Giant smartphones are becoming increasingly popular the world over, and for the last two years, it's a market Samsung has absolutely and utterly dominated. The Note and Note II are both excellent devices, and Samsung had the rare luck of getting something right the first time with the Note line. If you want a big phone, and money is no object, the Note II stands alone. It seems LG, though, has something to say about that.
After the rather abysmal failure that was the hilariously-shaped Optimus Vu, it had been rumored LG was getting out of the big phone game. Apparently, though, it's had a change of heart - the Optimus G Pro being the result. While it's only available in Korea at the moment (my review phone is an SK Telecom model), LG has been trotting out the G Pro heavily in the United States in the last month, and showed it off to the European audience at MWC in February as well. It seems that they've been testing the waters for demand, and it sounds like those waters are pretty demanding: LG just announced a US launch event for its new 5.5" flagship.
After spending some time with the G Pro over the last couple of weeks, I'm inclined to say that's probably a smart business move. The G Pro is a fantastic phone, and while the lack of a dedicated stylus / digitizer combination may seat in a slightly different market than the Note II, it's clear that LG is gunning for Samsung here. What's really impressive is not that LG has managed in many ways to just build a great [big] phone here, but that it has developed a software suite that I believe will steal some of Samsung's thunder.
Optimus G Pro (5.5" version)
- Price: Unannounced outside of Korea
- Processor: 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 (APQ8064T)
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network compatibility: Varies by region (LTE on some models)
- Operating system: Android 4.1.2
- Display: 5.5" Full HD IPS 1920x1080 (401 DPI)
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 32GB storage (23GB usable)
- Cameras: 13MP rear, 2.1MP front
- Battery: 3140mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 9.4mm
- Weight: 172g
- Display: The Optimus G Pro has an impressive display panel given its size. It bests the Note II both for resolution and brightness, basically its two notable shortfalls. This makes the G Pro easier to use in sunlight, and puts its DPI well-above the maximum amount discernible by the human eye, whereas the Note II is slightly below that level.
- Battery life: With a 3140mAh battery, the G Pro easily lasts a whole day, and then some. On 3G, I often ended the day with over 30% remaining. While I don't know if I'd say its battery life surpasses the Note II, it is at the very least comparable.
- Build quality: For a phone with a removable rear cover, the G Pro feels much sturdier than you might expect. Said rear cover is made of a noticeably thicker plastic, as opposed to the flimsy milk-cap feel Samsung's evokes. The whole phone also just feels very rigid - you would struggle to notice the rear cover is removable at all, because it snaps in so securely.
- Speed: This phone is very, very fast. And given that it's running with a Snapdragon 600, Qualcomm's fastest chip on the market, that makes sense. While it doesn't feel quite as consistently smooth as the HTC One, it definitely feels snappier switching tasks and opening apps than my Note II.
- Software: LG's latest UI overlay adds yet more features (and no, they're not all Samsung clones), including an increased focused on QSlide apps, which are essentially pop-up apps. Some are genuinely useful - the SMS app automatically pops up when you receive a text message, for example, which I love. Neat!
The Not So Good
- Clutter: While I applaud LG's continued efforts to outpace Samsung on features, its notification bar is a mess. With quick power control toggles, Q Slide app shortcuts, a brightness slider, and the date / settings shortcut bar, all of that screen real estate for notifications feels like it goes to waste. Please let me turn some of this stuff off. Settings menus can also be a labyrinthine challenge to navigate because of the massive number of options.
- Aesthetics: I give Samsung its fair share of crap for software styling, but compared to LG's Optimus UI, TouchWiz is kind of tame. From the unlock animation to the homescreen swipes down to the little settings toggles that look like they came off a surge protector from Staples, it's like a carnival fun house in here.
- Rear speaker: The rear speaker is very easily muted when the phone is in your pocket (it isn't loud to start with).
- Camera: LG's camera software is great - they even have a manual focus mode. The camera itself just isn't going to compete with the likes of the One or the Galaxy S4, though. It's too inconsistent, and the f2.4 lens produces noise when lighting is even slightly suboptimal as the camera cranks up the ISO to compensate. Noise smoothing is also very evident at full crop.
Design and build quality
The front of the Optimus G Pro looks very noticeably like a Note II - you can't un-see that similarity. While it's not a piece-for-piece copy by any means, it's very clear where LG's 'inspiration' came from in terms of the basic philosophy - a 5.5" display flanked by as narrow a vertical bezel as possible, with an elongated hardware home button. The 'coincidences' pretty much stop there (at least in terms of hardware), but I can already imagine how often this device will be mistaken for a Note II by onlookers.
Personally, I would have preferred LG did a bit more of its own thing in terms of the front fascia, though I can't say what they've done is particularly unattractive. Maybe it looks better in black, but this white version is just not my thing, personally. The back is where things go from 'meh' to 'ew' for me - the little reflective square pattern looks like a white tiled bathroom in a gym or something. It's just not attractive. It's similar to the Nexus 4's back, but a lot more noticeable, and in almost any lighting. The rear camera has a One X-esque aluminum lens hood, though it doesn't stick out very far. I would without a shadow of a doubt take this phone in black - this white version borders on tacky.
The hardware buttons have a much more premium feel than those on my Note II, the power button in particular. The home button isn't big enough. When I played with it at MWC, I thought it was, but it isn't. I have to press it twice often enough that it's a noticeable nuisance. Maybe I have fat thumbs, who knows.
On the upper left-hand side of the Optimus G Pro is another button. It looks just like the power button, it feels just like the power button, and no, it's not a camera button - it's a 'QButton.' Holding it for a moment launches the on-screen note-taking app by default (yep, basically just like S-Memo, minus the S-Pen), doing so again closes it. It'd be really annoying, except for the fact that LG made it programmable - you can map any app to the QButton (or none). More on that later.
This SK Telecom version of the G Pro also sports a retractable TV antenna, as many Korean and Japanese phones do. Like literally everyone else who has seen this, I really want it to be a thing in America, even though over the air television is dying as a medium on this side of Pacific. It's still cool, and sometimes I whip it out in public just to confuse people. That came out wrong.
The G Pro's home button also has something of a party trick - it lights up. Well, the edges of it light up. It would be really cool if the whole button lit up, but I'll take the edges if I have to.
Novel notification light implementations have always intrigued me, and this one is not only cool, but functional. It's easy to see, and it's a multi-colored LED, so you can see just what sort of notification you've received. I love this, because it lets me know just how important it is that I check my notifications. Missed calls and SMS's are green and blink twice in rapid succession. Emails are blue. Incoming calls fluctuate between green and blue. I've always missed the glowing trackball on my Nexus One because it was so easy to see, and this is definitely closer to that in terms of visibility than anything else I've seen.
Having used the HTC One the last week or two as well, the LG Optimus G Pro's display presents something of a conundrum. First and foremost, I will say this: it's fantastic. And while it's not as good as the One technically speaking, it is absolutely jaw-dropping to just kind of stare at for sheer size and resolution.
Pick it apart a little more, however, and it's not a world-beater. The colors are very good, though not outstanding. Yellows and reds look a bit dull (yellows being orange-ish), and blues are a little too hot. Greens are slightly on the dark side. The war against the One's S-LCD3 is only really lost when you start comparing viewing angles, though. The G Pro's are decidedly inferior, which particularly affects its visibility in sunlight. While not nearly as bad as the far-too-dim Note II, the G Pro needs a fairly straight-on angle to avoid noticeable loss of visibility in bright conditions.
All that said, compared to the Note II, this is no contest - the G Pro's display gets way, way brighter, and still has vastly superior sunlight visibility. Yes, the Note II is that difficult to see in the sun. Not to mention the G Pro is giving you a full 1080p experience, which at 5.5" is arguably bordering on having a noticeable, real-world benefit. But mostly, it's the brightness where the G Pro runs away with it here, and with a Note III not likely till near the end of the year in the US, Samsung's mega-phone may find itself with some stiff competition for a while.
Sticking a 3140mAh battery in a phone has implications. Implications like really amazing battery life. The Optimus G Pro will easily last you through the whole day, and often served me well into the morning of a second one. This is particularly impressive because of the circumstances under which I was using the phone, namely with half-working AT&T service (more on that in the next section), such that it would constantly be connecting and disconnecting from the mobile data network / searching for signal. 3 hours of screen on time was easy to accomplish in a single day with plenty of juice to spare.
If and when this phone comes to the US, I expect battery life to be even better than it already is, because it will have been optimized for use on American carriers. Right now, though, it's already outstanding. It really is great to be able to say goodbye to smartphone range anxiety for a full 24 hours, if not more.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The G Pro I'm testing is - I believe - a 32GB model. I say 'believe' because there's only 23GB of usable storage, but given the absolutely insane amount of built-in software, some of it being carrier bloat, it's quite possible a full 9GB of storage are preoccupied on the G Pro. There's also a microSD card slot, though, so storage fiends really have no reason to worry.
Wireless performance is something I can't definitively comment on. While the G Pro allows me to 'roam' on AT&T's 3G network in the US after manually entering the correct APN, the phone clearly has not been optimized or configured to function properly on that network. The performance I experienced will in no way be representative of a device that has actually been set up for US operators, so there's really no need to evaluate it. It functions in the strict sense, but that function is limited. It was enough to be able to use it for a week, though I did have to carry a backup device with me, just in case.
Call quality is another item I'm a little hesitant to talk about, because of the lack of proper configuration for American networks. It wasn't very good at times - people had difficulty hearing me. Again, take this with a grain of salt. One thing I will say about calls is that the G Pro's proximity sensor consistently freaked out on me, causing the display to light up while I was on the phone, resulting in some it-was-funny-the-first-three-times face-dialing.
Audio and speaker
Audio from the headphone jack sounds just like every other Snapdragon-powered phone I've tested recently: very, very good. Clear, balanced, and noise-free. There's not much else to say about that.
The rear speaker could use some work, though - it simply isn't loud enough. I missed a fair number of calls and SMS's on the G Pro because I couldn't hear it ringing / notifying me. It's not the end of the world or anything, but I've come to expect a bit more of a high-end phone in this respect.
LG's camera software has come a long way since even the Optimus G, and the G Pro is - I think - the first LG device I've used with a camera that's finally somewhat competitive with its main rivals, Samsung and HTC. Unfortunately, results are still too inconsistent from the G Pro's 13MP rear sensor to really call this camera great. The amount of configuration options available are quite impressive, though. The G Pro even has manual focus mode, something its competitors lack - you actually get a slider bar to set the focal length. Very cool. Oddly, the camera lacks a 'night shot' mode, though, which really can be necessary in dark conditions where you want to slow the shutter speed way down.
Outdoor macro performance was very, very good thanks to an ample 13MP of resolution
The G Pro's camera really shines on macro detail, but struggles more with complex or low lighting and large landscapes. Heavy noise reduction becomes apparent well before full crop. To be fair, it doesn't seem particularly worse than any other smoothing technique I've seen used (it's certainly nowhere near as bad as Sony's), but I think this is just a limitation with the size of smartphone camera sensors at this point, and the G Pro's decidedly average f/2.4 lens (Galaxy S4 has f/2.2, HTC One has f/2.0). Colors also felt a bit washed out at times, but generally were strong.
Even at ISO 200 and max aperture (f2.4) in this relatively well-lit shot, noise is readily apparent
HDR mode didn't really seem to do much on the G Pro, and most of the photos I took with it just came out overexposed. Overall, the Optimus G Pro has a very good camera, but issues with color and exposure adjustment (especially in Intelligent Auto mode) make capturing a consistently good picture difficult at times. Capturing a picture at night is also fairly difficult at the moment, especially without a dedicated night mode.
Performance and stability
The Optimus G Pro absolutely flies through most tasks. While the HTC One does feel a bit smoother with certain operations (dropping down the notification bar, opening the app drawer), the G Pro is noticeably faster swiping through homescreens. Really, it's two different kinds of speed, as both phones are very fast in their respective ways. Apps launch quickly, and menus scroll smoothly.
Stability has been surprisingly good for a phone that's probably not yet been fully supported by app developers. I've had very few app crashes, and the phone itself has been as stable as anything I've used recently.
General UI and navigation (homescreen, lockscreen, app drawer, etc.)
LG isn't exactly adventurous when it comes to modifications of Android's functionality, though that's not to say the software experience is close to stock. It's not. It's closer to Samsung's NatureUX than it is to unskinned Jelly Bean, and while LG may swear up and down that it's doing its own thing, the similarities are impossible not to notice.
For example, LG hides everything in overflow menus accessed by pressing the menu button. There is an overflow menu in the settings menu! Albeit only for one option (to switch the view of the settings menu). Even as a now long time Note II user, I still haven't gotten used to overflow menus being used to hide piles of configuration options. Google's 3-dot button makes so much more sense it hurts. And you know who else is famous for gratuitous use of overflow menus? I'll give you a hint: it's start with a 'sam' and ends with a 'sung.'
In LG's defense, they have opted for a widget / app shortcut addition system much more similar to HTC's. Long press on an empty space on a homescreen, and an interface allowing you to add apps, widgets, or change wallpapers appears. Samsung's Nature UX brings up a menu with options that sends you back to the app drawer, should you want add a widget or app shortcut. Oddly, you cannot choose a default homescreen or add / remove homescreens in Optimus UI. LG's interface also lacks the ability to search for specific shortcuts or widgets, which is made more painful by the small amount of widgets displayed at once in the window (three).
When you go to the app drawer, however, things get all Samsung-y again. There are tabs on the top of the drawer, three of them - one for apps, one for downloaded apps, and one for widgets. I have to say, it does seem a bit redundant to include two totally separate interfaces for adding widgets to the homescreen. The beauty of HTC's system is that the app drawer is free to just be an app drawer since widgets are added by the dedicated homescreen modification UI. It's not like having two ways is bad, though. The app drawer also has a settings icon that doesn't take you to settings - it switches to drawer into uninstall mode, and tapping an app will bring up a dialogue with information about it, and if it's a downloaded app, an option to uninstall it. Maybe choose a different icon - I've hit that gear multiple times and expected to go to the settings menu.
Your homescreen can be set to an alternative theme in the settings menu (I find most of them garish), and you can set things like the screen swipe animation, wallpaper (which can also be set from the homescreen modification UI), infinite scrolling, locked orientation, and even backup or restore homescreen configurations. Again, LG is absolutely going all out on the suite of settings it's providing on the G Pro - there is a ton of stuff you can tweak.
The lockscreen contains an equally impressive array of toggles and modes and customizations - unlock animation, wallpaper, six different clock / calendar widgets, 5 customizable quick launch icons, a toggle to display a 'lost phone' message, and a few more.
The notification shade is a mess. I can't put it any other way. Just look at this thing.
WHERE DOES IT END?
While I do enjoy having my power controls in the notification bar, the QSlide apps (more on those later) and that unnecessarily large brightness slider take up near as makes no difference 50% of the notification shade, leaving a rather small amount of room for, you know, notifications. At least make the QSlide thing collapsible or something.
LG stuff (this is where the eye-tracking and floating apps are)
Smart screen (yes, this is Smart Stay)
LG now has Samsung's Smart Stay thing - you look at the screen, the display never times out. Obviously the effectiveness of this tool will vary with ambient lighting conditions, sunglasses, and other factors, but in my tests it worked fine. Even rapidly flailing my hand over the phone wouldn't keep it awake, and turning my head away 45 degrees also let the screen shut off, whereas staring straight always kept it on. Basically, it seems to work well. I just can't see myself using it, because I usually leave my screen on for long periods of time when I set my phone down to do something else, but don't want to exit the app I'm in / turn off the display. I don't know how common that is, but I've never seen a reason for this feature unless you constantly read novels in size 8 font on your phone and don't touch the screen for 5 minutes at a time.
LG has floating mini-apps, and they're called QSlide apps. They're a lot like Sony's small apps that have been found on Xperia devices for a while now, but a little smarter. So, the big one LG likes to flaunt is the video app. It's a floating video player. That's really it. It plays videos, it floats. You can move it around, and you can press a button to go full-screen with it. It seems to work with most video file formats. If this excites you, fantastic. I did find frame rates in the UI were prone to fluctuating when playing back video, though everything was still perfectly usable.
Moving on, the SMS app is by default configured as a floating app, and I sort of love it. When you get a text message, you don't just get a notification in your notification bar - you get a little popup at the top of the screen (that you can drag or close or whatever), which you can close, drag around, or use to reply directly to the SMS. It is absolutely convenient, in my opinion. The popups can be disabled in the Messaging app's settings menu, should you find yourself less enthusiastic about them than I.
There's a popup browser, it browses the internet, and like most of the other QSlide apps, you can adjust its transparency via a slider bar in the top-right corner. The QMemo app, which is basically S-Memo, allows you to take notes. QVoice, which is basically S-Voice, is only working in Korea right now so I really couldn't test it. There's a popup calendar and calculator, as well.
LG has so many settings tweaks on the G Pro that I'm hesitant to discuss all of them when I'll probably be reviewing them again for the seemingly-imminent American version of the phone. The G Pro has a "one-handed operation" mode, much like the Note II, it allows you to squish the keyboard up against one side of the screen for easier one-handed typing. LG goes a step further, though, and also adds this functionality to the dial pad in the phone app, as well as the positioning of the keypad for PIN entry on the lockscreen.
There's a power saver mode in the battery menu, and it allows you to do the things most utilities like this do - nothing exciting. Various gestures can be activated, like silencing incoming calls by putting your phone face down on a surface. You can also set this behavior to work with the clock app's alarm mode (flip the phone to snooze or silence), and with the video app (flipping the phone pauses video).
The QButton I explained earlier is lurking around in system settings for whatever reason, and as I stated, you can map this little button to any app of your choosing. LG has some recommendations that add extra functionality (QMemo closes with a second tap of the button, the camera app uses the QButton as a shutter trigger, etc.), but you can set it to launch any app installed on your device. This is genuinely pretty neat. The only gripe I have is that the QButton won't launch apps while the display is asleep. I'd really like that if I were to use it as a camera button, for example. Still, I've never seen anything like this before - kudos, LG.
The settings menu itself is also what I would call quite easily the best implementation currently on Android - swipeable tabs. What a novel idea. They're organized in a very intuitive way, too: networks (aka internet stuff), sound (duh), display (what you see), and general (everything else).
I admit, this isn't up to the Ron-level of nuanced teardown, but fear not: I'll get more in depth about the G Pro's software if (or really, when) a US version comes to fruition.
I don't know how to say it any other way: I really feel like LG has a winner on its hands with the G Pro. In many ways, it is decidedly superior to the Galaxy Note II, its only real rival, and LG is showing us with every passing iteration that it's getting serious about software features and build quality. There are some really great ideas packed in the G Pro, and while it could benefit from a little spring cleaning visually (both the software and the hardware), LG is rapidly catching up to that other big Korean smartphone maker.
The question of G Pro or Note II, though, is a bit more difficult to answer. Some people genuinely like the Note II's stylus, and if you're a devout Android fan, you're probably more trusting of Samsung in the software update department than LG. And if that's your concern, the Note II's probably a pretty safe place to put your trust for the moment.
That said, the G Pro is slightly faster, much tougher, and has a significantly better display than the Note II. It's a really great phone. And until the Note III (3?) arrives, I think LG may simply have a better mega-sized device than Samsung here. I really didn't see that coming, as I do quite love my Note II, but the G Pro makes a compelling case that the battle for dominance in this emerging class of smartphones is far from over.