LG's G2 was one of the most cultishly-loved smartphones of 2013, to an extent that, frankly, befuddled me. It had a terribly ugly software layer, felt cheaply built, and ticked almost no boxes in terms of innovation. The G2 was a specification junkie's wet dream, and that's exactly the sort of buyer the phone ended up attracting. Appearance, software features, and design aren't high on such people's lists.
Even in the face of criticism, though, success with a group like that isn't something you just let go. The G3 very much builds on the G2's appeal to the numbers crowd, and seeks to one-up competitors like Samsung's Galaxy S5 and HTC's One M8 at almost every measurable corner.
The display? It's much larger, at 5.5". It's the only mainstream QHD smartphone on the market. Its screen-to-bezel ratio almost defies belief. A 1-watt external speaker finally manages to definitively outclass Samsung for volume and clarity. The large 3000mAh removable battery will keep you going all day. 3GB of RAM (on the 32GB model, which I assume will be the only US model, like the G2) bests both of the G3's primary rivals. Despite having a .4" larger display and 200mAh larger battery, the G3 weighs just a few grams more than the Galaxy S5, and much less than the One M8 or Xperia Z2. Its camera has optical image stabilization, and a laser to auto-focus images. Its Snapdragon 801 processor isn't outclassing the competition, but no one's beating it at this point, either. And yes, the G3 has a microSD card slot.
All in all, LG's latest flagship seems made from the ground up for boasting on comment threads and forums across the web. But is the G3 more than merely the sum of its parts? I'd finally argue that yes, LG has not just made a powerful, class-leading phone, but it's also created a phone that is supremely likeable - a feeling I just never got when using the G2.
LG G3: Specifications
- Price: Varies by carrier and region
- Processor: 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
- GPU: Adreno 330
- Network compatibility: World LTE / 3G (specific band support may vary)
- Operating system: Android 4.4.2
- Display: 5.5" IPS LCD 2560x1440 (534 DPI)
- Memory: 3GB RAM / 32GB storage (some models, others have 2GB / 16GB)
- Cameras: 13MP rear (with OIS) and laser AF, 2.1MP front
- Battery: 3000mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes
- Infrared: Yes
- Bluetooth: 4.0
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 9mm
- Weight: 150g
- The G3 is very fast, at least as fast as the HTC One M8, and significantly quicker than the Galaxy S5.
- LG has toned down some aspects of its software UI and cleaned up others, like the navigation buttons, which are now in the standard arrangement.
- 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage will be standard for models in some countries (hopefully the US is one of them).
- Battery life is great, my G3 has easily gotten me through a day of substantial usage.
- The improved external speaker is a huge improvement over the G2, and even bests the one on the Galaxy S5.
- How LG managed to fit a 5.5" display into a frame this small almost defies belief - it's the most compact big phone out there.
- The camera is awesome. Laser auto-focus really works - I haven't been able to fool it yet.
The Not So Good
- Some parts of LG's UI still seem dated or unnecessarily cluttered (multitasking UI, app drawer), and some are just kind of ugly (settings menu).
- LG still won't be getting much love on the build quality side, the G3 feels a bit nicer than the G2, but not by much.
- The QHD screen isn't bright enough in some situations, and the contrast really isn't all that great, especially lined up against Samsung's Galaxy S5, or even the One M8.
- I'm still kind of wary about LG in regard to software updates - they've tended to be a bit slower than HTC, and a lot slower than Motorola.
Build quality and design
The G3 feels moderately more solid than the G2 did, if my memory serves me well (it may not), but it won't turn any heads for build quality. It feels on par with what Samsung's putting out these days, though the G3 emits far fewer of the trademark "Samsqueaks" when you twist and torture it. But you can still tell this is a plastic phone, basically.
The faux brushed metal texture on the back of the G3 is really quite pleasant. I'm not sure if I prefer it over Samsung's dimpled and textured back plate on the S5, but it does make fingerprint smudges much less noticeable. The move away from a glossy finish, too, is definitively a good one. Glossy plastic never ends up looking nice after more than a few months, especially on something you're constantly holding, dropping, putting down on rough surfaces, and generally abusing. The plastic on the G3 is not going to be confused for any other material, though. It may look vaguely metallic, but this phone's backside still has a comfortable gap between it and the left side of the periodic table.
The design of the G3 is relatively simple, the most divisive aesthetic point likely being the phone's "chin" along the bottom of the display. Rather than have a fully blank façade, LG's chosen to give the G3 a branded, body-color lip. Much in the way some people bemoan badges on cars for some unfathomable reason, they too are incited to rage by logos on electronics, or things that are not 100% "clean." Personally, I like the chin, it gives the G3 a distinct identity and makes it unlikely to be confused for another phone. I don't think it's perfect, but I do think LG really needs to develop a design branding for its smartphones, and the "chin" is as good a place as any to start building that identity.
Still, overall I'd say the G3 does seem a bit "blah" from a visual standpoint, and design has never been LG's strong suit. They seem obsessed with reductionism, and that's not really a very interesting direction to go in a market that is already flooded to capacity with generic-looking bricks of slightly varying shapes and sizes.
The other brand-defining point anyone who uses the G3 will immediately notice, of course, are the rear control buttons. On the G2, I didn't like them, and that's primarily because the power button was too small and the volume rocker keys were a bit difficult to feel out. On the G3, the power button is now much larger (and circular, not pill-shaped) and as a result a whole lot easier to find. The volume keys, too, have more defined edges. As a result, I'm inclined to say I actually prefer these buttons to the standard top / side-mounted arrangements of phones like the One M8 or Galaxy S5. I don't know how I've gone from hating them to loving them so completely, but it happened. I was there.
Among the things I don't like functionally on the exterior of the G3 is the headphone jack, which is mounted Apple / HTC style on the bottom of the phone, though that's obviously a matter of personal preference.
Pop open the removable rear cover and you'll find the removable 3000mAh battery, and stacked slots for a microSIM (like Samsung, LG has not yet adopted the nano standard for whatever reason) and microSD card. On this particular Korean unit, you'll also find that the rear cover has a wireless charging coil, a feature that will not be available on US models of the G3 without buying an accessory cover.
So, the inevitable question many people have had about this 5.5" phone is one that I'm probably not going to answer to your satisfaction. That question being: Is it too big? I don't know. It's not too big for me, not at all. I happily used a Note II for quite some time, and that device, despite having a display of the same size, was much larger than the G3 in overall dimension. Here's the thing - if you think the G3 might be too big for you, go play with one at a store. That's the only way to know. I can give you comparative descriptions - for example, the G3 is actually shorter and lighter than the One M8. It's only a few grams heavier than an S5, and only a couple millimeters wider. If you can use the M8 or S5 comfortably, the G3 isn't actually all that much bigger. It may be the tipping point for some people, but it's by no means gigantic compared to the competition. That still doesn't answer the question, because it's one you need to figure out on your own.
Apart from the size, I'd actually say the screen is the G3's weakest attribute. It doesn't get bright enough, contrast isn't particularly good, and neither are the viewing angles, especially in the sun. It feels like we've taken a trip in the LCD time machine, if I'm honest. And why, exactly, does this high-end superphone have a bit of a lame duck display? Because LG had to be first. That's why. As the first major QHD (not to be confused with qHD) smartphone (sorry Oppo, you're not "major" enough), LG gets to do all sorts of advertising and gloating about how many pixels it has compared to everybody else, actual practical value of said pixels be damned.
And do those pixels have any real value? Apparently the answer is yes... if you read a lot of content with Korean, Chinese, or Japanese characters. Because characters in these languages often feature complex shapes, and in the case of Chinese and Japanese, tapering and thickness variations, an ultra high-res display can actually make them appear appreciably sharper and thus easier to read. These advantages do not cross over to Latin or other alphabets, though, unless we're talking about truly tiny font sizes. Otherwise, no, there is no benefit to this level of pixel density, at least not any benefit worth getting excited about.
The G3's screen is by no means bad, however. It's perfectly fine indoors and despite having less than outstanding contrast and viewing angles, it's not going to ruin your day or anything. It's a very good screen, it just happens to be up against significantly better panels from Samsung and even HTC.
Still, I'd probably take the G3's display over either the M8's or the S5's, though, for one simple reason: it's bigger. I love the amount of content I can get on a 5.5" screen (or, alternatively, being able to up the font size and fit the same amount of content as a smaller phone), it's great for video, and for my fat-fingered hands it makes typing a lot easier and more accurate.
I know, you want an objective battery life test with statistics and facts and figures, and I can't give it to you. We don't currently have a standardized battery life test because, well, we think most of the ones out there will do a better job than we would, and because battery life on Android is in and of itself a fickle, unpredictable beast. Because Android is such a sync-heavy OS, battery life experiences will vary heavily between users. That's just a fact of life. In all honesty, I'd say going by the mAh capacity of the battery is almost as good as anything I'd have to say in most cases, at least in terms of measuring actual use time potential of a given phone.
Idle life is a little more variable. HTC's phones, for example, by default go to sleep between 11PM and 7AM every day and turn off data sync during those hours, dramatically cutting idle power consumption. I've found the G3 to have very good in-use battery life, but below average idle battery life. Sitting overnight, the G3 consistently lost between 15-20% of its charge for no good reason other than that just seems to be the way it behaves. A One M8 loses less than 5% in that time frame, and my Galaxy S5 is between 5-10% typically.
In a given day, though, I found the G3's battery life admirable when put under stressful conditions. While at E3 this week, I took my G3 off the charge on Wednesday at 10AM and by 10PM that night had racked up 2.5 hours of screen-on time (maximum auto-brightness) on a heavily taxed data network that kept flipping back and fourth between 3G and LTE. I would not have expected a Galaxy S5 or One M8 to perform similarly under those conditions, and they likely would have been dead hours earlier. Still, at the end of the night the G3 had just under 30% battery remaining, which I think is pretty dang impressive. Someone will, of course, tell me I'm an idiot, and that the G3's battery life is terrible compared to [phone X] running [ROM Y] with [kernel Z] and various settings changes specifically designed to lower power consumption. I use the phone just like it comes in the box - everything is turned on, and I don't optimize my use habits in any way to prolong battery life, or use power-saving modes. I install all my apps and away I go.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The G3 I'm testing has 32GB of internal storage, which is perfectly adequate for most people, I'd say. There's an increasingly-made-useless-by-Google microSD card slot if you want more space, of course.
As for call quality, I think the G3's earpiece speaker needs some work. It's just not loud enough, I was constantly asking people to repeat themselves. Maybe it'll get better with the US network-ready versions of the phone, but for now I'm not impressed. But hey, who talks on the phone anymore?
Audio and speaker
The LG G3 uses the same basic Snapdragon 801 you'll find in the HTC One M8, Galaxy S5, and Sony Xperia Z2, so it also uses the same internal audio processing gear. As a result, the sound from the G3's headphone jack is absolutely great - Qualcomm is doing a stellar job with its Hexagon DSP, and music is sounding the best it ever has coming out of a smartphone. You won't be let down here.
LG's new 1 Watt external speaker is something for the company to be proud of. Going back to the original Optimus G, LG's speakers have sucked. They were too quiet, sounded muffled, and had very little dynamic range. LG has finally taken this criticism to heart, it seems, because the G3 has a beast of a little noisemaker attached to its rear. It's a bit louder than the one on Samsung's Galaxy S5, but it's the quality that stands out - the G3 has noticeably better clarity, dynamic range, and doesn't clip or muddle sound as readily. It's no BoomSound, but it's very respectable.
The G2 had a very, very good camera. Better than the Galaxy S4, Note 3, and HTC One, I'd argue. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was a huge leap forward from the rather crappy sensors and processing LG had been known for at that time. The G3 just keeps on pushing ahead, it would seem, because this camera is just great.
The downfalls of the G3's camera, for what they're worth, though, are substantial. First, LG has stripped out almost every setting in the camera app. No, really. Here's what's left.
- HDR on / off / auto
- Flash on / off / auto
- Front / rear camera toggle
- Picture / video resolution
- Voice shutter mode
- Shutter delay timer
- Grid toggle
- Modes: auto / magic focus / panorama / dual-camera
- There's a slider thingy for "beauty mode" when taking selfies (because Korea)
That's it. That is literally every setting in the entire camera app. LG has decided that most of its customers have no interest in advanced settings like EV values, ISO, shutter modes, white balance, or other tweaks. It has also decided against including novelty features like filters, most effects, and similar things in the camera app. Instead, if you want to fine-tune your photo, it all needs to happen after the fact in the Google Photos editor app, which the G3 directs you to if you select the 'edit' option in the Gallery.
Taking pictures has been simplified as well. By default, the camera app is in a minimal layout with no shutter button. Just tap anywhere and the camera will focus then take a photo. Pressing the 3-dot overflow in the top-left will bring up the full camera UI with a standard shutter button. In the minimalist mode, there is no option to go to video or do a burst shot. You switch to the front camera by swiping anywhere on the screen. Pinch to zoom in and out.
The second issue with the camera is the almost laughable amount of over-processing the sensor undertakes in night / dark photos. Don't get me wrong, at social media sizes (eg, less than 600 or so pixels across), the night shots from the G3 look outstanding. Really, really good. Take this photo, shot at 10:30PM on a busy street, without flash.
At this size, this looks like an awesome photo. Sure, the light pollution is a little overemphasized, as is the greenness of the grass, but overall, this is an amazing night shot for a smartphone that isn't a PureView or a Galaxy K. I have deliberately resized this image such that you can't zoom in on some of the details... the most interesting of which I will now show you.
I don't call what LG does to its photo "noise reduction." That seems like an understatement. I prefer to think of it as noise annihilation. The G3's image processing software basically turns some parts of night photos into oil paintings. It's kind of hilarious, really. And yes, this obviously does show that some of the perceived quality of the G3's photos is software processing that makes things look nice at lower resolutions, at the expense of sacrificing detail (sometimes to an extreme degree) at full crop.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say I don't really care. No one's doing night photos on a normal smartphone camera better right now; in fact, I'd say no phone without a giant lump on its back is doing this any better than LG. Yes, there are obvious sacrifices, but even HTC's UltraPixel camera doesn't consistently turn out such beautiful night shots. The photo below was shot in what is probably the darkest bar I've ever been inside.
If you zoom in, some of the detail has obviously been mashed up, but I honestly wouldn't have even bothered to take this photo with something like a Galaxy S5 - it'd just come out as a noisy, purple pile of crap. With the G3, you still have a sense of scene, of light, and at a reasonable zoom, convincing detail. Of course, there's the flipside, like the fact the people on the right in the below photo do not appear to have legs anymore, but rather brownish leg-like blobs.
During the daytime, the G3 is much less aggressive with its noise reduction. Have a look.
The one gripe I'd make about the photos is that they can be a little washed out at times. Going side by side with the S5, I noticed Samsung's images were consistently more vibrant (on my monitor, not on the phones) and tended to have a better representation of a given scene's white balance. LG's, on the other hand, seemed to gather more detail and always had the correct focus, but often looked a little dingier and less colorful.
Which brings us to lasers. LG has added a pulsing laser to the G3's camera array in order to assist in auto-focusing. I'm not clear on exactly how this works, other than to say it works. Really, really well. I have not yet been able to fool the G3's auto-focus system. Samsung made a lot of hooplah over being the first smartphone with phase-detect AF, but unfortunately it also so happened that it was the first smartphone with really awful phase-detect AF. I can't count the number of screwed-up, out of focus photos I've taken with the S5, and it drives me nuts. The G3 gets it right. Every. Single. Time. Even in the dark, as I demonstrated.
Performance and stability
I'm really not sure how much faster the G3 is than the previous-gen G2, but given that the G2 is a Snapdragon 800 and the G3 merely an 801, I'm guessing the difference isn't huge. The result, I find, is that while the G3 is appreciably quicker than the Galaxy S5, it doesn't feel any faster than HTC One M8. LG had the advantage of a newer chipset in its flagship last year, while this time it's basically on a level playing field with its competitors. Rumors that the G3 would have a Snapdragon 805 didn't end up panning out, to the disappointment of some who expected that the phone's display of many pixels would demand a more powerful processor.
The good news is that said display doesn't seem to drag down performance in any noticeable way, at least that I've observed. While I'd say the HTC One M8 feels a bit quicker in basic UI navigation, that could come down to a difference of built-in animation draw times and delays, not actual speed. Opening and navigating apps, the G3 is very, very quick, and there is no appreciable distinction between it and HTC's phone in this regard. Opening apps and multitasking is substantially faster than on Samsung's Galaxy S5, though, and I've found my S5 has become slower and slower as the days go on, even with much of the carrier and Samsung bloat disabled.
I've experienced no odd crashes or other stability issues on the G3, a testament to LG's continued refinement of its firmware. I recall just a couple of years ago that a number of LG Android phones I reviewed often had strange app compatibility issues and various glitches, which did unfortunately color my perception of their products for some time. Since the original Optimus G, though, the company seems to have gotten its act together.
UI, software, and features
The G3 is a marked departure from the G2 in several visual respects. First, LG has finally given up on its utterly absurd attempt to make a software menu button a thing. There's now a dedicated multitasking button, as there should be, and all is right with the world. You can still adjust the order, layout, and color of these buttons, though, and even add dedicated keys for quick access to the notification bar, QMemo (why), QSlide (why), and dual window mode (why). You can have up to 5 buttons in your navigation button area (why).
LG has also adopted the white / gray status bar layout Google introduced in Android 4.4, and everything looks much cleaner for it, too. The notification bar itself has been cleaned up, and no longer passively displays the status bar when pulled down, freeing up some space. The notification controls for volume and brightness enabled by default on my Korean review unit can be disabled, as can the QSlide app bar. Once you do that, you actually have a reasonable amount of space!
Just take a look at the notification bar with stupidness turned up to 100% on the left, compared to 0% on the right, and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Granted, you can probably expect persistent Wi-Fi notifications on AT&T and Verizon carrier variants, and possibly some configuration options removed and random useless crap inserted, because carriers hate you and wish only supreme sadness upon you and everyone and thing you love.
You'll also notice that the aesthetic of LG's UI layer has changed to, you guessed it, embrace flatness. I'm not in love with the new look (especially the settings menu, which is really, really ugly), but it's also perfectly usable and far from offensive. One area where LG has not modernized is the app drawer, which remains unfortunately Ice Cream Sandwich-esque. Compare it to Samsung's clean, modern drawer devoid of anything but a menu overflow and a page indicator, and the G3 seems a bit behind the times.
Like HTC, LG also seems unable to let go of a legacy method to add apps to homescreens from somewhere other than the app drawer, which I wouldn't exactly call an attempt to "simplify," as LG's new 'simple is the new smart' mantra would suggest. And like HTC's Sense, there is yet another UI dedicated to editing and managing homescreens. Samsung's newest TouchWiz combines all of these features, like stock Android, into a single interface, keeping everything relatively easy to discover. It's not a big deal, but I think it's indicative of LG's reluctance to fully embrace modern Android UI and navigation paradigms, while Samsung seems to be more willing (apart from navigation buttons, of course). The same, though, is true of HTC.
The multitasking UI on the G3 is simply baffling. I don't understand what led them down this road, but it's just not very good. LG has copied HTC's grid-style layout from Sense, but instead of swiping up to remove an app from the list, you swipe left to right. Swiping up or down scrolls through the grid of recent apps, while at the bottom there is a button to remove all apps from the list, and one to engage dual window mode. This Korean model also has four apps sitting in a tray along the bottom, which are there presumably just to waste space and time. I don't mean to suck up to Samsung here, but once again, I point you to a comparison of the S5 and G3 side by side, just to let you take in the ridiculous disparity.
Some people say LG likes to copy Samsung. Based on what I've seen so far on the G3, they haven't done a very good job of it. And I'm sorry, this is definitely not simple. It is a huge, ugly mess and someone needs to beat it back with a stick.
Moving on to the settings menu, while I'm not at all a fan of the tabbed layout (too slow to get around, in my opinion), I applaud LG for, like Samsung, including a list layout mode as an option. The list is much easier to navigate, I find, and it doesn't have so many items as to get dizzyingly confusing to memorize. Samsung's settings UI in list mode, by comparison, is way too long to wrap my head around.
Like Samsung, LG now has split screen multitasking. It works. 3rd party app support seems poor at this point, though Chrome, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, and Hangouts are in there. There's not a lot else to say about it, other than that I pretty quickly turned it off.
Going to the lockscreen, LG's standard Knock-On wake-up feature is still here, and I don't find it works much more reliably than it did on the G2. Given the easier access to the power button on the G3, I've taken to using than more often than not, because Knock-On just isn't there in terms of 100% reliability, which is kind of something you need for a feature like that. Knock Code, LG's rather ridiculous secure unlock method based on Knock On, is there if you care to try it. You set a pattern of tap locations on the screen, and you unlock the screen by tapping it out.
Finally, LG has a new keyboard that is basically SwiftKey but not really as good or interesting. So yes, you should probably just still install SwiftKey or, if you prefer, the Google Keyboard. Word replacement suggestions on the LG keyboard take far too long to appear in order to be effective for whatever reason, so I pretty quickly ditched it after receiving my review unit.
Otherwise, the G3 doesn't really tick any of the crazy software feature boxes. Like the G2 before it, LG has focused on making a fast high-end phone with premium components, not on providing a complete software and content suite out of the box. The G3 assumes you know what tools and apps you need, and that you already have services and accessories integrated into your life that you use, as opposed to trying to be a be-all, end-all solution. In that sense, the G3 is minimalistic. There's no big fitness suite, no card-based news reader app, no overwrought camera effects or editing features, no chat service they're trying to push, and even their S Voice / Google Now competitor Q Voice is gone.
Oh, and speaking of Google Now, the G3 does have hotword detection from the homescreen. Yay.
The LG G3 is a consistent phone. It is consistently quick. It gets consistently good battery life. It takes consistently great photos. And it consistently allows you to let the software get out of its own way. While not perfect, LG's UI layer has been significantly reduced in complexity and bloat, and of the things LG adds, many of them can be replaced or removed. Sure, some stuff is there to stay, like that ugly multitasking UI, but if you see something you don't like, most of the time you can fix it. The same is typically true on the Galaxy S5, to be fair.
Where the G3 pulls ahead of the competition, for me, are the screen size (I'll gladly take a bit wider of a phone for .4" more screen), the camera, the speed, and the battery life. No single element really puts it ahead of the pack, but taken together, the G3 has a number of advantages (some, like display size, being subjective) that make it difficult to ignore. Couple that with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage (some models), and the small but significant usability refinements to the rear control buttons (which I've come to enjoy), and there's a lot here to like.
For now, I'd have to say the G3 is my favorite phone of 2014. It may not stay that way (I admit to a small bias for Samsung's Note devices, which I've consistently really liked), but as far as the mainstream flagship category goes, I think LG's done a great job here. The G3 is an outstanding all-rounder with very few true weak points, and it's that lack of weakness that, I'd say, makes it so likeable.