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LG G7 ThinQ review: a big price for small improvements

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LG’s new G7 ThinQ has a horrendous name, but the phone itself is pretty important. It’s not a stretch to call this a restart for the company. LG has said that going forward, it’s not going to rush out new phones on the same schedule as Samsung just for the sake of it. Instead, LG plans to spend more time making its new hardware really count. The G7 is the first product designed under that philosophy. It’s got a notch, good cameras, and some AI smarts, but ultimately it’s not as good as it could’ve been or needed to be to really compete.

The biggest problem is price. Some US carriers are selling the G7 for as high as $750, which is even more expensive than Samsung’s Galaxy S9. The S9 is typically the default Android smartphone purchase for many consumers, so it’s genuinely perplexing that LG isn’t trying to undercut Samsung in any meaningful way. I think the G7 offers a strong enough package to cost somewhere between $600 and $650, but over $700 is just pushing it too far.

The G7’s overall design has a lot in common with last year’s V30: glass on both sides, curved edges, and a refined look. It comes in a range of nice colors. My production retail unit is the black model, and I’m starting to feel really over black, slippery, smudgy phones. I’m sure the red and silver versions hide fingerprints much better. The G7 is IP68 water resistant, and there’s an actual power button on the side this time, so the fingerprint sensor on back doesn’t push in anymore.

There’s also a dedicated Google Assistant button, which I’ve found more helpful and convenient than a Samsung’s Bixby button. You can press it to bring up Assistant or double tap to open Google Lens and learn about things your camera is aimed at. LG has augmented Assistant with a number of device-specific commands, you can pull off more granular tasks (ie. “take a selfie with the wide-angle lens”) with voice commands here than on most other Android phones.. I still wish you could remap the Assistant button to open any app you want. But just like Samsung, LG isn’t letting you do that yet. The company has hinted that it might cave in a future software update, but for now it’s Assistant or nothing if you decide to just turn the button off completely.

The front is dominated by a 6.1-inch IPS LCD display with a resolution of 3120x1440. It doesn’t have the same perfect blacks and contrast as OLED, but the LCD screen is colorful and has  HDR support. It’s crisp and easy to read even in direct sunlight. There’s a special Super Bright mode that can crank brightness all the way up to 1000 nits for a few minutes if you’re stuck in really sunny conditions. I really don’t have any complaints about the display beyond the color temperature running a little cool out of the box for my taste. You can dial that to your liking in settings.

I’m not convinced this phone needed a notch, however. The G7 looks a lot like the iPhone X, but with a chin. Sure, the notch is smaller and you do get a little more screen real estate for your apps by pushing notifications and status icons to the upper corners, but that’s really the only upside I can see. Apple’s notch houses a sophisticated Face ID system; there’s nothing that complex on the LG to warrant its existence. I’m used to the iPhone X by now, so I wasn’t annoyed by its the notch’s presence.

But a lot of people seem unhappy about it. If you’re one of them, LG does allow you to change the top of the screen to black, essentially hiding the notch and making it look like a standard bezel. Since this is an LCD screen and those areas remain lit up, you’ll still notice the notch at times, but it’s rare. You can also pick other colors or gradients, which seems very silly. Also silly is the notion that LG actually considers the two sections of display to the left and right of the notch to be a “second screen.” Please. Thankfully, the notch never protrudes into video content even when you’ve zoomed in for a bigger picture.

You can effectively hide the notch by turning the sections of the screen next to it black.
You can effectively hide the notch by turning the sections of the screen next to it black.

Around back, LG is staying on brand and sticking to the dual-camera setup it’s used on past phones. That combines a primary f/1.6 aperture camera with a secondary, super wide lens that has a 107-degree field of view and f/1.9 aperture. That’s not quite as all-encompassing as LG’s previous super-wide cameras, but it also produces much less distortion. I remain a big fan of the creative flexibility you get with this combo and find myself using the wide perspective more often than I do a portrait lens or a black-and-white camera, which are the two ways most other companies put a secondary sensor to use. Huawei might be putting 3 cameras on its phones, but none of them give you this far-reaching view.

In terms of overall picture quality, LG’s cameras are plenty good, but don’t measure up to the Pixel 2, Galaxy S9, Huawei P20 Pro, or iPhone X in terms of detail and image processing. The bokeh can look harsh and unpleasant, and you don’t get the same sharpness as other flagships when pixel-peeping.

But I can say that for the first time in years, LG’s front-facing camera is finally decent. The 8-megapixel sensor produces selfies with good sharpness and nice, even exposure. They no longer have the mushy, oil-painting look of prior LG smartphones. That’s really overdue and good to see.

Unfortunately, the ThinQ aspect of the G7 and its AI camera features are mediocre. When you open the camera app and tap the “AI cam” button, the G7 tries to identify what’s in the frame and automatically adjusts settings like contrast, color balance, and saturation to get you the best possible picture. It’ll boost blues in the sky, make flowers more vibrant, and try to make the food you’re shooting look a bit more appetizing. In those straightforward examples, the AI can help snap a decent photo without making you adjust settings yourself.

Click to view this image at full size and you’ll see LG’s camera successfully identify the flowers, but also spout off a bunch of non-related guesses.
Click to view this image at full size and you’ll see LG’s camera successfully identify the flowers, but also spout off a bunch of non-related guesses.

But the AI’s guesses at what the camera is pointed at are often bad and wrong. As you focus on various subjects, you’ll see words flash on the screen to show what the AI thinks it recognizes. It might correctly identify a dog, for example, but then you’ll also see a stream of unrelated, very dumb suggestions appear alongside the right one. When framing up some flowers, I saw things like “swimwear” and “group of people” appear. Uh, what? And whenever that weirdness happens, you’ll wonder if the G7 might be making bad decisions that could make your image worse — not better. I’d stick to just using either standard auto mode or manual if you want greater control. In that department, LG still offers a plethora of options and the best manual video mode on pretty much any phone.

LG is also known for best-in-class sound. The G7 retains the headphone jack and quad DAC of its predecessors, which can produce amazing audio if you’ve got fancy hi-fi headphones. New this year is support for DTS:X 3D surround sound, which is aimed less at audiophiles and more at people who want their Netflix to feel more immersive. You can pick between having the sound seem like it’s coming from in front of you, side-to-side, or a “wide” option. It might add enhance your streaming video now and again, but I mostly left it turned off.

The G7 ThinQ’s headphone jack and quad DAC offer a better music listening experience than other top smartphones.
The G7 ThinQ’s headphone jack and quad DAC offer a better music listening experience than other top smartphones.

The G7 doesn’t have stereo speakers, but LG put a lot of work into the single one on the bottom. It’s called a Boom Box speaker, and it’s designed to use the inside of the phone as a resonance chamber so that your music can get LOUD. You can really feel every bass note and drum beat vibrate the phone in your hand, which is pretty neat — even if it makes the G7 seem a bit hollow inside. LG says the speaker sounds best placed down on a table, and that checks out. It’s definitely louder than any other phone I’ve heard. But a single speaker can only do so much and is still easy to accidentally cover with your hand. If LG had put stereo speakers in the G7, I think the end result would’ve been much fuller and better.

I’ll add another random bit of praise here: LG’s vibration motor and haptics are excellent, and second only to Apple’s iPhones. Many Android makers pay zero attention to this component, but I’m with my colleague Sam Byford in that I think when companies put work into it, the result is a device that feels more premium and alive in your hand. Even small things like interacting with notifications come with a small, appreciated kick of haptic feedback. Just be aware that whenever the G7 vibrates on a table, everyone in the room is going to hear it. I’m sure the internal design/amplification chamber factors into that

The G7 is fast and a great performer thanks to it’s Snapdragon 845 and 4 gigs of RAM. (International models up the latter to 6GB.) There’s 64 gigs of storage and a microSD slot if you need more space. But LG’s own software is still a weak point for the G7. As just one example, whenever you download a new app, you’ve got to resort the app launcher to keep things in alphabetical order. Every. Single. Time. The phone can’t just remember your sorting preference? LG is also still including an iPhone-like home screen experience that removes said app drawer and just spreads downloaded apps across your various home screens. It doesn’t work well. LG either needs to put more of an effort into software or just make a switch to something closer to pure Android.

LG is shipping the G7 with Android Oreo 8.0 (with May’s security patch) and has promised to make a better, honest-to-goodness real effort at delivering future software updates at a timely pace. I’ll believe it when i see it, but Android P is optimized for this wave of new phones with notches, so hopefully LG gets that out fast when the time comes.

Battery life has been disappointing during my testing. The G7’s 3000mAh battery is smaller than LGs last batch of phones and many of today’s flagships — especially phones that have 6-inch screens. If you’re using the phone a lot, you’re gonna have to find more power at some point during the day. I averaged a little over 4 hours of screen-on time, whereas my Pixel 2 XL can easily hit or surpass 6. The bundled charger juices up the G7 fast, and it also supports both wireless charging standards, but neither of those things make up for having a small battery to start with.

If LG was hoping to blaze a new path and revitalize its mobile division with the G7 ThinQ, I don’t think this is going to get the job done. The trouble really started with that name. There are definitely people who will buy this phone for its fun cameras and amazing audio. They’ll be happy. But this isn’t something grand reinvention. The G7 is iterative, looks like an iPhone, and its battery life needs improving.

Stacked up against other 2018 contenders, it’s hard to find the one thing that’ll move the needle and turn the G7 into a hit instead of some niche phone for a small audience of loyal customers. LG has been stuck in that zone for years, and the G7 seems likely to have the same fate. Especially for $750. For LG, it’s probably back to the drawing board. Again.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge.

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