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.
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.
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.
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.