A beautiful design, an incredible camera, powerful and portable hardware, and an Android skin that doesn't get in the way — these are all things that can individually make or break the experience of using a phone. Get two wrong, and it's hard to get over. Get two right, or get more right, and you have a recipe for a great device. Thank god, then, that there's a smartphone that has all four — the LG G4. It's one of the best all-round Android phones I've ever used.
What Is It?
- Display: 5.5-inch IPS Quantum Display, 2560x1440pixels (538ppi)
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, 2x ARM Cortex-A57 @ 1.8GHz & 4x ARM Cortex-A53 @ 1.4GHz
- Memory: 3GB
- Storage: 32GB eMMC
- Battery: 3000mAh, removable
- Dimensions: 149x75x8.9mm, 155g
The G4 is the latest flagship smartphone from LG, the fourth in a line that started with the Optimus G in 2012, and continued with the troubled G2 in 2013 and the excellent G3 in 2014. It's built around a 5.5-inch Quad HD (2560x1440pixel) IPS-HD display, with a 538ppi pixel density and a smooth longitudinal curve across its glass face.
The purpose of the G4's slightly curved display is twofold, LG says — it makes the phone somewhat more comfortable to hold against your face and more comfortable in your hand, but at the same time it reinforces the display against cracking during accidental drops or impacts. It's a very subtle curve, too; you don't notice it unless you place the G4 on a flat surface facing downward.
Behind that single sheet of glass that covers the entire face of the phone — no buttons, since the G4 uses pop-up software buttons on its multi-touch display — there's a small bezel, almost nonexistent on the edges but thicker on the top and thicker again on the bottom, with a tight carbon fibresque weave and a central, mirrored LG logo.
But it's around the back that the LG G4 really stands out from the crowd. Because you can buy the G4 with a textured plastic rear (removable) cover in gold or dark grey, or you can fit it out with one of seven leather backs — a very rough black and a smoother tan leather are two of the best choices, I think. The leather is vegetable tanned, too, and rejects most stains but will develop a patina over time.
As with other G-Series phones, the G4's power and volume buttons are clustered on the upper centre of the G4's rear panel, in a stacked arrangement that sometimes makes it difficult to find the power button versus the volume keys, but that also brings the buttons underneath your index finger if you hold the phone in either hand. It's a very comfortable setup, I think, that makes it easier to lock and unlock the phone than a side- or top-mounted button.
Inside the G4, you won't find the octa-core Snapdragon 810 that has been having overheating problems in 2015's other flagship smartphones like the HTC One M9 and the Sony Xperia Z4, but instead a somewhat cooler hexa-core Snapdragon 808 — still powerful, just slightly less so. 32GB of storage as standard (there's no 16GB, but also no larger variants) is bolstered by the inclusion of a microSD slot, and the 3000mAh battery is also removable.
The whole show runs on a (relatively) clean and unaltered version of Android 5.1 Lollipop straight out of the LG G4's retail box. I was a big fan of LG's Android skin on the G3, which was simple and flat with a few small tweaks like rounded icons and contextual extras in the drop-down notifications box, and the same is true of the G4's. It's refined from the existing interpretation of Android that LG had with its previous phones, and for the most part it's very easy to understand and very easy to get to like. Apart from a few superfluous Google-cloning apps, it's great.
What's It Good At?
The design of the G4 is where LG hit its first home run. Sure, it's big for a phone of its 5.5-inch screen size, but that bulk is centred in the rounded body of a phone that's skinny at the edges — and that's what you notice initially. The curve is smooth and unobtrusive except when you notice that the G4 doesn't feel like it was hewn from a single lump of plastic. It's certainly not as slim as it could be — the leather-wrapped back adds a millimetre, as does the stitching, as does the curve — but everything just feels right. At 155g the G4 isn't heavy in the slightest, but feels solid and sure in the hand.
The camera, too, is a revelation. Want to take a photo at night? You can. Want to draw silly light-painting words with a sparkler? You can. Want to snap a portrait that is, for a phone, incredibly detailed? You can. It's that combination of big, bright, multi-axis-stabilised lens and 16-megapixel sensor that make for genuinely amazing photos whether you're in a bright daylit scene or whether you're snapping away in far more average visuals — like you almost always are with a phone. The 8-megapixel front camera, too, is similarly at the top of its class — for a smartphone, the G4's camera can't be beaten. Sorry, iPhone, that's just the way that it is now — this might sound like hyperbole, but it's not.
And here are some photos, downsampled to 1080p resolution, that I've captured with the LG G4:
Part of it is the fact that the LG G4's camera app can shoot in RAW, and upon transferring the 20MB-odd files to your PC and loading them into Adobe Lightroom for editing you'll see that there's loads more detail to be rescued than with the lesser shots of something like an iPhone. In that way it's closer to an actual camera than a phone, and that is just enough to give it line honours against its smartphone competitors. The images that the G4 captures are grand. You can even capture long exposures using the manual settings, which genuinely does set it apart from the crowd of me-too Android handsets.
The display, too, stands out. It doesn't have the pop of a Samsung OLED, but at a G3-equalling 2560x1440pixels and 538ppi it's more than detailed enough to smoothly render even tiny on-screen text, but more important than that is the G4's incredibly bright maximum screen luminance combined with the software's propensity for quickly adjusting the backlight when you're in changeable lighting conditions. LG has hit on a nice, daylight-accurate white balance with the G4, too, so its whites don't appear excessively blue or yellow.
In a way, though, what's most worth celebrating is the simplicity with which the LG G4 approaches its skin on top of Android 5.1 Lollipop — what little it does, like its simple cyan-on-grey icons and mostly white settings menus, serves to make things more visible without sacrificing any usability. There's still value in choosing a third-party launcher, but even the stock LG interface is easy to understand and includes some useful widgets out of the box. LG's camera app, too, is far and away the best I've used on a smartphone and takes cues where appropriate from digital SLRs and advanced compacts in letting you adjust shutter speed, ISO and white balanced — only its bright f/1.8 aperture is fixed and unalterable.
After nearly a month of using the LG G4 in various stints, I've really come to appreciate how (mostly) good the battery life of this phone is. That's a qualified statement, though — it's not a huge improvement over any other phone in this 2015 generation when you're comparing its maximum screen-on time or the size of its 3000mAh cell. It's not that it has incredibly long battery life like the Sony Xperia Z3, or that it charges incredibly quickly like a Samsung Galaxy S6 or Note 4, but it just sips on power when you're not using it. I've had quiet days where the G4 sits on my work desk barely touched for eight hours, albeit with Wi-Fi turned on and notifications buzzing away and upon picking it up at the end of the day the battery was still near enough to full. LG's aggressive auto-brightness setting means that it's a little less draining on the battery when you are using it to browse the Web or write an email, too.
What's It Not Good At?
When you compare it to the iPhones and Sony Xperia Z3s and Samsung Galaxy S6s of this world, the G4 does start to look a little bit dumpy. Even on paper, its dimensions — the maximum thickness for example, of which it is only that deep at its absolute centre — don't flatter it. The amount of space devoted to the top bezel isn't a problem, but the bottom is pretty thick At least that means there's a bit of internal volume devoted to the stereo speaker, which is very loud and actually sounds reasonably good.
One potential sticking point with the LG G4 when you put it head to head against the Samsung Galaxy S6 that is its natural competition is the fact that it's using a Snapdragon 808, a cut-down version of the Snapdragon 810 with six cores and a 1.82GHz maximum clock speed. The Snapdragon 810 — as used in the HTC One M9 and the Japanese release of the Sony Xperia Z4 — has a 2.8GHz maximum and eight cores, as well as a more powerful companion graphics processor. While the 810 has been plagued by a series of overheating problems the fact remains that the 808 is less powerful, and will fall behind in benchmarks especially compared to the S6's Samsung Exynos 7420 octa-core (which is made on a brand new, incredibly energy efficient architecture).
I feel like it's worth mentioning, too, that while LG has treated the G4's leather with all manner of amazing high-tech nanoparticle processes and tanned it with amazing vegetable dyes and shaved it to within a micron of its life, that leather coating is still going to change colour after a couple of months of everyday use. My tan leather G4's back is slightly darker on its corners from the indigo of my jeans, and the stitching also quickly lost its bright white lustre. I'd expect the black leather will be a lot more robust, and the lighter colours will be even more susceptible to random stains and scratches. You can, of course, always choose the plastic backs instead and save $50 along the way.
While LG's Android skin is clean and clear, some of its apps — with the obvious exception of the camera — are a little poor and bloated. There's a lot of them, too, and while some are a solid idea, like a TV remote, others are considerably less useful in the real world — like Event Planner, for example, which collates all the calendar notes you select and then suggests locations and activities based on keywords. With such excellent first-party alternatives from Google, it's hard to find a compelling reason to use LG's own apps in the long term.
While the G4 has 32GB of storage, only roughly 22.5GB of storage space is available for apps and media to be installed upon straight out of the box. That should be enough for the regular user, especially since we've all become wizened to having 16GB of storage or less by default — especially on phones with no expandable storage option — but anyone planning to watch 1080p or 1440p video or downloading a large high-res audio library might want to invest in a microSD card.
Performance is good for the most part — the G4 starts, shuts down, locks and unlocks quickly and app launching of all varieties is pretty quick, even heavier apps like YouTube and fully 3D games. But there are a few features that just aren't quite as refined as the rest of the operating system, like the camera, which can take two or three seconds to start up when you tap on its icon from the home screen. It's quicker, sometimes, to lock the phone and double-tap the volume down button to quick-launch the camera and snap a photo automatically.
Should You Buy It?
The individual pros and cons of the LG G4 don't take into account the overall experience of using this phone. It's a beautiful piece of technology, curved and leather-wrapped, with expandable memory and a removable battery, that works well and doesn't present any huge difficulties in usability. Its screen is lovely (albeit quite large), it's more than powerful enough despite not being the most powerful phone on the market, it's marred by only a few small annoyances like an occasional unnecessary app.
There's a philosophical difference that separates the two bleeding-edge Korean smartphone makers' flagship handsets in that the LG G4 focuses on improving its existing areas of excellence — a good display, a great camera, a smart design — where the latest Samsung Galaxy S is always all about the absolute newest piece of technology, eye-tracking, curved-edge OLED, and so on. (LG uses standalone phones like the G Flex for this.) Which one you prefer is really up to you, but in that sense you don't feel like you're beta-testing the G4 as much as you are using a complete and finished product.
For that reason, I'd happily recommend the LG G4 to a friend or family member or coworker. I know exactly what I'm recommending, and unless LG makes a huge and deleterious update to the G4's particular flavour of Android, the G4 will remain a solid and dependable smartphone throughout its lifespan. It's a beautiful one, too, even if its design isn't hugely revolutionary from last year's G3 and even the G2 before that.
The LG G4 will be out in stores from July 14th, and you'll be able to buy one outright from any half-decent electronics retailer as well as on plans from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.