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Virgin Mobile LG Optimus F3 review: No-contract doesn't have to mean no frills

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Virgin Mobile LG Optimus F3

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Virgin Mobile has released another winner in the LG Optimus F3, an Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) smart phone with 4G LTE support and features aplenty.

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Measuring 4.57" by 2.44" by .39", the Optimus F3 weighs 4 oz. Messages and videos look vibrant, crisp and clear on the phone's Gorilla glass display. The touchscreen functions as expected with just the right amount of sensitivity. Games like Words With Friends and Angry Birds played quite well and look fantastic.

The Optimus F3's 4" display, the same size as current iPhone models, makes it great for carrying in a pocket, but has the disadvantage of rather small keys on the virtual keyboard. If you have large hands or thick fingers, you may want to consider a larger phone like a Samsung Galaxy S III or Boost Mobile's new Warp 4G.

The onscreen keypad does have the multi-function keys common to mid and higher level Android phones, meaning you can hold in a letter to get a number or symbol.

The phone's 1.2 GHz dual-core processor with 1 GB of RAM helps app install quickly and run smoothly. Many users could quickly gobble up the phone's 4 GB of onboard memory, so consider adding a microSD card of up to 32 GB in size to add space. Also, I recommend using Dropbox or Google Drive to easily sync your photos and videos with your computer so you can clear space on your phone.

Polaris Viewer lets you open MS Office files from email attachments, from the phone or from cloud storage like Dropbox. Quick Memo (labeled simply "Memo" on the icon) lets you create memos from doodling with your finger, taking a photo, typing or voice recording. It's a nifty thing to have, but not as robust as Evernote.

The included Application Manager app lets you uninstall some of the apps that came with the phone that you don't want or need to save storage space. For example, the translator app takes up quite a bit of space, and you probably won't need it unless you plan to travel internationally or work with remote clients who don't speak English.

The Optimus F3's 5 MP flash camera takes excellent photos. If your pictures turn out discolored in some way, such as having a greenish tint, try adjusting the white balance. The rear-facing camcorder can take 1080p full HD videos, and you can take low-res photos or video with the front-facing camera as well.

The F3 has quite impressive battery life. Sitting idle, collecting emails, it'll last a few days between charges. Even with light usage, you should get a couple of days. When plugged into power, the phone shows a red light that changes to green when charging completes - a cool feature that keeps you from having to periodically check on the phone's charging status.

I had no trouble setting up and using email accounts. For free Microsoft accounts (Outlook.com, Hotmail and Live.com) on any Android phone or tablet, I have much better luck using Android's built-in email app than with the Outlook app available in the Google Play Store. Simply set it up as an Exchange account, enter your email address and password and it should auto-detect the mail server settings.

Two big advantages of a Virgin Mobile phone are the low monthly nut and the lack of a long-term contract. Virgin Mobile's Android plans start at $35 per month for 300 voice minutes and unlimited texts. You can also get 1200 voice minutes for $45 per month, or unlimited minutes for $55 per month.

Prepaid carriers like Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile charge full-freight for their phones rather than eating part of the price in exchange for locking you into a two-year contract. Therefore, their device prices run the gamut from the lower-end $49.99 Kyocera Event to higher end models like the $319.99 Samsung Galaxy S III.

With a prepaid carrier like Virgin Mobile, you're not stuck with a phone for two years if you find that you dislike it or just decide you want something else. If you purchase directly from Virgin Mobile and save all of your original packaging, you can even return the phone within 30 days by calling their customer care line for instructions.

Virgin Mobile currently sells the Optimus F3 for $125.99 online, but their prices fluctuate, so you may want to keep checking if the price you see is higher than that.

The Optimus F3 uses Sprint's 4G LTE network and falls back on 3G when 4G isn't available. I found the phone's 3G speed surprisingly fast, though. All mobile carriers have dead areas. If you'll need frequent access to a mobile network, I recommend trying a friend's phone that uses the Sprint network in your neighborhood and/or workplace, to make sure you have adequate coverage.

Virgin Mobile doesn't hit you with fees for going over their 2.5 GB monthly data allotment, but they can slow down the speed significantly. This likely won't happen if you're vigilant about using Wi-Fi when you can. You can monitor your mobile data usage under Settings on your phone or download a free widget like 3G Watchdog (which actually tracks both 3G and 4G data usage).

You can save a lot of money on your monthly bills by switching to a no-contract phone. Prepaid mobile phones can also be a great choice for teens, since you you don't have to worry about going over a certain allotment of texts or data. Though the prepaid carriers don't always carry the trendiest phones on the market, they do have some very nice phones, many of which don't cost a fortune either upfront or monthly.

The reasonably priced and well-performing Optimus F3 offers a good choice for anyone looking for a mid-level Android phone with no strings attached.

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