LG Optimus L9 (MetroPCS) review

The LG Optimus L9 is scarcely available, but if you can get it, it's the best MetroPCS smartphone that runs on T-Mobile's network right now.
Photo of LG Optimus L9 (MetroPCS)

Now that MetroPCS and T-Mobile have officially merged, we’re starting to see some new MetroPCS phones that run on T-Mobile’s network. Actually, new is a relative term, since we already saw the LG Optimus L9 debut on T-Mobile late last year. But we’re not complaining, since the $149 Optimus L9 remains a well-priced, attractive device. It isn’t the best phone on MetroPCS, but compared with the Samsung Galaxy Exhibit, it’s the best MetroPCS phone that runs on T-Mobile’s network right now.

Editors’ Note: The LG Optimus L9 models on MetroPCS and T-Mobile are virtually identical, so we’re sharing a lot of material between these two reviews. That said, we’re testing each device separately, so read the review for your carrier of choice.

Design
The Optimus L9 looks attractive, if somewhat generic. It’s a black rectangular slab with a rubbery, lightly textured back panel. There’s a plastic silver ring around the middle, and a black plastic ring around the display. It measures 5.03 by 2.63 by 0.36 inches (HWD) and weighs just 4.2 ounces. It’s large, but easier to handle than the Samsung Galaxy S III. The width of the phone is very comfortable, but I still can’t quite hold it in one hand and swipe the Notifications bar down from the top of the screen. There’s a Power button on the upper right corner, a Volume rocker on the left, a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, and a charging port on the bottom.

The L9 has a 4.5-inch, 960-by-540-pixel IPS LCD display. It’s sharp and bright, and text and images look great. The resolution isn’t as high as it is on the GSIII, but it also lacks the GSIII’s PenTile pixel layout, which can cause images to look fuzzy on that phone. Below the display are capacitive Back and Settings buttons, on either side of the ovular physical Home key. Typing on the onscreen keyboard felt fine.

Network, Plans, and Call Quality
The Optimus L9 is one of the first MetroPCS phones to run on T-Mobile’s network. T-Mobile is GSM-based, as opposed to MetroPCS, which is CDMA. Right now you can only get this phone if you live in Boston, MA; Hartford, CT; or Las Vegas, NV. MetroPCS plans to add additional markets soon, though it makes your chance of getting on T-Mobile’s network through MetroPCS extremely limited at the moment.

But if you’re a MetroPCS user, why should you want to get on T-Mobile’s network anyway? Well, since the T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger, MetroPCS will slowly be folded into T-Mobile. MetroPCS will ultimately stop selling CDMA phones, and while they will continue to work, there will be no additional improvements made to its CDMA network. This is in stark contrast to T-Mobile’s GSM and LTE networks, which the company plans to improve considerably. On top of that, if you’re using a MetroPCS phone, and you travel outside of the native coverage area, you start to roam on Sprint’s 3G network. T-Mobile already has a wider coverage area than MetroPCS, and its 3G network is vastly superior to Sprint’s, so you’re going to see better speeds.

The Optimus L9 can be paired with any current 4G service plan. Take that with a grain of salt, as the Optimus L9 doesn’t support T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network, or even HSPA+ 42, so you’re not actually getting real 4G data rates. Still, MetroPCS offers some pretty compelling contract-free rates. $40 per month gets you unlimited talk, text, and 500MB of ’4G’ data, with throttled speeds after that. $50 ups the ante to 2.5GB of ’4G’ data, while $60 per month gets you truly unlimited everything.

Compare those rates with T-Mobile, where each plan basically costs $10 more. Contract-free rates start at $50 per month, and that gets you all the talk and texts you want, along with 500MB of high-speed (3G or 4G) data per month, after which your speeds are throttled. $60 gets you 2GB of high-speed data, and $70 gets you unlimited high-speed data. But while T-Mobile is just a little pricier, you get a vastly larger selection of phones to choose from.

The Optimus L9 hooks into T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 21 network. I saw average speeds of 6Mbps down and just over 1Mbps up, which should be plenty fast for most users. You can also use the phone as a mobile hotspot, and it connects to 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band.

(Next page: Processor, Apps, Multimedia, and Conclusions)

The Optimus L9 is a good voice phone. Reception is solid, and calls sound good in the phone’s earpiece—voices are a little robotic and there’s a slight hiss in the background, but are otherwise clear and easy to hear. The speakerphone sounds somewhat abrasive but is loud enough to use outdoors. Calls made with the phone are loud and clear, though the noise cancellation caused a faint humming sound in the background. It also supports Wi-Fi calling, which is a great fallback in areas with less-than-optimal coverage. 

I had no trouble connecting to a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset and calls sounded fine, but I wasn’t able to trigger voice dialing automatically over Bluetooth, which is inconvenient. The phone’s big 2,150mAh battery was good for an excellent 13 hours and 41 minutes of continuous talk time.

Processor and Apps
The phone is powered by a dual-core 1GHz TI OMAP 4430 processor. That’s not a processor we see often, especially now that Texas Instruments in moving away from smartphones. It’s not quite as fast as the dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm chips in many high-end phones, but it gets the job done in most cases, and is a better performer than the STE processor powering the Samsung Galaxy Exhibit. Navigating my way around the phone felt smooth, and you’ve definitely got enough power here to run any of the 800,000+ apps available in the Google Play store, though this isn’t a 3D gaming powerhouse.

Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) is the version of the OS on board, along with LG’s attractive Optimus UI 3.0 overlay. You get five customizable home screens to swipe between that come preloaded with apps, folders, and widgets. Thankfully, there isn’t nearly as much bloatware here as there is on the T-Mobile version of the phone. On the other hand, the MetroXtras pop-up ads are a menace that you must stop immediately.

One cool feature added by LG is QuickMemo, which is a system-wide note taking services that lets you annotate screenshots with handwritten notes and sketches, which you can then share. You also get SmartShare, which allows you to share music, photos, and video on your HDTV or monitor via DLNA. There’s also the usual Android bells and whistles, including a fast Web browser, excellent email support, and voice-enabled, turn-by-turn GPS directions via Google Maps.

Multimedia and Conclusions
The Optimus L9 has 1.68GB of free internal storage, along with an empty microSD card slot underneath the battery cover. My 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine. The phone was able to play all of our audio test files, and sound quality was excellent over both wired 3.5mm headphones as well as Altec Lansing Backbeat Bluetooth headphones. All of our test videos played back without a hitch, at resolutions up to 1080p, though audio was out of sync over Bluetooth.

The 5-megapixel camera is surprisingly good. Shutter speeds are fast, at just 0.2 second to capture a photo. Colors and detail look accurate and sharp, though photos can get noisy if you zoom in too far. You get LG’s Cheese Shutter, which allows you to snap a photo by saying the word cheese, which is good for when you want to get yourself into the picture. There’s also a standard 1.3-megapixel front-facing for self portraits and video chat.

The Optimus L9 strikes a great balance between beauty and budget, but it still isn’t the best phone on MetroPCS. That honor sticks with the Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a faster processor and an even larger, sharper display, along with a much higher price tag. But the Optimus L9 is a superior choice to the Samsung Galaxy Exhibit, which is MetroPCS’s other T-Mobile phone; the Optimus L9 has a nicer display and a much sleeker build. If you don’t live in the extremely limited rollout area for the L9, the LG Spirit 4G is quite similar, though it runs on CDMA. The Huawei Premia 4G is another low-cost performer, though it too is on the old network and running an outdated version of Android.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS
Screen Resolution 960 x 540 pixels
NFC No
Dimensions 5.03 x 2.63 x 0.36 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g
Video Camera Resolution 1080p
Available Integrated Storage 1.68 GB
Processor Speed 1 GHz
CPU Texas Instruments OMAP4430 Dual-Core
GPS Yes
Service Provider MetroPCS
Total Integrated Storage 4 GB
High-Speed Data HSPA+ 21
Weight 4.2 lb
Screen Type IPS LCD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.1.2
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 5 MP Rear
VGA Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 245 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 4.5 inches
Bluetooth Version 3

Verdict
The LG Optimus L9 is scarcely available, but if you can get it, it's the best MetroPCS smartphone that runs on T-Mobile's network right now.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc