There's no faster, better way to subtly insult a kid than by giving him a participation award. "Congratulations," it says, "you at least showed up, but you didn't do well enough to win any important trophies." So when I say that I am giving the LG G6 a participation award, I feel like I need to explain myself. Because in this case, it’s really a compliment.
Just "showing up" to the flagship smartphone debate in 2017 is a genuine accomplishment. We watched nearly every company not named Samsung or Apple falter and fail to make a difference at the top end last year. LG's own G5 was at the head of that 2016 failure list, so few expected the company to release a genuine contender this year. With the G6, LG has produced a phone that deserves to be in the same conversation as the Samsung Galaxy S8, Apple iPhone 7, and Google Pixel.
LG needs to prove the G6 has some standout features that justify its price — which is around $700, depending on what carrier you buy from. At that price, nobody wants to settle for a participation trophy phone. LG has to give customers a good reason to pick its phone over its current (and imminent) competitors.
That is a much tougher challenge.
The LG G6 is the first of the 2017 flagship phones worth your attention (sorry not sorry, HTC U Ultra). It's one of the first of a new kind of super-thin-bezel phones that cram way more screen than you'd believe in a smaller phone body than you'd expect. In the G6's case, we're looking at a 5.7-inch LCD panel in a phone that is significantly smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus with its 5.5-inch screen.
I'm really happy with the actual screen quality: it's bright, sharp, and has good color accuracy. I even like that the four corners are slightly curved; it makes the phone feel just a little more organic than it otherwise would. LG says that will help protect the screen from cracks because it's farther away from the corners of the phone.
The aspect ratio on the G6 is 18:9 (or, you know, 2:1, but that somehow conveys less information for people used to thinking about 16:9), so right off the bat I should point out that diagonal measurements can be misleading once you get into tall-screened phones. But think about how much of your phone life consists of vertical lists of things like emails or Facebook messages — making the phone taller is super useful, and I appreciate that it happens in a relatively narrow body.
That narrow body points to the other useful innovation on the G6: the bezels are tiny, bordering on nonexistent on the sides. They're not literally missing like they are on the Samsung Galaxy S8, but they're close. And the benefit LG gets by keeping some bezels is that its screen is flat and therefore less susceptible to rogue edge touches. I certainly haven't experienced any in my time with the phone.
Beyond the screen, the rest of the G6 is impressively understated. Like virtually everybody else in the Android space, LG has fully embraced glass for the design. I should note that on one of my review units I discovered a hairline crack of unknown provenance right under the camera, so keep an eye out for that.
The glass sandwich works for me, and the whole effect is to create a handsome phone. It has a slight curve on the back and (I'm going to say it) appropriately chamfered edges on the aluminum. It feels organic in the hand instead of robotic — a vibe unfortunately reinforced by how quickly it picks up grease and warms up when the processor is really chugging. There's no camera bump, though, and I can't emphasize enough how good the nearly all-screen front of the black version of the phone looks — barring the LG logo at the bottom.
The LG G6 is IP68 water and dust resistant — at this point standing up to water is a feature you should expect on a flagship phone. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack, and whether you think that ought to be a standard feature is between you and your tolerance for the #donglelife.
If I have a problem with the hardware, it's with the way LG chose to integrate the power button with the fingerprint sensor. It's on the back and a little fiddly and small. Which isn't a big deal, but having the fingerprint sensor and the power button integrated somehow constantly has me second-guessing whether I'm turning the screen on or off. It's a small thing that just requires getting used to the "LG Way" of Android, but I'm finding that "get used to the LG Way" is a really common theme with this phone.
The G6 feels fast, thanks to the combination of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM, and what seems like a well-tuned version of Android 7.0. Geeks may kvetch that the Samsung Galaxy S8 has a faster, better, and newer Snapdragon 835, but just because a thing isn't the newest thing doesn't mean it's not a good thing. I have no problems with the speed of this phone. Storage is relatively stingy at 32GB (a 64GB variant is available in Korea), but it's expandable.
I am slightly worried about the battery life, though. LG told me directly that it could have perhaps crammed in something larger than the 3300mAh battery you'll find in the G6, but chose to play it a little safer. I applaud that decision, obviously, and 3300mAh should be enough for a phone to last all day. Unfortunately, anything beyond light usage has me hunting for a charger (or worried that I ought to) around mid-afternoon. The G6 supports Qualcomm Quick Charge and the US variant also supports wireless charging, so it usually doesn't take too long to top up.
Last year, LG's flagship G5 phone took a run at creating a modular ecosystem of devices that literally clicked into the phone. It was a nice idea but came off as a poorly executed gimmick, and so the G6 is basically the de-gimmicked, straightforward phone most people want. But there is one place where LG is trying to make something more than a straightforward phone with a super tall screen: the cameras.
Yes, there are two of them on the back, and luckily they both have identical 13-megapixel sensors. LG's take on the two-camera system isn't to load up a bunch of camera effects, but rather to make one a standard zoom with a 70-degree field of view and the other a wide-angle 125-degree view. You can toggle between them by hitting a tiny icon in the camera app or by pinching and zooming between them (with a relatively fast stutter step as you zoom).
In terms of quality, these cameras are pretty good. I've pitted them up against the Google Pixel and the Galaxy S7 Edge and found they create images that are nearly in the same league, with some pictures coming out just as good and others falling short a bit. What I haven't had is a "Holy crap, I can't believe that shot looks so good" moment yet. And even though there's optical image stabilization here, I've been surprised by blurry shots in medium light.
Overall, though, I think the cameras won't let you down; I just also think that they're not going to impress you. What gets me is that the wide-angle shots just aren't my cup of tea: the natural distortion is exaggerated and annoying to my eyes. The other lens just has a little too much zoom for my tastes. I prefer a happy medium between the two. These are personal tastes, though, and if you are already convinced by the LG Way of doing cameras, you'll be satisfied.
Honestly, my favorite photography feature isn't a function of the dual-camera system at all. It's actually LG's custom Square Camera app, which offers some clever modes that take unique advantage of the G6's double-tall screen. You can compose a square shot and have a full preview available immediately in the bottom half, or you can mix and match four photos into a grid layout alongside new pictures right there in the app.
I have made reference a couple of times to the "LG Way" of Android, but nowhere does it feel more alien than in the home screen and multitudinous hidden settings. The whole thing is called UX 6.0 and it's scattered with unnecessary notifications, weird icon frames, confusing settings, and bad versions of already-existing Android apps. Though LG deserves credit for yet again scaling some things back, I still find its interface garish.
I do like some of LG's features. I think "Knock On" — which activates the screen when you tap it — is great. And I'm also weirdly impressed with the Capture+ feature, which combines scrolling screenshots, annotations, and notes into one clever, universally available app. Other features, like Q Slide hovering app windows, are just mystifying: your phone does an excellent job multitasking thanks to having a double-tall window, so why is there this redundant system for just a few LG apps?
Stretchy icons on scroll. What are we doing here LG?
I admit that much of this is personal preference and that it's relatively easy to find software that solves many of these annoyances. But when your icons stretch out like taffy as you hit the end of a scroll or your multitasking window has a giant, unnecessary "Close all" button right smack in the middle of the screen, I have to wonder why. I am happy to grant LG its custom software features, but it feels as though it could do more to accommodate people who have used non-LG phones. Certainly if LG wants switchers, it could do better here.
I can't forgive the bloatware, though. On T-Mobile, Lookout security is a constant, nagging presence. On Verizon, you get VZ Navigator (lol), some unnecessary Caller ID, and other garbage nobody wants. Going through and uninstalling or disabling all this junk is a hellacious time suck.
After reviewing the G6 with its default software for a week, yesterday I finally went through all the effort of de-LG-ing and de-crapware-ing the phone. I put in my preferred launcher (Nova), keyboard (Gboard), and generally just tuned the thing to act more like other Android phones. My appreciation of the G6 basically doubled.
When it was time to put my SIM card back in my own phone, I found that my perception of what a smartphone should look like had shifted. No matter which I chose — Pixel, S7 Edge, or iPhone 6S — the screen looked and felt kind of squished and the phone felt ungainly and awkward. It's remarkable how quickly I got used to having a phone with a tall screen and virtually no bezels. And I really liked it. LG is the first company to widely sell a phone with bezels this small, and it's painful to go back to large, constricting swaths of useless black glass on the front of my phone.
Which brings me back to that participation award and why I don't mean it to be as harsh as it seems. After last year’s G5, LG was in danger of falling out of the Android conversation entirely. Certainly, other Android manufacturers like Sony haven't shown an ability to keep up with the leaders. Instead, LG has shipped something really good; and in the case of the display, something remarkably good. That's enough to ensure that the G6 has a place in the debate about the best phones of the year. It almost surely won’t win that debate, but it has shifted it forward to its next stage.
But participating in the contest is not the same thing as winning it. The G6's standout feature is about to be matched (or possibly exceeded) by the Galaxy S8 and Samsung’s version of bezel minimalism. Everything else about the G6 is either on par with the competition, or in the case of the software, slightly worse.
The G6 is the first true flagship phone of 2017 and it's a very good effort. But in the argument for the best Android smartphone, my recommendation is to wait and see if the Galaxy S8 has the last word.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic
Video by Vjeran Pavic and Tyler Pina
Edited by Vlad Savov and Lauren Goode