Review: Virgin Mobile Optimus V Delivers Android Goodness on the Cheap

Last Updated Mar 8, 2011 10:30 AM EST

So you've decided: you're ready for a smartphone. But you're not ready for the two-year contract and $70/month minimum that carriers like AT&T and Verizon charge for the iPhone, Droid X, and the like.

Last year, Virgin Mobile shook things up by offering a no-contract Android phone for as little as $25 per month, including voice and unlimited data. Just one problem: the phone itself, a Samsung intercept, was decidedly mediocre. It's bulky and slow, runs Android 2.1, and has the single worst battery life I've ever seen.

Enter the LG Optimus V, Virgin's latest no-contract Android phone. It's better in every imaginable way, starting with price: $149.99. (The Intercept originally sold for $249.99, though it's now $199.99). So for $50 less, you're getting a model that's thinner, lighter, and faster. No wonder it's currently out of stock on Virgin's site. (Don't sweat it: Best Buy has the Optimus V for $129.99!)

CNET has an in-depth review of the Optimus V, a good place to start your research, but I have some additional thoughts to share. For starters, the phone feels zippy and responsive, unlike the slow-as-molasses Intercept. Even while downloading a handful of apps, it lagged only a little. I'm guessing the presence of Android 2.2 is at least partly responsible.

Another key difference between the Optimus V and the Intercept is that the former lacks a slide-out keyboard. If your thumbs insist on one, you'll have to look elsewhere -- but the onscreen keyboard works just as well as an iPhone's, and it's bolstered by LG's surprisingly effective Swype software (which lets you enter text just by sliding your finger across the keyboard). What's more, without a physical keyboard, the Optimus V feels very slim and lightweight (and it is, at just 0.5 inches thick and 4.7 ounces).

As for battery life, it's decent, but not great: whereas the Intercept needed charging every single day, the Optimus can go nearly two days. (I'm not sure in what parallel universe Virgin is able to get its rated six days of standby time.)

So the phone itself is solid, but what really sets it apart is the carrier. Virgin's pay-as-you-go plans start at just $25, which includes 300 anytime minutes and unlimited data (including texting, e-mail, Web, etc.). If you need more talk time, the $40/month plan bumps you to 1,200 minutes -- more than enough for most users, and still considerably less than you'd pay elsewhere.

Whatever plan you choose, taxes and fees are included. Your $25 per month doesn't turn out to be, say, $31.87. Even activation is free, and so is shipping (if you buy directly from Virgin).

Virgin's first Android model, the Samsung Intercept, sounded too good to be true -- and it was. But the Optimus V delivers on the promise of a well-rounded, eminently usable smartphone priced well below what you'll find anywhere else.

Pros: Thin, attractive design. Zippy overall performance. Taps Virgin's (Sprint's) EV-DO Rev. A network for fast connectivity. No monthly contract required. Dirt-cheap service plans.
Cons: Battery life could be better. Browser feels a little sluggish. Less-than-optimal button layout.

Should You Buy It? With a low cost of entry and the cheapest service plans on the planet, the Optimus V is the perfect pick for cash-strapped business owners who crave smartphone power.

Price: $149.99 (plus service)

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.