Review: LG Octane
LG's latest clamshell messenger phone claims to have high "Octane" performance. Does the phone earn its race-inspired name?
The Octane is the latest messaging phone from LG that offers the messaging-minded user a full QWERTY keyboard on the inside, with a standard numeric dialpad on the outside. The Octane includes some definite improvements over the discontinued enV line, such as a larger external display with added functionality. LG also managed to carry forward the same missteps to what is now the fifth generation of this form factor. Do the new benefits outweigh the lingering problems?
The Octane has what I'd term an average length and height for a messaging phone, but it suffers from the enV family's old faults: it's thick. Gone are the brick-shaped corners from the enV2 and enV3. LG has rounded off the edges of the Octane, giving it a friendlier feel in the hand and in the pocket. The tapered edges on the back surface let it sit firmly in you hand. It's made from plastics, with a soft touch battery cover. It feels solid, well made, and approachable.
LG has taken the evolutionary approach to this form factor to the next level. The outer display is larger than those of its predecessors, and the keypad is now what I'd call a "normal" size. The keys are nice and large enough, and have perfect travel and feedback. Sandwiched in between the dialpad and display, LG has adjusted the navigation controls. There is a standard D-pad with a large center button. The Send and Contacts keys are to the left of the D-pad, and the Clear and End keys are to the right. All of these keys have excellent travel and feedback to them.
There are two keys along the left side of the Octane. The topmost is the camera key. With the phone unlocked, it will launch the camera and also serve as the shutter release button. Below that is the dual-purpose volume toggle / camera zoom key. It is a decent size and is easily found and used. Feedback was good.
The right side of the phone has covers for the microUSB port, microSD slot and 2.5mm headset hack. The hatches hiding the microUSB and microSD ports were easy enough to open with the help of a fingernail, but I'm disappointed that the Octane does not have a 3.5mm headset jack. This seems to be a questionable choice for LG (which apparently hasn't listened to our complaints over the years).
The Octane opens up sideways to reveal a larger display and a full, four-row QWERTY keyboard for messaging. The screen is flanked by stereo speakers. The top part of the Octane can be pushed open to about 120 degrees for normal use, and a full 180 degrees for better access to the camera controls. I found when using it all the way open, it was very easy to accidentally cover the lens with the fingers on your right hand. This was a problem on the enV3, enV2, enV...you get the idea.
All of the nav controls are on the right side of the keyboard. The send/end keys are above the internal D-pad and the speakerphone and clear keys are directly beneath it. As with earlier enVs, I found myself hitting the speakerphone key rather than the clear key from time to time.
The QWERTY keyboard itself is another winner from LG. The keys are big enough that you don't run the risk of accidentally punching the wrong key. Each key has a nice little click to let you know that you've pressed it. LG has put some dedicated function keys on the keyboard, as well. There's a Social Beat shortcut key and a text message shortcut key. Both are appreciated.
Aside from the 2.5mm headset jack, LG got most of the hardware features of the Octane right. This form factor would appear to be one of LG's fortes.
There are two displays in the Octane. The exterior display measures 1.75 inches and is the best of the enV line thanks to the added real estate. It has decent resolution and is bright enough to be seen out in the sun. The interior display carries forward the 2.6-inch size seen on previous models, with 320 x 240 pixels. This display looked great years ago, but pales in comparison to the HD displays on other devices in the market. It would have been nice for LG to step it up to 320 x 480. It still managed to shine brightly, however, and text and icons look good on it, if not occasionally ragged.
The Octane's two signal indicators — one for EVDO and another for 1x — both showed about the same amount of signal strength no matter where I took the Octane. The Octane averaged three bars during my tests, and passed the NJ vault test (the local ShopRite) with flying colors. I didn't miss any calls, and never had a data connection time-out on me. In all, signal performance gets good marks.
Both the earpiece and stereo speakers produced good quality sound. You could adjust the earpiece volume to a setting loud enough to hear conversations in most environments and it remained free of distortion or breakup. Quality of phone calls was merely average. The speakerphone seems to have lost some oomph compared to previous versions of this phone. The speakerphone worked fine in a quiet room, but wouldn't perform well in busy office. The ringers and alert tones were not loud enough for my liking, even with the volume maxed out. The vibrate alert was good enough, though.
Battery life has been good so far. The phone arrived with full charge, and despite a day of extremely heavy use, it still had two-thirds of a charge left the next morning. At this pace, the phone will easily make it through two days, if not more, on a single charge.
The Octane is the best sideways messaging phone from LG yet when it comes to the external display. The enV2 and enV3 had anemic outer screens. With 1.75 inches to work with, the Octane lets users do a whole lot more.
The external display has its own user interface. Once unlocked, it offers a series of tabs that users can move between to access different functions of the phone. The five tabs (Messaging, Contacts, Music, Pictures, and Settings) each has its own sub-menu. Users can access many — but not all — of the Octane's features from this external display. This is a huge improvement over the old enV line.
When the Octane is open, however, any seasoned Verizon Wireless customer is going to know exactly what to do. Verizon includes its set-up wizard on the Octane. This tool lets you quickly adjust a number of the Octane's features, such as the ringtone, wallpaper, and so on.
From the home screen, hitting the center of the D-pad opens up a standard grid menu. Select any of the items, and the entire menu reverts to that good old tabbed system that Verizon is in love with. The icons have all been refreshed, the animations are a bit different, and the colors have been changed, but the basic functionality is the same.
The Octane uses all the same software that current Verizon Wireless feature phones use for the calling and contact applications.
With the phone closed, hitting the send key brings up your recent calls list. Using the D-pad, you can select a call. Hitting the send key again will initiate a call, hitting the OK button will open up the call details. Here, your options are limited to adding the number to contacts or sending a text message.
The Octane adds a few more options for in-call actions when the phone is closed, such as composing a text message, opening the Bluetooth menu, and so on.
When the Octane is open, users have full access to a longer list of options. When in calls, you have complete access to your messaging, contacts, and notes applications, which is always useful if you need to look up information during a call.
The contacts application always places your "In Case of Emergency" contact at the top of the list. This is a thoughtful touch, and lets you - or someone who finds your unconscious body - find the most important person in your life and contact them quickly.
With the contact app open, the default is a search mode. Start typing a name, and the app auto-sorts through your contact database to find the appropriate person. Each contact stores at least five different numbers, two email addresses, plus fax numbers. With a contact open, initiating a text message or call is a simple tap of a button away.
The Octane has a wide range of messaging tools, including SMS/MMS, IM, social networking, and email.
The Octane, thankfully, adds threaded messaging. Users have to alter the settings to use it, however, which defaults to listing messages by the time they arrived. Pick "Contact View" and the Octane will sort SMS convos into threads. Pictures and videos are displayed in-line with the other messages. This applies to both the outer and inner screens (nice!).
The Octane is the latest mesaging phone to use iSkoot's Social Beat software. This catch-all application offers users one place to catch up on their MySpace, Twitter and Facebook accounts. The software behaves exactly as it does on other phones. Users can scan feeds and contribute their own updates. Advanced messaging options, such as replying to Twitter DMs, aren't included. Social Beat can't be accessed from the outer display.
With the phone open, you can send any sort of message, be it a SMS, MMS, email, or IM. On the home screen, the left soft key brings you to the messaging menu. This SMS/MMS application is the same that we've seen before from Verizon.
Emails can be set up two different ways. You can use Verizon's email service for a monthly fee, or access your POP3 accounts via the Web browser. The included email application, which costs $5 extra per month unless you have subscribed to the appropriate data plan, is easy enough to use for setting up and accessing POP3 accounts. It also supports Microsoft Exchange accounts. Using the browser to access POP3 emails is flat-out miserable. Avoid it if you can.
The IM application is exactly the same as on other Verizon phones. This tired software sorely needs an update. It supports AIM, Yahoo and Windows chatting, but not Google Talk.
An Open Letter To Verizon Wireless:
Your feature phone music software and user interface has not changed since 2004. Get with the program, and make something that's not frightfully painful to use.
Eric M. Zeman
The Octane uses the most archaic music software from Verizon Wireless. The discovery process is painful, the navigation slow, and it could be much more intuitive to use.
From the front screen you can only choose to play all, choose a playlist or shuffle your music. The player will show you the song information and a progress bar. With the Octane open, you have to go into the Media Center and then jump into the MyMusic option. It has 8 different selections from which to choose. These help you search for the music you want to hear by sorting via album, genre, artist, song, etc. The Octane works with Verizon's Rhapsody music service. Discovering new music isn't too, too awful, but it could sure be a lot better.
With music playing, you can go back to the home screen and do almost anything on the phone that isn't network dependent. In other words, you can sort through your pictures, look up contact information, etc. The minute you fire up the web browser or other network-dependent feature, the music dies.
Despite the drawbacks of the player and associated software, music playback sounded pretty good through the stereo speakers and wired headphones, but not Bluetooth headphones.
The Octane offers a 3.2 megapixel camera, and it also comes with a flash. The camera can be used with the phone either open or closed.
When the Octane is closed, just unlock the phone and press the camera key. You'll see a small view of your subject. The camera/video software is much more robust with the phone open; using the large screen to compose pictures is great.
The Octane offers a handful of different shooting modes, including SmileShot, Panorama, Intelligent Shot and Dual Display. The first two are self explanatory. Intelligent Shot appears to be a better tool for the camera to get the right exposure and color balance. Why this isn't just built into the phone's normal shooting mode is beyond me. Dual Display activates both the internal and external displays when taking pictures.
The flash can be set to on or off. Default is off. There's no "auto" behavior. Using the D-pad, you can adjust the brightness level, and well as zoom in or out. You can also use the zoom keys on the phone's left side.
The camera is slow no matter what you try to do with it. Slow to open the app, slow to open the menus, slow to take pictures, and slow to save them and return to the viewfinder.
Using the video camera application is almost identical. The only noticeable changes are fewer selections in the menu bar along the bottom.
The gallery application is unchanged from other phones that use the Verizon UI. It can be opened by jumping through the menu system or by hitting the camera button and then using the right soft key to load the gallery. The latter of these two options is much faster. The gallery is locked to a three-column view, and lets you see six different pictures at a time. When viewing the gallery, hitting the right soft key brings up the expected set of options for moving, renaming and otherwise interacting with your pictures.
Opening up each picture is as simple as hitting the center of the D-pad. The editing tools have been revised somewhat, and now work similar to the camera interface itself. Users have a pretty solid set of options, such as crop, rotate, zoom, adding frames and other content and so on. More advanced editing controls include adjusting white balance, exposure, brightness, etc.
The Octane's 3.2 megapixel camera does not take good photos. Under absolutely ideal shooting conditions, it might luckily get everything (exposure, white balance, etc.) right, but even that isn't enough to overcome the unavoidable presence of grain and digital noise. Grain is heavy no matter what the shooting conditions, and indoor shots are particularly horrendous. Images captured with this device might be OK for MMS sharing, but I'd avoid posting them to Facebook or Flickr.
The Octane can capture video at 320 x 240 pixels, or 176 x 144. Neither is very good, and the lower, MMS-friendly resolution is nearly worthless. Grain is present in all videos, and sometimes large digital artifacts smear their way across the screen when the Octane is panned to and fro. Bright spots and dark spots offer no details, and often confuse the Octane's sensors. As with the photos, videos might be acceptable to share via MMS, but nowhere else.
The Octane's browser is a bit different from Verizon feature phones of the past. It has a refreshed design. The Verizon home page loads with nine shortcuts to content destinations such as Reuters, CNN, and ESPN. It also has a URL bar at the top, as well as a Bing search bar. It's nice to have the URL bar visible from this home page. Verizon used to force people to jump through hoops to leave Verizon's own web pages.
The Octane's browser was consistently slow. No matter what action, what site or what behavior I wanted from it, the Octane took its own sweet time getting things done. Web sites were slow to load, screen transitions were choppy, and the menu system was still frustrating to wade through.
Were it not for the speed issues, I'd call it capable. Once they arrive, web sites look decent enough, and the Octane provides enough screen real estate for viewing content. The full HTML version of Phone Scoop was a little disappointing, in that none of the text was legible when the full HTML site loaded. I had to zoom in to read anything. But when it takes more than a minute for each page to load, there's a breakdown in usability. I often got frustrated and gave up waiting for sites to appear.
The Octane lets you customize all the standard features of the phone. This means changing wallpapers, assigning ringtones to your favorite contacts, and so on. As mentioned previously, the set-up wizard makes all of this a snap to do, and you can run it at any time.
Verizon and LG have ditched the "favorites" key ( a shortcut to a handful of your most-used contacts) that appeared on the enV3. It's replaced by the Social Beat shortcut.
The main menu can also be rearranged and goes so far as to allow many — but not all — of the default menu items be deleted. The Octane includes a handful of themes, and the fonts can be changed up and the on-screen text can be made quite large or quite small.
The Octane has access to Verizon's app store for feature phones. Games can be downloaded via the MyMedia menu, where there is also a link called "Browse & Download." This takes you to a list of Verizon-specific applications and services, such as backup assistant, visual voicemail and others. Most of these apps cost a one-time or monthly subscription fee. Little is available for free.
The Octane supports mono and stereo Bluetooth. I had no issues pairing it with both standard and stereo Bluetooth headsets. Sound quality through both types wasn't that great, and using Bluetooth for stereo music playback did tend to suck the life out of the battery. I was also able to pair it with my PC and shuttle files back and forth.
One thing the exterior display does really well is show you the time. When the phone is locked, you have to hit the OK key to unlock it. Once unlocked, the phone displays the time prominently right in the middle of the screen. Unless you're outdoors under the harshest sunlight, it is easy to check the time.
The Octane supports aGPS and has Verizon's VZNavigator application on board. It works well, and was able to provide me with directions from point A to point B with no problem. It costs an extra $10 per month to use, though.
The LG Octane is yet another solid piece of hardware that is shackled by crummy Verizon Wireless software. The biggest improvements here include the larger external display, which offers more functionality than before. The Octane also has a great feel in the hand, solid button performance all around, and excellent battery life.
Where the Octane suffers most is in the media performance department. The music software is downright awful, and the lack of support for 3.5mm headphones says loud and clear that LG doesn't expect people to use it as an MP3 player replacement. Worse, however, the camera shoots miserable photos and video. It's a shame that the performance here is so bad. Last, the browser boasted some usability enhancements, but was slow, slow, slow.
Where does the Octane excel? Text messaging is robust, and the addition of threaded SMS makes it a much better device than its predecessors. The email app performs well, as long as you don't mind paying extra for it, but the IM software is getting crusty. Social Networking is at least present, though limited in the form of iSkoot's Social Beat software.
The LG Octane will be best for those who primarily focus on voice and text messages for communication. All the other features are passable, but not nearly as robust as on other handsets. While the "Octane" name conjures images of supercharged performance, this enV successor is packing low-grade diesel at best.
Great 1st phone for my teenager
thank you for finally reviewing
Also, the env3, which is still available, does provide threaded text messaging with the "view by contact" option in the message settings menu.