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LG Viper 4G LTE (Sprint) Review
Despite a tough-sounding name, Sprint’s first LTE device is a cute-yet-powerful, environmentally friendly phone.
(4 out of 5)
- Future-proofed with 4G LTE
- Good camera
- Green credentials.
- Sprint hasn’t announced LTE launches for most cities
- Just-average voice performance.
Welcome to the future: Sprint’s LTE future. The LG Viper 4G LTE ($99 with contract) is a great little Android-powered smartphone, and it’s the first phone we’ve tested that supports Sprint’s upcoming LTE network, which should bring lightning-fast, unlimited data to most of the nation by 2014.
But you aren’t buying this phone in 2014. You’re buying it in 2012, and that’s where you’re going to need to think this one through. The Viper has a lot to like, even as a 3G handset, but it’s part of a crowded field of excellent smartphones on Sprint.
Physical Design, Call Quality, and 4G
At 4.59 by 2.44 by 0.46 inches (HWD) and 5 ounces, the Viper feels solid and fits in pretty much any hand, although it isn’t super-slim. It’s mostly plastic, but tightly built and classy feeling, with a slate-gray back. The 800-by-480 LCD is bright, and in this 4-inch form factor it packs a nice, dense 233 pixels per inch, which isn’t up to “Retina display” standards, but looks good nonetheless. The standard Android touch buttons sit below the screen, and there’s a 3.5-mm headset jack and Power button up top. There’s no dedicated camera button, though.
The Viper wins our GreenTech Approval by fulfilling six of our seven criteria. The phone’s casing is 50 percent recycled plastic and the package is made from 87 percent recycled material, and it comes with an “energy-efficient” charger that essentially turns itself off when not in use. LG is a member of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, and Sprint takes back phones to recycle. The Viper is missing Energy Star certification, but it is both RoHS and ULE Platinum Certified, meaning in part, that it is free from a range of hazardous materials.
An average-quality voice phone, signal reception on the Viper is fine, but voice quality is just okay; it’s a bit harsh, and there are some gain problems with very high-volume inputs. Transmissions through the mic are acceptable, if a little nasal. Noise cancellation is spectacular; I couldn’t hear a bus roaring by. The speakerphone is loud enough for indoor and outdoor use, and transmissions through the speakerphone sounded surprisingly good thanks in part to that aggressive noise cancellation. The Viper didn’t have any problem with our Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4 stars) or our Altec Lansing BackBeat stereo Bluetooth headset ($99.99, 3.5 stars), either.
We’re still testing the Viper’s battery, but at the moment it looks to provide acceptable, but not extraordinary performance.
The Viper connects to Sprint’s 3G EVDO Rev A network, along with Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and Sprint’s upcoming, but still nascent LTE network. The Sprint 3G network doesn’t offer great speed: in last year’s Fastest Mobile Networks tests we found Sprint’s network to be the slowest of the nationwide networks, with download speed averages around 500Kbps. That’s balanced out, to some extent, by Sprint being the only carrier to still offer unlimited data, and Sprint told us that those plans will continue with LTE. The phone also functions as a hotspot for up to five devices, but you don’t get unlimited data for that.
Sprint is in the middle of transitioning between two 4G networks. WiMAX is on its way out; LTE is on its way in. Sprint has said that it’ll turn on LTE in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and San Antonio by “mid-year,” which most people take to mean June. They’ve also released a map of what LTE coverage will look like in 2014.
Between six cities and 2014 all is shadows, though, which makes it difficult to tell when Sprint LTE is coming to you. The company has said it’ll cover 123 million people by the end of 2012, but not where. So buying a Sprint LTE phone right now is a gamble. If the dice fall your way, you’ll have blazing-fast performance on a fresh new network that’ll only get bigger with time. If they don’t, you have a 3G phone.
The decision is much easier for those who live in one of the six listed cities. But we could recommend the Viper to many more people if Sprint would just be more straightforward with its rollout plans. At the same time, it’s also hard to recommend WiMAX phones with much enthusiasm, knowing that Sprint is moving away from the technology.
Android and Apps
The Viper’s dual-core, 1.2GHz processor runs the 400,000 apps for Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” beautifully. It performed within the top rank of Android 2.3 phones on our benchmarks. And it’ll stay on Android 2.3 for the foreseeable future: Sprint hasn’t said anything about an Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” upgrade. At least Gingerbread is mostly unskinned here, except for Sprint’s typical bloatware and its Sprint ID packs. Sprint ID lets you automatically load a set of wallpapers, ringtones, and apps around a theme like NASCAR or MTV, but you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.
The phone’s big differentiator is Google Wallet. The integrated NFC chip, along with the Google Wallet app, allows you to “tap and pay” (with a PIN code) at stores that accept MasterCard PayPass, which includes a lot of small and large shops (major chains include CVS, Walgreens, Macy’s and Gap). Filling your Google Wallet is a little awkward, though: Unless you’re a Citibank Mastercard holder, you have to add money to a prepaid Google card periodically, which is an annoying extra step. I unfortunately couldn’t test Google Wallet on this phone because Google hadn’t activated the system for Viper phones yet.
Multimedia and Conclusions
You get about 1.5GB of free onboard memory and a 4GB MicroSD card in a slot under the back cover; the phone had no problem with our 64GB SanDisk card. Its powerful processor easily handles most music and video files, including 1080p HD video. There’s no HDMI out, though, so you’ll be watching those videos on the four-inch screen.
The Viper has an excellent 5-megapixel camera. I was very impressed by its speed, sharpness, and dynamic range. Low-light photos show dramatic contrast, but aren’t blurry. Outdoor shots managed to capture both a dim foreground and a bright blue sky in my tests. The video mode captures 1080p HD videos at 30 frames per second, both indoors and out, although the autofocus took too long (more than a second) to adjust to a change in target. There’s also a VGA front-facing camera, which is about as good as these things usually are.
With or without 4G, the LG Viper is a fresh, fun, fast little Android smartphone, and it’ll fly of the shelves at $99. While the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch ($199, 4 stars) and the Motorola Photon 4G ($199, 4.5 stars) have bigger screens and WiMAX, the Viper’s clean design, fast performance and forward-looking LTE put it among the best.
For now, our Editors’ Choice on Sprint remains the Apple iPhone 4S ($199, 4.5 stars), which has a better camera, world-phone capability and faster Web browsing (even though the 4S is strictly a 3G phone). That recommendation may change when we hear about more Sprint cities getting LTE. Higher-end LTE phones are coming, too: Sprint has announced both the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the HTC EVO 4G LTE, which will appeal to phone buyers looking for bigger screens.
The LG Viper 4G LTE is available for preorder now; according to Sprint, it will be in stores by the end of April.
By Sascha Segan, PCMag