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LG Optimus makes hefty sacrifices in pursuit of glasses-free 3-D

The LG Optimus 3D sells for $474.99 on its own or for $49.99 on a three-year plan through Rogers.


Here's what you need to know about LG's Optimus 3D Android mobile: It's a fine phone, except for the 3-D part.

One of the first glasses-free 3-D handsets to come to Canada (another is HTC's Evo 3D), the black, curvy-edged Optimus features a parallax barrier screen capable of directing separate images to each of the user's eyes, creating the illusion of depth. This sort of glasses-free stereoscopic viewing can be convincing, but it's also fraught with problems.

In order to maintain the 3-D effect, you must keep your eyes in a "sweet spot" in front of the screen. Move just a couple of inches left or right or get too close or too far away and the picture quickly becomes wonky, doubled and flickery. Best case scenario: You're in a controlled environment and simply suffer a little muscle strain if you stay in 3-D mode for too long. Worst case: You're commuting on a bumpy, lurching bus and get dizzy or nauseous as your head persistently bobs outside the stereoscopic delivery zone.

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Then there's the content question. Aside from the software that comes pre-loaded on LG's phone – a few Gameloft games (Let's Golf 2, NOVA and Asphalt 6), a clever interactive Gulliver's Travels pop-up storybook and a link to a 3-D YouTube channel – I've had very little luck tracking down much in the way of compelling stereoscopic apps. Developers simply aren't supporting the technology. At least not yet.

Of course, you can always create your own 3-D content in the form of pictures and videos. The Optimus 3D comes with a pair of rear-facing 5-megapixel cameras, which means you can snap stills and capture video in 3-D, then play them back either on the phone or on your stereoscopic television (a Micro HDMI port makes TV connection and playback a snap).

The quality of these pictures is distinctly phone-ish. Expect passable performance with still subjects in bright light and minor to serious problems capturing satisfying images of those that move quickly or are indoors. Still, it's still heaps of fun to tinker with and show off to friends. With dedicated stereoscopic camcorders – such as Sony's HDR-TD10 selling for around $1,500 – 3-D imaging hobbyists would do well to start off with a less expensive and more multipurpose device like this one.

However, if your interest in 3-D is merely casual, the compromises caused by the integration of stereoscopic functionality makes this phone a losing proposition.

The greatest of these issues is increased size and weight. I compared LG's phone to a Samsung Galaxy S II, which has an identically-sized 4.3-inch screen and offers similar dual-core processor performance. The Optimus is noticeably larger in all three dimensions and, at 168 grams, about one-and-a-half times as heavy – thanks to its beefy stereoscopic display (the Nintendo 3DS' 3-D screen is notoriously chunky as well). You'll feel the heft of this handset in your pocket.

LG's focus on 3-D also seems to have resulted in a hit to traditional 2-D image quality. The 480-by-800 display is highly resolved and does fairly well viewed in the sun, but it appears slightly washed out – which is to say blacks and darker colours have a greyish quality – compared to the screens of other high-end smart phones. Anyone acquainted with Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus and Apple's Retina displays will find the difference stark.

And if you do make much use of 3-D, be prepared for it to crater the 1500 mAh battery. Stereoscopic displays suck up juice like a parched kindergartener. One day I spent a couple of lengthy sessions with Gameloft's first-person shooter NOVA and snapped a few dozen 3-D pictures, and was left scrambling for an outlet well before nightfall.

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But there are some things to get excited about, particularly when it comes to performance.

The phone's guts feature a dual-core, dual-memory, dual-channel – or, as LG likes to call it, "tri-dual" – architecture. In layman's terms, it's super speedy. Menu navigation is fluid, apps open pretty much instantaneously, and browser pages load in a jiffy. More resource-intensive apps – including games – fly along with rarely a hint of lag.

Eight-gigabytes of on-board storage should cover most of your media repository needs, and if you need more you can just slide in a micro SD card. There's no outboard slot, which means you'll need to pop off the rear case to insert extra storage, but at least you don't need to remove the battery or SIM card.

Calls, meanwhile, sound lovely. Folks on the other end of the line came through loud and clear and reported no difficulty hearing me on their end.

And while the phone ships with Froyo (Android 2.2.2) rather than the more recent Gingerbread (Android 2.3), LG's implementation of Google's operating system is simple and intuitive. The Korean company made only light changes to the interface (you can pinch to shrink long lists of apps into category headings), provides a few potentially useful proprietary apps (such as a social networking hub) and carved out a special spot in the apps menu for all things 3-D.

But there are plenty of other Android phones with solid performance and pleasantly accessible firmware. That brings us back to the Optimus' primary differentiator: its 3-D functionality. I won't deny that it can be fun – I had a great time showing off YouTube videos to friends and family flabbergasted that they could see depth without glasses – but I'm not sure the novelty is worth the trade-offs.

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The LG Optimus 3D sells for $474.99 on its own or for $49.99 on a three-year plan through Rogers.

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