When LG cooked up last year's G3, we (and many of our contemporaries) fell in love with it. At last, a well-designed phone with a killer Quad HD screen and a custom interface that didn't make us want to wrap a USB cord around our necks! Building a beloved smartphone is no small feat, but it's still not as hard as crafting a sequel that will be just as well-received. When it came time for LG to design the new G4, the company latched onto a handful of areas it thought people really cared about. It rebuilt its 16-megapixel camera from the ground up. That Quad HD screen? LG tried to make it more "accurate." Now the question is: How'd LG do? Did it figure out how to excite people for another year? The answer -- in case you've got somewhere else to be -- is "almost."
Note: I'm working with an unlocked, Korean version of the G4. I'll update this review with new impressions once US units become available.
Honestly, did anyone expect LG to rewrite its design rules this year? With a mostly flat front and the subtlest of curves to help it settle into your palm, LG's latest sits somewhere between the G Flex2 and last year's more pedestrian G3. It's thoughtful moderation in action, though I'd argue the dramatic slope of the G Flex2's arched back is more comfortable to grip. The look is about as far from revolutionary as things get, but you could argue the physical shape doesn't really need fixing. Still, I can't but feel the broad strokes of LG's industrial design are getting a little tiresome.
Thankfully, LG has tried to shake things up this year with its fashion-forward line of vegetable-tanned leather backs. They're a step in a more organic, more luxurious direction -- which I'm very, very fond of -- but they're just one of several options. The version I tested came with the standard "Metallic Craft" rear finish that looks like a hammered piece of steel... but is actually just a curved sheet of metal-looking plastic like what we saw on last year's G3. The rest of the G4's posterior is an exercise in repetition. Just like the last two powerhouse phones the company churned out, the rear camera (now boasting 16 megapixels) sits high on the back, flanked by a two-tone LED flash on the right and the infrared autofocus module on the left. Just below all of that is LG's signature volume rocker/power button combo, except this time, the power button is actually a hair smaller, making it a little tougher to find by feel.
The G4's face looks downright spartan compared to its rump, and LG plans to keep it that way -- Dr. Ramchan Woo, LG's head of smartphone planning, stressed the importance of crafting a distinct identity for LG phones, and that means these dark, monolithic faces aren't going anywhere yet. The 5.5-inch IPS Quantum display deserves a lot more verbosity than I should muster in this section, but know this: It's easily among the best smartphone screens I've ever seen, despite what I may have said in the past. When it's off, though, it's scarcely distinguishable from the dark gray bezels that surround it, making the teensy speaker grille, 8-megapixel camera and LG logo the only things that break up the dusky monotony.
So yeah, our particular G4 doesn't exactly thrill in the looks department, but what's chugging along inside that plastic body is a little more interesting. You'd think a company's annual flagship phone would insist on using the most powerful chipset it could get its hands on, right? Not this time.
LG already included a top-tier Snapdragon 810 chip in the G Flex2 earlier this year and decided to go in a different direction with the mass-market G4; it has a cheaper 1.8GHz hexa-core Snapdragon 808 instead. Do yourself a favor: Don't be fooled by the model number dip. The Snapdragon 808 might lack a pair of Cortex-A57 processor cores and sport a slightly lower-end Adreno 418 GPU, but it's still a very capable piece of silicon. (More on that later.) Tear off that plasticky back plate and you'll find a handful of other near-extinct goodies too, like a removable 3,000mAh battery and a duo of slots for microSIM and microSD cards. LG's lasting fondness for these little touches won't go unnoticed by the nerds burned by the stinginess of other phone makers, but man, what I wouldn't give for a more adventurous sense of design.
Display and sound
When I first started putting the G4 through the wringer last week, I said its vaunted 5.5-inch IPS Quantum screen didn't necessarily look better than any of the competition; just different. Well, I still don't think people will go crazier for a super-accurate screen than they did over a super-saturated one, but there's no denying this panel is worth your attention. LG's done a lot of crowing about the display already, most of it hinging on how its tech makes for amped-up brightness and more natural color reproduction. We could dig into the very complex nitty-gritty here -- the screen uses a different kind of liquid crystal that aligns vertically to let more light through, and a revamped backlight setup that makes for very clean, organic colors -- but I'll spare you the rest of the breathless jargon. Long story short, the screen here is lovely, if still a few steps from perfection.
With the backlight cranked up all the way, the G4's display is a touch less bright than both the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge (it's most notable when you're looking at a stretch of plain white). Blacks lacked the depth and sumptuousness that are a hallmark of AMOLED screens, and the rest of the color spectrum isn't nearly as punchy as I've come to appreciate on my smartphone screens. Then something funny happened. After looking at the overly saturated colors on the Galaxy S6's screen (especially the reds, my goodness), I found myself appreciating LG's subtler take. Reds in particular are more nuanced, rather than the nearly eye-searing rendition you'll spot on Samsung's wares. There's something to be said for seeing photos on your phone in a way that more faithfully recreates what you'd see in the real world. That's not to say that visuals on the G4 lack oomph, though -- colors popped dramatically compared to the G3 we keep around, which looked pretty washed-out in comparison. Alas, things can get dicier once you look at content from an angle; you'll notice that the screen loses some of its vibrance. It's a relatively minor niggle, and overall I'm still very fond of this display, but I still wish it were as attractive from off-center as it is head-on.
LG devoted less attention to the G4's speaker, which shouldn't come as a shock. The single driver wedged into the bottom of the phone's back played back test tunes ranging from Sambomaster's screechy Japanese rock to boisterous picks from the Whiplash soundtrack at a respectable volume, though you'll only get so much clarity and channel separation from a setup like this. Still, the G4 manages to out-blast the Galaxy S6's speaker without too much muddiness at high volumes, so it'll do just fine in private (or when you don't have a pair of headphones handy).
As it turns out, one of the G4's neatest little audio tricks is one LG doesn't talk much about in public. If you've got some music playing through a connected pair of Bluetooth headphones and plug a pair of wired ones into the headphone jack, the audio will be routed to both with hardly any latency. Yeah, it basically makes the old, romantic "two people sharing a single pair of earbuds" trope irrelevant, but don't expect it to disappear from the movies anytime soon. The only bummer: You can't route two different audio tracks to each set of headphones.
If anything should be clear by now, it's that LG isn't one for seismic shifts; it's more about steady, measured progress. As such, you'd have a tough time telling the difference between LG's UX 4.0 and the interfaces we've seen running on the G Flex2 and even the G3 before it. Thankfully, LG's Android skin has been getting lighter and less kludgy with every new version, even if the overall look hasn't changed much. The quickest way to tell the difference is to swipe right from the home screen; there's a new Smart Bulletin page that aggregates data from your calendar and apps like QRemote and LG Health (which still tracks your steps and weight information with aplomb). All that is coupled with tips for using the phone. While the experience isn't as great for killing time as BlinkFeed or Samsung's Flipboard integration, it does a fine job of spelling out your day for you.
Other than that, the software changes here are minimal. There's a new calendar app here that's swathed in bright Material Design heraldry, and a feature called Event Pocket lets you drag images, locations and even pre-existing Facebook events coming up straight into the mix. I'm a die-hard Sunrise user so I didn't spend much more time with LG's calendar than I had to, but Event Pocket's a surprisingly smart way to flesh out your work and social schedules without the up-front tedium of typing up a new event yourself. The rest of the company's spin on Android 5.1 Lollipop is familiar fare, like the Knock Codes that offer quick screen unlocks. Glance View (which lets you "pull" down from the top of the screen to check the time) is here too, except it powers up the entire screen to do so. That wasn't the case with the G Flex2, and with that change, half of the feature's appeal has basically disappeared. Chances are regular users won't care -- if they notice the feature at all -- but it's one of the few downsides of using a non-OLED screen.
While some rivals (I'm looking at you, Samsung) have been putting distance between themselves and Google, LG has tried to cozy up even closer to the folks who make Android. Remember the days when trying to open a link from somewhere involved a choice between LG's browser and Chrome? Well, those days are over: Chrome is all you get now. When you fire up Google Drive for the first time, the G4 gleefully proclaims you get 100GB of free storage for two years. Basic Lollipop features like multi-user mode have been made more prominent, rather than languishing in far-flung menus. The list goes on, but the message is clear: LG is glad to be Google's friend, and it wants you to know it.
Of all the things the G4 has going for it, the 16-megapixel camera lodged in its back is easily one of the best. We're getting to the point where smartphone makers are basically itching to squeeze full-blown DSLRs into our jeans pockets, and LG's been more candid about those ambitions than most. Why else would it rope in a professional photographer to take the G4 on a super-early tour through some of America's most photogenic locales? Thankfully, all of that early crowing isn't for nothing. The photos I (and my colleague James) shot over the course of the week were often brighter and crisper than the comparison shots snapped with an iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6, and the wide aperture of the f/1.8 lens meant our close-up shots had some pleasing bokeh to go with all those details.
That larger 16-megapixel sensor (think 1/2.6 inch, versus the S6's 1/3 inch) isn't the only thing contributing to the experience. There's a color spectrum sensor here too, right under the LED flash bulb, and it scans what the camera's pointed at before each shot. The idea is that by scanning a scene from both the visible and infrared portions of the spectrum, the camera can figure out that, say, a white piece of paper under a yellow light isn't a yellow piece of paper. From there, it tries to figure out how best to tweak the white balance and exposure for a natural-looking shot. The kicker: This all just happens, without any extra input from you. I almost always kept the G4's camera in "Simple" (no controls, just immediate shooting) or "Basic" (minimal onscreen controls) and most of the photos I rattled off looked great. Since LG's keen on turning the G4 into something a professional photog could use on the regular, there's a full manual mode here and the ability to shoot and export RAW photos. I mostly stayed out of the weeds, but there's plenty of fun to be had fiddling around with ISO values and shutter speeds in search of the ultimate late-night light-painting photo.
If you want to see the G4 in its element, though, whip it out when the sun goes down. Thanks to that f/1.8 lens, the phone's an absolute pro at sucking up photons even in the dimmest situations. There's often a tendency for smartphones to smear the hell out of low-light photos in an effort to smooth out the visual noise, but the G4 thankfully doesn't go overboard. Brighter, more nuanced photos like these are de rigueur for the G4, but they're not free of flaws. Remember that color sensor? The one that's supposed to improve the accuracy of your photos by figuring out what your subject is supposed to look like? The thing is, it sometimes works a little too hard and produces photos that are more yellow than they need to be. More often than not, this becomes an issue in low-light conditions, so you'll have to be a little more careful when you hit that dive.
Oh, and since I'm sure the vain among you are dying to know, the 8-megapixel front-facing camera takes a mean selfie. The f/2.0 lens might not be quite as impressive as the one around the back of the phone, but it's more than enough to capture your mug with solid fidelity. It draws light in from a wide angle, too, just in case you want to turn your selfie into a groufie, and clenching your fist twice will kick off a series of four photos, just to ensure at least one of them is usable. Throw in support for recording some crisp, clean, bright 4K video and you've got one of the most capable mobile shooters you can find out there. But here's the big question: Is it better than the competition? In many ways, yes -- not once did my daily driver iPhone 6 produce a photo I preferred over the G4's attempt. I'd be more willing to give the G4 camera the nod over the Galaxy S6 if it wasn't a little overzealous with the color correction at times, but other than that it's a dead heat.
Performance and battery life
If you were a company looking to piece together a truly killer phone for 2015, it stands to reason you'd use the most powerful parts you could get your hands on, right? Well, that's not exactly the conclusion that LG came to. The decision to use a Snapdragon 808 the company says is "optimized" for the G4 instead of a high-end 810 was purely about practicality. LG figured the 808 delivered performance that was similar to its cousin, but without the power/heat headaches (and for less money, to boot). That might sound like a classic case of putting profit ahead of performance, but you won't lose out on much as a result.
The G4 did as well as you'd imagine tackling all those little day-to-day tasks that are easy to take for granted. There was virtually no delay when firing up apps and switching through them (even when I jumped around at a frenzied pace trying to throw the phone for a loop). When it comes to normal, everyday use, there's functionally no difference between the G4 and its more powerful rivals. This last week of testing also saw plenty of poking around in the worlds of Dead Trigger 2 and Asphalt 8, which both ran at a slightly choppier frame rate than they did on the Galaxy S6 and its edgier cousin. Make no mistake: This doesn't mean the G4 is a slug; not one bit. It just sits one rung lower than its rivals on the graphical performance ladder, which you can get a better sense for below.
Samsung Galaxy S6
HTC One M9
LG G Flex2
3DMark IS Unlimited
SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms)
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider 1.0.2: Android devices tested in Chrome; lower scores are better.
As you might expect, Samsung's homebrew, high-octane chipset sits pretty comfortably near the top of the graphical charts, but the G4 easily trades blows with Snapdragon 810-powered phones when it comes to overall system performance. That more modest chipset also means the G4 is notably less prone to getting warm when pushed. The claims of Snapdragon 810s running hot enough to cook eggs were thoroughly debunked by both the warm-but-not-scalding G Flex2 and HTC One M9, but the G4 still runs noticeably cooler than both devices when you start pushing things to their limits. Of course, the other upside to having a less beefy (albeit better-tuned) processor setup is that you should see better battery performance as a result.
The party line about the Snapdragon 808's power consumption suggests that it doesn't need nearly as much juice as the 810 because it's running with two fewer extra processor cores. Even that IPS Quantum screen is pegged as being a straight-up power sipper compared to the screens LG used to use. So what's the deal here? During this last week of testing, the G4 stood up to my usual workload -- chatting up storms on Slack or Hangouts, listening to lengthy tomes in Audible, playing games in the bathroom and so on -- for entire workdays before it gave up the ghost. There were even a few times where, after having fallen asleep through episodes of Daredevil, I'd wake up the next day to see my phone had only just fired up its battery saver mode. On average, that worked out to between 13 and 14 hours of pretty consistent use a day before needing a trip to a power outlet -- the Galaxy S6 twins, on the other hand, usually stuck around for closer to 12. When I put the G4 through the standard Engadget video-rundown test (looping a 720p video with screen brightness set to 50 percent), it lasted for 11 hours and two minutes, clearly beating the S6's nearly nine-hour runtime.
Let's just reiterate something quickly: I'm reviewing the Korean version, as American units aren't ready yet. When they are, though, you can expect to shell out the typical $200-$250 with a multi-year carrier agreement, or about $650 off-contract. Naturally, there's plenty of other hardware you could pick up for the same price. I've made the comparison no less than a thousand times so far, but the G4's biggest Android-powered rival continues to be Samsung's pair of Galaxy S6s. It's not hard to see why. Their attractive, sturdy metal-and-glass designs are paired with high-powered Samsung-made chipsets, not to mention they both pack great cameras of their own. Collectively, they're the first Samsung phones that have ever given the iPhone some decent competition, and that fact hasn't been lost on consumers. The thing is, Samsung's approach to software is a little more overwrought, where LG (fortunately) opted for a cleaner, pared-back approach.
If you're itching for a taste of the Snapdragon 810 life, there's always HTC's One M9. It too will only set you back $200 with a contract, and the company's attention to design detail means you'll wind up with a well-built, attractive (if familiar-looking) phone. Audio quality through that pair of front-facing BoomSound speakers is no joke either, as they provide one of the best aural experiences you'll ever find in a phone. Throw in some generous "Uh-Oh" protection that will cover the M9 in case something goes horribly wrong and you've got a strong contender for your dollars. Just remember: It can run a little warm at times, and the camera doesn't really impress. Maybe that'll be enough to tip you in favor of the G4. Oh, and speaking of LG, there's always the G Flex2 ($300 from AT&T, $200 from Sprint). It's got an 810 thrumming away in that bent frame too, but really, you're mostly paying extra for the design.
It might not be as technically powerful as some of LG's other recent releases, but the G4 as a package is the most compelling the company has put out yet. From the pared-down user interface to the tight integration with Google to the strong camera performance, the G4 is a great phone... not to mention a very logical step forward from last year's G3. That said, I'm concerned that LG hasn't quite figured out how to get regular people excited about its hardware. The G4 is a highly respectable technical achievement, but even after using it for a week, I still don't think it's any more thrilling than it was when we first met. If you're upgrading from an old clunker of an Android phone, the G4 will do everything you need and so much more. If, on the other hand, you're coming from a G3, the mostly modest changes here might not make you feel like you've really gotten something new.
James Trew contributed to this review.