The LG Escape reminds us again of LG's identity problem in the United States. And that problem is that LG doesn't really have an identity.
Indeed, the Escape follows in the footsteps of many of the LG smartphones that came before it. The design is solid, but plain. Its features are current, but not surprising. It delivers strong call quality, but still falls short in a couple of key areas. So to put it another way, there's nothing fatally wrong with the Escape, but it doesn't pull any knockout blows.
When you add in the very affordable price -- just $49.99 with a contract -- the Escape is more compelling, and features like 4G LTE support and a dual-core processor sweeten the sauce. If you can get past the poor camera and battery life the Escape will serve you well, but in my view it plays just a bit part on AT&T's Android stage.
Though the Escape lacks the graceful curves of the Samsung Galaxy S3, it succeeds on more practical levels. At 4.96 inches long by 2.54 inches wide by 0.37 inch deep, it has a Goldilocks "just right" size that's neither too big nor too small. That's a plus for anyone who balks at the girth of an Android superphone, but still wants a device with plenty of screen space. The Escape also has a sturdy build without being too heavy (4.5 ounces). The back cover is plastic, but I like how the checked pattern catches the light. The handset also gets points for the ribbed spine that runs along its sides and its top and bottom edges.
Below the display are the usual touch controls for moving backward through a menu, returning to the home screen, and opening the pop-up menu (the menu options change depending on the feature that you're using). On the right side is the power control, on the top of the phone is the 3.5mm headset jack, and down below is the Micro-USB port. The volume control on the left side is easy to find when you're on a call. Around back are a single speaker and the camera lens. There's no flash, though, and the lens is right where you want to rest your finger. You'll have to remove the battery cover to access the microSD card slot. I used to complain about that a lot, but I guess the decision by most handset manufacturers to put it there anyway has worn me down.
Display and user interface
The 4.3-inch qHD display gives you plenty of room for browsing, typing, and apps. Indeed, it's a nice compromise between the low-end Android phones in the 4-inch range and flagship devices like the Galaxy S3 that go supersized. Similarly, the 960x540-pixel resolution is a step down compared with its fancier rivals' screens, but it's perfectly serviceable for everyone except ardent display devotees. Contrast between light and dark areas was sharp and colors (the phone supports 16 million hues) were vibrant and not oversaturated. Blacks could be blacker, and the screen's maximum brightness could be higher, but it does the job.
The multitouch interface supports pinch to zoom and two-finger rotate and tilt. You can't calibrate the display or adjust the touch sensitivity, but the interface is accurate and responsive.
There are five home screens that you can customize with folders, widgets, and icons. A few widgets like a Google Search bar, AccuWeather and Facebook apps, and a music player shortcut will be there from the start, but you can remove or resize them. Also, you can easily move elements around the display by tapping and holding. At the bottom of the display is a permanent icon tray that holds up to four apps. The default shortcuts are the phone dialer, the messaging feature, the browser, and the main menu. You can swap out the first three if you wish. The main internal menu has the standard grid design with three pages for apps, downloads, and widgets.
It doesn't bring Jelly Bean, but the Escape at least has Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. That gives it a relatively modern feel with all the useful elements like Face Unlock, screenshot capability, and the option to monitor data use in real time. You can read more about Ice Cream Sandwich in our original Galaxy Nexus review. Of course, you also can adjust connectivity and display brightness settings directly from the home screen and you can silence the ringer or snooze an alarm by flipping the phone over. The flipping gesture control works well, but the process of tilting the phone to move icons around the the home screen was a bit awkward (you don't have to use it). The QWERTY keyboard, contacts menu, and alphanumeric dial pad have the familiar Ice Cream Sandwich enhancements, as well.
Features and apps
For a phone that's just $50 with a contract, the Escape packs more than just the basics. Indeed, Ice Cream Sandwich, the processor, and LTE support make it more than your average starter smartphone even if AT&T markets it as such. The phone book size is limited by the available memory, with each entry holding multiple fields. You also get the usual organizer and communication features, including a calendar, a voice recorder, a task manager, an alarm clock, a calculator, messaging, and support for personal and corporate e-mail. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are onboard and you can (at least try to) go hands-free with the voice commands. That feature was spotty at best. It interpreted commands correctly, and I could dial by using a contact's name, but dialing by speaking a phone number usually delivered bizarre results.
The Escape has most of the usual Google apps you'd expect from an Android phone, including Maps and Navigation, Places, YouTube, Google+, and Latitude. Of course, you can get many more Google and third-party titles from the Google Play store. It's annoying, though, how many of its own apps AT&T crams on the Escape. You can remove titles like AT&T Family Locator if you like, but the onus is on you to clean up the bloatware you don't want to use. Seriously, I think I can set up my phone without using the AT&T Ready2Go app.
Fortunately, the embedded third-party apps are more useful. Amazon's Kindle app will please bibliophiles, YellowPages Mobile lets you search for local businesses (though it's redundant with a standard Google search), and the Qik Lite app enables you to share videos on the go. Hidden in the notifications bar is the QuickMemo app, which allows you to draw pictures and notes directly on the display before saving the image to your media gallery. The Escape has 1GB of RAM and it's compatible with microSD cards up to 32GB.
The GS3 also supports NFC (near-field communication), which will let the phone exchange data between NFC tags and other devices with the same feature. It's a fun and useful option, provided you can find NFC tags, and I found it worked as expected.
Camera and media
Though the Escape delivers on must-have specs like Android 4.0 and LTE, its camera is less successful. With so many editing features (I'll describe those in a minute), the maximum 5-megapixel resolution is out of place and the photo quality is mediocre. This is definitely one case where the chef spent too much time on the sauce and not on the meal itself. On the upside, the camera interface makes it easy to use.
Camera editing options include a brightness meter, several scene and white-balance modes, three color effects, a self-timer, geotagging, an HDR mode, panorama shots, and autofocus. As I mentioned, the Escape goes beyond the basics, though not always to great effect. I like how you can capture action shots with the still camera. As you hold down the shutter control, the camera will take continuous shots of a moving subject or as you tilt the camera around. Then, after you release the shutter, the individual shots will end up as a quasi-filmstrip that you can share or save. Using another cool feature, you can take photos just by saying "Cheese." Just make sure you speak loudly enough.
I wasn't a fan of the "beauty shot" mode, which promises to mask skin blemishes in pictures taken with the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. It sounds intriguing, but I thought it was useless. As I went darker, I began to look like I was sunburned, and as I went lighter, my skin took on a ghostly appearance. Yes, my glowing skin did look younger, but it also looked obscenely airbrushed.