People now buy phones the same way they do clothes: prioritizing looks, size, and brand over basic utility and functionality. That’s a problem for LG. The Korean company’s new flagship smartphone doesn’t look better than the HTC One, isn’t any smaller than the Sony Xperia Z2, and lacks the brand cachet of Samsung’s Galaxy S5. The G3 is the middle child of Android superphones. Unwilling to settle for averagely awesome, however, LG has done what LG usually does and gone wild with the specs.
The 5.5-inch G3 is the first global smartphone to feature a Quad HD display and its camera is the first to use a laser autofocus system. Tons of processing power and memory are augmented with wireless charging, a removable battery, expandable storage, and even an IR blaster to convert the phone into a TV remote control. As such, the G3 is a hugely practical device with a pair of features that threaten to be more than mere gimmicks. But does pragmatism justify the price? LG is diving into a sea of very good Android devices and, without HTC’s style or Samsung’s swagger, will have to prove its worth the old-fashioned way: by just being better than everyone else.
Before any sketches of the G3 were even committed to paper, LG had settled on its one key specification. The company’s flagship Android phone for 2014 would be built around a 5.5-inch Quad HD LCD display. With a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440, it’s only matched by a pair of phones for the Chinese market — the Vivo Xplay 3S and Oppo Find 7 — and comfortably outdoes its 1080p global competitors. I love this as a technical achievement and the G3 renders everything beautifully, but I cannot discern any advantage from the extra pixels. The only time I notice them is when I look at the resolution of screenshots from the G3.
The most impressive thing about this screen is not its otherworldly 538ppi pixel density, but how efficient the designers have been with the space around it. 76.4 percent of the G3’s front is occupied by the display, allowing it to fit a larger panel into the same dimensions as the 5-inch HTC One and 5.2-inch Xperia Z2. LG’s phone is also significantly lighter than the others, making it feel much more streamlined.
I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.
Color accuracy, contrast, and viewing angles are all very good. The black background behind the G3’s on-screen Android keys is dark enough to seem to melt away into the phone’s black frame. Additionally, unlike Sony’s Xperia Z2, which struggles outdoors, the G3’s IPS display is bright enough to remain useful on a sunny day.
The extra pixels don’t make a difference, but the thin bezels do
As laudable as the display may be, and as much as the other flagship Android phones validate the G3’s size, it does make for an uncomfortably big phone. A 5.5-inch smartphone, no matter how thin its bezels, presents ergonomic challenges that smaller devices don’t have to deal with. I can’t just whip the G3 out of a pocket and single-handedly snap and tweet a photo the same way I can with something like the Moto X. Closer in ergonomics to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, the G3’s sheer dimensions demand that it be used with two hands for safety. Unlike the 5.7-inch Note, however, LG’s latest has softer corners and a nicely curved back that can be cradled comfortably. Whereas the Note 3 feels like a small tablet, the G3 can still get away with calling itself a large smartphone.
In a briefing ahead of the G3 launch event, LG’s chief designer Chul Bae Lee said that his "personal aspiration is to make the phone out of metal." But, he continued, that would have scuppered LG’s efforts to mitigate the G3’s larger screen size and he had to choose between the thin bezels or a metal construction; he couldn’t have both. Nevertheless, LG is trying to at least recreate the look and feel of aluminum phones like the HTC One with a new "metallic skin." It’s still plastic, only now it’s mixed with an added layer of anti-scratch and fingerprint-resistant material.
I can attest to the scratch resistance (and the inherent awkwardness) of the G3 after dropping it a couple of times, but it’s the immunity to fingerprints that is most striking. No matter how oily my hands were, the G3 simply shrugged off contact with them and maintained an attractively clean appearance. That’s a complete reversal from the unpleasant feel of the G2’s glossy plastics, which would accumulate markings and smudges like they were going out of style.
The G3’s design is an improvement over its predecessor, but it isn’t honest, because it’s trying to fake out the user. Using a similar brushed effect to the HTC One, this phone can definitely be mistaken for being made out of metal, and calling it metallic only exacerbates that confusion. The reality is that you get a phone halfway between the One and the Galaxy Note 3. The G3 reflects light and gleams as invitingly as a real aluminum handset, but retains the utilitarian feel of a plastic phone. The Note 3 showed that faux leather can still feel good in the hand (if not authentic), and LG is doing the same with its new faux metal. Initially I found this tradeoff acceptable, however I don’t trust the G3’s thin removable cover to maintain its sheen or refined appearance over the long term. Plastic’s more susceptible to warping and cracking than metal, and whereas the One promises to age gracefully, the G3 could start to look decidedly pedestrian after a few months of regular use.
Still, plastic has its advantages, such as better antenna performance and a back cover that is removable and replaceable. Like Samsung with the S5, LG lets G3 users pop off its pseudo-metallic skin to access the battery, a microSD card slot, and the SIM card port. Qi wireless charging will also be integrated in variants of the handset sold outside the US and Korea.
Not that you’ll be worrying too much about charging, given how big and long-lasting this phone’s battery is. At 3,000mAh, it’s a smidgen short of the Xperia Z2 and performs accordingly. My typical 24-hour cycle of checking Gmail and Twitter, browsing the web, and watching YouTube videos was no challenge for the G3, which consistently went from the morning of one day into the evening of the next. The Verge Battery Test confirmed these findings with a time of 7 ½ hours before reaching the 10 percent battery warning. It took 8 hours and 16 minutes to drain the phone completely. As with its screen, the G3’s battery life is akin to that of much bigger devices. Although large in itself, this phone actually does a lot to shrink the size of technology.
Good audio, good video, and a battery to keep them both going
The G3’s higher-resolution screen demands more power to handle the extra graphical detail it has to show, however, LG’s optimizations have been so good as to make that (mostly) a non-issue. The Korean company has tweaked the display driver, the processor speed, and the frame rate so that they adapt to the way you’re using it. As a result, tame web browsing such as on the Verge Battery Test renders comparable endurance to 1080p phones. You’ll still take a hit when playing 3D games or anything else that scales up to the full Quad HD resolution, though those scenarios would also be the ones where you’re most likely to notice the added resolution.
I was pleasantly surprised by the G3’s loudspeaker. Having recently sung the praises of the front-facing speakers on the HTC One and Xperia Z2, I have to commend LG for coming very close to both of them with its more conventional, rear-mounted single speaker. Its clarity and volume are excellent for undemanding but common uses such as listening to podcasts and watching video streams. The bundled QuadBeat 2 earphones are unchanged from the G2 and for good reason: they’re significantly better than what you typically find in a smartphone box and make it superfluous to buy a new pair for listening to music on the move.
Okay, it’s just one laser, but the G3 uses it to focus when taking photos and that makes it infinitely cooler than any camera I’ve reviewed before. The moment I open the camera app, a cone-shaped laser beam starts emanating from a window next to the lens, constantly refocusing and preparing to take a lightning-quick photo. Working in concert with more conventional contrast-detection algorithms, the laser helps achieve faster and better focus in low light and when shooting subjects of uniform color.
LG quotes a time of 276 milliseconds for the G3’s autofocus — quicker than the blink of an eye — and it is indeed very fast. Faster than a speeding iPhone or an HTC One? Not in any tangible way. The speed that a user experiences is a combination of how long the camera app takes to launch, the autofocus time, and the image-processing time, and taking those as a group places the LG G3 among the best, but definitely not in a clear-cut leadership position.
The same is true of this 13-megapixel camera’s image quality. Better than most, but not an unequivocal champion. Approaching the performance of the standard-setting iPhone 5S and Nokia’s PureView cameras, the G3 is let down by LG’s excessive tampering with the photos. In the company’s phobic run away from image noise, it sometimes blots out detail that other cameras retain. That’s particularly noticeable in low-light images, where solid blocks of color tend to replace fine-grained detail. So it’s one of the lowest-noise cameras out there, but that occasionally comes at the cost of some signal as well.
LG throws some of the signal out with the noise
Still, poorly lit scenes are a challenge for any smartphone and this is just LG’s particular response to it. In better lighting, the G3 delivers reliable focus and a ton of detail. I find its default setting a little light on contrast, though that tends to help in capturing more nuanced details. There’s a full suite of adjustment options for the camera, hidden behind the most spartan interface yet seen on a smartphone. By default, LG gives you the full 5.5-inch display as a viewfinder and overlays only two buttons — the entire screen thus becomes your shutter release key. I like that: it’s a sign of a company confident in its imaging capabilities (even if there’s still room for improvement) and it makes for a very clean and simple user experience.
As with HTC’s new Sense 6 software, swiping to either side in the G3’s camera app switches between the rear and the front-facing camera. LG is rebranding the latter as its selfie shooter and actually uses larger pixels and a wider aperture than on its main imager. Don’t expect that to make the 2-megapixel photos any better, though. They’re as mediocre as on any other camera of this type. LG has also implemented new gesture recognition so that when a user waves a hand and then clenches it into a fist, the G3 automatically starts a three-second countdown to a photo. Young ladies in Korea are apparently in love with this feature, whereas I fear it might be one of the early signs of an oncoming apocalypse.
Want to know why Google sold Motorola off to Lenovo? Because it already owns all the Android phone makers. LG, Sony, HTC, and even Samsung are all gradually falling in line and dancing to Google’s tune. Every one of their new phones this year boots up with the tagline "powered by Android," and their previously extravagant software customizations have been scaled way down. That’s a good trend for LG, whose software efforts have traditionally lagged far behind its hardware achievements. Just recall the Optimus 2X: it was officially the world’s first dual-core smartphone but it had more ways to crash than you’d find at a demolition derby.
The G3 is a significant step forward for LG’s software team. It runs the latest version of Android 4.4 KitKat with an assured smoothness and stability. It emphasizes simplicity and doesn’t force its added features onto unwilling users. Swiping up from the home button brings up Google Now, just as it does with a Nexus phone. In fact, thanks to Google’s move to decouple Google apps and services from the Android OS and make them available in the Play Store, you can download your way to a very Nexus-like experience.
The fundamental user experience here is that of using Android 4.4, not of using an LG phone
I spend most of my time jumping between Chrome, Gmail, Google Keep, Twitter, and YouTube, so LG’s push to simplify the user interface and color-code each app hasn’t figured prominently in my use of the G3 at all. From among the company’s own apps, I use the phone dialer and the camera and that’s it. The fundamental user experience here is that of using Android 4.4, not of using an LG phone.
LG asserts its influence in subtler ways. Its KnockOn feature — double-tapping the screen to wake the phone or to put it back to sleep — makes a welcome return and is this time enhanced with the addition of KnockCode. The new wrinkle allows you to unlock the phone by tapping out patterns without turning the screen on. It totally works. There’s also a Dual Window option for running two apps side by side and gesture recognition to silence the ringer when you flip the phone or automatically answer a call when you pick it up. New content locks will let you secure private photos and videos, or alternatively you can use the guest mode to share the G3 out with a limited list of accessible apps. If all that extra security fails, LG’s even added a kill switch to disable the phone permanently.
I’m also a satisfied user of LG’s new Smart Keyboard. It can be scaled vertically to suit user preference, split into two clusters so it’s more thumb-friendly in landscape mode, or pushed to either side of the screen to make typing easier. The reason I like it, though, is that it functions as well as the Google Keyboard, including integrated Swype gesture typing and an added numbers row at the top. I make a point of downloading Google Keyboard to any new Android device I set up, however LG’s saving me the trouble with the G3.
The LG G3 is, at its core, a thoroughly satisfying serving of Android KitKat. LG deserves credit for its implementation — this phone does the mundane tasks like picking up a signal and switching between Wi-Fi networks with great alacrity — and for keeping its features siloed enough to not get in the way of those who don’t want them. I haven’t found the new Smart Notice personal assistant any more useful than a basic weather widget, but neither has its presence on the phone frustrated or annoyed me. Like the slider controls for brightness and volume in the notifications menu, it’s something I quickly removed while setting up the phone. The G3 isn’t totally clutter-free, but can be made so with ease.
The G3's greatest strength is its lack of weaknesses
The LG G3 may not make the best first impression with everyone, but spend some time using it and you’ll quickly find a lot to like about it. Whether it’s the fun of a quick, laser-guided camera, the reassurance of a long-lasting battery, or the fast performance of a mature Android OS, this phone does everything well. The Quad HD display is excellent, even if its extra resolution doesn’t contribute much in the way of meaningful improvement. LG’s marketing push around lasers and resolution is predictably overblown, but the company’s underlying camera and display technologies are indeed impressive and make the G3 a phone worth owning.
There’s no overlooking the fact that the G3 is big and pretty awkward. I find its ergonomic trade-offs reasonable, on the whole, and justified by the stupendously efficient front bezels, light weight, and neatly curved back. Less defensible is the attempt to imitate the brushed-metal look of the aluminum HTC One, a handset that delights with its authentic design as much as its tactile feel. In pursuing that fake metal aesthetic, LG is reinforcing its reputation as the producer of apologetically plastic devices.
More than anything else, what I want from a phone is to get out of my way. I know what I want to accomplish with my device, I just need it to be ready to accept commands and process them quickly. The G3 has performed that role as well as any handset I’ve used in the past year and, a few cosmetic issues aside, is my favorite phone of 2014.