours. Casual users will be able to get through the day with it, but we found that the battery drained just a hair faster than expected. Business or very active app users may find themselves fumbling with the energy saving settings before long.
Storage is very slim on the LG Venice, at least out of the box. It only comes with 4GB of onboard storage, which after formatting allows less than 2GB of accessible space. Luckily, microSD cards up to 32GB are supported, and the Venice comes with a 2GB card that'll most likely make you want to spring for something much larger.
Along with the usual array of built-in Android apps – like the excellent Google Maps, which includes turn-by-turn navigation – the LG Venice comes preloaded with a few extras. The carrier-specific BoostZone allows for account management and app recommendations, plus there's Mobile ID, which lets you choose between sets of skins and apps with themes like "Health & Fitness" and "Socially Connected." Luckily, power users can ignore the feature and dodge unnecessary bloatware.
Google Play holds the key to scads of additional apps and games – several hundred thousand, in fact. As noted earlier, however, the LG Venice isn't well equipped to run high-performance apps or most modern games, at least not at the level you'd expect from an Android 4.0 device.
We tried playing online 3D shooter Shadowgun: DeadZone and could almost count the individual frames due to the terrible performance. Temple Run 2 likewise had bits of slowdown and sluggish loading of backdrops. Even 2D games like Angry Birds Star Wars and Super Stickman Golf 2 displayed unexpected performance hits during play. If this is how relatively low-impact games run today, what can you expect a year or more down the line?
Boost Mobile's off-contract plans with lower monthly rates are surely appealing in an age of rising mobile costs, but the handsets available for that service mostly lag behind the current crop of Android offerings. The LG Venice can be had for less than $200, but a variety of drawbacks make it a handset that excels at little more than the basics of calling, web browsing, email, and social media usage.
Let's face it – the price is right. Boost's Android plans start at $55/month and can decrease down to $40/month over time if you pay your bills. Listed at $200, the LG Venice can be found for $160 or so, and that's not subsidized by a contract.
LG's Optimus 3.0 skin adds helpful, customizable shortcuts to the lock screen, and is otherwise a largely unobtrusive layer atop Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich. Getting around the menus is a mostly speedy experience, and the screen is bright, though that's not the full story in either department.
Performance is a definite issue. The low-end specs really show when popping into and between apps, and a variety of current games all showed issues when played on the Venice. Not everyone's a gamer, we understand, but if even simple games are lagging behind, it doesn't bode well for future high-performance apps of any kind.
Most of the components feel well behind even mid-range current Android options. The display lacks clarity and shows its pixels too readily, the camera is just OK, and the lack of 4G LTE service means browsing speed is limited, even if pages loaded at above-average rates over 3G.
Not every prospective Android handset buyer is seeking a high-end device or a ritzy contract, so the LG Venice holds certain appeal on Boost Mobile's network. However, performance issues weigh heavily on the experience, and the other low-end aspects of the device don't help.
Moreover, Boost offers a handful of 4G LTE devices to choose from, and while some of those sell for a higher price – like the Samsung Galaxy S2, listed at $330 – it's worth shelling out a bit more to not feel like you're already far behind the curve.