Two Weeks With the LG Optimus G (Rogers)

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Last time I posted, I was talking about spending two weeks with the Nokia Lumia 900. This time, I'm back after experiencing LG's current champion. I've cross-posted this from my blog.

What do you get when you combine top-tier specifications, identical to the Nexus 4, with LTE connectivity and a sleek form factor? You get LG's Android flagship, the Optimus G.

I first saw it in a magazine advertisement. I mention this because I think it's the first time I have ever been introduced to a product via print media; sign of the times, I suppose.

The Optimus G leapt off the page at me for a couple of reasons, the first of which was its remarkably clean design. Despite the persistent bad rap that LG receives for its phones, I've always been a huge fan of their industrial design — especially within the past year or so.

Some time after first discovering it, having done my research on the phone, I was presented with a rare opportunity thanks to my contract with Rogers coming to a close (after 3 years — oh, Canada). Using this excuse, I quickly found myself bringing home a gorgeous white box.

A week or so later, as I debate whether or not to keep the phone, I offer my impressions.

Hardware

From the white box, a black slab emerged. Like most smartphones, the form factor of the LG Optimus G is nothing surprising. But what I've come to realize, after playing with several different devices, is that the subtleties of the slab design impact the ergonomics immensely in day-to-day use.

The Optimus places its power/wake button on the side, which I wasn't initially a fan of coming from my faithful iPhone 4S, but of course it makes sense — it's much more accessible there with the phone's larger screen. On the opposite side, a simple volume rocker completes the minimal physical button allotment for the phone.

While no further buttons are strictly necessary, I miss having a dedicated camera button. Spoiled by the Lumia, I've even come to crave its half-press functionality, which makes it easy to transfer familiar camera ergonomics to the smartphones that are increasingly replacing them.

I adore the clean lines and minimalistic design of the hardware, which is surprisingly light and feels excellent in the hand.Special mention must go to the screen, which is wonderfully bright, balanced, and accurate. It may not have the highest PPI on the market (though 1280 x 768 on a 4.7" screen is no slouch), but it's a solid display framed by a tiny bezel that embodies the upper limit of what I think is sensible for smartphone screen size.

Hidden in the bottom bezel are the three capacitive touch buttons: Back, Home, and the Settings/Show Me All The Things button. I appreciate how responsive these are, and once you put your favourite launcher on the phone you can customize how they behave. Except for the Back button, which I continue to think of as Android's serendipity switch.

I'll also briefly mention that battery life has not been an issue for me. Using the phone as my daily driver has yielded perfectly acceptable endurance. In other words, it makes it through about a day and a half of normal usage, dropping to a day for heavier work. Having the phone switch to a power-saving mode overnight is useful, as is activating Eco Mode (more on that later).

Considering the monstrous specifications of this phone (it benchmarks competitively with the Galaxy Note II and blows almost everything else on the market away), that's very impressive.

Android

I mentioned in my review of the Lumia 900 that I felt Android had finally reached a certain maturity as of version 4.0 and, even more so, 4.1. I have been the happy owner of a Nexus 7 since it's been available here in Canada, and I love it to death. It was not the first Android device that I'd used, of course, but it was certainly the first that I wanted to continue using.

My thoughts on the Nexus 7 itself are coming in a review that's taken me longer than expected to prepare, but it puts me at a disadvantage when assessing the Optimus G because the Nexus runs Google's latest version of Android, the slick Jelly Bean, whereas LG has not yet updated the Optimus G from Ice Cream Sandwich.

In theory, this means I lose the advantage of Project Butter and the Holo UI refinements, among other things. In practise, the LG is consistently smoother than the Nexus and I find LG's skin to be unobtrusive, elegant, and occasionally even brilliant in its enhancements over stock Android.

This, I expect, is the point where the fandroids will dismiss me, but hear me out because I was as surprised as you.

LG Exclusive Features

Setting aside for a moment the Jelly Bean deficiency, there is a lot to admire about LG's skin. For starters, it doesn't drastically change the fundamental aesthetic of Android (and I'm not talking just about visuals). It feels like an Android experience, and many basic things that you might otherwise have had to work to achieve are built into the skin.

Quick settings toggles are waiting for you in the notification shade. You can customize which ones show up and in what order. There's also a handy Clear button in the shade that helps you dismiss multiple notifications at once.Optimus-g-hai_medium

LG's marketing makes a big deal of two specific features in the phone, both of which are similar to functionality found on the Samsung competitors. The first is Q-Slide. Making use of the 4 cores and 2GB of RAM, the Optimus G allows you to engage in a sort of live multitasking by superimposing two apps using adjustable transparency. This can come in handy if you want to text someone while watching YouTube...I guess. Personally, I've found no real-world use for it, but it does function well in the tests I've done.

More useful is the QuickMemo feature. This is a stroke of genius. Activated from the notification shade (or by pressing volume up and down simultaneously), QuickMemo allows you to doodle directly overtop of whatever is on your screen and then save the result as an image. Alternatively, you can choose a neutral paper background, or toggle between the two freely.

Beyond the obvious appeal of drawing moustaches on friends, this turns the Optimus G into a brilliant tool for quickly communicating ideas — annotating a map view with directions, jotting down a phone number without having to fiddle with the contacts app, annotating screenshots for beta testing...these are all actual use cases I've found myself turning to QuickMemo for.

Besides the features mentioned above, LG has also included a few other useful things like their own version of iOS' Do Not Disturb, as well as Eco Mode. By disabling two of the four CPU cores, this toggle will help conserve battery life at the expense of some gaming performance. The difference is otherwise imperceptible and I have kept Eco Mode on for much of my basic usage of the phone.

One last LG item I want to mention is the typeface. LG SmartGothic is hands-down the most attractive, flexible, and readable mobile phone font I have ever encountered. I wish it was available separately to design with.

The Camera: Better Features Than Photos

I wanted to like this camera more. 8MP is a respectable resolution. It should have been an easy checkmark on the positives list. But...no.

The Optimus G actually comes in two basic hardware variants, one of which has a 13MP camera and a notification light in its power button rather than on the faceplate. According to reviews, despite the lower resolution, the 8MP camera is in fact the superior performer. Since the Rogers variant of the phone is the 8MP one, I find this conclusion alarming since the camera is quite weak in my estimation.

Photos get soft very quickly, the camera struggles in low light, and you'll need to do some massaging to get great shots even in ideal conditions. It's not bad if you're ok fiddling with settings or have steady hands, but if your goal is to quickly snap an optimal shot you might be frustrated. This is especially true if you're used to the almost magical camera proficiency of the iPhone.

That being said, the actual features of the camera are terrific. Most camera controls are adjustable, four settings can even be selected for quick access, and the addition of a speak-to-shoot mode may seem gimmicky, but it's not useless: saying "cheese" to snap a shot ensures that you don't shake the camera unnecessarily by triggering the shutter with your finger.

Phone Calls & Connectivity

I haven't had the opportunity to test out calling very extensively, except to confirm that the audio quality is basically on par with the smartphones I've used previously.On the other hand, I've had plenty of time to fiddle with data and connectivity.

After experiencing LTE, it becomes difficult to go back. I've never felt that 3G was slow, but having my phone be home-WiFi-fast wherever I go (within the city) is incredible. The Rogers variant of the Optimus G uses the 2600 band for LTE, which is un-crowded and therefore extremely fast. In fact, I doubt there's a faster mobile service available in Canada now.

The trade-off being that this phone is not widely compatible with other networks if you were to unlock it. Unfortunately for me, coverage is not particularly strong outside of the downtown area either, so here at home I've had to "disable" LTE (I toggled network mode to prefer HSPA so it stops struggling to maintain LTE connectivity). Optimus-g-face_medium

Green Means...Something

While my opinion of the phone is largely positive thus far, there are a few issues with it that have been impeding my enjoyment.

The first and most obvious is the lack of Jelly Bean. At this point, enough has been written on the topic of why delayed Android updates for non-Nexus devices are frustrating. As of this writing, LG has in fact made Jelly Bean available in Korea on the Optimus G, but those of us over here are still waiting. And for someone coming from iOS, the fact that I have to wait at all is alien.

For me, this means that I'm missing my favourite feature in Android — the single most compelling thing about the entire operating system for me: Google Now. More than Siri, I've found Now to be an incredible, surprising, and utterly transformative way of interacting with my Nexus 7, and I desperately want to have access to that functionality on a smartphone.

The most frustrating part is that the Optimus G is arguably a better phone than the Nexus 4: I prefer the form factor, and it has LTE. But the Nexus has Google Now, so the Optimus feels crippled. If I could order a Nexus 4 (or buy one without paying a ridiculous premium for the used units) then I might be tempted to buy it simply for the advantage of having an unlocked, stock Android experience like I enjoy on the Nexus 7.

Besides Google Now, the second most coveted aspect of Android phones for me has always been the presence of a notification light. Such a simple concept, surprisingly missing from iPhones even now. Bewilderingly enough, the notification light on the Optimus G is different enough from the Nexus 4's that it doesn't work with Lightflow. This means that it fails to give me customizable notifications in different colours for different apps — all it can do is flash green. In other words, it's totally useless since I still need to turn on my screen to see what requires my attention.

Why did LG imagine that the only other notification colour I needed would be the red light to tell me when it's charging? The phone has a cable in its ass, what else would it be doing?!

Do I Keep It?

I have a week or so left with the device at this point. At the end of that period, I get to give it back if I don't like it. Or I can keep it. With the understanding that it will soon receive Jelly Bean, the question becomes surprisingly challenging to answer.

I thought that CES would bring me many exciting new phones to look forward to, but it hasn't produced anything remarkable, so for now the Optimus G remains a flagship and an all-around impressive performer. But is it impressive enough to spend years paying off through a carrier subsidy? Probably not.

Then again, it's undeniably a gorgeous phone that feels good to use and is as responsive as my iPhone, not to mention several times more powerful in terms of raw specifications.

While I ponder, I welcome your thoughts: do you think the Optimus G is a keeper? Should I be running away to a different smartphone ASAP? Have a favourite configuration you'd like to share for the device? I'd love to hear about it!