Jonathan Takiff: Big screens, lower price

The new iPhone 4S (left) and its bigger-screen competitors LG Thrill 4G (center) and Samsung Focus.
The new iPhone 4S (left) and its bigger-screen competitors LG Thrill 4G (center) and Samsung Focus. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

2 new phones cost less than the iPhone 4S

Posted: October 12, 2011

THE GIZMOS: Two bargain-priced smartphones - Samsung Focus and LG Thrill 4G - grab our eyes and ears.

SCREEN JEMS: Tired of squinting at small print on your mobile phone? Longing for a bigger/cooler playing field for social networking, gaming and movie watching, too? Grumbling that the new iPhone 4S uses the same old 3.5-inch screen?

These smartphone alternatives deliver a bigger-screen experience plus some unique twists and at a much lower price: the four-inch Super AMOLED display Samsung Focus, now running the just-updated Windows 7.5 "Mango" operating system, and the aptly named LG Thrill 4G, a standout in the Android phone family thanks to its generously sized and 3D-capable (!) 4.3-inch display.

FIRST, SOME MANGO JUICE: Microsoft has not exactly set the world on fire with its Windows mobile phones. But let's give the team props for keeping an eye on the prize. The just-released Windows 7.5 Mango OS is even more of a social animal than its predecessor, thus a breed apart.

Mango is obsessed with keeping the user updated about friends and colleagues, far beyond just seeing their message-linked faces moving in "Live Tiles" on the home screen - Windows 7's claim to fame.

Twitter and LinkedIn are now part of the Windows 7.5 message bundling, too, along with email, IM and Facebook. Now there's Visual Voice Mail, which lists incoming voice messages, and Conversation View, which groups/responds to e-mails by subject. New speech features send/read text messages aloud. Facebook-posted events magically pop up in your appointment calender. A feature called "History" displays all aspects of your communication with a person - recent calls, e-mails, texts and chats.

Bet that plot twist turns up on TV crime dramas.

For the workaholics, distantly located Microsoft Office documents can be synced and tweaked through Microsoft's Sky Drive.

Zune music and Xbox 360 interact more with Windows 7.5 phones. And for shopaholics, Microsoft's Bing search engine is all mashed in. Snap a product with the Samsung's 5 Megapixel camera and Bing's Vision Search can find info about it, even translating foreign-language box text.

FACTORING FORM: I also liked the form factor and most of the tech set on the Samsung Focus, a nearly year-old model AT&T offers for a mere $49.99 with two-year contract. It's no wider and barely longer than an iPhone and weighs a tad over four ounces. The underwhelming 8GB of onboard memory is upgradable with a microSD card - best done at the get-go. The 1GB processor is fast, the touch screen (same as on the Galaxy S phones) very responsive. The 5 MP camera offers geo-tagging and face detection and shoots HD video in 720p.

I could easily live with this thing.

(FYI: HTC, Dell and LG also make Windows 7.5 phones for the major carriers. Nokia will jump in by the holidays.)

AND IN THIS CORNER: The LG Thrill 4G Android-powered phone also delivers quite an individualistic statement, and now at a mere $99 from AT&T with a two-year contract.

Its 4.3-inch screen and six-ounce weight eventually come to feel normal, making smaller displays seem puny. What's not to like about that larger (and haptic feedback) virtual keyboard? Videos display beautifully and this mobile entertainer's ability to show "glasses-free" 3-D content, including games and short-form YouTube videos, is unmatched on any other mobile phone out there.

Don't know how LG did it, but this is the best glasses-free 3-D display I've seen on a small device, with a wider viewing angle than is found on the Nintendo 3DS game system or Fujifilm's 3- cameras.

And yes, you can shoot good-quality 3- stills and video on this phone too, using the twin 5 MP cameras. Then play 'em back on the device or a connected HDTV, or post stereoscopically in YouTube's growing 3- video zone.

Three 3-D games come preloaded: the auto racing "Asphalt 6," "Let's Golf 2" and the first-person shooter "N.O.V.A."

PLUS/MINUS: I found the aging, Android 2.2 operating system on the LG Thrill a mite balky. (The planned introduction of the next Android phone/tablet OS code-named "Ice Cream Sandwich" was postponed this week out of respect to the late Steve Jobs.)

But I liked another fairly unique aspect of the LG Thrill 4G. It's one of the first phones, along with the HTC Inspire 4G and the landing-on-Friday AT&T version of the iPhone 4S, to exploit AT&T's HSDPA (high-speed download packet access) advance on GSM technology.

In theory, HSDPA can deliver a maximum data rate of 14.4 Mbps. In my tests, though, the best I (and Speedtest.net) clocked on the LG Thrill 4G phone was 1.9 Mbps down, and 1.7 Mbps up.

By comparison, Verizon and Sprint 3G phone speeds fluctuate between 600 kbps and 1.4 Mbps for downloads, and between 500 and 800 kbps in uploads. That's why the AT&T iPhone 4S may prove "first among equals."

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