When LG had released the Optimus G about a year ago, it was an impressive phone with a premium feel that’s made mostly of glass, top of the line specs, an an elegant design that’s been altered and adapted by Google on its Nexus 4 smartphone. This year, LG is back with a new version and the company is dropping the Optimus branding from its flagship line in the form of the LG G2. The late 2013 flagship hopes to repeat the success of its predecessor with even bolder design moves, more customization to enhance the user experience, and top-shelf specs.
Though often overshadowed by rival Samsung, LG is delivering quite a punch with the LG G2 that is available on all four major carriers in the U.S. Like Samsung’s Galaxy S4 flagship, the LG G2 will be available for AT&T Mobility, Sprint Corp, T-Mobile U.S., and Verizon Wireless in the U.S. market.
And this time, LG is leading with specs again. A full HD 1080p IPS display measuring 5.2 inches diagonally, one of the best quad-core processors to date in the form of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 CPU, and a near bezel-less design that’s simple and minimalist highlight the G2’s good looks and power.
The massive display dominates the front surface of the phone; it’s a nice appearance that highlights a large and gorgeous display where text and graphics are rendered crisply and effortlessly. The clean looks is not marred going around the sides either as you won’t find a cluttered array of buttons.
Instead, LG has opted to move the volumes and power button to the rear of the device, noting that when users hold the phone to their face for calls, the top middle portion of the phone is where the index finger naturally rest and hence LG says this is a natural location to place the volume buttons. And while the buttons do feel natural for voice calls, they take a week or two to truly adjust to as we’ve been conditioned for so long to reach towards the side edges of our phones to adjust the volume and power off the display.
For other tasks, like playing a game, streaming music, or watching movies, the location of the G2’s button is awkward at best, forcing the user to reach behind the device to adjust. In all likelihood, LG only looked at the button placement for one scenario–voice calls.
In terms of voice calling, the handset sounds great making calls through the earpiece speakers on the AT&T Mobility and on the Verizon Wireless networks on each carrier’s respective HSPA+ or CDMA network. Speakerphone calls were surprisingly pleasant on the LG G2, and even music and audio files played through the loud speaker, which is projected out towards the bottom side edge rather than on the rear back cover of the device, sound rich and was high in audio fidelity. Though the speaker won’t fill a room, for personal Pandora streaming at your desk while working, this is a joy.
And speaking of the two variants, there are nuanced differences between the AT&T and Verizon models, both in terms of software and hardware. Unfortunately, LG was not able to keep a consistent look and design to its flagship range in the same manner that HTC was able to do on the HTC One and South Korean rival Samsung achieved on the Galaxy S4, Galaxy Note 2, and Galaxy Note 3 devices. The front panel is mostly the same on both models with a bright and beautiful 1080p display. On the rear, Verizon’s model skewed a little bit more blue on the glossy, reflective plastic cover, which is now non-removable this year. AT&T’s hue is more black and subtle. The camera and the buttons on the Verizon edition was a but more metallic, and I preferred the buttons on Verizon as it was a bit stiffer to push in meaning I won’t accidentally press them when I am holding the phone. AT&T’s buttons were a bit larger, a but more plastic, and lighter to depress. The main hardware difference between the two is that Verizon’s model feels slightly thicker and weighs a bit more to include built-in wireless charging using the Qi standard.
Both models are a champ at multitasking with 2 GB of RAM and a very fast flagship Snapdragon 800 processor. Interestingly, Verizon has a total of 32 GB of storage while the AT&T variant only comes with a total of 24 GB of storage space. Beyond the storage that’s built-in you’ll either have to manage your files carefully for hoarders of digital content, or you’ll have to rely on the cloud for expansion as this year’s model doesn’t give the user access to a removable storage card slot. You do have a removable micro SIM try, and the mechanism to access the tray differs in both variants; on the Verizon model, you can just pull open the tray by using your fingernail and AT&T makes use of an ejector tool, so you’ll need to have that handy–or a paperclip or pin–if for whatever reason you need to remove or replace your SIM card.
Given that the power button is on the rear of device, it may be cumbersome to pick up the phone if it’s sitting on your desk to check the time or notifications. As such, LG has implemented a Knock Knock feature where you can tap twice on the display and it will wake the screen up. It’s actually quite a useful feature and Nokia had done this earlier this summer when it introduced the Lumia 1020 through a feature called Glance Screen. It’s actually one of my favorite features in recent history on a mobile device, and I still find myself trying to double tap the screen on any phone I get my hands on to try and wake it up.
There are also some subtle software differences as well between each model. Whereas I think the Verizon hardware edges out the AT&T model in terms of storage capacity and included wireless charging, the most notable difference in the experience of using the G2 is that AT&T’s software allows for more quick controls of the device thanks to widgets placed within the Android notification tray and a more organized settings menu with tabbed categories rather than a long scrolling list that Verizon employs.
LG’s widgets and tweaks to the settings menu makes the device more functional and more closely resembles the experience of more recent Samsung Galaxy devices for users looking to switch over from the rival manufacturer. Here, you’ll have quick access to the screen brightness through a slider whereas Verizon’s brightness is toggled in set increments by tapping on the brightness button. You also have easy access to the volume controls as a widget on AT&T, a handy feature considering the volume keys are now placed on he rear of the device.
In terms of the LG UI itself, I really liked it. LG has implemented a lot of features that Samsung has rolled out, and it’s unclear who is copying who. Rather than implementing a whole slew of features that require a guide to get to know a la Samsung, LG is still a bit more conservative, and the more limited enhancements do add for a richer experience. You have the same use of the front-facing camera that keeps the screen powered on when you’re actively using your phone as well as automatically pause videos when you’re distracted and not watching the display. Additionally, there is also a Notebook application to compete with S Note, though its utility is somewhat diminished given there is no stylus or digitizing pen included out of the box.
And LG has done multitasking in a clever way through two different methods.
The first is the ability to run two apps in smaller, resizable windows on top of a full-screen app, allowing users to essentially run three apps at the same time. And though a Windows-like approach may seem cluttered and confusing on a smaller screen, even a screen as large as a 5.2-inch 1080p panel that LG has used, it’s actually not too bad as you can make the windows appear when you need it and fade away into the background when you don’t thanks to a transparency slider so you can adjust the window’s transparency. It’s a nice approach that rivals Samsung’s Multi Window View and is similar to the more recent Galaxy Note 3’s introduction of the Pen Window with the S Pen.
A second method called Slide Away actually saves apps. It’s another Windows-based approach and could be seen as the equivalent of minimizing a window to the Windows dock or tray on a Windows 7 or Windows 8 desktop. You can “save” three windows into the Slide Away, and with a three-finger gesture, slide away those windows when you need them, and pull them out when you do. At its core, it’s just a different paradigm than Google’s Android multitasking, but is limited to just three windows so you’re not searching through a long list of opened apps. This is great if you’re juggling between a few different apps in your multitasking routine.
The LG G2 has added optical image stabilization, or OIS, to its 13-megapixel camera sensor. The sensor size is still the same as most smartphones, so you don’t get a larger sensor, but OIS will help in two situations–with taking photos in low light conditions without the use of a flash and for videos when you’re walking about town.
In low light, the 13-megapixel camera does a great job, though details were a bit washed out, and if you’re a fan of taking images with street lamps, the light emitted from the street lamp will cause the light to flare.
And while the camera does render images in bright daylight with a pleasing character, if you zoom in on these images, you get a bit of noise still, surprising given the G2’s camera qualities.
Dynamic range is generally not so great when you’re taking pictures of vast expanse of blue skies. When you blow up the blue sky on the following image taken on a sunny day in San Francisco’s waterfront district, you’ll see a lot of noise and grain to the sky.
Low light was generally good. When compared to Nokia’s Lumia 1020–long heralded as the low-light champ of smartphones–the LG renders images with a different quality. Whereas Nokia tries to brighten everything up, and as a result loses the natural ambiance of the scene, you’ll see that LG exposes things more naturally as your eyes would see it, but at the same time illuminates things nicely.
And just to compare how the LG G2 fares in low light, the following images were captured with Nokia’s PureView imaging technology on the flagship Lumia 1020 for comparison. The Nokia phone retains more details and there is less camera shake. I think Nokia did a better job at building its OIS. The drawback is that the LG G2 focuses a lot more quickly with autofocus whereas the Nokia took a bit longer to autofocus and can sometimes hunt around a bit in the dark.
Below are more shots of the LG G2’s camera in normal lighting situations, both indoors and outdoors. The nice thing about the camera is that it does support a number of different modes, similar to what Samsung has done. An iAuto, or Intelligent Auto mode will quickly adjust many of your settings for you, and most users will likely shoot in Auto or iAuto mode. You can also choose from HDR, Time Catch, Dual Camera to capture images with the front- and rear-facing camera at the same time, Panorama, and VR Panorama which is an equivalent to Google’s Photo Sphere. The camera menu and UI is somewhat more confusing than the Samsung rival as you may have to dig more, and some modes will not support certain scenes, for example.
At full resolution, you’ll notice more digital processing with the LG G2’s camera and dynamic range is still something that could be better. Still, the camera does capture nice details and colors rendered are rich.
And below is a sample of the 1080p video recording using the camera. OIS on video shows that it lags behind OIS on Nokia’s 8-megapixel Lumia 920 and the new 1020 flagship. Video recorded with the LG G2’s camera came out more choppy when you’re walking, so you do need relatively still hands. Moreover, when using the zoom on the camera, video quality is quickly degraded. Zoom is accessed by pinching and zooming on the touchscreen, which means that you’re going to have a shaky clip when you’re trying to maneuver your hands to zoom. The nice thing about the video recording is that you can pause and continue recording to have one long video clip, rather than a bunch of shorter ones.
Other useful software that’s included are: Quick Remote for controlling your home A/V equipment, Quick Translator to use the camera or your voice to translate things when you’re traveling to a foreign country, and a Guest mode. The Guest mode is actually a pretty neat feature and is similar to having two different user profiles on your phone. You can have your main profile, where you have access to everything and a second, more limited guest profile where you can control what apps and access you want to give to your guests. This way, you can give your phone to a friend or a child and not worry about them going through your documents, photos, or Play Store account, for example, if you don’t want to give them access to those content.
What is confusing is that LG has included up to three voice search apps on the device. While choice is good, to much choice can cause confusion to a new G2 owner. The G2 comes with Google Now’s voice search, a Voice Mate app that works in a similar way to Samsung’s S Voice, and a Voice Dialer app. I think the latter two apps could be bundled together as there are already a lot of overlapping features between the three voice apps.
The LG G2 is an excellent phone with terrific battery life and some of the best specs on the market today that’s enhanced by LG’s software optimizations. LG has opted to cleverly enhance the experience of the G2 with additional features, but not overwhelm the user in a way that Samsung has by implementing too many gestures, controls, and apps to navigate the latter company’s flagship device.
Still, while LG has taken two steps forward, it sometimes feels like the company has also taken one step backward. The Optimus G that the LG G2 replaces feels more premium than this year’s flagship with its more mature glass design whereas the G2 suffers from the same plastic design that plagued the competing Galaxy S4 smartphone. In Samsung’s case, however, plastic may make more sense as Samsung gives users access to the battery and a memory card slot, powerful features that are devoid on the G2.
In trying to cater towards a more mainstream consumer audience, I think LG is more successful than Samsung in this regard as it chooses its feature enhancements carefully without overwhelming the end-user. As a result, you have features that you will generally use, whereas the Galaxy S4’s more power-user focus leaves the average consumer with a lot of wasted enhancements.
LG did a great job of allowing the end-user to customize many aspects of the Android OS and the G2 delivers an excellent user experience. Between the two models that we reviewed–AT&T and Verizon–there is plenty to like between both. A detailed 13-megapixel camera with OIS, rich fidelity speakers, a great UX, and an endless array of customization features allow the G2 to stand out.
With AT&T’s model, you are hindered by more limited storage, but you do gain a lighter device, a speedier network (on average in testing in San Francisco, California and San Jose, California), and a more subtle black tinge whereas the Verizon model has a slight blueish hue going on, a heavier weight, and the benefits of wireless charging. Overall, I found the menus on the AT&T’s model to be better designed than the Verizon variant. In terms of data speeds, if you’re a need for speed user, AT&T’s network delivers up to twice the speeds of Verizon’s network in our speed tests of the respective networks in and around the Bay Area.
The G2 will face stiff challenge from other devices from both carriers, including the Windows Phone-powered Nokia Lumia 1020 with its excellent camera and the Galaxy S4 on both carriers that promise more features for your money.
With the G2, you’re getting a lot for your money and LG is showing the world that it can compete with the big boys in terms of power, design, features, and a rich user experience. It definitely gives the Galaxy S4 a run for its money and the G2 released many of the features that are present on the Note 3 even before the Note 3 was introduced (Q Slide apps were implemented before Samsung debuted S Pen’s Pen Windows on the Note 3).