There are a lot of smartphones out there now. You know this. To add to the confusion, many companies are now parading out multiple top-drawer phones: think Samsung's Galaxy S and Note series, or the Xperia Z and Z Ultra from Sony. Even LG, whose new G2 flagship I'm poring over this time around, has both the G and G Pro to tempt buyers. It's getting increasingly difficult to launch a smartphone with some standout feature, something more than just bigger screens and faster processors.
For the G2, LG's decided to make a major change to the phone's physical layout -- in a bullet-point summary, it has buttons on the back. Three, in fact. LG reckons that as the size of smartphones has increased, at this point, the viability of buttons around the edges is now questionable. The new G model lands between last year's Optimus G and the Pro size-wise, breaking through the 5-inch screen barrier with a bright 5.2-inch, 1080p IPS screen. The rest of the feature set will seem familiar to anyone who's read a flagship Android phone review in the last 12 months. Optical image stabilization, remote control blaster, a mixed bag of proprietary software features and Android 4.2.2. There's also some new stuff, including 24-bit / 192kHz audio recording and playback, and it could well be the first Snapdragon 800-powered smartphone to reach US stores -- that's Qualcomm's most potent mobile processor yet. But with IFA just finished and the Galaxy Note 3 now official, is a button transplant going to be enough? In fact, that's a red herring, because there's actually a far better reason to buy the G2 -- and it's none of the above.
LG hasn't broken the mold with the G2. It doesn't stop me from whimsically looking back to the HTC One or the iPhone -- high-water marks in smartphone design -- but it's no eyesore either. From the front, it's like a conceptual sketch of a smartphone made real. What's impressive, though, is how when you switch the G2 on, that front surface just comes to life. LG has squeezed a 5.2-inch screen into a phone with the same footprint as 5-inch devices like the Galaxy S 4. How? With 0.1-inch-thick bezels, made possible by a new display touch-sensor using two connectors. Even above and below the screen, there's only 0.4 inch of space before the phone's edges. The lower part has an LG logo and nothing else (Android buttons are of the on-screen variety); above you'll find the loudspeaker, light sensor and front-facing, 2.1-megapixel camera. There's also a satisfying curve to the Gorilla Glass 2 front, similar to what you'll find on the Nexus 4 and recent Lumias. It adds a pinch of class to what is (at least from the front) an otherwise standard-looking handset.
It's when you flip the phone over that we begin to see a bit more flair. Aside from the rear-button trio, there's a glossy patterned finish to this black model, and while the pattern helps disguise it a little, it loved my fingerprints; completing our typical melee of glamor shots with the G2 bordered on an exercise in futility. I'd advise carrying around a cloth if you're averse to smears.
The lack of a removable battery cover is going to aggravate power users looking to swap out batteries and SD cards, but the payback is in the solid build quality -- and also the fact that you get more space for the battery. If I prodded the back with a bit of force, I could see the plastic flex a little, but not enough to detract from the otherwise sturdy design.
The volume buttons on either side of the primary power nub are covered in a matte, almost gritty finish, which means they stand out from the phone's glossy background and also offer a little bit more grip. The power button is surrounded by an LED outline, but it's not capable of the same fancy light show seen on the Optimus G Pro's power switch. Nope, those tricks are found in the front-facing LED notification light, and you can choose whether that front-facing one will inform you of calendar events, alarms, missed emails, calls or just tell you when the phone's charging. The rear LED will flash for incoming calls and alarms only.
There are no other buttons on the device, which is a little daunting at first. If you've ever moved from a Google device to an iPhone, or simply switched to a different brand within Android, you'll know it takes a while for you to get used to the new button arrangement. With the G2, double that. Then add a day. I had to recalibrate how I held the phone, to ensure my index finger was in the right place -- meaning a few inches higher than I normally do. A big deal? No, but it certainly felt slightly more precarious in the hand than usual. LG has made some efforts to reduce the issue: two taps to the screen will wake the G2 up, lessening your need to reach for the power button on the back.
As I continued to use the G2, however, I became more at ease with the button placement. The raised portion that houses the power button was the most prone to bumps, but it didn't result in any long-term scratches. In fact, I preferred to leave the phone facedown on surfaces and let the Gorilla Glass 2 do its job protecting the G2's beautiful display.
Is a 5.2-inch IPS screen with 1080p resolution the limit of what we can call a smartphone before classifying it as another smart-device bridge between tablets and phones? At the moment, yes. At just less than 5.5 inches tall, it's a tight call. You'd think smaller hands would likely fare better with a 5-inch screen, but the G2's shaved dimensions mean it's really not much different than the Xperia Z (5.47 inches), the GS4 (5.38 inches) or even its predecessor, the Optimus G, which measures 5.2 inches. All told, it's definitely a notch below the likes of the G Pro or Galaxy Note II.
LG's IPS smartphone displays are some of the best in the business. Bright and rich, with great viewing angles, I've got no gripes with them -- alongside HTC's Super LCD 3, this is the level I want to see in all future smartphones. This 1080p, 5.2-inch version was suitably bright in harsh sunlight, although the auto brightness setting didn't seem to work at all on this model -- something I'm chalking up to this being an early build. Alongside the IPS display, LG has added in Graphic RAM (GRAM), which adds a memory cache of the screen when static, meaning when the screen isn't changing, the CPU and GPU don't have to communicate, allowing the processor to cool down and saving on battery burn. LG reckons it can reduce the display's energy use by up to 26 percent. We'll see how that fares in the battery test section.
Stepping up to complement the richer visuals, LG's included 24-bit / 192kHz music support --- for recording and listening -- on both FLAC and WAV files. Now, you'll have to be using those sorts of files to begin with, but the G2 is the first to support audio at a level above CDs, and for that it should be lauded. However, it's not the earth-shaking feature LG likely wants it to be.
It makes sense for LG to pair a high-pixel-count camera sensor (13 megapixels, no less) and optical image stabilization, as the duo should make for crisper shots with less blur and noise. More pixels mean that your shots should also grab more detail. It appears to be the same setup we tested on the Optimus G Pro, (BSI 13-megapixel sensor, f/2.4 aperture lens, 9-point autofocus and LED flash), although LG has gone further with the manual settings you're able to tweak; there's now a manual focus slider to maximize those macro shots, alongside tap-to-focus and face-tracking.
You can also use those rear-facing volume keys not only as a shutter button, but also for zoom. I found the latter was a better option. When trying to use those rear-facing buttons to capture a shot, my fingertips would inadvertently graze the lens slightly because it's simply so close the three-button array. I ended up taking the majority of my sample pics with the on-screen shutter button. Image quality was good, although due to recent developments in rival smartphones' low-light photo skills, I found LG's flagship lagging behind the likes of the HTC One or the recent Lumia models. It's still capable of some great shots (see the above nighttime shot), but it was more temperamental, often capturing a lot of noise and artifacts if lighting was less than ideal.
An honorable mention goes to the G2's HDR mode, which (possibly thanks to that high-end Snapdragon 800) seems both more capable and faster to respond than other smartphones we've tested it on. There's less ghosting (one picture's edges not overlapping correctly) and better detail than perhaps you're used to seeing on smartphone HDR shots. We're sure that the optical image stabilization can take some of the credit here. You can also lock exposure and focus -- just touch and hold the shutter button, then release your finger to capture the shot. It's a decent substitute for a proper dual-detent camera button, and a nice touch.
The other modes are a mixed bag. Useful ones include "Shoot and Clear" mode, which removes moving objects from your photos, as well as familiar ones like panorama mode, burst shot and intelligent auto. Then there are the unfortunately redundant modes, like VR panorama, which is just as temperamental here as any on other smartphone that tries its luck with Photo Sphere, and Dual Camera.
The sample videos were largely crisp, but I had some issues with autofocus. While the optical image stabilization stopped any jumpiness inherent with recording on a smartphone, the G2 kept attempting to refocus, even when the subject wasn't moving around. It left us with the sample video you can see above, where the smartphone keeps readjusting its focus, adding moments of blur to the clip. Given that LG's offered us an early sample, we'll be testing this again once retail units are available. On the plus side, you can lock focus on something (like someone's face) while capturing video by tapping on it in the viewfinder. There's also a new camera software function for video, Audio Zoom, which uses three built-in stereo mics to amplify sounds in a specific direction. Unfortunately, you have to digitally zoom in, meaning any improvements in audio quality come at the cost of visual performance. One final lovely feature: 1080p 60 fps video capture -- great for slow-motion playback of action-packed videos.
It wouldn't be an Android phone from a Korean manufacturer without some software on the side, right? To start, Google's Android 4.2.2 brings along Google Now and Project Butter smoothness for the ride, but LG's added its own twist, in part to assist with those rear-facing buttons.
Everything you saw on the Optimus G Pro is here on the G2, like the dual-camera modes to record video from both the front and back lenses, and (more importantly) the QSlide floating mini apps, allowing you to window off some of the core apps (calendar, internet and, er, calculator).
Unfortunately, as we noted in the G Pro review, there's still a severe lack of non-stock apps. We'd have loved to have seen more support for video applications (Netflix, BBC iPlayer), but this is likely an issue of popularity. LG needs to be a bigger deal before it can get the sort of support Samsung enjoys for its split-screen multitasking features. On the bright side, it's great to see that LG's keeping the IR blaster in its smartphones -- I'm hoping the trend continues and rids us of remotes forever.
Moving on to the phone's unusual button placement, you can double-tap the screen to wake it up (as on Nokia's recent phones). You can also do the same on the status bar, empty home screen space or the lock screen to return it to slumber. Suffice to say, it's a lot less awkward than proclaiming "Hey Google Now." LG's previously dense drop-down menu is now even busier. Well, until you start switching off some of the sub-menus. There are dedicated rails for those QSlide window apps and remote functionality -- and those can be turned off, but there are also sliders for brightness and volume, choking the space available on the drop-down for missed calls, emails reminders and the rest.
One clever addition to LG's latest interpretation of Android 4.2 is the ability to choose which on-screen soft-keys you want, with several permutations of home, back, menu, search, multitask and a shortcut key to the G2's note-taking function available. Swipe around on the Android home screen enough and you'll arrive at a tutorial for some of the phone's newer features. (Don't worry, you can turn this off once you're educated.) Up first is guest mode, which lets you lock down the device so it's kid-friendly or at least protected against pranks and / or corporate espionage. The mode can be switched on through the settings menu, where you can define a specific lock pattern for guest users. You can specify which apps they can access, however Google programs will still think the guests are using your account, so it's worth bearing in mind -- it will still hold onto your internet cookies and passwords.
Another multitasking function alongside the QSlide apps is Slide Aside, which will keep three apps running concurrently on the side (you house them there through a three-finger swipe). I'm not exactly sure how much time this saves me over holding the home button (and seeing all the currently running apps), or from simply loading apps again from the home screen. After trying it out once, I never went back to it. It's the new Dual Camera.
Performance and battery life
The G2 houses 2GB of RAM, Qualcomm's 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor and 16GB 32GB of non-expandable storage. In short, it's a beast. Like we mentioned in our Xperia Z Ultra review (packing the same processor), it uses the improved Adreno 330 graphics processor, meaning slicker existing games and (hopefully) richer titles in the future, if Android continues to push the gaming envelope. The Snapdragon 600 didn't exactly crawl along, so it's harder to rave about how smooth everything runs, or how fast apps appear or the phone reboots. Be assured that's all true, and when I fired up the GPU-straining likes of GTA3, I was amazed how quickly it loaded right into the game. The benchmark numbers back up my experience -- and then some:
Sony Xperia Z Ultra
SunSpider 1.0 (ms)
GLBenchmark T-Rex 2.7 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better
The G2 more than doubles the scores we saw on last year's Optimus G. Which is great, but like a lot of Android phones since 2012, it translates into diminishing returns in real-world use. The new LG flagship doesn't feel twice as fast, but this is the swiftest Android phone we've seen yet, even despite all the extras LG's attached to the stock Android software. The G2 is LTE-ready, and it's coming to all the major US carriers, so your requisite bands are covered. However, I couldn't put those to the test -- so we'll update when we can. On a 3G SIM, however, my HSPA+ data rates were around 2.2 Mbps down, and 400 Kbps up -- pretty much standard across the networks. Voice calls were also clear, with a trio of mics helping to cancel out unwanted noise.
Perhaps this is a sign that we're finally crossing into a world of sensible smartphone batteries.
When it came to battery life, I had high hopes and during the first few days of testing, those hopes were fulfilled. Now, a 3,000mAh battery might not sound like a lot (especially with a high-end processor and large 1080p screen ticking along). It's smaller than both the Galaxy Note II (3,100mAh) and the Droid Maxx (3,500mAh). But, rejoice, because those flagship specs can go along with top-class battery life. Under heavy use, I was easily able to cross over the 20-hour mark, with regular use of GPS, WiFi and voice calls, all with the screen on at least half-brightness. Less holistically, in Engadget's HD video rundown, I managed a glorious (well, tortuous if you're in the middle of reviewing) 16 hours of playback on a single charge. Alongside the Moto X, perhaps this is a sign that we're finally crossing into a world of sensible smartphone batteries.
The G2 took what I loved from the tablet-smartphone category, and crammed it into a regular smartphone. A big one, granted, but not an unnecessarily huge one. LG's smartphone screens are among the best, and its newest phone continues to lead its peers. This time around, however, it's got the battery to do it justice. I had no aversion to watching more video, taking more photos or just doing more with the G2 because I knew that the phone would go the distance even with very heavy use. Incredibly, too, the device isn't even being marketed for its battery savings so much as its top-notch specs. Here, then, you can finally have the best of both. If you're sick of phones that won't last until sunset -- I'm looking at you, Nexus 4 -- this is the solution.
The new button positions are not a gimmick, but they take some getting used to and indeed, many prospective users might never come around. After a week of using the G2, I'm utterly sold on the double-tap to unlock. There was no need to reach around for the power switch; I just had to be able to reach the screen to check emails or the time. There are some new duds in LG's new software coffers (Slide Aside can be left aside), and the OS feels denser and more complicated than a vanilla Android build, but there are still a few gems to ensure LG's skin is worth using. With that battery life, Google and LG could oblige us with a Play version, or maybe we'll see specs crammed into the next Nexus -- we certainly liked the price tag the last time that happened. The miraculous endurance of the G2 paired with a high-level screen and processor, make it one of the most tempting smartphones I've seen in the last six months.