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LG G Pad 8.3 1024px
LG G Pad 8.3 1024px

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LG G Pad 8.3 review

It's Google's vision of Android versus LG's — and you get to pick

Google’s just another carrier, or at least that’s what it’ll tell you. Just as Verizon and AT&T customize every device they sell, with apps and services and robotic ringtones, Google’s selling its own flavor of some of the most popular devices on the market. It just so happens that Google Play Editions’ “customizations” are in fact reversions — from the HTC One to the Samsung Galaxy S4, Google strips all added features and functionality and reverts back to the purest Android experience.

The LG G Pad 8.3 is the first tablet with a Google Play Edition, a completely stock 8.3-inch slate for $349.99. It’s not a Nexus device like Google’s other two tablets, but it has the latest version of Android, untouched by any carrier or manufacturer.

It’s right here, on my desk, next to LG’s skinned version. That one's also $349.99, with an identical spec sheet and the Korean company’s idea of what Android is supposed to look like. So here’s the simple question: who’s right? Google’s a purist, LG a consummate tweaker — which turns the same parts into the better tablet?

The answer’s not as obvious as I thought.

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Software and skins

Google vs. LG

Most knowledgeable consumers have developed an allergy to the phrase "Android skin." The customizations HTC, Samsung, LG, and others make to their devices, once driven by necessity — old versions of Android buried settings, were missing support for key peripherals, and were, well, ugly — have become redundant and detrimental. As Google has developed its OS into a beautiful, mature platform, these customizations evolved from improvement to something a lot more like interference.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. For all its pointless aesthetic changes and feature creep, Samsung’s TouchWiz also brings a powerful, useful camera app and clever multitasking. Motorola’s Active Notifications and Touchless Control are the two things that most make me want to trade in my iPhone. Even HTC’s BlinkFeed is an interesting rethinking of what a home screen should be. When manufacturers enhance Android rather than simply customizing it, good things can happen.

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Unfortunately, LG’s skinned version of the G Pad 8.3 is mostly just customized. At every turn, LG’s taken Android and made it uglier and more cluttered. Mismatched, ugly icons, garish wallpapers, and that awful notification pulldown shade that crams dozens of settings, shortcuts, and sliders into one cluttered spot.

Skins don't have to be bad — but they do need to add something

The whole OS is lifted straight from LG’s phone lineup, massive feature list and all. Most are as gimmicky and odd as ever, like the Slide Aside feature that lets you drag a few apps off to the side… for access later, I guess. I don’t know. A couple of features actually make more sense on a tablet than a phone, like the QSlide apps that let you open a small calendar or a notepad on top of whatever you’re doing. I also like the Q Remote, which gives me rudimentary control over my TV and cable box right from the tablet. But I’d trade it all for a G Pad without LG’s misguided ideas about how Android should look, and the dozens of features that only get in the way.

Luckily, that’s precisely what the Google Play Edition of the G Pad 8.3 is. Same look, same specs, pure Google. It’s a newer version of Android, 4.4.2 instead of 4.2.2, and it’s completely unadulterated. Outside of better multiuser support and a great file picker, the upgrade to KitKat doesn’t change all that much — many of its best features, like the smart dialer, don’t translate to tablets — but it’s a faster, more stable, more polished operating system across the board. And next to LG’s version, Google’s G Pad feels so much more simple and obvious. There are fewer apps, fewer widgets, fewer options; it’s just a tablet you use, not a tablet you’re meant to tinker with endlessly. For the tinkerers, LG’s version offers access to everything you could ask for, but Google’s just lets you get down to business. Or get down to Netflix.

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Performance

Using the two models side by side offers a pretty damning critique of software customizations, too. The two G Pads are technologically identical — a Snapdragon 600 processor clocked at 1.7GHz, and 2GB of RAM — but the Google Play Edition is faster at every turn. Chrome opens a half-second faster, and renders pages much more quickly. Multitasking menus open quicker, apps resume sooner, even the keyboard pops up a full beat earlier on the Google Play Edition G Pad 8.3. It’s not that the skinned model is slow, far from it: it plays even intensive games like Asphalt 8: Airborne well, and nothing ever felt overly laggy. But stock KitKat clearly comes with a huge speed boost, and switching from one model to the other for days at a time, I always noticed the difference.

They're at least comparable in battery terms, able to easily last through a weekend of moderate use. They each lasted just shy of seven hours on the Verge Battery Test, which places them below devices like the iPad Air but firmly in the "charge it only every few days" category.

It's still all about the tablet apps

Whichever your flavor of Android, there’s still no getting around the lack of truly great tablet apps for the platform. Increasingly, the basics are here: from Netflix to Kindle to The Room, just about every mission-critical tablet app is available. It’s the second and third level, the beautiful third-party calendars and the indie games I can’t stop playing, where iOS still holds an insurmountable lead. If you’re a reader, too, Apple’s Newsstand offerings are far superior to what Android offers. The G Pad 8.3 is probably a better Netflix machine than the iPad mini with Retina display, with a larger screen and a movie-friendly aspect ratio, but for everything from productivity to gaming iOS’ diverse, tablet-optimized app ecosystem still can’t be touched. You're still stuck with a lot of blown-up phone apps, which are usable on the smaller Nexus 7 but much worse on the larger display. And the G Pad doesn’t have the $170 price advantage the Nexus 7 enjoys over Apple’s tablet. Here, you’re paying $50 for Apple’s ecosystem, and that’s not hard to justify.

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Hardware

Not quite Nexus

Turn them both off, and you can’t tell the G Pads apart. It fits right in with the lineup of devices in the Play Store: an unassuming, simple aluminum slab of a thing, far more screen than anything else. It’s well-made, though its back gets slippery and oily quickly; I still much prefer the softer, more comfortable touch of the Nexus 7. The G Pad’s rounded corners and mismatched bezels — thin on the sides, slightly wider on top and bottom — make the device easy to hold in any orientation without looking slightly lopsided like the Nexus 7. At 8.5 inches tall, it’s a little unwieldy to hold by its bottom corner as I often do my iPad mini, and it sticks out of the jacket pocket I slide it into every morning, but at 5 inches wide (compared to nearly 8 for the mini) it’s easy to grip by the back.

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The difference between 7- and 8.3-inch displays doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a huge difference. The G Pad experience is almost more like the iPad Air than the Nexus 7 — the bigger canvas makes the device just that much more immersive. At only 0.75 pounds it’s incredibly portable, both easy and comfortable to hold for long periods of time, but I still found myself mostly sitting with it on my lap, not holding it up while I read or stood on the subway. It feels bigger than the iPad mini, even, which on a tablet this thin and light is something of an accomplishment.

An immersive experience in a thin and light body

The tablet is well made and even sort of beautiful, but you’re only ever supposed to care about the display. Even the microSD slot (a much-appreciated feature for a tablet with just 16GB of internal storage, even though you can't actually write to it from the Google Play Edition model) is hidden underneath a port flap, and all buttons, ports, and speakers are painted the same black or white as the G Pad itself. All LG wants you to see is the G Pad’s 8.3-inch, 1920 x 1200 display.

It’s one of the better screens I’ve seen on a tablet, big and crisp and colorful. It’s not particularly bright and can thus be hard to see outdoors, but for virtually every other use case it works beautifully. Touch response is good enough that the operating system feels like it’s moving underneath my fingers, and even though it’s not technically as sharp as the Nexus 7’s smaller, same-resolution screen, it’s very nearly as good to my eyes. A display this good makes me want to use the G Pad 8.3 more.

The G Pad occupies the middle ground between the cold beauty of the iPads, the soft-touch comfort of the Nexus 7, and the ugly plastic of the Galaxy Note 8.0. It’s the upper-middle class, with touches of elegance but a lingering emphasis on function over form. It simply gets the job done.

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The Google Play Store needed the G Pad 8.3 — it’s a mid-range size, a mid-range price, and yet a high-end tablet. From the Nexus 5 to the Chromebook 11, that’s how Google does things, and LG’s tablet fits in nicely.

Between the two models, there’s no competition: the Google Play Edition is clearly the better device. It’s cleaner to look at and use, it’s faster and more reliable, and it’s a much more intuitive and obvious device — for all LG’s customized version is technically capable of, it’s not easy to use. Your $349.99 is far better spent in the Play Store than in Best Buy or on LG’s website.

In the tablet market at large, however, neither is especially compelling for the price. For $120 less, you can get the Nexus 7 — essentially the same tablet, with slightly better aesthetic chops and a slightly smaller display. For $50 more, you can get the iPad mini and its spectacular ecosystem of apps and services, or get the Galaxy Note 8.0 and its many tablet-friendly features. Samsung customized Android far better, adding stylus support and plenty of features that make sense on the larger screen size. I’d rather have LG’s hardware design and higher-res display, but Samsung makes a far better case for customization.

Let the G Pad 8.3 be a lesson to manufacturers everywhere. There’s plenty of room for innovation within the Android market, plenty of features to be added, plenty of cool technology to be explored. But if you can’t truly add to the experience, leave it alone. Or at least give us a Google Play Edition we can buy instead.

The Google Play Store needed the G Pad 8.3 — it’s a mid-range size, a mid-range price, and yet a high-end tablet. From the Nexus 5 to the Chromebook 11, that’s how Google does things, and LG’s tablet fits in nicely.

Between the two models, there’s no competition: the Google Play Edition is clearly the better device. Because it’s cleaner to look at and use, because it’s faster and more reliable, because it’s a much more intuitive and obvious device — for all LG’s customized version is technically capable of, it’s not easy to use. Your $349.99 is far better spent in the Play Store than in Best Buy or on LG’s website.

In the tablet market at large, however, neither is especially compelling. For $120 less, you can get the Nexus 7 — essentially the same tablet, with slightly better aesthetic chops and a slightly smaller display. For $50 more, you can get the iPad mini and its spectacular ecosystem of apps and services, or get the Galaxy Note 8.0 and its many tablet-friendly features. Samsung customized Android far better, adding stylus support and plenty of features that make sense on the larger screen size. I’d rather have LG’s hardware design and higher-res display, but Samsung makes a far better case for customization.

Let the G Pad 8.3 be a lesson to manufacturers everywhere. There’s plenty of room for innovation within the Android market, plenty of features to be added, plenty of cool technology to be explored. But if you can’t truly add to the experience, leave it alone. Or at least give us a Google Play Edition we can buy instead.

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