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    LG G Flex2 review: This is what the original should have been

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    "They're a gimmick. They're a terrible idea. They're not going anywhere."

    Naysayers have been doing their thing since the notion of a curved smartphone made the leap from a nutty concept to bona fide market fad, and they're not going to stop any time soon. Neither are LG and Samsung, for that matter, who squared off in late 2013 with -- what else? -- a pair of curved phones. Neither the G Flex nor the Galaxy Round were critical or commercial hits, but they made great stepping stones as both companies tried to convince the world that curved phones were the next big thing. Now LG's back for another shot at flexible-phone glory. The new G Flex2 is smaller, sleeker and a damn sight prettier than its predecessor, but still, we've got questions. Are curved screens any less of a gimmick now? Did LG have to compromise functionality for the sake of design? And more importantly, is this actually worth buying?

    Gallery: LG G Flex2 review | 40 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Stunning design
    • Great gaming and video performance
    • Good camera
    • Battery chargesquickly
    Cons
    • Some stock Lollipop features are missing
    • LG's custom UI can be sluggish
    • Weak front-facing camera

    Summary

    The G Flex2 is LG's latest flexible flagship, and it improves on its predecessor in almost every way that matters. Style? Check. Horsepower? Check. Better screen? You get where we're going here. Still, a dramatic design refinement and an internal overhaul can't completely remove the sting from some of LG's curious software choices.

    Hardware

    Note: I'm working with an unlocked, Korean version of the G Flex2. I'll update this review with new impressions (or hell, maybe write a brand new one) once US units become available.

    It's hard not to look at the original G Flex as a proof of concept, a device LG whipped up partially to fire back at its eternal rival Samsung, and partially just because it could. Once the sheer novelty of a curved phone wore off, though, you were ultimately stuck with a device that very clearly felt like the one before the one you should buy. Not so this time. The G Flex2 is leaps and bounds better than the original -- a thoughtful refinement of everything that held its ancestor back, and the nicest curved phone I've ever used (for now, anyway).

    Calling it the "nicest curved phone" seems almost like faint praise, but it'll always be known more for its curvy chassis than anything else it brings to the table. I could almost feel people's eyeballs darting to look at it, even while I was trying to be super subtle using it out in public. (One coffee shop owner got excited to the point where he asked to feel it against his face. I just couldn't turn him down.) I tested a "Flamenco Red" unit and it's fair to chalk some of this thing's appeal up to its gorgeous, almost burgundy finish. But I'm no fool: I know people can't keep their eyes off the curve.

    Look past the Flex2's unmistakable shape, though, and fans of chic, subtle design will find plenty to like. With the exception of the requisite microphone, headphone jack, a micro-USB port down below and a teensy IR blaster up top, the Flex2's edges are completely empty. That won't surprise anyone who's so much as looked at one of LG's recent smartphones: The company's once again crammed the volume and power buttons onto the phone's back, below the main 13-megapixel camera and laser autofocus module. Does it take a little getting used to? Sure. Thing is, once you've gotten a feel for the button placement, you might start to wonder why every phone maker doesn't do this. My index finger naturally cradles the phone's back while holding it anyway, making LG's non-traditional layout seem like a no-brainer.

    Once you pop that backplate off, you're suddenly made privy to the lovely world of expandable memory thanks to a microSD card slot nestled right on top of the micro-SIM tray. Yeah, it might seem like a minute thing to get worked up over, but dang it, I still like throwing in memory cards when I need more room for Sherlock episodes and I suspect you do, too. The review unit LG provided has 32GB of internal memory, though there's a slightly lower tier version that ships with 16GB of storage instead -- we'll see if that one makes it stateside.

    Right, back to the obvious. That coiled body has serious implications for how the Flex2 feels: It snuggles to your face more comfortably than your run-of-the-mill candy-bar phone, for one. The pronounced curve coupled with a bigger screen meant the original G Flex could be an awkward fit for your skinny jeans, but even that seems like less of a problem this time around; the Flex2 hugged the curve of my thigh so well that I forgot it was there most of the time. That's great news if you're tired of feeling sturdy bricks pressing into your legs -- just remember to check your pockets before you start tossing things into the laundry. The whole package now feels much less cumbersome thanks in large part to LG's decision to use a noticeably smaller (not to mention higher-resolution) 5.5-inch P-OLED screen.

    So yes, we get it; it's curved. Better question: Does it still flex as well as it used to? More or less. There's enough give that you could flatten its face against a surface if you had the finger strength for it, but that's definitely not something LG wants you doing on the regular. The company hasn't said how much weight you can apply without dredging up bad memories of Bendgate, though at the company's pre-CES briefing, one LG staffer gleefully threw his unit on the (carpeted) floor and essentially buttslammed it. My testing was a little less theatrical, but the results were basically the same: It stood up to being smushed in a tight bag and I indeed sat on it from time to time without feeling like I was putting the phone in mortal danger. You definitely don't need to treat this thing with kid gloves, but that obviously doesn't mean you should go out of your way to be a jerk to it, either.

    That same philosophy extends to the Flex2's updated self-healing back, which LG says repairs minor nicks in as quickly as ten seconds. I didn't have an old G Flex kicking around to compare it with, but LG's mostly right on the money. The sort of tiny scratches that appear on your phones as a result of bag debris and pocket schmutz ironed themselves out quickly. Furiously rubbing my thumb against the blemishes made them disappear even faster (though I had to give the phone a thorough wiping down after; it'll suck your fingerprints off from across the room). Just don't expect any miracles if/when you drop the thing -- my G Flex2 fell onto and skittered across concrete during a photo shoot, and its corner was just as gouged as any other phone's would be.

    Display

    One of the best decisions LG made this time around was to ditch the G Flex's 6-inch panel. Instead, a curved, 5.5-inch, 1080p P-OLED display sits front and center, and -- surprise, surprise -- it's a huge improvement over the 2013 model. In fact, let's just get the numbers out of the way now: The G Flex2's screen squeezes about 403 pixels into each linear inch, up from 245 ppi on its predecessor. It's a night-and-day difference, and one that was inevitable when you consider just how young curved-screen tech was just over a year ago (and how expensive it was to work with). Sure, it might not be as insanely crisp as the G3's screen, but our days of picking out individual pixels on a curved display are over.

    Of course, none of that would mean a thing if the screen was somehow awful at everything else. Don't worry: It's not. Out of the box, the display is crisp and bright with deep blacks and mostly punchy colors that'll draw your eyes in even closer. If anything, I'd say the screen skews a bit muted, but LG's got us covered there too: You can swap among default, "Vivid" and "Natural" color-temperature presets from within the settings. I'm a fan of giving my retinas a light sear, so for me, the Vivid setting was just the ticket; the screen instantly grew more saturated, though not to the point where it was overly lurid.

    Viewing angles are excellent too, even though you'll see whites take on a sort of bluish cast when you peek at the screen from awkward angles. Once again, we've got the curve to thank for the screen's easy visibility, but it's maybe not the game changer LG claims it is. From up close, the curve is so subtle that you'll barely notice it at all; it's no more "immersive" than any other big-screened phone I've ever come across. It's just not. That's a strike against LG's marketing department, but your stuff's going to look great here anyway -- just be wary of the hype train.

    Meanwhile, all your tunes issue forth from a single speaker wedged into the Flex2's backside, and it's better than I expected. Years of listening to Mika and The Blue Hearts through tiny, tinny drivers have set the audio bar pretty low for me, but the G Flex2 managed to clear it with room to spare. As you'd expect from a single-speaker setup, there's a noticeable lack of depth to what you're listening to, and indeed, some parts of a track get completely overshadowed by others. Suffice to say, it's not at all about nuance. It is about being loud, though, and my test tunes and go-to YouTube videos -- this kid reviewing pizzas and stuff -- came through with plenty of oomph.

    Software

    LG made sure the G Flex2 is the sort of phone that turns heads, but the company also seemed content to play it safe with the software. In fact, if you weren't paying close attention, you might think you picked up a G3 instead; save for a few additions, they basically do all the same things. You can still pin two native apps (out of an available 11) onto the top and bottom halves of the screen for easier multitasking, while a quick double-tap on the G Flex2's screen will rouse it from its sleep. If that's not secure enough for you, try tapping out your personal, predefined Knock Code on-screen to prove you are you who claim to be. Need something to make sure you're getting off your bum often enough? LG Health still serves as a decent companion, counting your steps and plotting your meandering walks on a map for later dissection. You get where I'm going with this. New phone, same old interface.

    Even the company's Google Now competitor, Smart Notice, is back and doesn't seem much smarter than before. It'll still proffer suggestions when it knows the weather is icky, and remind you of the occasional friend's birthday so you don't look like a jerk. Out of the box, it doesn't do much at all, but give it a few days and Smart Notice will quietly pick up your habits. If you keep calling an unsaved number, for instance, it'll ask if you want to store it in your contacts. I also managed to have a brief conversation with the phone's QVoice digital assistant, despite something of a language barrier. The voice coming out of the Flex2 sounded remarkably natural, and the only thing keeping me from trying to engage "her" longer was the fact that she only spoke Korean and I know all of three phrases: "hello," "thank you" and "I love you." Thankfully, Google Now was just a swipe away, so I could issue commands to a service that actually understood the words I was spewing.

    All told, there are two notable changes to the mix here. The first is Glance View, which lets you peek at the time and your notifications without decimating the battery in the process. Rather than tap the lock button to light up the entire screen, you can now swipe down from the bezel above the display for a quick look at that vital info (complete with a cutesy sunlight effect). Peeking only lights up the uppermost quarter of the display to save power, but the "shade" you pull down always takes an extra moment to catch up to where your finger is. Nitpicky? Possibly. Mildly irksome? You bet.

    The other change is even more fundamental. Lots of LG's little flourishes will look familiar, but peel back the surface and you'll see Google's Android 5.0.1 Lollipop running underneath. With it comes a slew of helpful additions that LG had no part in designing -- things like Google's Material Design UI, complete with a flat aesthetic, lockscreen notifications and cards everywhere. Here's the thing, though: Some of Lollipop's most useful tidbits, like the Guest Mode and the ability to selectively prioritize notifications for apps can be tricky to find if you're used to Android 5.0 proper. It's not unusual for companies to put their own spin on Android before pushing it out the door, but Google made some serious leaps forward with Lollipop, and it's a little frustrating to find them futzed with.

    Camera

    We've said it before and we'll say it again: The original G Flex's camera wasn't all that great. We know it; you know it; and LG knows it. Rather than try and reinvent the wheel (err, sensor), the company essentially plucked the 13-megapixel rear camera from the G3 and transplanted it into the G Flex2. Frankly, it was a welcome move. LG didn't have to do much to clear the original Flex's low bar, but the combination of the G3 sensor and a high-speed laser autofocus system makes the Flex2 a clear improvement. The images I snapped were all crisp and detailed, not to mention well-exposed in most cases. It's all too common to see photos captured with phones take a quality nosedive when things get dim, but the Flex2 did equally well when I ducked under an overpass for some darker shots. Given that I'm sort of a klutz and am always rushing to snap a photo in the nick of time, the camera's optical image stabilization was a godsend, salvaging a few shots I thought I'd bungled. I can't be the only one who fits that description; the trembly fingered reading this might want to give this phone a second look.

    Gallery: LG G Flex2 camera samples | 19 Photos

    I've also got to give LG kudos for keeping its camera app intuitive and straightforward. Unless you tap those telltale ellipses in the corner, all you get to work with are a Back button and a tiny, circular overlay that shows your most recent shots. Need to snap a photo? Just give that screen a tap -- the speedy autofocus will kick in and the phone takes a picture. Curiously, opening up the Settings basically turns the Camera app into a completely different beast. Tapping the screen just sets the focus, leaving you to press the discrete shutter button to add a photo to your portfolio. There isn't much in the way of options, either; all you've got are your usual grid, timer and HDR modes, along with the ability to shoot a panorama or snap a photo with both cameras at the same time.

    As usual, the front-facing selfie camera isn't worth writing home about... or at least it wouldn't be, were it not for a few nifty features. If the hand you're not using to hold the phone gets tied up, saying "Cheese," "Kimchi" or "Whiskey" (my favorite, natch) coaxes the camera into snapping that tricky shot. And if your other hand is free? Just slowly clench your fist in front of the camera; it'll take that as a sign to start the timer and let 'er rip. Once that's all done, bringing the phone down and closer to you automatically kicks the thing into gallery mode, showing you the shot you just painstakingly captured. The end result won't be that great (especially if your features are blurred and smeared by the built-in Beauty mode), but at least getting it was a cakewalk.

    Performance and battery life

    My mom always said that it's what's inside that counts (perhaps to console herself for having such a derpy-looking child). As it turns out, what's inside the G Flex2 is one hotly contested bit of silicon. Meet Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810, the 2GHz octa-core chipset that's been beset for months by reports of overheating and production woes. It got so bad that the chip was supposedly snubbed by LG's rival Samsung in favor of an in-house design, leading to... a pretty awkward earnings call. The G Flex2 is the first handset in the world to ship with one of these things onboard, and its launch in Korea just happened to coincide with more reports claiming the chip ran too hot... followed by another saying it's actually cooler than its predecessor.

    So, how does it fare in the real world? Pretty well for the most part. Just to get a decent sense of how the chip's thermal throttling affected the device's overall performance, I ran the following series of benchmarks on the Flex2 three times in a row after a fresh boot, three more times after playing Asphalt for about 15 minutes and then averaged them. Take a look.

    LG G Flex2 Samsung Galaxy Note Edge Moto X (2014) iPhone 6 Plus
    AndEBench Pro 7,167 8,886 N/A N/A
    Vellamo 3.0 4,684 1,882 2,093 N/A
    3DMark IS Unlimited 22,207 19,912 19,568 17,902
    SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 667 788 787 388
    GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 21 18.4 11.9 18.2
    CF-Bench 68,426 40,143 39,018 N/A
    SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

    Some tests varied more than others during my tests; GFXBench results barely budged while CF-Bench swung between 54,000 and 73,000 presumably because of throttling. Still, even with the potential for heat-related issues factored in, the G Flex2 outperformed its closest curvy competitor in most tests. But what does all that mean in terms of actually using the thing? On one hand, whipping around corners and getting into wrecks in Asphalt 8: Airborne looked beautiful, even after I cranked up the visual effects as far as they'd go. Ditto for Dead Trigger 2: I idly plowed through zombie hoards without a dropped frame or a visual hiccup in sight. The G Flex2's top half got warm when I started putting it through the wringer, but it never felt uncomfortable in my hands, even in the midst of a prolonged gaming session. So far, so good, right?

    Then, every once in a while, it would seem like the home screens were coated with molasses: They'd either transition really slowly, or just get stuck for a moment before finally moving along. Removing the default Smart Notice widget did wonders, but the issue still popped up whenever I had too many apps going at once; 2GB of RAM isn't always enough to keep this thing running smoothly all the time.

    And then there are the weird little things. The phone would sometimes avoid "poor connections" like my home WiFi network, even though a few moments later it indicated I had an "excellent" connection. So yes, the Flex 2 can be flaky sometimes. I've been testing the thing for the better part of the week, but I'll keep my eye on the situation to see how it changes over time. For what it's worth, LG has offered the following statement on the matter:

    "The devices sampled are representative of final industrial design and user experience but are continuing to undergo additional optimizations to enhance benchmark performance. We expect our upcoming software releases to provide further improvements in this area."

    Thankfully, the battery isn't as persnickety as the rest of the phone: It typically managed about 13 hours on a single charge, all while I was futzing around in HipChat and Hangouts, firing off emails from CloudMagic and playing the occasional documentary in the background on YouTube. When it came time for our standard video-rundown test (all together now: looping a 720p video with screen brightness set to 50 percent), the new G Flex held out for ten hours and 13 minutes before needing a top-up. As it turns out, the charger's no slouch either; it takes the phone from 0 to 50 percent in about an hour, and it'll top off the battery completely in less than an hour after that.

    The competition

    Let's face it: If you're really jonesing for a curved phone, your options are limited. The G Flex2 is going to hit AT&T and Sprint sometime this month, but neither carrier has released any pricing details just yet. For now, that means your only shot at nabbing one is importing it from South Korea where it retails for 800,000 Korean won, or just above $720. That sounds like a bitter pill to swallow, but it's still better than paying full price for something like the Galaxy Note Edge; AT&T's asking for $946 for that device off-contract. With a launch window right around the corner, shelling out cash for the original G Flex would be absolute lunacy, and you really shouldn't buy a Galaxy Round either. The allure of a dramatically designed phone can be hard to resist, but the LG G3 is a worthy stand-in if you're not looking for a status symbol. It shares a camera and most of its software flourishes with the Flex2, and it sports a Quad HD screen and a lower price tag off-contract, to boot.

    Of course, you might want to hold off on any sort of purchasing decision for now anyway. Mobile World Congress is creeping up faster than I'd like, which means new flagship phones from Samsung and HTC are barreling down the pipeline as I type this. HTC's supposed M9 isn't expected to have a curved screen (though reports do claim it'll sport a Snapdragon 810 too), but Samsung just might pull back the curtain on a Galaxy S6 Edge in Barcelona. True curve devotees might not be swayed by either option -- still, your best bet is to wait a little while longer and see what happens when the new phones launch and all the dust settles.

    Wrap-up

    With the original G Flex, LG had some great ambitions that were ultimately hampered by reality -- the reality of complexity, of production, of price. Want to see a phone that was just a little too ahead of its time? Look no further than the G Flex2. It's honestly a little surprising how much difference a year makes, and LG has used that time wisely. The second-gen edition is prettier and more comfortable, with a much-improved screen and horsepower to spare. In short, it's a pretty great phone independent of its curvy frame.

    That's not to say it's perfect, obviously. Certain stock Android features have been omitted, and it can be curiously sluggish from time to time. Some will wish for a beefier battery, and others will clamor to find fault with the chip tucked away inside. (I'll keep on the lookout for issues and update this review if things get hairy.) Still, the balance of style and performance here is nothing to scoff at, and with any luck this'll get a competitive price tag when it hits the United States. Expect some new insights when that happens, but know this: You'll soon be able to buy another curvy phone that doesn't feel half-baked.

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