At a time where the world’s most advanced smartphones have begun to feel more and more routine, LG finds itself on the precipice of opportunity. From the Samsung Galaxy S5 to the HTC One (M8) to the Sony Xperia Z2, the current crop of Android flagships do almost everything they should do, but together they’ve begun to feel a little old hat. They just don’t surprise anymore — the specs get bumped; the camera gets sharper; the software gets leaner; a gimmick or two work, most of them don’t. The year passes by, and we dance our dance again.
So with its newest hero device, the G3, LG has a chance to stand out. To do so, the company has settled at the church of simplicity. Surely in response to the kitchen sink bloat of last year’s solid if unspectacular G2, company reps say they’ve been ‘obsessed’ with the idea of making this year’s model more efficient from both a software and a hardware perspective. LG sees that the high-end is nearing the summit of the spec mountain — and, considering the G3’s innards, LG may have reached it — and that the biggest movers in the Android world are the ones that’ll focus just as much on approachability as they do capability.
For a purportedly simple device, in other words, the G3 is aiming to do quite a bit. I was able to test out the phone at LG’s New York launch event this week; here are my initial impressions.
For all of LG’s chirping about simplicity, it seems a bit ironic that the G3’s most immediate standout features are quite possibly the most excessive of their kind. They start with the phone’s 5.5-inch, 2560 x 1440 LCD display, which immediately becomes the highest-res panel of any major OEM handset on the market.
Simply put, it’s gorgeous. It’s good and bright, with excellent viewing angles and commendable color reproduction. Of course, its absurd pixel density ensures that everything on-screen is at its sharpest too. To be clear, packing 538 pixels into every inch of a phone’s display is overkill, but it’s not like that’s going to make the screen itself any worse. It’s like giving a CEO a new Ferrari.
The only concern here is that such a high-res panel will murder the G3’s 3,000mAh battery, but I can’t properly address that until a full review unit rolls in. For what it’s worth, that hefty battery will be removable, so you’ll have a Plan B at the ready. Its built-in wireless charging capability is a nice perk as well.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the G3’s display, though, is that it doesn’t feel as big as it actually is. As it did with the G2, LG has shrunk the G3’s side bezels down considerably, making it so its phablet-sized display can fit into the body of a standard-sized device. Well, relatively standard-sized — the G3 is 74.6mm wide as a whole, which is larger than its contemporaries, but not nearly to the extent of a Note 3 and such. I still think 4.7 inches is the sweet spot for mobile displays, but if LG has to have the biggest panel in the room, it’s done so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the G3’s usability. Still, comfortable one-handed use is pretty much out of the question here.
The G3 is similarly overpowered when it comes to the innards underneath that display. It’s got the requisite quad-core, 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 SoC onboard (quick aside: if there’s one real winner of this smartphone generation, it’s Qualcomm, not Apple or Samsung), 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage that’s expandable up to 128GB through an included microSD slot. LG will also sell a higher-end variant that includes 3GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage. All of these guts should continue to work as well as they have on other phones for months now, and indeed the G3 blazed through my limited testing at the event.
Heading back outside the G3, the device itself is made of a faux metallic material that looks more premium than it is. That’s not to say it feels bad — it’s certainly a step above the Galaxy S5, and its matte finish doesn’t appear to attract fingerprints — but it’s decidedly plastic, and that’s going to make it milquetoast in a post-HTC One world.
I was taken aback by how light the whole thing was, however. That’s a natural bonus of going plastic, but at 149 g, the G3 isn’t as much of a burden to hold as its aluminum rivals, even with its larger frame. And while the metallic-like back isn’t quite the real deal, it still feels plenty smooth to the touch, and it’s gently rounded in a One-like way that fits comfortably in the hand. It’s also said to be ‘scratch-resistant’ — but not self-healing like the G Flex — so we’ll see how that holds up in a full review.
LG’s pulled off a nifty illusion here — it’s giving you more phone than its competitors, but it doesn’t really feel that way in the hand. Oh, also, the oddly compelling rear buttons of the G2 are back again, and this time the center power button is flatter, more rounded, and generally less invasive that it was last year. It should be an improvement.
Also returning is the G2’s surprisingly great 13-megapixel rear camera. It was difficult to get a good feel for its capabilities in LG’s confined demo space, but the handful of shots I took looked sufficiently sharp and vibrant at first blush.
The big addition here is that of a laser autofocus system, which LG claims to be a first for the smartphone industry, and a significant speed upgrade over the usual phase detection tech. Again, I can’t fully comment on its effectiveness after a lone preview demo, but my first reactions are positive. Pics processed quickly, and blur wasn’t easy to come by. If things stay that way, this would be a good instance of LG harmonizing the G3’s horsepower with accessibility.
LG seems pretty confident in the laser focusing system, at least, as it’s pared down the camera app significantly to accommodate the new tech. This change is the most indicative of LG’s ‘simplicity’ mantra. Now, the app is virtually barren, almost Moto X-esque, with only the most basic of options immediately on screen in little icons. Simply tapping on any point in the display will now take a photo, with the G3 focusing on the point you touched at virtually the same time it takes the shot. This makes it a cinch to use, as you can imagine.
The front camera has seen a couple of changes as well. For one, LG’s renamed it the “selfie camera,” a move that will surely endear this electronics manufacturer with teens the world over. All snark aside, the front shooter now has a wider aperture and gesture recognition tech, giving it the clever ability to snap a self-portrait whenever you clench a fist in front of it. I can assure you that I will never do this in public, but it does work.
Beyond the camera app’s adjustments, the software side of the G3 (based on Android 4.4.2 KitKat) is where most of its supposed simplicity is supposed to take effect. In reality, it doesn’t seem all revolutionary. What it is, though, is flatter, with more lighthearted icons, text, and default colors. It’s all very reminiscent of iOS 7 — let’s not beat around the bush here — but that isn’t the worst thing in the world. The UI looks friendlier, even if navigating it doesn’t appear to be all that different. The one complaint I have with the shift is that it looks out of place with all of Google’s app icons, which have to be front and center but appear as they do on any other device.
LG talked up some new software additions to go with the UI’s new look, but none of them came across as necessary or exciting. A proprietary “Smart Keyboard” lets you adjust the default typer’s height and customize key placement. A remote killswitch function is built-in for those who misplace their phone. And a new ‘Smart Notice’ app is LG’s way of getting into the virtual assistant game; it’ll give you context-based recommendations, like suggesting you delete an unused app to save memory, or reminding you to call back a previous contact who tried contact you earlier.
Things like this could prove useful to the right person, but I’m weary of more potential bloat. The beauty of Android is that people like LG don’t have to make another Swype or Google Now, and yet time and again they insist on giving us multiple versions of the same thing. Time will tell if those fears are correct. At the very least, the G3 brings back Knock Code, the tapping-based device lock gimmick that has proved useful before.
Altogether, the LG G3 looks to be another capable, attractive, and overpowered phone. It’s got a potential world-beater for a display, all the right specs, a promising camera, a smart build, and a friendly-looking UI. It’s also got some possible red flags regarding battery life, redundant bloatware, and general size. Stop me if you’ve heard this song before.
Yes, the G3 is following the industry’s current template, but at the very least, its superpowered specs are taking that template to its logical endpoint. The real things to value here seem to be the G3’s high-tech yet approachable camera, its efficiently big body, and, of course, that Quad HD screen. The phone drops in LG’s native Korea today, and the UK this summer, but LG wouldn’t give any specific pricing or availability details for the Americas just yet (though all four major US carriers have confirmed that they’ll support it). Whenever it lands, it’ll come in black, white, gold, purple, and blue. Either way, we’ll be sure to give it a complete verdict in the near future.