I am generally of the view that when it comes to high-end smartphones, most such phones are now squarely in the "pretty good" category. While the internet moans and groans about SD cards, removable batteries, and heavy-handed UI modifications, these things are trivial to most people in the day-to-day operation of a device. But much in the same way some car enthusiasts refuse to relinquish the manual transmission, some smartphone enthusiasts will not let go of the microSD slot until it is pried from their cold, dead fingers. And that's fair enough, even if they are unquestionably a very small minority of the smartphone-buying public.
If you want mainstream success with a high-end phone, then an SD card slot and a removable battery are not be-all, end-all features. These are not real deal-breaker sort of problems that LG's new flagship, the G2, has to worry about. No, the G2's real problems aren't quite so tangible.
The first is brand recognition. LG does not enjoy a big chunk if its respective product's market in the USA, that being high-end smartphones. While it's probably 3rd or 4th to Samsung, Apple, and HTC in top-tier device sales, no average person is going to see you using a G2 and ask "is that the new LG?" By contrast, such encounters are, I find, much more common when using a Samsung phone. This is definitely a problem for LG. While the company has started throwing much more money at advertising its smartphones in the US, LG still lacks the mindshare for a "pretty good phone" to be enough to get the public, let alone smartphone enthusiasts, excited.
The second problem is that LG seems to have no idea how to reign in its catastrophically ugly and needlessly bloated software layer. It's not slow or anything, it's just so unnecessary. While I would be the first to criticize TouchWiz's endless list of often-useless features, at least with a Samsung phone there are some features that make compelling cases for existence, and most of them work. Many of them also generally stay out of your way, and Samsung is pretty hesitant to add buttons and toggles that clutter up the UI (to be fair, they hide it all in overflow menus). LG, on the other hand, is content stuffing your phone full of half-baked, half-functional tools and tricks that look to be the product of software engineers told only to "develop features," many of which are shameless Samsung photocopies.
To put it bluntly: the G2 isn't a terrible phone - it's actually quite good in some respects - it just doesn't seem necessary. I think if you're a phone enthusiast, at its best the G2 does little to excite, and at its worst is downright annoying to deal with.
LG G2: Specifications
- Price: $199 on contract (VZW, AT&T), $99 + $21 / month (T-Mobile)
- Processor: 2.26GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
- GPU: Adreno 330
- Network compatibility: Varies (all 4 US variants support LTE)
- Operating system: Android 4.2.2 with LG's UI overlay
- Display: 5.2" True HD-IPS+ LCD 1920x1080
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 32GB storage (US - 16GB model available internationally)
- Cameras: 13MP rear, 2.1MP front
- Battery: 3000mAh, non-removable
- Wireless: Wi-Fi A/B/G/N/AC (dual band support), NFC, infrared, Bluetooth 4.0
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / none
- Thickness: 8.9mm
- Weight: 143g
- The G2 is a really fast phone.
- The camera is very good, and is the first phone I've used that compares well to the Galaxy S4 in terms of fine detail.
- Big, bright, sharp display.
- Excellent battery life.
- 32GB of storage as standard on US models is certainly a good break from the norm.
The Not So Good
- LG's software layer looks and feels hopelessly outdated, and is bloated to the point of ridiculousness. 60% of my notification bar is completely unusable on the AT&T / international variants. Just, no. Stop it.
- Build quality seems subpar for LG, this feels like a Samsung phone.
- The rear-mounted buttons just don't do it for me at all. Your results may differ.
- The Knock-On gesture (tap twice to turn on the display) works maybe a third of the time you use it, so it's really not worth dealing with.
- It just isn't a very interesting phone. It's great on paper, but in practice, I just find it totally unlovable.
Design and build quality
LG has clearly decided it liked some aspects of the Nexus 4's design and incorporated them into the G2, though most of the inspiration is limited to the front of the device. The entire front fascia is much more round than the squared-off Optimus G, with very little chrome to get in the way of the display glass (aside from a speaker grille, the LG logo, and a very thin chrome band around the edges). This is a step in the right direction, I think, and does give the G2 a pretty clean look. The lack of any buttons along the sides or top of the phone take this minimalism even further.
The back of the phone, though, does absolutely nothing for me. Aside from the power and volume buttons, it is unabashedly generic. It's not understated - it's not stated at all. It's a phone, and LG continues to show that it really has no intention of branding a design aesthetic at this point. To put it another way, it's like LG actively tried to make it not look all that interesting. The Verizon version, for whatever reason, manages to take this blah-ness and ugly it up a bit with some faux-metal buttons and a very out-of-place metallic
blue (edit: it's a sticker, and a fairly hard to remove one at that) ring around the camera lens. The Verizon version also has a tool-less SIM tray, so the SIM is much easier to pop out. Yay?
I have to say, while I've typically lauded LG's build quality in the past, the G2 feels like a big step backward. The plastic back is slimy and greasy to the touch, it has Samsung-esque creaks and snaps, and the whole thing just doesn't feel all that premium. Maybe a glass rear cover was a misstep on the Optimus G, but the G2 really could have benefitted from some bespoke materials. I am very much not in love with the way this phone feels in the hand. The international review unit I received has very visible chassis separation around the SIM slot, which reinforces my belief that this phone is not up to LG's typical standards.
The headphone jack positioned on the bottom is a bit odd for LG, though I think I understand why it's there - none of the other sides of the phone have any protrusions or major deviations from the shape of the phone. LG wanted three of the four sides to be clean (though the left side does house the SIM slot) and uninterrupted. I guess that makes sense. The external speaker (which is either stereo or just has two grilles) is along the bottom of the phone as well.
The one thing the G2 does right, though, is efficient use of space. The vertical bezels for the display are very narrow, and no capacitive buttons means both the top and bottom chin are fairly small as well. It would be difficult to cram that 5.2" display into a smaller frame.
So, how about those rear-mounted buttons? Personally, I cannot for the life of me even understand how this made it out of an engineering test lab. Even after tying to get used to them for over a week, I simply can't convince myself to find any benefit whatsoever to this choice. It was done for the sake of doing it - it grabbed headlines, made for interesting rumors, and got people curious. The end result, for me, is a whole lot of fuss for zero benefit, and plenty of added frustration. The buttons are nearly reason enough for me to discard this phone from the get-go.
Your mileage may vary.
Turning the display on or off with the power button means touching the screen itself (your thumb will naturally end up there as leverage), which just seems wrong. I'll sometimes end up launching an app as I hit the power button. That seems like a problem a lot of people are probably going to have. Aside from awkwardly clasping the edges, there's really no other way to consistently reach the power button. Oh, and you will accidentally confuse the power / volume buttons on the Verizon version - the power and volume buttons feel exactly the same. At least on the AT&T / international G2, the power button is a raised, glossy oval, while the volume buttons are flat and have a matte texture.
While of course it is possible to live with these buttons, I just wouldn't want to.
LG makes some very solid IPS LCD panels, and the G2's is no exception. It gets reasonably bright (not as bright as the HTC One, I found), though it does seem to be calibrated in the typical LG fashion - blues and greens feel a bit too hot, giving whites something of a blueish tint. Aside from that, though, you're not going to find a massively better smartphone display. I still would choose the One's S-LCD3 because it looks slightly more natural, gets brighter, and is more balanced, but it's just splitting hairs (and personal preference) at that point.
As far as sharpness, it's true 1080p. You aren't going to see any pixels. Viewing angles are very impressive as well. The one drawback is LG's auto-brightness software, which is terrible. Install a 3rd party app and never touch it again.
It's certainly above average. While the G2 does pack a 3000mAh battery, the thirsty Snapdragon 800 processor in tandem with the big, bright display means you'll be sucking down the lithium ions as quick as any other high-end phone in most situations, if not more so. I think this phone will get a moderate user through a day of use very reliably, though, which is something that can't be said of the HTC One or even the Galaxy S4.
I will say this experience is with most of the knock-on, smart stay, and other such LG features disabled. I'm not sure how much they'll impact battery life when they're turned on, but I do doubt they'll do anything to improve it.
Overall, though, I'd say the G2 handily trounces its two main competitors (the One and S4) in this department. A big battery does make a difference.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T G2s both come with 32GB of storage as standard, while Sprint's variant has not had this specification announced. There is a 16GB international version of the G2 out there, so it's possible the Now Network may pick up that variant instead, but I'd probably bet on 32GB. We'll see. Of that space on the 32GB model, about 24GB is usable. There is no microSD slot.
Wireless performance has good, and the G2 much more readily connects to / recognizes my 5GHz Wi-Fi (aside from the AT&T variant, which has had some trouble with it) than any other Android device I've used previously, perhaps owing to its newer Snapdragon 800 chipset. LTE on both Verizon and AT&T is, of course, very speedy. Bluetooth seems to work just fine, and NFC functions well enough. Neither the Verizon nor AT&T versions of the G2 support FM radio (maybe they will with root, I don't know - the app is gone), while the international version does.
Call quality on the G2 has been pretty much what I'd expect, though it seems the AT&T G2 may have a leg up on its siblings in this regard - a second noise-cancelling microphone appears to be on the back of the AT&T variant that is not present on the Verizon or international versions I have. Those devices only appear to have one noise-cancelling mic, along the top of the phone (the AT&T variant has this one in addition to the rear mic).
Audio and speaker
The G2 has bottom-firing speakers, which is a big improvement over the original Optimus G, which had a rear-mounted speaker that became utterly muffled when laid down because of the G's smooth glass back. There are two grilles adjacent to the microUSB port, and each does indeed produce sound. Whether there are actually two speakers, I'm unsure (based on the volume / quality, my guess is no).
The volume is good, though not particularly impressive when placed up against the HTC One or even the Galaxy S4, which are both substantially louder. The quality of the sound is decent, but LG doesn't seem to have done much in this area otherwise. The HTC one and Galaxy S4 both easily outdo the G2 here, it's not really much of a contest.
Audio from the headphone jack seems like every other high-end Snapdragon phone - very good. LG has been touting that the G2 supports 192KHz / 24 bit stereo audio, but I'm not even clear on what that means, because as a statement, it's not really complete. The hardware supports native decoding of 192/24 audio files? Does it work in all local music playback apps, or just LG's music app?
It doesn't really matter, to be honest. Even according to many audiophiles, 192KHz / 24 bit encoding is all but useless, and might actually make some music sound worse. For the record, a CD is encoded at 44.1KHz / 16 bit, and there is simply no way your smartphone's tiny DAC and headphone amplifier can even take full advantage of that level of detail. I'm not sure what LG was trying to accomplish in marketing this "feature," but as features go, it's a pretty weird one to gloat about.
LG's camera software is eerily similar to Samsung's (surprise!), but the camera itself is actually very good. While it won't be giving you PureView results, I think this is the first LG phone I've come away impressed with in regard to image quality, and the photos the G2 produces in good lighting will definitely stand up to the current Android camera leaders (Galaxy S4, HTC One).
I can't say how big a role optical image stabilization plays here, but the daytime stills I captured are definitely pretty sharp, even if there is some fairly aggressive smoothing going on when you really zoom in. Night performance still seemed to lag behind the Galaxy S4 in terms of detail, though the G2 does manage to create quite a bit of light in dark environments. See the night comparison below.
Left to right: G2, HTC One, Galaxy S4
Performance and stability
The G2 is really fast. It's noticeably faster opening apps, running Google Maps (which is really hard on most phones), and does seem to have a general speed advantage in most tasks compared to the Snapdragon 600-running Galaxy S4 or HTC One. This isn't super surprising, as the G2's Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor is clocked at a rather insane 2.26GHz. Faster thing is faster, surprise!
Is it such a difference you won't be able to go back to a Snapdragon 600 phone? Absolutely not. The difference is there, but it's not huge, and it's not going to vastly improve the experience of using your smartphone.
Stability has been pretty good - no random reboots or anything - though I have had a few issues with app compatibility (odd bugs, glitches) that are pretty much par for the course when it comes to a brand-new phone. I'm sure many developers will iron things out over the coming months.
But the G2's real problem isn't a lack of speed.
UI and features
LG, just stop whatever you're doing and please, for the love of all things holo, redesign your UI. It's just so incredibly bad. Even TouchWiz looks classy compared to whatever you're calling Optimus UI now. You could not make this phone fast enough that I would want to deal with it. Case in point, the notification area.
The notification bar is so cluttered that Verizon thought it was too much. No, seriously, just look at this - on the left is what the VZW G2's notification bar looks like, on the right is AT&T's. Verizon had the good sense to realize that taking up two thirds of the notification area with a bunch of god-forsaken toggles and sliders was a bad idea. When America's Bloatiest Carrier is telling you take it down a notch, maybe it's time to start taking criticism about your UI a little more seriously. What's even more crazy is the amount of completely random differences between the three variants of the phone I've been given to review. Let's go over the ones I've managed to spot.
- AT&T G2: black camera icon
- Int. G2: brown camera icon
- AT&T G2: Note app is called "Note pad"
- Int. G2: Note app is called "Memo"
- Verizon G2: Note app is called "Richnote" (all three apps are the same)
- AT&T G2: Has various quick tips you have to dismiss and ask not to show again
- Verizon G2: Has them, but they have more graphics and a different theme.
- Verizon G2: Has a different app drawer icon (yes really)
- All three versions have different icons for the SMS (Messaging) app
- Verizon's G2 SMS app has a "+" symbol for a new message, the other two have the compose (pen and pad) icon.
- AT&T G2: Google Search widget is on a second homescreen, rather than the default.
- Verizon G2: Ships with Chrome as the default and only browser (hey, Verizon did something good!)
- Verizon G2: Doesn't have a tabbed settings menu, just a big list.
These bewildering but generally harmless distinctions aside, I'm being completely honest when I say the notification bar layout alone is enough for me to kind of give up on dealing with this phone. The notification area is a crucial part of Android, and when 60%+ of it is blocked with QCrap, the user experience just sucks. I can't let this go. It's just so mind-bogglingly bad. Why, LG? You
didn't even include toggles to remove some of the notification bar clutter (edit: the QSlide buttons can be removed via one of the notification bar toggles). You have configuration options for everything else - down to color scheme and layout of the software nav buttons - but not a single way to de-junkify the notification bar.
Speaking of the software navigation button customization area, it's both neat and kind of frustrating. There are six different layouts to choose from. Take a look (the one with the down-pointing arrow is a notification bar toggle):
Notice anything missing? Like perhaps an option to set those buttons up in a way that includes a dedicated recent apps button and not a largely redundant menu button? Me either. But hey, you can change the background color (the default is a rather ugly gray), so that obviously makes up for it or something.
LG's floating app suite (aka QSlide apps) seems largely similar to what shipped on the Optimus G Pro, though the floating apps themselves seem to run more smoothly and quickly than before. They're nice to have, I suppose, but I much prefer the way Sony hides its version of these utilities in the multitasking UI, which to me seems pretty logical. LG just tacks them on to the notification bar. Yay bloat!
The front notification LED can be toggled to a degree for certain notifications (colors can't be modified, just on/off based on activity type), and the white LED around the power button on the back is also configured to light up when you have an incoming call or an alarm that's going off. That's kind of neat.
LG has versions of Samsung's eye-tracking feature (which apparently LG patented and claims Samsung stole), forcing the screen to stay awake if your eyes are detected, or pausing a video if they're not.
LG has also done something rather weird called "slide aside," which as far as I can tell, attempts to force Android to keep an app in memory at its exact previous location. Slide aside works via a 3-finger swipe across the screen to the left, exiting the app in question. A three-fingered swipe to the right will bring back the app if only one is saved, or if multiple apps have been saved (the number of apps saved shows as a persistent notification), a paginated UI to choose which app you want to go back to. I see absolutely zero purpose in this, personally. Why is LG trying to create a completely separate (and somewhat clunky) multitasking solution from the one natively included with Android? I just don't understand. Here's what it looks like.
One of LG's more prominently-covered features that launch on the G2 has been "Knockon." Just double-tap anywhere on the front of the phone and the display will turn on. This would be a really great feature if it worked reliably. It doesn't. Turning off the display via double tap works fine (if you're anywhere but a homescreen, you have to double-tap on the notification bar for it to work). But turning it back on again is where I consistently ran into trouble. Oftentimes, if the phone has been off more than 30 seconds, double-tap doesn't work until your second or third try. This is, obviously, quite annoying. It was annoying enough that I stopped using the feature. I think if it worked properly all the time, knock-on would be an awesome thing to have. As it functions now, it just doesn't feel quite ready. LG has some of the Samsung-esque gesture suite, as well - bring your phone to ear to answer a call, flip your phone over to silence a call or an alarm or pause a video, etc.
Another interesting part of LG's UI experience is guest mode. It's actually kind of interesting, though it does require setting your phone to pattern unlock mode in order to work, because guest mode is turned on by entering a guest mode-specific pattern at the lockscreen. Exiting guest mode is as simple as turning the display off and then on again, and drawing your normal unlock pattern. Guest mode has no app drawer, no settings - you can't even pull down the notification bar - but it's also not the full-on Android multi-user experience.
I noticed, for example, that pictures I'd taken on the G2 in normal mode appeared in the gallery in guest mode, and that if I gave guest mode Play Store access, it was my account that was logged in. You can choose which apps guest mode has access to, but even this is somewhat flawed. If I give guest mode the Play Store access, for example, I can use the share intent and a few taps to get into the Facebook app, even if that app isn't enabled. Suffice it to say, this feature might keep children out of things they don't need to be accessing, but it's far from "secure."
The included keyboard is also really not great. The strike zones are way too small and the whole thing just feels very cramped and inaccurate. The prediction engine is OK. The top number row is really its only desirable feature. I went back to the stock Android keyboard pretty fast.
Other than what you see above, there really isn't anything that exciting going on with the G2's software. For the amount of visual clutter and distraction (eg, a million "first time" prompts for random gestures and other features) you have to put up with, I'm really not convinced there's anything the G2 does that makes said clutter worth living with.
After reading the software section, you might think I hate the G2. I don't. If someone were to put it in my lap and say "live with this for 6 months," I wouldn't toss it out the window. For the most part, it's a pretty good phone. But it's also a phone that offers precious few compelling reasons for actually purchasing it, while its tacky and cluttered software layer offers several good ones for avoiding it.
The battery life is very good, the camera is very good, and the screen is very good. Those are entirely legitimate points. But the G2 just doesn't seem like the right phone to buy right now. The lack of innovative features, the sometimes poorly-thought-out software, LG's less than stellar track record on software updates, and upcoming phones like the allegedly G2-based Nexus 5 make this a 'no sale' for me.
As I said, there is nothing so truly, terribly wrong with the G2 (aside from the notification bar). There's just not much about it that excites, either.