Every year the smartphone junkies look to a few select manufacturers for their next-gen purchase. At least in the U.S., the Android field is primarily HTC, Samsung and LG at this point with Motorola and Nexus phones being more niche (but still great) products. And while we’ve already seen Samsung’s hand with their S6 (review here) and HTC with the M9 (review soon), it is time to look at the final piece of the Android trifecta, LG.
The G4 as it is called may not feature a clever or overly thought out name. But what it does have, is a lot of hype running behind it, pushing it forward and a spec list that is impressive. But spec list aside, the two biggest items that have constantly been talked about regarding the G4’s ability to put the heat on Samsung and HTC are two fold: the camera and the design materials, namely, the leather back options.
We managed to score one of the absolutely gorgeous black/tan leather TMO variants and have been flogging it, caressing it and journeying through life with it over the last couple weeks. Is it worthy of the hype? Should you get it instead of the M9, S6 (or something else)?
We’ll get to the backside in a minute. For now, we’ll touch on the specs. There’s been some discussion regarding the CPU as LG opted for a 2nd best Snapdragon 808 instead of the top of the line 810 that the M9 has and Exynos 7420 the S6 has. On paper, the 808 only has 6 cores (2 high power + 4 lower power) while the 810 is a 4 x 4 arrangement as is the Exynos 7420.Raw benchmarks show the obvious: the 810 and 7420 are marginally to impressively faster than the 808 at a large amount of tasks. In GPU terms, it’s just as differentiated for the 810 with a wider gap created by the 7420. Make no mistake, the 810 and 7420 are better, faster chips. But you know what? In real world use I’ve noticed absolutely 0 differences. The small amounts of stutter here and there I’ve seen over the last couple weeks are more-so do to 1) LG’s skin and 2) unoptimized, pre-production software. There’s a special emphasis on point 2.
The G4 ships with 3 GB of RAM and a single 32 GB storage tier meaning those of you looking for more storage will have to buy more. And therein is a perk – LG has kept the G4 packing a user accessible microSD card (as well as battery) so that the end user can expand storage if they want to. There’s a lot of debate about what’s better: non-replaceable but faster memory like what Samsung did and uses on the S6 or user replaceable memory that is slower but good enough for most scenarios and users. We’re on the fence. We see the pros and cons of both schools of thought, though at this point are excited to have an SD slot at our disposal.
Samsung made waves with the S6 when it was revealed they sealed the back and prevented users from replacing the battery and SD card – long time staple features of a Samsung device. Samsung says this was done to ultimately design and build a better looking/feeling phone. Your thoughts on more glass on smartphones aside, we will agree that the S6 is the nicest quality phone Samsung has ever produced. But LG took a different route. Instead of doing metal like HTC or glass like Samsung, LG went with leather. Now, leather is a tough material to implement on a phone for a number of reasons. Beyond the actual engineering of it, there’s the aesthetic argument. Some people simply don’t want/like the leather look on a consumer electronic like a phone. We on the other hand have been intrigued since it was rumored LG was going this route, and after seeing it first hand with our unit, have come to really like it. LG allegedly spent 2 years working on this phone and the leather (procuring, processing and implementing) for it. And it shows. It’s the nicest implementation to date of leather on a smartphone. And, since the backs are removable, if you don’t buy one with a certain color plastic or leather back, there will be chances in the future to buy them. Whether there is a large LG provided store or process to purchase them or alternative methods such as perusing eBay, the fact that the backs are removable means it’s at least possible.
For those of you wanting a fast, fluid phone, the G4 is a natural progression of the G3. It’s display is better, the camera very much so (more below) and the customization options with the different plastic and leather backs once the device launches is going to be pretty awesome. Quite simply, the G4 is a fantastic phone and worthy of consideration alongside the HTC M9 and Samsung S6.
Besides the leather back, one other spec that LG has been touting is the display. Even though it has the same 1440 x 2560 resolution of the G3 (as well as the same physical 5.5″ size), the tech behind it is new. LG kept touting the “Quantum” nomenclature. While there is definitely heavy marketing buzzword lingo going on here, it isn’t without merit. The “Quantum” tech results in 25% more brightness, 50% more contrast and 56% more color accuracy than the G3’s display.
In the world of large screened phones, the G4 has the display to keep itself at the top.
The final, big marketing point behind the G4 is the camera. It is perhaps the biggest feature to highlight, too. This year, LG has outfitted the G4 with a 16 megapixel shooter (up from the G3’s 13 megapixel unit) with an f/1.8 aperture and larger 1/2.6″ camera sensor. Tech jargon aside, it basically means the camera sensor inside the G4 is one of the most powerful ones yet on a smartphone. And while you certainly need a good hardware foundation to start on, it’s LG’s software additions that legitimately take it to the next level.
Even if you leave the G4 on full auto, you’re going to get some great pictures. Take it up a notch by turning on HDR and you’ll get more lifelike, better looking images. But if you really want to unlock the full potential of the G4’s camera you’ve got to toggle on full manual mode which gives you full control over things such as white balance, exposure, ISO and most importantly, shutter speed. The last feature (shutter speed) can be adjusted from blindingly quick 1/6000th of a second all the way down to a full 30-second exposure. Low/no light photography buffs are going to have some fun with the latter. Hey, we’re not professional photographers by any means. And even we were able to get images like the ones you see below out of it. (All images taken with HDR enabled but otherwise unedited.)
One part of the G4’s improved camera chops comes in the form of a color sensor. Specifically, the camera itself will sense both the visible light spectrum and infrared spectrum to determine when/what/how much to adjust colors based off of the surrounding environment in addition to the normal calculations based on lighting and brightness. While it sounds magical, in practice it’s at times a mixed bag. Some times there was simply too much color correction going on under the hood resulting in some goofy tints and hues.
The final piece to LG’s camera prowess is the format. Specifically, you have the ability to save pictures in either .jpg or RAW + .jpg formats. The RAW format will allow the serious photographers far more versatility in the post-processing stage. Take note, though. These files will both show more awkwardly on your phone pre-edit (example: odd coloring) and be far larger in size. The real utility of RAW is what you can do post process.
Compared to the S6 we have on hand, we’d say Samsung will take slightly better “all of a sudden”/point and shoot pics more often than the G4. But take any (small) amount of time to frame a shot or dive deeper into the camera settings and the G4 really stretches its legs and runs away.
With phones constantly getting more battery hungry hardware, LG tried to mitigate this on multiple fronts. While Qualcomm still maintains there is nothing wrong with the Snapdragon 810 in regards to power draw or heat, we’re seeing the 808 become more popular. It could simply be for battery life’s sake. Either way, many thought that LG going with the 808 would result in a direct and noticeable increase in battery life on the G4. Likewise, the larger than average 3,000 mAh battery should also carry it further through the day.
In our testing thus far, we’d say that during the first week and a half of use, the battery life wasn’t all that great. During a normal 6am-10pm day-long stretch, at least one top off was needed. Now it’s important to stress that we have been running pre-production hardware + software. There’s a lot of unfinished stuff here. Roughly 4-5 days ago we received a fairly substantial LG update totalling ~150 MB that installed near final/final shipping software on our G4. Since then, performance both in occasional stutter/lag has been rendered nearly non-existent and battery life much improved.
The only real “sore spot” for some (ourselves included) is the lack of two more modern battery features: wireless charging and quick charging*. Now, wireless charging is either a you use it/you don’t use it type of thing. We personally use it a lot. That said, we also know that wireless charging is slower than quick charging. Pick your poison. Either way, we should be able to add wireless charging via optional 3rd party backs once the G4 is released – a perk of a removable back though something we ultimately wish LG would have provided in the out-of-box experience.
QuickCharge 2.0 drama – There’s been a lot of talk about QuickCharging over the last couple of weeks regarding the LG G4, why it didn’t have it, why LG all of a sudden changed their mind and it did, and everything in between. As it stands now, the G4 does support QuickCharge 2.0 technology and not just the QuickCharge 1.0 as originally believed. However, LG is still focusing more-so on the removable and large 3,000 mAh battery over QuickCharge 2.0 tech. As such, the G4 will not ship with a QuickCharge 2.0 compatible charger. Buyers will need to shell out for a 3rd party charger for that functionality as well.
So if we’re keeping count, to match the Galaxy S6 at least in terms of battery/charging tech, we’ll need to spend ~$30-$60 on two additional accessories. For those who are eying the G4 for it’s (assumed) lower price point than the S6 but whom also want/need QuickCharge 2.0 + wireless charging, the value is lost taking into consideration the aforementioned “issue”.
In the end, if you don’t get a QuickCharge 2.0 charger and instead use a 1.0 compatible one (like the one that ships with the G4), you’ll still get a fully charged G4 in a “quick” time frame. On the in-box charger we saw charges from ~5% up to 95% in a little over an hour and a half if we left the phone on but didn’t touch it. For a 3,000 mAh battery, that’s not bad at all. Toss in a 3rd party QuickCharge 2.0 charger and things will be even more improved.
LG had a big chance to impress with the G4 and we can’t help but feel like we got short changed, and that they stopped just short of truly “awesome”. Including a larger and removable 3,000 mAh battery is an awesome feature that we fully support. Not including QuickCharge 2.0 and wireless charging support in the box from the get-go, however, is a mistake in our book. While some people will indeed simply look at the price and get the cheaper phone (in this case the G4), a growing number of technologically literate buyers will notice the discrepancy in an important feature and buy accordingly.
In the end, the G4 performs well in terms of battery life. And with the help of 3rd party accessories, feature parity with the elephant in the room (Galaxy S6) can be reached. Once reached, we feel the G4 is the better phone hands down. It’s just getting there takes a bit of extra leg work and money for the end user.
You can’t talk about something like a smartphone these days without talking about the software. Outside of Nexus devices which run stock Android and don’t ship with any surprises per say, manufacturer skinned devices carry plenty to love and despise. LG has typically been less heavy handed with feature bloat compared to Samsung. Conversely, LG’s UI design choices have often left us scratching our heads. Overall, manufacturer skins have sucked (horribly) until only the last year or so. The latest iteration of Samsung’s Touch Wiz is actually pretty subdued and let’s a lot of stock Android 5.x Lollipop show through. HTC’s skin, while more heavy handed is similar in terms of Lollipop guidelines but with different gradients, colors, etc. LG on the other hand is now perhaps the most different from stock Android. While they’ve tried to make things flatter (continuing the trend), the G4’s UI kind of takes things a step too far. On that same note, we kind of wish they would have done less to the notification pull down – it’s mostly the same as their KitKat version.
Gripes on UI design aside, features that are present are mostly useful. For example, the dual window feature is great to have. QSlide is the company’s own take on multi-tasking that allows 3-finger swiping from the side to hide/show/switch between a few favorite apps. While we don’t use it ever, the utility is appreciable. You can’t hate on LG for giving you the option at least. If you are the type to jump back and forth between a few apps often (for whatever reason), having the ability to see two at once (with dual window) or by utilizing Q-Slide is incredibly useful and appreciated. Similar to Samsung, LG has also built in a health centric app, “LG Health” which asks for basic info such as birthdate, height, weight, etc. and tracks things like footsteps. There’s also the ability to incorporate other medical devices for tracking and importing data into LG health.
On the stock LG homescreen launcher, swiping all the way to the far left will result in you stumbling into LG’s “Smartbulletin”. Basically, it’s LG’s attempt to mimic Google Now. And on the whole, it’s a massive failure. While Smartbulletin is configurable as far as what data shows up between a handful of stock/installed apps on the G4, that’s about as far as it goes. There’s an option to “search for more” within the LG Smartworld app. However, navigating to said portal results in one, single additional smart bulletin compatible offering. Given LG’s history with their branded apps and services, we don’t expect to see this particular situation improving anytime soon. And that’s sad because Smart bulletin actually looks pretty nice UI wise. We actually prefer it to Google Maps. But there’s simply nothing there of interest outside of the step tracker and the remote app. If you don’t use either of those then your best course of action is to simply disable Smart Bulletin. There is of course the option to use an alternative launcher altogether. For us, that decision rests on Nova Prime’s shoulders.
Aside from other generic inclusions like LG’s LG-ified calendar, phone and similar apps, there’s not a whole lot by way of bloat (from LG). Now, the T-Mobile unit we had did have several T-Mobile branded apps, Lookout (a security/anti-virus app of sorts), Amazon app store and a few others…most all of which were disabled as soon as possible.
Features withstanding, we have found LG’s UI to be overall pretty smooth. There have been some hiccups and an odd slower than normal hiccup when an app is finishing installing that we’ve noticed. But we’re not sure if it’s just the pre-production software or the LG skin itself. Either way, it’s something to point out, though not a deal breaker. Though in 2015, “overall pretty smooth” isn’t good enough. Compared to HTC’s Sense UI and Samsung’s refined Touch Wiz UI, LG’s UX 4.0 feels both older in feel and slower. And that’s exactly what LG doesn’t need.
Moving forward, we’re still waiting for someone to follow Motorola’s route and remove all of their in-house skins and instead “differentiate” by way of added features and widgets within Android instead of slapping their UI choices on top of Android.
A great phone with but a couple of small flaws
No phone is perfect. So it may seem like a silly goal to always set out looking for such. But that’s just how it is. When you’re passionate about something, you tend to get more involved in such a quest. While we can’t say the G4 is perfect, it is about as close to perfect as we would personally want, with the biggest knocks against it’s possible crown revolving around the battery and how it’s recharged. If such things don’t matter to you (or you in turn hate the leather/plastic back), then the G4 isn’t even on your radar. But if we’re looking at it objectively overall and compared to the other big contenders from HTC and Samsung, the G4 is just as good. And that’s an great thing… in 2015 there are 3 very good flagship devices that all take 3 very different approaches to what “flagship” means to them. It sounds clichÃ©, but now perhaps more than ever, it’s a great time to be in the smartphone hunt.
Which are you going to purchase next? Is Samsung’s glass-wrapped S6 (Edge or non-Edge) wooing you? HTC’s tried and true aluminum design? Or is LG’s latest creation, the G4, and it’s plastic (or leather) wrapped and functional features such as replaceable battery and SD card have you sold? No matter which you choose you’re going to get a great phone. In the context and frame of this review, though, we feel the G4 is ultimately the best combination of features, design and performance leading into the second half of 2015.
One of the best and our personal favorite