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LG Optimus G AT&T Sprint watermark
LG Optimus G AT&T Sprint watermark

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LG Optimus G review (AT&T and Sprint)

Can the Optimus G compete in the big leagues?

In the Android world right now, all eyes are on LG. After years of sub-par products, the company has found relevance again with the Optimus G, garnering serious attention from US carriers and consumers alike. Available on both Sprint and AT&T in the US, the Optimus G is intriguing for another reason: it's widely rumored to be the basis for the next Nexus device from Google.

The Optimus G represents LG's best effort to leave its midrange identity behind once and for all, with flagship specs and build quality that's better than anything the company has ever produced. The competition is fierce, however, with Samsung's Galaxy S III the reigning champ and even HTC's One X+ breathing some new life into that company's flagging prospects.

Has the Optimus G finally helped LG break into the big leagues in the US, or should the company be kicked back down to the minors for another year? Read on for our full review.

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

LG has found its hardware design language


The LG Optimus G is a "black slab" in every important sense of the term. Although the dimensions vary slightly between AT&T's and Sprint's versions, both are centered around a 4.7-inch screen that's ever-so-slightly shorter and wider than what you will find on either the One X or the Galaxy S III. That makes for a relatively squat phone, you might say, but in practice it's not much different from other large Android phones.

LG has opted for a fully sealed design with the Optimus G. There's no removable battery, but that tradeoff means LG can make a fairly thin phone. However the rear surface is completely flat instead of curved, which adds to the "slab" feel. Overall, I think it's worth the tradeoff for a thinner, more solid-feeling device.

On every Optimus G model, the flat rear panel features something LG calls "Crystal Reflection." The perfectly flat surface (reports differ as to whether it's glass or polycarbonate, but it feels more like polycarbonate to me) is actually a clear, polarized panel overlaying a reflective pattern underneath. The net effect is something that looks black at an angle but reveals a shiny pattern at the right angle and in the right light. It's thankfully not too ostentatious, but I think I'd prefer a simple matte finish myself.

Like Samsung, LG has opted to locate the sleep/wake button on the right-hand side instead of on the top, with the volume buttons on the left. The speaker is a single vertical slit on the lower right of the phone, which unfortunately can get quite muffled if it's sitting on a soft surface.


The AT&T and Sprint models do differ slightly. The Sprint model is very close to the global version — and in fact there's no Sprint branding whatsoever on it, a move that will likely help get it on Sprint's various pre-paid brands should the carrier opt for that. The edges of the phone are at right angles to the front with a curve to the back, and as previously mentioned it's completely sealed. That means you can't expand the 32GB of internal storage, replace the battery, or even get at the Micro SIM card for Sprint's nascent LTE network.

The AT&T model, on the other hand, is ever-so-slightly wider, no doubt to accomodate the slots for the Micro SIM card and microSD card (it comes with 16GB on board and a 16GB card out of the box). The right and left edges consist of a curved chrome rail which also flanks textured areas on the top and bottom. One nice element on the AT&T version is the notification light, which surrounds the power button instead of being inset on the front.

The other major hardware difference between the two versions is the camera: Sprint has a US-exclusive on the 13-megapixel version, while AT&T opted for an 8-megapixel sensor. I'll get into those differences more below, but for now I'll just note that the AT&T model is completely flush on the back while the lens on the Sprint version sticks out a millimeter or two.

Overall I'm impressed, but not wowed, with the hardware on both phones. Without a doubt both are the highest quality phones I've seen LG produce, though some might say that's damning the Optimus G with faint praise. Even so, it's worth noting that when it comes to industrial design, LG is beginning to find its own aesthetic.

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Display

Display

The display is simply great
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LG has thrown some significant engineering effort at the screen on the Optimus G. As is typical of smartphone companies these days, LG is touting specific branding for the 4.7-inch, 1280x768 display. It calls the screen a "True HD IPS Plus" display with "Zerogap Touch" technology, which is a fancy way of saying it's a proper LCD panel fused with the glass so the pixels appear much closer to the surface.

Branding aside, the display is simply great. Unlike the Galaxy S III or RAZR HD, colors aren't overblown and blues are given equal treatment to warmer tones. At nearly 318 PPI and with a standard RGB subpixel layout, text is crisp and beautiful. LG also has managed to get its brightness in a good range: with automatic, you set a "base" with the brightness slider or you can adjust manually. Viewing angles are excellent, matching the iPhone 5 and coming within spitting distance of the HTC One X — although even now I still have to give the One X the edge as the best display on a smartphone.

Cameras

Cameras

more pixels is not always better
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The camera software on the Optimus G is chock full of bells and whistles. There's a "cheese" mode that takes a photo when you say a key word like "cheese" or (my personal favorite) "whisky." You can adjust ISO, focus, white balance, and plenty more — and LG allows you to pick your top four settings to be available with one tap.

As for the cameras themselves, specs and quality vary by model. Both have a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera that does what front-facing cameras do: take mediocre shots and serve video calling needs. Around back is where things differ, with Sprint taking the global versions's 13-megapixel sensor and AT&T taking a more standard 8-megapixel sensor.

Unfortunately for Sprint, with smartphone cameras more pixels is not always better. I expected the 13-megapixel shooter to impress, given that LG is using it for the models it's shipping to other carriers around the world. Instead, I found the images to be soft with low contrast and forgettable dynamic range. I much preferred the 8-megapixel camera on AT&T's model, which improved on results in all of those areas. AT&T's camera also fared better in low light, perhaps because it's not trying to cram so many pixel sensors in such a small place.

Both models often felt like they were unforgiving when it came to taking quick, quality snapshots. Where the iPhone 5, Galaxy S III, or HTC One X handle a wide variety of scenarios at their default settings, I found myself futzing with the Optimus G more often to get a decent pictures. Perhaps a better photographer would find ways to make the Optimus G match or exceed those other phones. At the end of the day, though, a smartphone camera should make you feel like it's overachieved relative to the amount of effort you put into composing your shot, not the other way around.

See more images in the LG Optimus G for AT&T and LG Optimus G for Sprint camera sample galleries.

Software

Software

Earlier I said that the hardware on the Optimus G showed signs that the company is beginning to craft its own identity as LG. Unfortunately, LG's software choices, which are decent in and of themselves, are entirely beholden to carrier whims.

The Optimus G ships with Android 4.0, though an update to Android 4.1 is supposedly in the works. As with most Android skins, you can set up multiple homescreens, drag icons or widgets from the launcher, and resize widgets. One unintuitive but clever touch is the ability to change the icon for any given app — when you drag it on the homescreen, a small paintbrush icon appears and you can choose a photo to replace it with. Other icons can be "resized" up into full widgets, though of course that only applies to LG's custom apps. Another clever bit is the ability to resize folders into a larger, scrollable widget, so that you can directly launch the apps inside them without opening the folder.

From there, things get more convoluted. There's a "plus" icon that operates the same as long-pressing on a blank space on the home screen, offering a separate UI for adding icons and widgets. Managing the homescreen pages themselves required accessing a different view by pinching out or choosing a menu option. Within the launcher, apps are rearranged manually (though you can re-sort alphabetically from a menu), and you can further organize stuff into entirely different folders there as well. All these options might be a boon to those who want to double up on their app organization, but the multiplicity of choices is unintuitive at best and arcane at worst.

LG's software choices, which are decent in and of themselves, are entirely beholden to carrier whims

One feature I do like is the "Quick Memo," cribbed from the LG Optimus Vu / Intuition. It essentially lets you take notes on a screenshot or blank page from anywhere in the OS by drawing on the screen. It's not unlike Samsung's S-Memo feature, but without the benefit of a stylus.

LG also has a quick settings menu at the top of the notification area. You can pick and choose the icons and their order and a long-press opens up the settings — but again organizing them requires you to dive into multiple layers of unintuitive organization modes. What's worse, the shortcuts that are available here are apparently limited by the carrier; Sprint allows you to toggle the personal hotspot from quick settings, AT&T does not.

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Speaking of settings, they're inconsistently laid out on both phones — AT&T opting for tabs while Sprint has a simple, straight list. Digging into these settings reveals just how much LG is mimicking Samsung and iOS. There's "Wise screen" for keeping the display on when you're looking at it and settings to toggle tilt controls. Samsung's infamous "texting and watching video" at the same time feature is also on here, dubbed "QSlide," it makes the video within the gallery app semi-transparent so you can perform other duties while it runs. LG's TouchWiz envy even extends to the default unlock sound: a raindrop.

"Quiet time" operates very much like iOS's "Do Not Disturb" mode. LG also included an option to toggle "Eco mode" that apparently dials back the quad-core processor for longer battery life. There is an option for "Aspect ratio correction" which lets you alter the aspect ratio of certain apps to "fix screen distortion." Here, as elsewhere, all the options seem are nice, but they're too often presented without context for what they mean or whether you'd want to use them.

In terms of pre-loaded apps, AT&T again deserves to be called out for overloading the Optimus G with junk. No fewer than eleven AT&T-specific apps come pre-loaded and cannot be uninstalled. I'm also shocked by the overly-aggressive AT&T address book integration, which several times delayed opening up the contacts app by as much as a minute while it loaded.

AT&T also added an entirely superflous piece of software called the "browser bar," developed by Skyfire, to the default Android browser. It duplicates the bookmark functionality and displays certain websites in strange pop-up windows. It can be disabled, thankfully, and as this is Android 4.0, savvy users should simply set Chrome as the default browser.

Sprint, on the other hand, presents a much cleaner set of apps, limited within the Sprint Zone and determined by the "Sprint ID pack" customization software. LG's own custom apps are still present, of course, but at least they're not constantly in your face.

In all, the recipe for the UI seems to be a half pound slab of Samsung's TouchWiz and a dash of iOS layered on top of a puree of whatever customizations the carrier asked for. Even if it ended up being flawed, I wish LG would have exercised a stronger hand in the software kitchen instead of taking ingredients from so many cooks.

Performance

Performance

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The Optimus G is the first widely-released smartphone to use Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 "Krait" processor, a quad-core chip clocked at 1.5GHz. It's tied to a capacious 2GB of RAM and the Adreno 320 graphics core, all of which makes for a snappy and speedy experience.

The Optimus G is in the same lofty territory as the Galaxy Note II when it comes to sheer benchmarking and my experience with pushing graphics within games was consistent with the high marks. Our standard GLBenchmark 2.1 test was incompatible with the Optimus G, but you can find a good breakdown at Anandtech, who rightly notes that the graphics processor deserves special praise. Other than homescreen rotation — which is mystifyingly laggy — the Optimus G is beautifully responsive.

Using the AT&T model for a full day as I normally do brought the 2,100 mAh battery down to around 20 percent after 10 or so hours. That's about on par with what I experience on both the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III. I have not experimented heavily with the Eco mode, which theoretically could extend the phone's longevity by quite a bit. I'll report back after I've done more thorough testing. Both models had no trouble picking up a signal and call quality was fine. There is still no Sprint LTE in my — or most — cities, but the AT&T model posted great speeds.

The Optimus G is beautifully responsive
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The Optimus G is the first time in recent memory that LG has managed to legitimately get a flagship Android smartphone on US carriers. Part of the reason for that is that the Optimus G hits all the right notes: a fast quad-core processor, LTE, excellent screen, and above-average build quality. LG has finally managed to put all those pieces together into an excellent hardware package with a modicum of design flair.

Unfortunately, as of this writing Sprint has yet to announce a price or a release date for the Optimus G. The absence is another sign that LG doesn't have the same marketing muscle as the company it so often emulates: Samsung. Taken as a whole, the Optimus G doesn't quite match the overall consistency that Samsung or HTC have brought to the table. That's primarily due to some software foibles that would be forgivable on a lesser phone, but feel out of place in the upper echelons. If you're experienced enough with Android to work around the software hassles, you'll find the Optimus G to be a fast and fluid smartphone.

Update: Sprint has announced pricing and release date information for the Optimus G: November 11th for $199.99 on-contract.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room: those rumors that the next Nexus device will be based on this phone. Every gadget needs to be judged on its own merits, but I'm imagining a world where Google helps LG refine the hardware and the software is stock Android — and it seems lovely.

Sprint's take on the Optimus G is much closer to what LG originally created for the smartphone, both from a hardware and a software perspective. The benefits of a cleaner set of software are offset by a 13-megapixel camera that simply isn't as good as the 8-megapixel cameras on other phones.

The Optimus G is the first time in recent memory that LG has managed to legitimately get a flagship Android smartphone on US carriers. Part of the reason for that is that the Optimus G hits all the right notes: a fast quad-core processor, LTE, excellent screen, and above-average build quality. LG has finally managed to put all those pieces together into an excellent hardware package with a modicum of design flair.

Taken as a whole, the Optimus G doesn't quite match the overall consistency that Samsung or HTC have brought to the table. That's primarily due to some software foibles that would be forgivable on a lesser phone, but feel out of place in the upper echelons. If you're experienced enough with Android to work around the software hassles, you'll find the Optimus G to be a fast and fluid smartphone.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room: those rumors that the next Nexus device will be based on this phone. Every gadget needs to be judged on its own merits, but I'm imagining a world where Google helps LG refine the hardware and the software is stock Android — and it seems lovely.

AT&T had LG make significant changes to the Optimus G, both from a hardware and a software perspective. The hardware is generally better: I prefer the 8-megapixel camera and appreciate the access to the Micro SIM and microSD card slots. However, AT&T's interventions on the software side are as maddening as ever. The AT&T version of the Optimus G will be available on November 2nd for $199.99 on-contract.

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