Reviewed October 22, 2006 by Tong Zhang, Senior Editor
Editor's note 5/2007: The LG CU500v is the updated version of the CU500 which adds video conferencing over 3G capabilities.
Cingular has been hard at work deploying their HSDPA 3G network throughout the country this year and the LG CU500 is one of Cingular’s first HSDPA phones for that network. The 55 major metro areas and 118 cities that are covered by Cingular’s 3G network enjoy average data download speeds of 400-700kbps with bursts to over 1MB. Though you can currently take full advantage of these speeds using a PC card for your notebook, the CU500 3G GSM phone from LG is one of the first Cingular handsets that support UMTS/HSDPA on the US bands (850 and 1900 MHz). Couple 3G speeds with Cingular Video and you’ve got a multimedia phone that doesn’t make you wait while downloading video content. Throw in a 1.3 megapixel camera, great music player with track recognition services, excellent speakerphone, multitasking, Bluetooth and a very capable WAP browser, and you’ve got the LG CU500.
Design and Ergonomics
The LG CU500 is a black flip phone that’s about the same length as the Motorola RAZR and similar in thickness to the Cingular 3125 Windows Mobile Smartphone. It has a business look and feels good in hand. When the flip is closed you will see the color TFT external display that has music player controls. The hinge that connects the display panel to the keypad panel rattles a little bit on our unit and but it does close firmly in correct alignment. The rotating camera lives in the middle of the hinge. On the left side you will find a standard 2.5mm headset jack under a rubber door, a volume rocker that also scrolls through the task menu and the Task menu hot key to look through application and phone menus while in a call. There are no controls on the right side. The battery lives on the back of the phone and is integrated with the battery door which is secured by a latch on top of the door. The SIM card lives under the battery and is pretty easy to get it in and out. Surprisingly the MicroSD card slot isn’t on the side of the phone, but under the battery latch and is completely hidden from plain sight.
Open the flip, you will see the 2” TFT main display on the top flip with a large earpiece that also front the dual speakers. The keypad for menus and numbers are in black set on a silver plate which makes it easy to see. The 5 way directional pad is big and comfy to control. The two soft keys and shortcut keys to launch the music player and the camera flank the d-pad. Below these controls you will find the Call Send and Call End buttons as well as the Cancel/Back button. The number keys are large enough to control with ease and are slight raised for better tactile feedback. All keys are backlit in white, except the Call Send and Call End keys which are backlit in Green and Red respectively. The mic lives below the number pad as does a bump that holds the top flip to avoid the keypad touching the display. A proprietary data/charging port lives on the bottom edge of the phone and you’ll need to buy the USB cable separately from Cingular if you wish to connect the CU500 for tethering to a notebook.
Phone Features and Reception
The LG CU500 is a quad-band GSM phone operating on 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands. Voice quality is very good and the volume is high on both incoming and outgoing ends. You can expect the usual set of phone features on the CU500 including call waiting, conference call, call rejecting, speed dial ((8 entries plus 1 for voicemail), flight mode, vibrating alert and silent mode. You can have 10 unique ringtones and take notes while in a call. The dual speakers sound really good in conference calls.
One of the biggest attractions on this phone is the 3G capabilities for data. The LG supports EDGE and UMTS and HSDPA on the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands used by Cingular in the US. It not only enables faster downloads for normal data such as web pages and email, but also absolutely shines when you download Cingular video which include full-length episode of TV shows and much more. The CU500 gets signal strength anywhere from 2 bars to 5 (that’s max) bars in the Dallas area. When the network is more built out, signal will increase, but that’s certainly usable. Even with 2 bars, the LG downloads videos at an amazing speed and will put any feature phone on V CAST to shame in terms of video downloading/buffering speed. It’s not easy to test the true speed of HSDPA directly on the LG, as the bundled browser is a bottleneck when testing speed on dslreports. But we tried anyway and have gotten 200-250k on the LG using the WAP browser.
Like all GSM 3G phones we’ve seen so far, the LG allows you to select between GSM, UMTS/HSDPA or auto where the phone selects 3G if available and falls back to GSM if 3G isn’t available. If you live in a spotty 3G coverage area, you can put the phone in GSM mode and switch to 3G when you want to watch Cingular Video or use the Internet. That will save battery power and prevent the phone from switching back and forth unnecessarily.
Display and Multimedia
The LG CU500 has a 2” TFT color display that is 176 x 220 pixels in resolution. It’s capable of displaying 65k colors and it’s plenty bright and sharp. The smaller external display can also display 65k colors and is equally sharp and bright.
The music experience on the LG is one of the best we’ve seen among recent feature phones thanks mainly to the awesome 3D stereo sound. The sound quality is crystal clear with great channel separation and powerful bass. The loudspeakers have good quality which makes the phone a nice little party tool. But the sound quality is the best when listening through a good 2.5mm stereo headset. The LG CU500 comes with a capable music player that complements the beautiful 3D stereo sound. It supports playlists, shuffle and repeat settings as well as provides visualization and an equalizer. The player provides detailed track information. You can play MP3, ACC or ACC+ files on the LG.
Need another party trick? Launch MusicID from the Cingular Music folder and put your phone next to a radio/boom box during a song. The phone listens to the music for less than 10 seconds and then Music ID will tell you which song is playing, show you the album cover and let you share it with friends. How cool is that?! Once MusicID recognizes a song, it will put it on the list so that you can use it later to buy tracks or albums. In addition to the music player you will also get a Java streaming music application (MobiRadio) to listen to streaming audio and MobiTV for streaming video.
The real screamer is Cingular Video at 3G speeds. For most of the programs, the buffering time is much shorter than the V CAST video and the video playback has no stuttering, blocky-ness or audio out-of-sync with video problems. If you are an avid video watcher on V CAST or MobiTV, you will agree that Cingular 3G video makes V CAST video through EV-DO child’s play. Cingular claims you can get 15 fps on the video content, and it’s not an idle boast from the speed and the quality we see. Because of the faster streaming speed, Cingular Video offers not just your usual news, sports, short entertainment video clips, but also full episode of TV programs. Granted the full length TV program feature is at its infancy where a half-hour episode is broken down into 10 or a dozen files that are under 4 minutes each, but it signals the beginning of great things to come.
To store your music tracks, photos and other files, the LG CU500 comes with a MicroSD slot. That’s the good part; the bad part is that the slot is designed more like Chinese puzzle box than an expansion slot on a phone. You will need to take out your battery, push the tiny MicroSD card under the battery latch into the slot (which you don’t see at all since it’s hidden) with a long fingernail (hopefully you have one). Thanks goodness the slot is spring loaded so that the card will latch on when pushed in and pop out enough for you to grab it with, get ready, your fingernail when you push it again. Remember you need to take out the battery part? That’s right, the phone reboots every time you access your MicroSD card. On the bright side at least the phone boots up much faster compared to some smartphones such as the Cingular 3125.
The LG CU500 comes with an integrated 1.3 megapixel camera that’s also capable of capturing video. The cameras on LG feature phones usually have great quality like the ones found on the LG VX8500 Chocolate phone and the VX8300. However the camera on the CU500 is less stellar with an obvious color cast and weak focus. The sample photos are shot at the highest quality and resolution settings at the default brightness and white balance settings. You will notice the shots have color bias and poor focus. The pictures are good enough for capturing a fleeting moment, but pale in comparison to the photos taken with the Chocolate and the VX8300. The camera on the LG CU500 offers 5 resolutions for photos (1280 x 960, 640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120). For those who are fond of the multishot feature, the LG can take up to 9 still shots in a row which is an advanced feature found on higher end phones such as the Sony Ericsson K800i. The camera can rotate to face either the front for self-portraits or the back to take a photo of the scene in front of you. The CU500 camera also has a self-timer, white balance settings, effects and other features and there is also a basic image editor included for resizing, cropping, rotating images and adding color effects.
The LG CU500’s camera can take video with audio at 320x240 and 176x144 resolutions. The phone performs very well when capture video and shows no noticeable frame dropping or blockiness. The audio is in perfect sync with video. You can record up to 14 minutes of video at 15 fps (frames per second) in normal quality or 5 minutes at super fine setting. The camera also has an MMS mode for video capture and will record up to 20 second of video for MMS. The videos are saved into 3GP format.
The LG CU500 has integrated Bluetooth v1.1 that supports Headset, Hands-Free, Dial-up Networking, A2DP and OPP profiles. We tested the LG with the Cardo scala 700 and the scala 500 Bluetooth headsets for voice calls and the Plantronics Pulsar Bluetooth stereo headset for playing music via A2DP. The LG paired with all headsets with ease, but couldn’t connect to the scala 700 which worked with all the other phones we’ve tested. The CU500 works fine with the scala 500 and had great voice clarity but low volume on both incoming and outgoing calls. Playing music through the Pulsar rocks and it sounded just as good as the wired stereo headset in terms of quality and volume. The CU500 got about 18-20 feet of range with the scala 500, and the Pulsar managed 25 feet while maintaining great sound quality and volume.
Once you’ve paired the LG CU500 with another Bluetooth device or accessory, you will see that item on the device list and you can go back to connect to that device anytime you wish. You can save up to 10 devices on this list. Having Bluetooth radio on didn’t drain battery at a noticeable rate.
The LG CU500 comes with a 1,100 mAh Li-Ion Polymer battery (model LGLP-GAJM) which seems to be quite large in capacity for a flip phone such as this one…until you start streaming and watch videos on Cingular Video. The claim talk time for the LG is 5 hours on GSM and 3.5 hours on UMTS. That’s a pretty accurate estimate in our experience. The claim standby time is 10 days which is a slight over estimation. If you use the phone mainly to make phone calls, access your contacts database, send some SMS or IM the battery will last you a few days on a charge. Surfing the web, listen to music or keeping the Bluetooth radio on doesn’t seem to drain the battery too much. Taking lots of photos will eat up a reasonable amount of power. The biggest power sinker is watch videos on Cingular Video. Watching one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm will cost you half of a full charge as you will need to stream 11 files. The phone gets very hot too after you watch video or take photos for a while.
For a feature phone that sells for $79 with contract, the LG CU500 comes with a very nice set of applications. Besides the powerful entertainment apps such as the music player, video players, you will also get a full set of PIM applications including address book, calendar, Notepad, Tasks, World Clock, Tip Calculator and more. The address book on the phone can hold up to 500 contacts each can store 5 numbers, 2 email addresses, a picture ID, an assigned ringtone (or default) and memo. The address book supports groups as well which makes it easy to sort and search. The calendar is under My Stuff/Tools and has monthly view, weekly view and date view. You can schedule events with alarms and repeats. One nice thing about phone is that it supports Cingular’s over the air firmware upgrade. So if you experience bugs and find fixes in the future update you can easily get it to your phone.
For messaging, the LG CU500 comes with SMS, MMS and IM support. The LG bundles an Instant Messaging tool that supports AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ. The LG doesn’t have an email client, which isn’t that unusual for a multimedia feature phone. You can however download an app called Mobile Email from the Cingular application shop for free which is a web email client that supports several popular web mail services.
The LG CU500 also comes with a WAP browser which has very good performance thanks to the 3G. The pages download noticeably faster than those on EDGE networks and the browser actually is very capable by WAP browser standards. It can display non-WAP sites elegantly without butchering the layout and it loads images nicely.
If you love watching videos on your phone, this is a must have device! The 3G is zippy and the video playback is the best we’ve seen. The LG CU500 has a solid feature set for an affordably priced flip phone and it looks more costly than it is.
Pro: Great data speed, that you’ll enjoy whether browsing a web page or watching a full episode of Sex and the City (warning, the addictive HBO subscription costs $4.99/month). Good reception. It has some great entertainment features including the music player, MusicID, Billboard Mobile and MobiTV/Radio. The CU500 is among the best for stereo sound quality on a phone with awesome channel separation, rich and full sound and great volume. A2DP support enables you to play music wirelessly via a Bluetooth stereo headset. Good price with contract.
Con: No real email support. The hinge rattles on our test unit. Battery on 3G is a sore point (put the phone in GSM mode when practical to reduce batter consumption).
Price: $79.99 after rebates with 2 year contract. $179.99 retail.
Display:65k color TFT, 176 x 220 pixel main display, 11 lines. 65k color TFT LCD, 96 x 96 pixels, 6 lines.
Battery:1,100 mAh Li-Ion Polymer battery, rechargeable, user-replaceable. Claimed talk time: up to 5 hours on GSM, up to 3.5 hours UMTS/HSDPS. Claimed standby time: up to 10 days.
Size:3.80 x 1.95 x 0.76 inches. Weight: 3.7 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad-band world phone supporting the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands. GPRS/EDGE for data and UMTS/HSDPA for 3G content on 850/1900 MHz.
Camera:1.3MP Megapixel rotating camera with 4x digital zoom. Also record video clips with audio. Picture resolutions are 1280 x 960, 640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120 pixels and video resolutions are 320x240, 176x144 pixels.
Audio:Built-in stereo speakers, mic and a standard 2.5mm headset jack. Supports 72-Chord Polyphonic Ringtone, MP3/ACC and 3D stereo sound audio. Supports 3GP video and has vibration and silent modes.
Networking:Bluetooth v1.1 that supports Headset, Hands-Free, Dial-up Networking, A2DP and OPP profiles.
Software: Music Player for MP3, ACC and ACC+ music. MusicID service, Billboard Mobile for music news and ringtone catalog. Cingular Video for streaming video clips. Also included are MobiTV and MobiRadio. Image Editor, Messaging for SMS, MMS and IM. Java 2.0 for games, applications and ringtones. Games included are Tetris and POGO Tripeaks. PIM applications include address book, calendar, notepad, tasks, D-Day counter, tip calculator, world clock, stop watch and unit converter. FOTA (over the air firmware update) supported. .
In the Box:The phone with battery, an A/C charger and a printed User Guide.