The Nokia N95 seems to be leading the field with a 5MP camera, and a gajillion other features such as GPS. The LG Shine doesn't try to compete at this level, but they've managed to cram in a "Schneider Kreuznach certified" 2MP camera.
This doesn't immediately impress me, though. My existing Nokia 6280 comes with two cameras: one on the front for video calls, and a 2MP unit on the back for photos. The Nokia 6680 I had before then used the same two-camera arrangement, with a 1.3MP camera on the back. It also had the added bonus of a sliding lens cover to keep the dust out. All four cameras were terrible... to the point that I just gave up trying to take photos with them, as I just got angry when I saw the results. No matter how cool the impromptu subject was, I couldn't look past the streaky, grainy, unfocussed, blown-out images. I ended up taping closed the 6680's lens cover so it would stop unlocking accidentally whenever I put the damn thing in my pocket.
So, how good is the Shine? Much better. Much, much better.
So, to get into the camera functions, you can either go through the Multimedia menu, or you can just hold down the shutter button on the side. Once you're there, the live image appears, full-screen, and the whole interface turns sideways.
"Options" pulls up an overlay of settings menus as expected. Using the scroll bar to navigate lets you adjust:
- Shot mode: Macro, On, Off
- Resolution: 320x240, 640x480, 1280x960, 1600x1200
- Quality: Super fine, Fine, Normal
- Flash: On, Off
- Self timer: 10 seconds, 5 seconds, 3 seconds, Off
- Save to: External, Phone
- Multi shot: 6shot, 3shot, 1shot
- Metering: Centred, Combined
- Colour effect: Negation, Mono, Sepia, Colour
- White balance: Fluorescent, Cloudy, Incandescent, Daylight, Auto
- Shutter tone: Off, Tone 3, Tone 2, Tone 1
- Reset settings: Yes, No
In addition, the exposure can be changed with the scroll bar from -2.0 to 2.0 in 1.0 increments, and zoomed gradually from x1 to x2 with the ends of the bar.
When ready, a half-press of the shutter button will focus and hopefully lock focus, and then a full-press will take the picture...
...a second later. That's the Achilles Heel of this camera. The shutter lag is baaad. Disabling auto focus has no effect, and it's not an exposure thing either: even in bright sunlight, it lags. I tried reducing quality, resolution, changing metering, and everything else I could find. No luck.
What makes this even worse is that compared to a dedicated digital camera, such as my Canon Powershot A75 or my Canon EOS 300D, it's a pretty lightweight unit, and with the positioning of the shutter, you don't get a particularly solid grip on the thing. As a result, the picture you frame and the picture you take could be significantly different.
Now, shutter lag isn't a new thing. All cameraphones I've used suffer from it. Hell, most consumer digital cameras seem to suffer from it, or at least, used to suffer from it. It's just a shame they didn't manage to fix it for this one. I don't (particularly) mind if a camera takes a while to dump the image to storage after the shot has been taken, as long as it does actually take the shot when I want it to.
For now, I'd switch it to "Multi shot", which takes three or six photos in quick succession. It still takes a second to get going, but once it does, it rattles through them at a fair rate. Unfortunately, to do so, it reduces resolution to 640x480 (0.3 MP).
Moving on... image quality.
The pictures produced by the Shine are good. Of course, not up to the quality of a good consumer dedicated camera with a proper big lens, but as good as those slimline units with small lenses you can get for about £100, I think. It utterly thrashes the Nokia 6280 (and by implication, the even-worse 6680), as you can see from the pictures below. There's only so much that can be done with a small lens as the light-gathering capability is limited. So, a well-lit room or natural sunlight makes a big difference.
However, as far as I can tell from the photos my old boss used to get me to download from his phone for him, these things are often used to take pictures of drunken boobs (in more than one sense) in darkly-lit bars. I haven't had the opportunity to take the Shine out to a bar to snap boobs, but I did test it in darker conditions.
Now, with the other cameraphones I've mentioned, this just results in technicolor streaking (of the bad kind). Noise is rife, and the picture is barely visible. Even in a relatively low-lit room at night, the streaks ruin it all. It looks to me like the Shine doesn't suffer from this. Sure, it has image noise at low light conditions, but with a lens small enough to fit in a phone this thin, it's a damn good effort. Plus, the image noise isn't that unattractive. It's more like blurry grain than typical multicolour digital speckles.
The thing I'm really pumped to see on this thing is the Macro (close-up) mode. It's sad to admit, but I want to use my cameraphone mainly for taking pictures of whiteboards before I rub them out, and documenting things like where screws go before I take them out of the thing I'm disassembling. I'd also use it to take pictures of business cards, serial numbers and other things that absolutely require Macro focussing. The LG Shine brings it. The Macro mode works. It can focus within two inches before it starts getting blurry.
The flash is an odd one. It actually operates more like a lamp, in that it doesn't actually flash. Like other camera phones, it's actually just a dazzling white LED. When the flash setting is on, the LED stays lit. While this would run the battery down faster, I'd imagine, it does obviate the need for a red-eye mode. It also means it'd come in handy in the event of a power cut.
I didn't really test the video camera capabilities, but I note that it can record clips at 176x144 resolution, with a subset of the still camera options. You can also use it as a voice recorder.
One other minor issue which shouldn't make a blind bit of difference to anyone but a geek like me is the fact that the Shine doesn't include EXIF metadata with photos taken by it. What this means is that on, say, Flickr, you can't see what photographic settings were used for the photo, or even what kind of camera took it. This is a bit sloppy on the part of LG, as far as I'm concerned.
To conclude, I think they've done a great job on the camera, especially considering the size of the phone. It doesn't compare too badly to a dedicated digital camera of a similar size and weight, and it has the added bonus of actually being a phone too.
There are two major flaws, though: firstly, the shutter lag I mentioned, which they may be able to correct in software. Secondly, the camera function suffers a great deal from the screen visibility problems I mentioned in my previous post. In outdoor daylight conditions, the screen is barely legible, and without an optical viewfinder, it's impossible to frame the shot. By sheer luck, I managed to take the picture on the right, in bright sunlight using macro mode, but I haven't shown you the many other shots that didn't turn out purely because I couldn't see what was being taken. Unfortunately, they can't fix this problem. The mirror-like screen is one of the key selling points of this phone, and is admittedly beautiful. However, it's got disadvantages, and this is one of them.
Finally, the rest of the features
I've put off reviewing the more mundane parts of the LG Shine, such as actually making calls, even though they're the most critical parts of it. I think this is because making calls on a mobile is no longer a big deal. Most phones are much of a muchness, with similar call quality and adequate battery life.
To be honest, I can't really judge battery life too well on this thing. I'm used to power-hungry 3G phones, and I also haven't been using this phone to make more than a couple of test calls. On the other hand, I've been playing with a lot of features. As a result, the fact that I've charged it three times in the past five days is of absolutely no value at all. What I can tell you is that the unit comes with a Lithium Ion 800mAh battery.
Call quality is fine. Meh. I just can't think of anything else to say on that subject. Sorry.
The software, on the other hand, I can rabbit on about for ages.
The user interface is good, with very well-designed graphics and exceptionally clear text. I don't feel the aching need to install some wacky theme or skin on this unit, as the graphics are neat and pretty. It comes with some stock wallpapers and animations (Flash SWF files, no less!), but they're not incredibly inspiring. It's interesting to note that most of them are stereotypically "girly" with flowers and petals and things, reflecting what seems to be the target market of the Shine. There is, however, a manly "car" animation, including sparkly highlights for those of us macho men who still appreciate good design.
The menus are well laid out, with a better overall organisation than that on recent Nokia phones. However, it's still fairly conservative, with the standard hierarchies in place, such as "Profiles" (activate / personalise), "Settings" and "Call History". It's just not a big deal. As well as being able to navigate with the scroll bar, almost all options have a digit next to them for navigating with the keypad. Even with the smooth keypad, I still find this nicer and faster to use than the scroll bar.
The whole phone interface is fairly responsive, with no major lags involved. It's not instant, but it's a lot better than the second-long pauses some of the Series 60 Nokias suffer from.
The call-making interface is fairly standard, but still well thought out. Manually dialling is neat, with big colourful digits appearing in one of four different animated styles. I've chosen "digital style", giving me seven-segment "LCD" style digits. Accidental calling is quick to cancel, which is better than the Nokias. On the occasion that I've misdialled, or accidentally pressed Green on a contact, the Nokias have failed to drop the call until the line starts ringing. If that was an accidental emergency call, I'd be in trouble. The Shine drops the call as soon as the "drop call" button is pressed.
Text messaging is organised and although it's let down, again, by the lack of tactility of the flat keypad, it's still quick to type stuff. The predictive text is done right, and I must highlight the good choice of symbol selection they've gone with: pressing "*" brings up a list of symbols, each with an assigned keypad button. So, by pressing *9 and then "OK", I get "@". Using the scroll bar reveals more symbols, including currency, and for some odd reason, some (but not all) Greek letters. This interface is far better than the painful repeated button-pushes mechanism used by Nokia, which often results in overshooting the one you want.
The contact management function is well done, with ringtone choice and photo for all contacts. I haven't found any Voice Tagging feature yet, but I never use them anyway. The phone also includes the ubiquitous Calendar, Alarm Clock and Calculator, along with Stop Watch, Memo, Unit Converter and World Clock. These are clean and well-implemented, including a full scientific mode for the Calculator. As I mentioned the other day, the Alarm Clock is a little limited, with no capability to use an MP3 for the alert sound. Instead, a set of MIDI-esque instrumental tunes are offered.
It looks like they've really gone to town on the World Clock, though. A full animated 3D Planet Earth is shown, pointing to the various cities. It's very cute, but a little cumbersome to use, and there doesn't seem to be an option to remember more than one city. Instead, you can select your "Home City", which has the side-effect of reinterpreting the phone's current time zone. This means you can't keep local time, while still keeping track of whether it's the middle of the night back home. I think if I needed this function, I'd start looking for a downloadable application to do the same thing in a more straightforward way.
As I mentioned the other day, the UI is improved by jaunty little sound effects, which haven't become annoying yet. It's a fine line, but they've leaned marginally on the side of taste, which is good to see.
The Shine includes Java capability, and includes a couple of games. One is a fairly mediocre "Puzzle Bobble" clone, called "Bubble Soccer". I'm a huge fan of Puzzle Bobble, so I was very pleased to find it included. Sadly, using the scroll bar for controlling it just isn't good enough. The other game is "Fishing". Since the tutorial is about thirty pages long, and ridiculously complex, I got bored and just gave it a go, and got absolutely nowhere. These games aren't really going to win any awards, and I hope LG will ship better games on release.
Connectivity is fairly simple. The Shine includes Bluetooth and also an included USB cable. When connected via USB, the phone ceases to function as a phone (shutting off all wireless connectivity), starts charging the battery, and just becomes a removable drive. Since this pre-release phone didn't come with any software I could only use it as a dumb drive, so no interesting syncing capabilities to report. As expected, the Shine is not supported by Apple's iSync software on the Mac, so I couldn't sync my contacts or calendars over. This isn't unexpected, though. Apple aren't particularly good at supporting phones even when they've been on sale for months, so failing to support a pre-release phone is par for the course.
I'm not particularly happy with the charging mechanism. It involves plugging the cable into that flimsy little port, with no option for a cradle or desk stand. I can't see any way that an in-car kit would work, either. A good thing I don't drive, I guess!
So, to sum up...
This phone isn't perfect, but it's the best I've come across so far. There's only one reason I wouldn't buy this phone right now, and it's that it's a 2G phone. I'm subscribed to Three UK, which is a 3G-only network. If I'd got this phone three months ago while I was still on contract with Orange UK, it wouldn't have been an issue. I've been told that the 3G version of this phone is due out shortly, and I'd love to get my hands on one. It would almost certainly become my main mobile... that is, assuming I don't get given a pre-release 3G-supporting unlocked Apple iPhone, which I don't think is likely. I wouldn't even give my old crappy Nokia to a family member: I love them too much.
So, what don't I like about this phone?
- Only 2G, but the 3G version should be out quite soon.
- Only 50MB of memory. 3G version has 1GB.
- Screen is illegible in daylight.
- Ringtone/Message tone volume too low: allegedly fixed in release.
- No real choice of message or alarm tones, or sound-effect theme.
- Flat, non-tactile keypad: easy to miskey.
- Scrollbar is sluggish and fiddly.
- Flimsy side port cover.
- No standard headphone socket.
- Included headset/remote is crummy.
- Basic music-playing UI.
- Shutter lag.
- No EXIF data on photos.
- No calling while on USB.
- No iSync support... yet.
What do I like about this phone? Everything else.
The bold entries are things that are significant enough for me to think twice about buying one, but to tell the truth, they wouldn't stop me. I'd even spend a day or so either hacking up a perl script to sync my contacts, or do it the hard way by individually Bluetoothing the contacts across.
This phone is just that good.
The rest of you lot can get it when it launches in the UK on February 7th, but you're not having this one. It's my precious. I wuv this phone.
(I've said it thrice and I'll say it again... The phone is on loan to me by LG’s representatives at the LG Shine Blog. However, I have absolutely no obligation to write anything nice about their product, or even write anything at all. It's pre-release and all subject to change, so don't come crying to me if you buy one and it kills your pets or sleeps with your teenage daughter.)