Cellphones on a Budget: Reviews of the SLVR L7 and LG U8500

After a month of furiously shopping gifts for your friends and family, you might want to get a small gift to yourself, a cellphone on the budget. Hi-Mobile sent us in for a review two extremely affordable cellphones that don’t lack features. The first one is the popular Motorola SLVR L7 (just $140) and the other one is the less popular –but with 3G and web capabilities– LG U8500 (aka U880, just $180).

The LG U8500 is a 3G phone (2100 Mhz, European band), and it’s pretty amazing having such a modern phone for less than two hundred bucks. It also has triband GSM and Bluetooth, but it’s lacking 850 Mhz and EDGE support. It features a very bright high-quality 176×220 TFT internal screen, and a secondary 96×96 external screen that has some small angle-viewing problems The handset supports vibration and has a dual stereo speaker system. It also sports a microSD hot-swap slot, while it already has a spacious 75 MBs of free internal storage. GPRS worked as expected, we managed to transfer data at about 3 KB/sec (which is normal for GPRS). The handset also sports a 1.3 MP camera without flash or mirror. You can rotate the camera to make it function as a front-video call camera. You can also shoot videos of yourself this way. The box included two Li-Ion 1050 mAh batteries, the handset, some manuals and CDs, a stereo headset, a USB cable, a wrist wrap and a charger.

The handset is a clamshell, it has volume keys and the headset connection on the left side, and the microSD, a “shortcut” button (opens a toolbar in the screen with shortcut icons to 8 functions) and the usb/charger jack on the right side. In the interrior view of the clamshell you will find all the normal buttons you would expect to, plus shortcut buttons for the Calendar, Music Player and Camera. On the back of the phone, under the rotating camera, there is a small hole for the wrist wrap and a battery-release button. Under the external screen you will find 3 buttons that don’t do anything under normal operation, but when your music player is ON they function as ‘previous song’ on normal press and rewind on long press, play/stop and fast forward/next song. When the phone is on standby and you keep pressing the play/stop button for more than 3 seconds, the media player will load. This effectively makes the phone a pretty usable mp3 player. Apparently, you can’t use these buttons below the external screen to accept/reject calls (you must flip the phone open to do so), but at least you can see the number that is calling you and decide if you want to take the call or not.

This phone uses the Teleca Obigo framework and lots of its UI was written using that framework (one interesting UI characteristic is that when you need to input text you just select the input box and you do so directly, you are not driven to a separate screen to type like all other phones do). In the handset you will find all the normal applications that you would expect to find: a Calendar, Alarms, Todo, Java MIDP-2, email, MMS, memo voice recorder, calculator and more. There is vibration support and a profile editor too, but there is no flight mode support.

I much liked the Contacts application, which is very straight forward when you add new contacts. You can select between images from your handset, an avatar or directly snapping a picture of the person you are trying to enter as your contact. Overall, the UI is very nice throughout the phone, but it is obvious that it is not fully polished (e.g. the Contact’s image stretches in an ugly way when clicking on it, “Marking” files in the file manager is not fast-enough, getting to your music or video or java files you have to click one extra time instead of these files being shown in the root of each of these folders etc). Nevertheless, the UI is spiffy fast. Fast was also the Bluetooth data exchange which topped at about 30 KB/sec.

The music application is pretty basic (no playlists, no sorting by artists/albums), but you know, if you just want to listen to some music while waiting your bus or train, the phone will do just fine. The included headset and the phone’s audio chipset produce very good quality sound. One thing I didn’t like is that the headset/charge/usb jacks are not the same as the ones found in the LG Chocolate phone (LG seems to have 3-4 different standards for their jacks, depending which unit manufactures the phone). The music application has EQ support and two visualization plugins. It can playback mp3, AAC. WMA is also supported, but not by the music player. If you click on a WMA file on the file manager it will play fine, but it can’t be copied in the Music library for some strange reason…

The 1.3 MP camera is not the best in the market, but it will do its job. It has support for some effects, delay timer, various resolutions, night mode. I particularly found very cool to be able to shoot myself making faces and then send funny videos to my husband (under the pretence that I am “testing the device” ;-). The phone shoots 3GP at 176×144 and 128×96 (at 15fps, video sample), but it can playback MP4 video too. I loved how it can go landscape when it’s playing videos without dropping frames or having any sort of delays.

The battery life is not too great, you will get just a standard performance out of it. I found that you will need to recharge your phone every 2-3 days if you are using it occassionally (and I even had UMTS turned off in order to save battery life). However, the phone comes with two batteries, so I think you get enough for what you pay. One thing I can’t forgive though is the pretty bad reception its antenna has. There are times that I would lose the signal completely. The good news is that voice quality is acceptable.

One thing I really liked is the web browser though. The phone runs the latest version of Obigo, a browser that competes in the low-end market with its ability to offer a lot of standards support for very little RAM (the browser can render small-ish HTML pages, like OSNews’, even in 512 KBs of RAM). I liked the UI of Obigo, and the way it actually renders pages. The font used was nice too. What I didn’t like though was the bug that I found in it: when a JAD file is clicked in a web link, it will fail to download the JAR file and install the Java application requested. In order to download Opera Mini and the GMail client I had to write my own webpage that linked to the JARs directly (not to the JADs), upload the page in my web space and then install it via the web browser. I can’t understand how Teleca or LG didn’t find this bug during testing! Even more disappointing was the fact that if you copy via USB or Bluetooth a JAD or a JAR file, the system fails to install these files! I mean, really, if you don’t have an unlimited data GPRS account, forget installing Java apps easily in the phone via Bluetooth or USB.

Overall though, this is a great phone if you consider the little money that it costs comparatively. Especially if you are living in western Europe where you can make use of UMTS 2100Mhz most of the time (in my own country, Greece, only few selected cities have 3G support as of yet), this is the phone for you.

Handy music buttons on the outside
Super affordable for its features
3G UMTS with video telephony
75 MBs of internal storage
Good web browser
MicroSD cardslot

Won’t install JAR/JAD files that were copied via BT/USB
Bug when downloading Java apps via JAD web link
Not Quad-band, no EDGE
No camera flashlight
Very poor reception
No QVGA screen
No flight mode

Rating: 8.0/10

The SLVR L7 was the second cellphone to use the iTunes Java application that Apple wrote for Motorola. Unfortunately, the model that Hi-Mobile sells has stripped all the iTunes stuff, the headset, the microSD and the usb cable. This OEM phone comes with only a manual and a power adapter — but then again, that’s how it achieves its respectably low price ($140).

The handset supports quad-band GSM, Bluetooth and it has a 176×220 bright TFT screen. It also sports a VGA camera, push to talk, a standard mini-usb jack, 4 MBs free memory and a microSD slot. The handset feels very good in the hand and it’s easy to type fast on its keypad despite the unusual design. It is a light and thin phone at just 96 grams. On the left side you will find the volume keys, the PTT and music player key, while on the right side you will find the mini-USB jack (for charging, headset and file transfer), the web browser key and the microSD hot-swap slot.

The L7 uses the previous version of the Motorola user interface (the new version supports AA fonts for example and an updated MiB web browser among other things), but existing RAZR users will probably feel at home with it. The Motorola fonts and icons are pretty ugly, and the interface has a lot of reduntant or badly placed options, but overall it’s functional and yes, it is fast. The Contacts application for example is very nice when you are trying to find a contact, but when you are creating a new contact it feels irky. Having to change from iTap to Tap text input manually for each and every application on the phone is a major hassle too, while the GPRS connection screen is a real mess. Needless to say, I am not a fan of the Motorola UI.

Because the SLVR L7 was supposed to be a cheaper version of the RAZR line, some software have been removed. For example IM and VoiceRecording are not present. Nevertheless, some standard applications are included like the calculator, alarms, calendars, todo etc. I found the Email application to work very well with my POP3 account too. There are also profiles that allow quite some configuration although there is no support for flight mode. Another annoyance is that there is no keypad auto-lock (only a chinese firmware version of the phone supports that).

I wish the bad things ended here, but unfortunately they continue: the web browser in that phone is the worst piece of software I have ever experienced. MiB 2.2.1 is just buggy and runs out of memory even if you feed it a 10 KB page (including images). It works ok as a WML browser, but it’s completely hopeless as a basic HTML browser (most of the competitive phones use better browsers). This is why I decided to install Opera Mini on the L7, only to find out that Java is running slower than on other handsets! Opera Mini takes forever to boot up for example and I can see lag when I open its menus. Bluetooth and GPRS were equally under-performing. I never got more than 20 KB/sec with Bluetooth (which is rather low), while I never got more than 1 KB/sec with GPRS (it’s supposed to max out at around 3-4 KB/sec)! Finally, Motorola’s Bluetooth stack is locked in a way that only accepts file exchange with a few filetypes only. This proved extremely annoying and given the fact that this package comes without a USB cable or a microSD card, it became even more annoying early in my testing.

There are some good points found in the phone though. First of all, it has an admirably good reception! I would get full bars no matter where I am! The L7 has one of the best receptions I have ever seen on a phone. Additionally, it has a great battery life! It went on and on for hours with music playing back through its super loud and clear stereo speaker! For a cheap phone, it pretty much lasts ‘forever’.

Finally, I loved the camera. Yes, it is just VGA, but it is extremely good on low-light conditions (even when night mode is OFF). It is way better in low light than some other expensive 2MP cellphone cameras! It can also capture 3GP video in 176×144 and 128×96 resolutions (unfortunately at just 5 FPS, video sample), but it can also playback MP4. There are two media players in the phone, one native and one Java-based. The java-based is more fancy visually and it has more features about playlists and sorting. The phone can playback MP3 and AAC music, and given its good battery life and microSD slot, it makes it a decent music phone (if you manage to find and buy the right headset that is).

In conclusion, between the two devices, the LG U8500 is a better phone. However, it’s slightly more expensive and if you are living in USA and you are a Cingular subscriber, you need a quad-band phone. Therefore, I would suggest the LG device to our European readers and the Motorola L7 to our American ones. Both great bangs for the buck though!

Super affordable for its features
Camera can see well in the dark
Super loud and clear speaker
Amazing reception
MicroSD cardslot
Great battery life
Quad-band GSM

Limited alarms functionality; IM, VoiceRec removed
Only accepts to receive few filetypes via bluetooth
Usability, UI and fonts are so ’90s
Terribly bad web browser
Limited internal memory
No automatic keylock
No flight mode

Rating: 7.5/10


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