Every once in a while, we have one of those moments in our lives when we try something for the first time, and we think to ourselves "I'm going to remember this moment - the moment when I discovered this thing." Be it food, some sort of gadget, a television show, or a musical artist, it's the kind of thing that sticks with you, at least for a while.
And when it comes to smartphones, there haven't been too many devices that really gave me that feeling. The iPhone - for just changing the shape of the industry. The Nexus One, as the first Android "superphone," and my personal introduction to the OS. The One X. The Galaxy S III. While not all of these phones were necessarily game-changers (and few are), they all gave me that feeling that I was in some way making a leap forward - discovering something new and exciting. And that's really what enjoying technology boils down to: being excited about the arrival of the future. Or, on a more basic level, something new.
There have been dozens of smartphones I've picked up and used for a few minutes and ended up thinking to myself "well, that's boring." I believe that's because doing a smartphone right, in a way that actually makes you feel like you've taken a step forward, is very hard. Companies spend a lot of time and money trying to get to "right," and that takes dedication. I firmly believe HTC, Samsung, and Apple are all there now.
LG, until now, has not made it to "right." The closest I've seen them get is the Optimus 4X HD, a phone with a lot of potential, but an equal amount of it squandered. But I think LG learned a lot from its previous phones (and from its competitors), and that with the Optimus G, we're finally seeing that come together in a significant way. And it's a phone I'm definitely going to remember.
LG Optimus G: Specifications
- Price: $199
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 quad-core at 1.5GHz
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network Compatibility: AT&T: GSM quad-band with LTE, Sprint: CDMA with LTE
- Operating System: Android 4.0.4 with Optimus UI 3.0
- Display: 4.7" TrueHD IPS+ 768x1280 (320DPI, 15:9)
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16/32GB storage (depends on model)
- Cameras: 1.3MP front, 8/13MP rear (depends on model)
- Battery: 2100mAh, non-removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / Expandable Storage: microUSB / microSD (AT&T model only)
- Thickness: 8.45mm
- Weight: 145g
- Note: these specifications are for the US Sprint and AT&T versions.
- This is the fastest smartphone I have ever used. The Optimus G is stupidly, unbelievably, crazily fast. I can't wait to see what it'll do with Jelly Bean.
- The display is great - very bright, good viewing angles, and outstanding colors. One of the very best on the market.
- The Optimus G is put together very, very solidly. It's extremely rigid, and just feels premium in a way I've never experienced with an Android phone before.
- The 13MP camera on the Sprint version can take some great shots, if you're patient with it.
- Optimus UI is nowhere near as terrible as you probably think it is. It's actually kind of good.
The Not So Good
- The battery life is lamentable. And I'm pretty sure it's just an issue of bad coding or drivers. It should not be this bad - heavy users will be lucky to make it through a work day before reaching for the charger.
- The cameras on both Optimus G's are fickle when it comes to lighting, shaking, and exposure. They just take too much work to operate - a smartphone camera should be smart.
- The software between the two phones varies in some ways for no apparent reason.
- Optimus UI still feels, in some ways, like a TouchWiz ripoff. A water droplet noise when you unlock the screen? Come on, LG.
Design and Build Quality
Extremely solid, slightly bland.
If you're not aware, the two versions of the Optimus G we're getting in the US (for now) actually look fairly different from one another.
On the right is the AT&T version, and on the left, you see the Sprint Optimus G. You may even be able to tell in these photos that the AT&T Optimus G is wider than its Sprint counterpart, and lacks the chrome highlights around the bezel. On the backside, AT&T's is adorned with the Ma Bell logo, while Sprint's lacks any kind of carrier branding at all. Even the reflective patterns underneath the glass-like rear panel are different.
In reality, the Sprint version is far closer to the "true" design - in fact, it's basically visually identical to the international version of the Optimus G. AT&T, for whatever reason, opted to change things up. It's entirely possible this "look" won't be exclusive to AT&T, either - the 8MP shooter on this version is probably destined for other markets.
Aesthetically, I can't say I'm in love with either of these phones. I like that the AT&T version's camera is completely flush with the rear (similar to the i-you-know-what), so it lies perfectly flat on a surface. Sprint's, because of the 13MP sensor's lens hump, wobbles. But really, there's nothing particularly inspired going on here in terms of design. They're not gaudy or weird, so I guess that's a plus. They're non-descript - sort of like business casual. Nothing special, but no one's going to gag when they set eyes on them.
Build quality on both phones seems incredible. The glass rear panel (yes, cracking is a concern) makes the phone much more structurally rigid than plastic would ever allow, and I have managed to elicit literally zero creaks or snaps from either device. This is without a doubt the most solid, well put together Android phone I've ever held (either of them).
The power button and volume rocker are in a Samsung configuration (power on the right, volume on the left), and the press action is decent. In the hand, I definitely prefer the Sprint version. The extra width of AT&T's Optimus G just makes it less comfortable to hold.
Lighting is also a point of design divergence. While both devices use backlit front capacitive keys that disappear into the display bezel, they actually have completely different notification lighting schemes. The Sprint version uses a standard notification light embedded at the top of the screen bezel - it does multiple colors, as well. The AT&T version has a pulsing red light that outlines the power button. The problem is that the AT&T versions' light only lights up once or twice when a notification comes in, and then just stops. Uh, OK. That's kind of annoying and useless. Maybe it's a bug?
Easily the second best display I've ever seen on an Android phone.
When I reviewed the Optimus 4X HD earlier this year, I opined that it had a very good display that was almost ruined by the fact that it had awful viewing angles. With the Optimus G, that's no longer a problem. LG has integrated the touch sensor portion of its IPS panel with the actual display portion (they call it Zerogap Touch), resulting in the panel not only being closer to the surface, but in reduced diffused reflection. It makes a difference.
The Optimus G's display is pretty good outdoors, not a massive leap forward, but definitely better than a lot of phones out there. Viewing angles are perhaps still a little behind the competition, but by no means does that really matter - it takes a rather extreme angle before you start seeing visible distortion. The display also gets very bright, and consumes remarkably little power (it never seems to go above 25% in battery usage). Touch responsiveness is good. And of course, at 1280x768 with a DPI of 320, sharpness is fantastic.
The colors, though, are the point that drives it all home. The accuracy is definitely superior to anything SAMOLED-based out there, and whites are particularly vivid and true (as opposed to having a blue / yellow gamma shift). That said, this still isn't as good as the Super LCD 2 found on the One X. The blues on LG's TrueHD IPS are a bit too hot, as are the greens - and I get the feeling this is intentional. Some people like the rather oversaturated look of Samsung's SAMOLED panels, and something tells me LG has cranked up the color on the Optimus G to be a little more reminiscent of that. Some people may like it, some may not. One other issue with the display is the auto-brightness mode: it sucks. It's always too dark, and it takes forever to adapt when the ambient light changes. I've just got mine set to 85% as the baseline to avoid dealing with it.
Still, this is a fantastic screen. It's gorgeous to look at, gets plenty bright, and isn't hard on your battery. And yes, it has Gorilla Glass, and no, I don't know if it's Gorilla Glass 2.
Don't leave your charger at home.
I had high hopes for the Optimus G's battery life. LG has been all up in our faces about the advanced LG Chem battery inside this thing, because it's some percent smaller than a normal 2100mAh battery, and is rated for 800* recharge cycles instead of the standard 500 (*that number is if you charge to 80% each time). Don't get me wrong, that's all impressive - battery tech needs to move forward. Like, really needs to. And it's cool to know LG is actually doing the science to make that happen.
But the battery life on the Optimus G, for lack of a better word, sucks. Making it through a day of heavy use simply won't be possible. Even with the brightness turned all the way down, even on Wi-Fi. It's just not going to happen. Whatever that quad-core processor does when you're actually using the phone, it decimates the battery. The standby battery life actually isn't that bad (see caveat below), but when you've got the screen on and you're doing smartphone things (and I don't mean playing games), that battery meter drops unbelievably fast.
Let's go to the chart, shall we?
What you're seeing is one day of moderate / light use on 3G only that started at 1PM on a full charge, sat idle overnight, and was used heavily for an hour or so the next morning. The total screen-on time was about 2.5 hours. Just look at that battery fall off a precipice during an hour of continuous, screen-on use at the end of the graph. It's just sad. During my time with the Optimus G, I've never felt even close to happy with the battery life.
I installed Better Battery Stats to monitor the phone, and found that oftentimes it simply wouldn't go to sleep. Last night, it was awake for over 7 hours. So, the phone went from a 100% charge at 9PM, to a 74% charge by 9AM the next day. Lovely. Some nights it has gone to sleep, others it hasn't. There's no rhyme or reason - and there's no rogue 3rd-party app draining the battery.
And this is all after I set the quad-core processor to "Eco Mode," which optimizes the "CPU control policy." It claims to reduce the amount of power used, and the phone feels no slower for it, but the gains I received as a result were modest at best - perhaps an extra hour or so.
My gut tells me this is mostly a software issue. I hope. Because the battery life here, even with a quad-core processor and LTE, is just not acceptable. This is by far the Optimus G's biggest failing, and the one reason I would be truly hesitant to recommend it. The fact that the sleep behavior is so erratic makes it clear to me that LG has some software issues it needs to resolve.
Storage / Wireless / Call Quality
Storage options come down to your carrier choice.
Storage capacity depends on which Optimus G you're talking about. The AT&T version has 16GB of internal memory, and a microSD expansion slot. The Sprint version has 32GB of space, but no microSD option.
The antenna on the AT&T Optimus G seems great. Reception has been very good, data speeds very quick (even when not on LTE), and call quality has been strong. On the Sprint version, the experience was basically the same, minus the whole "very quick" part (I'm in a Sprint 3G area).
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work as expected, so there's not much to say on that front.
Audio / Speaker
Sounds good to me.
As is the case with all of the newer Qualcomm S4 chipsets, there's an absolutely fantastic audio hub in the Optimus G, and the sound out of the headphone jack is blissfully good. Clean, crisp, and undistorted. It also gets quite loud.
The rear speaker is decently loud, but presents an occasional problem - especially on the AT&T version. Because the AT&T Optimus G lies flat when you put it on a surface, the speaker is almost completely muffled. The Sprint version experiences a similar effect, though it's not as pronounced because of its camera protrusion.
Technically impressive, practically frustrating.
I want to start this section with a blind comparison. I'm going to give you two similar images, side by side, and I challenge you to guess which photo each phone took. The Sprint Optimus G has the full-on 13MP sensor found in the international version of the phone, while the AT&T G has a smaller 8MP shooter.
Finished (or cheating)? OK, here's the order: 1.) 13MP, 8MP 2.) 8MP, 13MP 3.) 8MP, 13MP 4.) 13MP, 8MP 5.) 8MP, 13MP.
It's not a clear-cut victory for either, if I'm honest. The 13MP sensor does seem to handle colors better than the 8MP one, but really only in indoors / low-light situations. Outdoors, the 8MP sensor tends to do pretty well, actually (aside from the lens flare in the first photo). And the 13MP does suffer from softness / glowing in some situations, as you can see in the final photo.
From a technical perspective, I'd say the win goes to the 13MP version - when you take your time, get the lighting right, and keep it steady, it takes some great photos. But it's also harder to use - focusing and capturing take longer, and that's a huge issue on a smartphone camera. Therefore, I'd say the 8MP AT&T version wins for overall versatility and practicality. It makes a better smartphone camera, despite occasionally yielding images of inferior quality.
Compared to the camera of the One X, both the Optimus G 13MP and 8MP sensors come out on top in terms of raw quality. I'd say the 13MP sensor beats out the Galaxy S III's camera for fine detail and color, as well. But neither of the Optimus cameras are as usable as their Samsung and HTC competitors. Slow focusing, fickle auto-adjusting of exposure, and a tendency to blur images (especially on the 13MP sensor) just don't make them as practical.
As for the camera app, LG's has what you would expect - customizable quick actions, scene modes, voice activated shutter, and most of the other the standard goodies like panorama mode.
Oh my god it's fast.
Optimus UI has undergone yet another revision since the introduction of version 3.0. This is basically the same Optimus UI you'll find on the LG Intuition (Optimus Vu). The difference is that in the G, Optimus UI is being pushed by what is statistically the most powerful, advanced mobile chipset currently in an Android phone. And don't doubt for a second that it makes a truly significant difference.
The speed and grace with which the Optimus G moves through Android is, at times, scarcely believable. And I mean that. Even the Nexus 7 on Jelly Bean with its Tegra 3 simply can't match the ludicrous velocity at which the G is capable of tearing through various transitions, task switches, and scrolling of all kinds. It's downright impressive.
There are exceptions, though. Loading the app drawer, for example, when it has been pushed out of the Optimus G's ample 2GB of RAM takes a second or two - something you simply don't experience on stock Android, which typically forces the app drawer to stay in memory. Why not force it to here, as well? It just doesn't make sense.
Relatively minor grumbles like this aside, though, the Optimus G is fast. If this Snapdragon APQ8064 is the basis for the next Nexus phone, color me excited. And speed is important - I think sometimes it's underrated as an element of overall user experience. "Smooth" isn't enough - it needs to be responsive and quick, too.
If you're here for benchmarks, I'm sorry, but I'm going to disappoint you - I'm not posting any. I'm already at a space premium.
But what about the rest of the experience - does Optimus UI really bring anything exciting to the table?
UX / UI General
Optimus UI has finally grown up - but it still has some things to learn.
I'm going to start off with a rather simple, personal belief when it comes to Android's many custom skins: I wish they all had "off" buttons. I've talked about this sort of option to numerous handset makers, even though I know it's vain, and that they probably have zero desire to consult me for product advice, but it's where I stand. Stock Android is great. Everything that is not stock Android is worse than that. Even the best custom UI will be ajudged guilty of this offense. With that in mind, we come to Optimus UI, which of the four major Android skins, has generally been ranked toward the bottom (Motoblur and Optimus UI have swapped back and fourth, I'd say).
The thing about that, though, is that the rest of the custom UIs have gotten a lot better recently. New TouchWiz is pretty good to use (even if it is full of useless gimmicks), Sense 4 still holds the beauty crown, and not-BLUR is the closest to stock Android any of the big four handset makers get.
So, does Optimus UI upset the proverbial apple cart? In some ways, I'd argue yes. LG has done things with its UI that (pardon the pun) simply make sense. Of course, many of the elements of Optimus UI are blatantly lifted from rivals, or existing Android apps (custom launchers), but somehow they managed to avoid ending up a sad software hodgepodge - for the most part.
For example, let's start with LG's power controls in the notification bar. I don't like Samsung's implementation particularly, because it needs to "scroll back" across every time you pull down the notification bar, meaning you have to wait for the one toggle you're probably constantly using: Wi-Fi. You can't edit the order, and you can't remove or add other toggles. With Optimus UI, you can do both.
If I'm going to have those quick power controls, I want to have control over them. Optimus UI makes doing that quick and easy. This is by far the best implementation of notification toggles I've seen.
On the flipside, you have something like LG's Gallery app. Instead of following along with the standard Android gallery, LG has kept an outdated and annoying implementation. In the stock Android gallery, long-pressing an image selects it, and sets the gallery into multi-select mode. From there, you can select as many images as you want, and share, trash, or do whatever it is you need to with them.
With LG's gallery (like HTC's Sense gallery), long-pressing brings up an action dialogue. Sigh. This is just worse - Google has it right (so does Samsung), you have it wrong, and LG should know that. Optimus UI doesn't even have your most-used share app as a separate button or the first option in the share list. The whole app just feels old.
Then there's the app drawer - which doesn't let you set a default sorting behavior for your apps. Why? Every time I install a new app, I have to go into the drawer, hit the menu button, hit "sort by," and then tap "Alphabetical." Every. Single. Time. Sure, I'm probably a bit OCD about my apps being in A-Z order, but seriously? Why isn't this configurable as a default behavior rather than a one-time action? It doesn't make any sense!
But these are extremes. In reality, Optimus UI does most things pretty well, and some parts have really impressed me. Like the Calendar app, which is actually pretty great. Let me just show you a couple pictures which I think illustrate that.
The dual-pane feature really is useful. It's easier than switching between view modes after selecting a date, in particular. Unfortunately, the slider which adjusts how much space the bottom pane gets requires a long press to activate, and only has three positions - as you can see in the screenshots above. The limitations on positioning and need for a long-press make no sense to me - it just makes it way harder to use. Ugh.
LG also allows you a lot of room for tweaking of the home and lock screens, so custom launcher users won't be too put off. The homscreens even rotate into landscape mode out of the box, which is kind of neat, and that can specifically be disabled in the home screen settings menu. Why it's on by default, I'm honestly not sure.
The lockscreen is fairly customizable, as well, allowing you to change your quick app shortcuts (they're your quick launch icons on the homescreen by default), alter the clock style, and set a lock screen activation timer. The latter, for me, is great. Oftentimes after turning off my phone's screen, I'll reach for it just a few seconds later when I remember I need to check something (or just have phone OCD), and going through the lockscreen motion again is a bit annoying. Sure, many custom launchers and ROMs can accomplish this, but it's nice to have out of the box.
The included LG keyboard is awful. Don't use it. Prediction sucks, the punctuation layout is stupid, and you'll constantly hit the voice input button accidentally instead of enter or the period, because it's sandwiched conveniently between them. Luckily, LG includes the stock Android 4.0 keyboard, which is much better.
Optimus UI has also lifted some TouchWiz and iOS gimmicks into its arsenal of features, like "Wise screen," which mimics Samsung's Smart Stay functionality to keep your display on by tracking your eyes with the front-facing camera. The LG video app allows some sort of multitasking transparency thing, but honestly, I don't watch local video on a smartphone on any kind of regular basis, so I didn't even bother to look at it.
"Quiet time" emulates a feature found in iOS, and sets all sounds except alarms and notifications to mute during specific hours and days that you set. It also allows you to choose whether you'd just like calls and other notifications to vibrate during that time, instead. It's quite useful, actually, so I'm not exactly against this one. "Wise ringtone" uses your phone's microphones to determine if you're in a loud environment when a call is coming in, and turns up the volume of your ringtone accordingly to make sure you hear it. That's kind of neat.
But then there's stuff like the stock droplet noise when you unlock the phone. Really, LG? Is that actually necessary? At least pick a noise some other handset maker hasn't already used.
Oh, and how about all the inconsistencies between the Sprint and the AT&T versions' software? Let me just make a list for you of the non-carrier apps only the Sprint version has, and some other weird differences:
- "Clock" is renamed "Alarm/Clock" on the Sprint version
- Backup app (Sprint only)
- Finance (Sprint only)
- File Manager (Sprint only)
- Application Manager (Sprint only), even though both have a Task Manager app
- Qualcomm Enhanced Location Service (Sprint only)
- Video Editor (Sprint only)
- Weather app listed in app drawer (Sprint only)
- Voice Recorder (Sprint only)
The Sprint version also doesn't have the cool swipeable tabbed settings menu you're seeing in the screenshots above from the AT&T version - it just has a list like any other device. The AT&T version can be toggled between the tabbed mode and list mode. This also gives the AT&T version quick toggles for mobile data, airplane mode, quiet time, brightness, and other useful features without having to delve into a series of submenus.
Why the difference? I seriously do not understand.
Other than the things I've mentioned above, the software is otherwise basically the same. One other notable difference is that the AT&T version is loaded with a fair amount of AT&T crapware, most of which can be disabled, thankfully.
Anyway, there are various other LG-eriffic additions to the Optimus G, but most of them really aren't that exciting. The QuickMemo functionality (sort of like S Note), for example, doesn't really make sense on a phone without a stylus.
On the whole, Optimus UI isn't bad. It allows a lot of tweakability, and I definitely appreciate that. As someone who goes back and fourth between the ROM and stock software side of the fence (though increasingly the latter), it's apparent to me that handset makers are carefully watching the kind of features that become popular with more sophisticated users, and cherry picking those for integration with their custom skins. I think LG has done a very good job on that front - the newest revision of Optimus UI really does give you a lot of control.
But this makes me wonder: does LG really expect normal people to be able to figure most of this stuff out? As someone who reviews phones, and as a bit of a tech geek in general, I tend to go diving into menus and strange apps looking for things. And while I don't go as far down that road as many enthusiasts, I have a hard time believing the average person is going to understand that keeping their apps in alphabetical order requires them to initiate the same sorting action every time they install a new one. Or what setting a "baseline brightness level" even means. Or setting up Wi-Fi direct sharing (which I tested - it's clunky at best, and kind of frustrating).
I still have to hand it to LG, though - I never thought their custom UI overlay would get to a point where a person could live with it on a day to day basis and be mostly happy, while also knowing that TouchWiz and Sense exist. And that's a bit of a Rubicon for an Android phone maker to cross. So, good job LG - just don't rest on your laurels, because there's definitely a lot to fix yet.
A big step forward - but real questions remain.
The Optimus G is a phone I have a hard time putting down. It's so fast, so smooth, and Optimus UI is much more usable and fully-featured than it was even just 6 months ago. LG has worked hard to get this far, and it shows. The G is also just put together so brilliantly, I feel like this is the only Android phone I've ever used that has taken the notion of premium build quality to heart. It feels like a $700 phone.
But there are concerns. Battery life is in dire need of help - this simply isn't what we should be content with on a modern smartphone. I'm hoping that can be rectified through a patch, but that really just brings me to my next point. LG hasn't really been good with software updates in the past, in fact, they've typically been seen as the worst of all manufacturers in this regard. Samsung and HTC will have their international flagships running Android 4.1 by the end of this month (non-US versions, I mean). I can't say I'm terribly optimistic about LG scrambling to update the Optimus G, though they have promised to.
And it doesn't end there: soon, Android 4.2 will be announced, putting Optimus G owners yet another version behind - and who knows how long they'll be waiting for that release. This really is the catch with buying an LG phone: you put yourself at LG's mercy (and in the US, carriers) for OTAs. Looking at history, I don't know that I'm ready to subject myself to that regime.
However, one of the biggest upsides here is how much more excited the Optimus G has made me about the prospect of an LG Nexus based on this phone. Such a device would solve many of the problems I've pointed out here.
Regardless, I don't want to steal LG's thunder - the Optimus G is a good phone, and I think it's the first smartphone we've seen from LG that puts up a serious challenge to the powers that be. Is it going to turn the Android smartphone world upside-down? I doubt it. But the Optimus G has firmly established LG as a legitimate competitor in the high-end market, and I can't help but be excited to see a new player enter that game.