The G Flex smartphone line is LG’s design and engineering showcase. The Korean chaebol has developed an unmatched portfolio of curved batteries and displays, self-healing covers, and laser-guided cameras — and it’s put all of them together in the latest G Flex 2. If that sounds like a Frankensteinian mash-up of available parts, that’s because it is.
As with the first G Flex, LG is building a device around its engineering prowess rather than developing hardware to fit an ideal phone. But, a year after the original Flex, LG has wised up to many of its earlier mistakes and now returns with a phone that’s much more refined and cohesive. I was among the first to experience the G Flex 2 at CES in January, and it left me hungry for more.
Nobody is waiting around for yet another Android phone. The basic requirements for a good smartphone are surpassed by the humblest of devices these days, so the things that get people excited now are less about function than they are about form. Like Jennifer Aniston in Office Space, you have to have some flair to stand out from the crowd. So let me be brief in answering the obvious question of why you'd want a curved phone: because it's different. I'm not suggesting that as a good reason, but G Flex 2 buyers will find much of their satisfaction (and smugness, frankly) stemming from this phone's uniqueness.
When I walk around London with the G Flex 2 in hand, I feel the curious gazes of passers-by around me. I live in one of the most smartphone-saturated places in the world, and yet I'm able to attract attention with a new phone. The G Flex 2 isn't just curved, it's also big and red. Its display measures 5.5 inches diagonally, and the main colorway is a lacquered red gradient. This handset is eye-catching and conspicuous in the same way that Vertu phones are — unsheathing your G Flex 2 is a deliberate act of extroversion.
LG puts a glossy finish on the back of the G Flex 2, which has a couple of very desirable qualities. Firstly, it’s highly resistant to fingerprint markings, and secondly — the thing that LG markets most heavily — it can recover from surface scratches in less than 10 seconds. This self-healing property makes for a neat party trick and should also keep the device looking pristine for longer.
Beneath the lipstick-red exterior, there’s a seriously specced-out smartphone to be had. The G Flex 2 is the first handset to feature Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 processor, and comes with 3GB of RAM, a 3,000mAh battery with rapid-charging technology, and support for the new tri-band LTE. The 13-megapixel camera on the back includes optical image stabilization and the option to record 4K video, while the OLED display up front is upgraded from the original G Flex’s 720p to a 1080p resolution. Compromises? Not on this spec sheet.
Flashy looks and high specs get the G Flex 2 off to a good start, and getting to grips with the device continues that positive first impression. There’s very little bezel around the display, which has been downsized from the original 6-inch screen on the G Flex and now has a subtler curve as well. Both represent major ergonomic upgrades, as the 5.5-inch G Flex 2 is dramatically easier to use, whether with one hand or two. The soft, tapered edges and the undulating body of this phone belie its large screen size.
I took some time to adapt to its dimensions, but after a while I started using the G Flex 2 much as I would any other smartphone. That’s not something I could ever say about the iPhone 6 Plus, which has the same display size and resolution but remains an unmistakable phablet at all times. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 also feels bulkier than LG’s new G Flex, even though its screen is only marginally larger. Most impressive of all is the comparison against LG’s own G3, yet another 5.5-inch smartphone with scant bezels and the feel of a smaller device: the G Flex 2 feels tangibly more comfortable and pleasant in the hand. The curve of this display brings items at the top of it that little bit closer to my thumb, and the phone’s overall shape fits more naturally into the curve of my palm. I also find the G Flex 2 easier to fit into my pockets since its curve matches the contours of my body. By comparison, the more angular iPhone 6 and Sony Xperia Z3, though smaller, have caused me much more grief when bending or sitting down with them in a trouser pocket.
The benefits of LG’s curve also extend to the now-neglected activity of holding a phone call. When mobile phones used to be tiny things we held up to our ear, it didn’t matter that they were all straight as a plank, but at their present scale, a little bit of curvature helps a lot. Just look at the phone icon on your device’s home screen: it’s curved! Just like the vast majority of telephones, the G Flex 2 arches around the side of its user’s face and thus makes for a more natural calling experience.
My favorable impression is helped, in no small part, by this phone’s great call quality and cellular reception. There are parts of my home where getting any mobile signal is a challenge, but they didn’t pose a problem for the G Flex 2. It’s noticeably better than other phones I’ve tested and gave me crystal-clear calls wherever I was, whether in the depths of my mancave or exploring the furthest reaches of suburban London.
This phone’s built-in loudspeaker and bundled headset are also of a high quality. HTC talks up its BoomSound speakers as a big selling point for its One series, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much (if anything) when listening to music on the G Flex 2. The curved design comes into play here as well, helping to maintain clear sound by elevating the rear-mounted loudspeaker off any flat surfaces that the phone is laid down on.
The clean geometry of Android is warped by LG's unique display
The shape of the G Flex 2’s screen leads to a series of small advantages for your hands and ears, but it isn’t so awesome for your eyes. Every time I look at this display, I get the sense that I’m looking at a straight screen that’s been warped — it’s like the G Flex 2 was accidentally bent instead of intentionally curved. More than just different, the curvature detracts from the neatness of Android 5.0, whose straight lines lose their straightness on the G Flex 2. Perhaps with a user interface designed to match its unique hardware, the G Flex 2 wouldn’t suffer from this issue. But as it stands today, it’s a bent version of a straight user experience that doesn’t leave a happy impression. The best case scenario when it comes to reading, browsing the web, and navigating Android is that you’ll tolerate the curve. There’s no room for falling in love with this mismatched experience.
Video playback is where the G Flex 2 really shows off its display’s strengths. As usual for OLED screens, it renders truly black blacks and offers excellent contrast as a result. It keeps colors vibrant without oversaturating anything, thereby providing a highly pleasing picture whether you’re watching YouTube or the latest HD blockbuster. There is absolutely no perceptible difference in sharpness between this 1080p display and LG’s 2560 x 1440 panel in the G3: both are excellent, and the G Flex 2 serves as evidence that there’s not yet a need to go to a higher resolution than its native 1080p.
The G Flex 2 does exhibit an issue that I’ve seen with previous OLED displays, which surfaces when it displays gray. Instead of being uniform, blocks of gray appear to have distinct bands of varying color hues and brightness. It’s an unattractive, patchy look, akin to having an uneven backlight behind the screen. I didn’t think it a huge issue, but it’s prominent in a number of apps like Amazon’s Kindle and the BBC iPlayer Radio — if you use any of them often, this imperfect recreation of the world’s saddest color won’t make you happy.
Aside from the display, the camera is probably the second most important thing on a modern smartphone, and this is an area where the G Flex 2 shines. LG has done some fine-tuning of the already very good 13-megapixel camera from last year’s G3 and delivered a potent imaging device. The default setting of LG’s camera app is to offer almost zero controls on screen, directing its user to just tap on whatever is most important in the frame and leave everything else to the phone. This is almost universally successful in capturing the desired photo, and there’s an automatic High Dynamic Range mode that really helps the camera deal with areas of high contrast. While HDR is now a common feature among smartphone cameras, LG’s implementation still stands out for how well and how quickly it works. There’s no added delay when shooting in HDR mode and no additional motion blur in the eventual pictures.
Camera settings on the G Flex 2 are tucked out of the way, and I don’t feel the need to mess with them because the automatic mode is accurate enough with its various parameters — white balance, shutter speed, flash deployment, etc. — to make that unnecessary. The iPhone is definitely faster to focus, process, and ready up for another picture, but LG’s camera isn’t too far behind.
The thing that disappoints me about the Flex 2’s camera is a problem I’ve encountered throughout my time with this phone: it’s slower than it should be. Although it runs on the newest Snapdragon 810 chip from Qualcomm, the G Flex 2 is nowhere near as fluid and responsive as devices like the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z3, which use earlier variants of the same SoC. Moreover, anyone who’s tried Android 5.0 on the Nexus 5 knows just how quick Google’s latest software can be. Instead, the G Flex 2 is ridden with small loading delays and animation stutters. Sliding down the notifications menu and opening up the app tray are two of the most common actions performed on any Android phone and should be executed instantly, but the G Flex 2 fails on both counts. I’ve also seen apps that have no excuse for crashing, such as Gmail, freezing up and requiring a restart.
The best processor not made by Apple or Samsung is held back by LG's software
None of the G Flex 2’s performance issues are apparent when playing games or watching HD movies, so I’m inclined to conclude that the problem lies in LG’s software. I ran multiple benchmarks to confirm that the processor is stable and not overheating (an issue that has reportedly caused Samsung to move away from Qualcomm’s latest chips), and all the results I got suggested that the Snapdragon 810 was working perfectly fine. The phone itself never felt too hot to the touch, no matter the workload.
Android 5.0 Lollipop is easily my favorite mobile operating system, but LG’s implementation of it has left me dismayed. For starters, LG’s notifications menu is crowded out by super-sized setting toggles and sliders. The first note about incoming email or missed calls is halfway down the screen, and I rarely see more than two notifications before having to scroll. Did I mention that the scrolling is laggy? That chronic lag also spoils the other jewels in Android’s crown. Google's homegrown apps like Gmail, Google Keep, and Docs feel clumsy and slow. When trying to open up Google Keep in a hurry, I managed to tap the icon three times before anything happened on screen — resulting in me entering a list note and checking off one of the items as done.
The G Flex 2’s battery is another area where the device doesn’t perform quite to the level promised by its spec sheet. In spite of having a generous 3,000mAh battery, this phone lasts for a day and a half at most before needing a recharge. LG’s own G3 and Sony’s excellent Xperia Z2 and Z3 devices consistently go for two days or more under my typical workload. That includes a ton of Gmail and Twitter use, a few calls, some photography, and plenty of YouTube videos. It’s not terrible battery life — many iPhone users will find themselves recharging nightly — but neither is it improving on devices that have been on the market for over a year.
Like Rome’s colonnades and Egypt’s pyramids, the G Flex 2 was built to awe the world with its maker’s unrivaled capabilities. Look upon LG’s works, ye mighty, and despair.
Ironically, the despair I feel now is not about how unique this phone is, but about how close it came to being really good in its own right, no caveats included. The display is beautiful and its gentle curve is helpful in a million tiny ways. The design is smart and space-efficient. The core software is the best on the planet and the processor is a candidate for the same title. Where LG failed was in putting those puzzle pieces together.
The integration of all the various parts of a smartphone into a cohesive whole is Apple’s greatest, most underrated strength, and it’s what makes iPhones so enduringly popular. It’s a difficult task that should mark the beginning rather than the end of any phone’s design. LG went the other way: it got a bunch of really attractive components together and then set out to make something awesome from them. The result is flawed, but not in the way that might have been expected. The G Flex 2 achieves the rare feat of having a gimmicky feature that doesn’t ruin its functionality. Like pre-faded jeans, it’s weird and different without sacrificing its basic purpose. It stumbles on the more prosaic problems of software optimization, but that’s where so many other phones have faltered, too. LG deserves credit for trying and succeeding at being different. Now the challenge is to be better.