LG has developed something of a cult following in the smartphone enthusiast world since it introduced the G2 back in 2013. With the G3, it became the first major smartphone OEM to bring a QHD (2.5K) display, among the first to use the Snapdragon 801 processor, introduced a great camera with OIS, and generally built a fast, bleeding-edge phone.
The G4 could be seen as a largely corrective measure - mostly existing to improve on its predecessor's pitfalls. The G3's display was criticized as dull and lacking much in the way of brightness. The G4's has much better contrast, improved viewing angles, output, and uses less power. The G3's camera, while good, was pretty heavy-handed in how it processed images, and gave users little control over how they were captured. The G4 adds tons of configurability to the camera, including a full "manual" mode, better OIS, and a new RGB light sensor for superior scene white balance. There's even DNG (RAW) capture.
If there is one thing it seems LG is good at, then, it's addressing the shortcomings of its products, and doing so in a pretty rapid fashion. The G4 improves very noticeably in some areas where the G3 could struggle, and as such, is absolutely a better phone. The battery life alone is reason to cheer, especially considering it's an area where the Galaxy S6 and One M9 have enjoyed little praise. The battery is also removable, something LG seems intent on keeping for now.
But the G4, even if you don't find the looks particularly bad, isn't exactly an icon of the smartphone design world, and the software LG adds is of equally lackluster looks. And, while not slow, it really doesn't feel any faster than the G3. With intense competition from Samsung's Galaxy S6, does the G4 stand out enough in everyday usage to provide a viable alternative to the mainstream competition?
|Display||The display on the G4, while not particularly accurate, is very bright with impressive levels of contrast and substantially improved viewing angles, especially when compared to the G3.|
|Big phone, small footprint||The G4 has a big 5.5" screen that outsizes the competition, but extremely narrow vertical bezels and a curved chassis still make it pretty comfortable to hold. Rear-mounted power buttons make it even more one-handable.|
|Battery life||The G4 just seems to last and last, even when the display is cranked up pretty high and you're on mobile data. Try as I did on occasion, I couldn't kill mine in a single day.|
|Not slow||The G4 isn't slow! The G Flex 2 had us all worried about Snapdragon 810 and the related 808 chip, but LG seems to have the G4 pretty well-optimized, even if there are hiccups, and even if it really doesn't feel much faster than the G3 most of the time.|
|Camera||The G4's new camera really is good, offering you a high level of control when taking photos (if you want it), even if it also produces great results in auto mode.|
|Not any faster||While not slow, the G4 really doesn't feel quicker than a G3 running Lollipop, still gets smoked by the Galaxy S6 in most benchmarks, and can occasionally exhibit undesirable stutter and jank for no readily apparent reason.|
|Software is still ugly||Well, it is. It's not a huge deal (I have to put something here, don't I?), but LG's UI is really struggling to keep up with the times, and in Lollipop it arguably looks more out of place than ever.|
|Feels a bit cheap||There's no denying that LG's phones are using some of the more bargain bin-feel plastic of any high-end devices out there right now. The G4 feels almost antiquated - as a physical object - compared to the Galaxy S6, One M9, or even the Note 4.|
|Camera RAW capture||RAW (DNG) capture works with the camera, but the DNG images have technical issues that will require either a firmware update from LG or a community-developed camera profile to easily correct, such as natural vignette caused by the ultra-wide aperture on the G4's lens.|
|Display saturation||The G4 has no user-facing method to adjust the tuning of the display (unlike Samsung phones), and out of the box it is noticeably oversaturated. It's not like a badly-tuned AMOLED, but it does make your pictures look a little more vivid than they probably are.|
Design and build quality
The G4 is, essentially, an amalgam of the G3 and G Flex 2... plus optional leather (and yes, the picture is meant as a bit tongue-in-cheek). While not the "premium" redesign some perhaps might have wanted, LG has evolved the look of the G4 considerably.
But alas, there really is nothing adventurous about the styling of the G4 in this plastic trim - it's fairly generic. Of course, most people will simply throw it in a case and never see the standard back again. The good news for these people is that, like the G3, the G4 has pretty narrow vertical bezels, so throwing a skin or case on won't make it super wide (and thus difficult to hold). The bad news is that because of the curved chassis, the G4 is substantially thicker than the G3, which means a case will add even more pocket bulk. This may or may not really matter to you, but it's a consideration.
Let's talk about leather briefly. I'll be blunt: my take here is that calling leather backs anything but a flashy sales grab is probably doing them too much justice - they're a glorified accessory. If you like the look, great! But I'd say it turns the phone into a strange mish-mash of black glass, faux chrome, plastic buttons, and... leather. I never thought the leather really worked on the Moto X too well, and the G4 seems even more poorly suited for the naturale aesthetic. The blue, yellow, and gray leathers are outright garish (I seriously doubt they'll make it to any US carriers), while the red and saddle versions are more subdued (still in stark contrast the rest of the phone). The black might be passable in favorable lighting, but that's about as much praise as I'm willing to give it. We don't have a leather review unit, so I'll wrap up the cowhide discussion there.
The plastic version of the phone, which the massive majority of consumers will buy, is nothing revolutionary from a quality standpoint. The plastic back features more aggressive banded "machined" texturing with a diamond pattern that is vaguely visible, which may at least make scratches harder to see. LG made references to "ceramics" and "metallic" accents on the plastic case during the G4 launch event a few weeks ago, but here's what you need to know: iiiiiiiiiiiiiit's plastic. There's nothing unusual or special about it. This gray version (again, probably the most common) is a bit drab, but I thought the white variant was a bit more exciting. Still, that's Toyota Camry levels of excitement - this isn't a stunner of a phone.
G4 in front of a G Flex 2, demonstrating the difference in curvature.
The slight curvature of the entire device is attractive and, arguably, functional - it may at least prevent a few scratches. But the curve is nowhere near as pronounced as it is on the G Flex 2, and so I suspect many people will buy a G4 and remain blissfully ignorant of this geometric novelty for the duration of their ownership. Even so, it'll probably manage to keep the display glass a little nicer during that time.
But overall, LG needs to do something on the materials and design front - I get that this kind of cheap-y plastic is "just fine" for people putting their phones in cases or who "don't care" about advanced materials or design, but this is easily the weakest point on the G4's comparative scorecard. Samsung and Apple are both putting out high-quality, metal unibody phones, and China's major OEMs are moving in that direction, too. There's just no love for shiny, dentable, scratchable plastic anymore. A matte or more boldly textured polycarbonate plastic (see: OnePlus) would even be a major improvement. Instead, LG seems to have decided to just fuss with its existing bill of materials a bit, and the result is a phone with a few too many things going on at once aesthetically. The number of different textures and patterns happening on this phone is pretty ridiculous. Add in a leather back, and it borders on comical - it almost feels like LG's inspiration for surfaces was a [tacky] supercar.
LG's reasoning for this is almost definitely cost-related: the G series of phones consistently MSRP for significantly less than comparable Samsung, HTC, or Apple devices. And I have heard this many times before. But companies like Xiaomi, Huawei, and Oppo sell full-metal body phones with high-end components for similar (if not lower) prices - anyone saying LG can't keep its phones this cheap and provide a premium build is just blowing smoke. It can be done, but I think LG is being loud and clear about its priorities here: they'd rather make more money.
And it's not like LG advertises the G4 as some kind of "average Joe" smartphone built for what you need, not what you don't(TM). They talk about the curved body and ceramic accents and fine genuine leather (which is actually not a great quality grade for leather) like they're carting out a high-end luxury car. Everyone does this, of course, it's just that LG seems to be off in some alternate reality where this phone is somehow super-stylish and groundbreaking from a design standpoint. It still seems basically like an LG phone to me, and that still puts it below offerings from Samsung, HTC, Sony, and Motorola here.
As far as functional design is concerned, LG has kept the headphone jack on the bottom of the phone, the same rear-mounted power and volume buttons, and continued to opt for a rear-facing speaker. I do like the buttons once I get used to them again, and Knock On makes for a much easier way to turn on the phone even if you don't. I still prefer Google's Ambient Mode or Motorola's Active Display to tapping on the screen, though.
While software updates certainly did improve it a bit, there's no denying the QHD IPS panel on last year's G3 was a bit of a drag - a low maximum brightness, font rendering issues at the high QHD resolution (that are still present in the 5.0 update), and unrealistic color reproduction gave Samsung's Super AMOLED panels and even some older 1080p LCDs no real competition.
LG has been hard at work to correct these issues on the G4, and the QHD "Quantum" IPS LCD really does look better for it. Viewing angles are very noticeably improved, with strong casting usually only visible at fairly dramatic angles with darker colors and blacks. On the G3, blacks would cast gray readily, and cast was noticeable on almost all colors at many viewing angles. On the G4, there is still fairly strong cast for dark images at some off angles, but colors stay truer at a significantly greater range than on the G3. This means the screen looks more bright and vivid in everyday use, which is especially important in high ambient light, an environment where the G3 could be a real bear to see.
The screen is also just brighter generally, and LG claims it has a noticeably enhanced color gamut and superior contrast. This all sounds well and good, but when your benchmark is the G3, improvements in these areas were as necessary then as much as they are substantial now: the display was the low point on the G3, and the G4 fixes a good many of the issues it had.
The problem is LG's tuning - color saturation is decidedly unrealistic. We're not going back in an AMOLED time machine here (you know, when TouchWiz was legitimately monstrous), but the color reproduction on this screen is just not believable. Reds are noticeably hot and blues aren't much better. Greens seem just downright weird: the G4 really wants all your greens to be much brighter than they actually are. The white balance is definitely on the cool side, as it has always been with LG's IPS panels, and there's nothing you can do out of the box to adjust these things.
While Samsung's phones have display modes that look way more saturated than the G4 does, they also have a "basic" mode that sets up the screen for the best possible accuracy. It'd be nice to see if the G4's display can be set up more accurately, as I would welcome a bit less contrast if it meant I could reliably guess what my photos would look like on a "normally" calibrated display. As is, don't worry if all your photos of plants seem too green on the G4, it's probably just the screen. I'm honestly surprised LG hasn't added display color modes yet, it's definitely a fan-favorite on Samsung's devices. While this is really only a concern if you actually care about color accuracy, there's also no reason not to do it.
Anyway, moving on: the whole issue with text rendering oddly (over-sharpened) in certain situations on the G3 has not returned on the G4. Whatever the cause was, LG seems to have fixed it. LG also really cranks the display saturation way up when you're on auto-brightness in direct sunlight, similar to behavior on the Note 4 and Galaxy S6 - this increases the effective display contrast, making the screen more visible in very high ambient light.
Off-angle viewing is very noticeably improved.
But here's the takeaway on all this: for most people, the G4's screen will simply be very impressive. Most people don't care about color accuracy (big surprise, I know), they just want something that's reasonably easy to see outside and makes all of their Instagram posts look like high-contrast works of art. In that sense, LG nailed it: the higher brightness, increased contrast, and improved viewing angles mean the G4's display is definitely more visually impressive than the G3's. The slight curvature doesn't hurt, either - even if most people won't notice the curve itself, the bend makes the screen "jump" out of the chassis of the phone a bit more. It's visually appealing. Add in some saturation to show off that high contrast rating, and voila - you have a screen that "really pops," "is beautiful," and "looks great" - the kind of admittedly useless and subjective evaluation smartphone screens tend to get.
The real reasons to like the G4's display? Compared to the G3, it's noticeably easier to see in adverse or bright conditions, videos are probably going to look substantially better (less black cast and more contrast). It also uses less power, and that's good.
Be it the dual instead of quad A57s in the Snapdragon 808, LG's VRAM that uses less power when the screen is displaying a static image, Android 5.1, or the new more power-efficient IPS display, the G4 easily gets me through a whole day and then some. Really, I've been managing nearly two days to a charge on this phone when I'm not using it intensively. When I am, the screen-on time is about 30% better than what I get with my Nexus 6 under similar conditions. This blows away the One M9 and even the Galaxy S6, and it may be LG's real sell with the G4.
The fact that the battery is removable is almost funny for it - with this kind of longevity, it certainly doesn't need to be, but LG is banking on that feature to get even more former Samsung fans to switch over to team G4.
This was also with an unlocked Korean version of the phone that doesn't even support (as far as I know) the complete spread of AT&T LTE bands and lacks full optimization for the network.
The 3000mAh typical capacity is the same as last year's phone, though the G3 and G4's batteries aren't interchangeable. Support for Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0 spec means the G4 charges quickly, too, so you can really make hours out of minutes on the wall wart. Be warned, though: the G4 does not ship with a QC2.0 charger. You'll need to provide one (the cheapest bet is probably an OEM Note 4 charger, by the way - it supports the QC2.0 spec, and I've checked this personally).
Barring any truly unfortunate software flubs on the US variants that will ship in June, the G4 will likely provide the best battery life of any high-end phone released in the US so far this year, with the most important implication there being that it easily bests Samsung's sales-record-crushing Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.
Edit: It has been brought to my attention that non-US versions of the Galaxy S6 do get demonstrably better battery life than the US variants - I am now in possession of a Sprint S6 and will be evaluating the battery life (with VoLTE turned off) over the next few weeks.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The unlocked, un-bloated Korean G4 I'm reviewing here has a little over 22GB of user-available storage, but by the time you get all of your Google apps on there and sign into them, it's going to be under 20GB, most likely. The G4 is only being offered in 32GB trim at this time, and even if a 64GB model does surface, I would be thoroughly surprised if it's ever available on an American carrier. You can also use a microSD card to expand your local media storage, if that's something that interests you.
Wireless functionality on this world LTE model of the phone has been pretty good - I've had no issues on AT&T's network here in LA, call quality seems just fine (for non-HD voice), and there's been no strange battery drain or other problems while on a mobile network. Wi-Fi has given me some grief, oddly - the G4 really doesn't seem to like my 2.4GHz network, and disconnects from the 5GHz network sometimes, so using it at home has been a little annoying at times. I'm guessing this will be ironed out in a software update, but we'll see.
Speaker and audio
LG has traditionally tended to, well, cheap out on its smartphone speakers. The G2's and Nexus 5's were both utterly miserable. The G3 marked a major improvement there, when LG moved to a one-watt amp and more powerful driver that dramatically increased the output of the speaker while providing impressive dynamic range.
I'm pretty sure LG has just kept the same unit for the G4 here - it's reasonably loud and sounds very similar to the one on the G3. Dynamic range seems a bit improved (a larger resonance chamber, perhaps), but volume and overall character aren't changed much. It's not going to give front-facing stereo setups anything to worry about, but the G4's speaker will do just fine in a pinch for videos and games.
Headphone audio was great, being of basically the same quality as any modern, high-end Snapdragon chipset phone.
LG talked up the G4's camera so much I'm not sure I can do anything but provide a little sobering reality to the situation. It's still a smartphone camera, the sensor is still not especially large, and it's still going to struggle more than a typical mirrorless or DSLR in adverse lighting. Those are simple statements of fact. LG has not discovered a heretofore unknown way to cram a Canon Rebel into your smartphone, even if raw capture and shutter speed adjustment are supported.
That said, the G4's camera is very impressive. The G4's strengths in everyday shooting are obvious once you've taken a few photos - focus times are short, HDR works decently well, and scene white balance is very good. Detail is downright fantastic, even if the sharpening engine can be a little aggressive in some scenes. LG's addition of an RGB sensor along with the typical light sensor allegedly makes colors even more accurate, but I wasn't doing side-by-side comparison shooting during my evaluation.
f/1.8, 1/39 sec. shutter, ISO 50, 0 EV, no HDR.
In more challenging conditions, the G4's six-axis optical image stabilization really does work well - even if motion blur caused by the shutter speed is occasionally present, static details remain incredibly crisp and sharp, as in this photo taken at JFK International Airport. Just look at the jet bridge on the lower right - the level of detail really is striking.
The downside to the very high-contrast, high-sharpness tuning is that some things look a bit less than natural. Clouds have an odd, bold texture to them with over-defined edges, not unlike the kind of "HDR sky" effect you'd get in a smartphone photo editing app. I'd say the tradeoff here is that you want this in low light photos - the extra contrast and clearly defined shapes are far preferable to the hazy, noisy mess you get with phones like the One M9, even if the G4 is using some post-processing trickery to get you the end result. Of course, there's also manual mode and raw capture, so it's not like this effect is completely out of your control.
Speaking of the advanced "manual" mode, it actually is a pretty decent camera app implementation. You can select white balance (in 200K increments), shutter speed (all the way to 1/6000 of a second), ISO, EV, and even manually focus (with a unit-less slider, albeit). The manual camera UI itself is very usable, and the information you need is all up at the top. None of this makes the G4's camera qualitatively better than any other phone's, but if these adjustments are something you want, the G4 is one of the only devices out there that has all of them.
Raw (DNG) capture lets you take this even further, delivering a high degree of control over the photos your smartphone takes. As for the raw-on-a-smartphone debate itself, if you want the answer for most of us: raw photos are not "better" than processed JPGs. In fact, a DNG file without any processing is going to look like butt compared to a processed JPEG image from the same camera, because the raw image has no manipulation applied to it - it's just all the data from the sensor compiled into an image which can then be adjusted by a photo processing tool like Lightroom. To give you an idea of what that means, here's what the raw DNG output from the G4's camera looks like.
Below is what that DNG file looks like with some (admittedly slightly ham-fisted) editing. This includes a lot of white balance correction (both temperature and tint), a slightly increased exposure (+0.25ish), a small amount of noise reduction, and some additional sharpening.
Finally, below this is the JPEG the G4 took at the same time with a simple exposure boost applied to make it roughly similar in brightness to the processed DNG (about +0.5, if you wanted to know that). No color or white balance correction was applied, nor any extra sharpening or noise removal.
Here are the things to note in terms of the [very] basic image quality.
- The unedited DNG has significant white balance problems (problems that vary shot to shot) and a very noticeable dark vignetting effect. The vignetting is not easily correctable. There is also substantial color noise at full crop that is only partially correctable. It does, however, have noticeably more preserved detail at full crop than the JPEG.
- The edited DNG still exhibits the dark vignetting effect, though bumping the exposure value and adjusting the temperature and tint do slightly reduce its obviousness.
- The JPEG has basically realistic white balance without any correction applied, softer shadows, and none of the vignetting of the DNGs. It does have less detail at full crop, however, and definitely loses some detail in the shadows.
And now here are the usability considerations for shooting in DNG (raw) in the first place.
- You must be in "manual" mode in the camera, which disables both HDR and burst-mode shooting.
- Time between shots is increased noticeably, but not dramatically (less than a second).
- There's no DNG-only mode, you have to use DNG+JPEG. Which means...
- Holy crap you're going to blow through storage like nobody's business, at a combined 25MB+ per tap of the shutter. That's 100MB every four photos - shooting fifty photos in a week would be 1.25GB. An SD card could manage that kind of quantity (and slows down your R/W), but that's not insignificant when these DNGs are also going to end up on your laptop or desktop for processing or archival.
This leads us to the actual act of processing: managing digital raw images from a phone is just like managing raw images from a professional camera (read: tedious), except that the smartphone's camera wasn't really designed with raw capture in mind. Smartphones aggressively process the images they take, especially in low light, and this problem is compounded by small but extremely dense high-resolution sensors using highly compact wide-angle, large-aperture lenses. The G4 has a real issue with lens vignette in raw capture mode currently, and until a lens correction profile is created (or LG applies one in the firmware), there really is no simple way to fix this. Additionally, while the DNGs do have more detail, they're less portable because of their massive size (around 20MB a shot) and the fact that they basically require desktop-grade editing software to process and export. You can't Instagram a DNG - it has to be converted to a more portable file format first.
Somewhat misleadingly, the G4 will give you the "share" dialog on photos marked as DNGs in the gallery, but it just shows you the JPEG exposure with the same file name, and that's what is shared when you actually send it to any other app. You'll have to use a third-party app like a file explorer or hook up to a PC via USB to manage the actual DNG files, which is just another great reason not to use DNG mode to begin with.
Basically, don't expect some tremendous improvement in quality if you go around shooting all your night photos in DNG - you might reap some benefits in terms of fine detail, but you may also find things like HDR and burst mode and all that tricky post-processing are much more useful when it comes to getting a great photo than a 20MB file you can't even really do much with on your smartphone. If anything, it just makes handling all your phone's photos even more of a bear to deal with, especially at such large file sizes, with the added bonus of having to do all the processing yourself. If I'm going to go through the trouble of processing a RAW image in the first place, I'm going to use the best capture device I have available to me, which is not a smartphone.
But if you're an intrepid photographer (or simply don't own a dedicated camera) armed with nothing but the contents of your pockets, the G4 does at least provide you this option. And options are, generally speaking, favorable to non-options.
Here's our full gallery of sample images.
Edit: previous versions of this review mentioned that you couldn't adjust the aperture of the G4's camera, because I am dumb (smartphones do not have lenses with adjustable apertures).
GRATUITOUS LONG EXPOSURE PHOTO OF TRAFFIC AT NIGHT: file not found
Stability, bugs, and usability issues
So far, the G4 has been fairly stable for me, but it's not without issues. I will preface this section by saying this is technically pre-production software and bugs can be fixed.
- Wi-Fi performance: Wi-Fi reception in general on this phone has been poorer than I'd expect. I can't provide any useful measurements here, but suffice it to say that it has trouble reaching areas of my apartment that other phones don't.
- Occasional lag / stutters: While not slow, the G4 does occasionally hiccup and stutter in places that I don't necessarily expect it, given how my Nexus 6 performs on Android 5.1.
- Quick glance feature is near-broken: LG never got this quasi-ambient display feature working right on the G Flex 2, and on the G4 it's just as cumbersome and finicky about when it will actually behave as intended.
- DNG files can't be managed properly in stock gallery app: This is a usability issue, but if you're going to tout raw capture as a big feature, at least make sure your gallery app can share those files it can't edit to other apps so that you can edit them elsewhere.
- PIN entry lockscreen is weirdly non-responsive: I'm not sure what's up with this, but almost every time I've gone to enter my PIN on the G4's lockscreen, I've been met with delays and missed key presses.
Let's lay out some basic facts: the Snapdragon 808 has two fewer A57 high-power cores and a substantially less powerful GPU than the Snapdragon 810. It also lacks the 810's LPDDR4 RAM support (which allows 64-bit dual channel memory), but this probably isn't terribly relevant at this point in time. Let's see what this looks like on paper.
- All devices tested are running Android 5.0 or higher with official, unmodified firmware.
- No software is used to modify designed benchmark or throttling behavior - if someone is "cheating" (cough HTC) and disabling most CPU governing during benchmarking, we'll point it out, but we we'll still publish the scores.
Successive Geekbench 3 CPU benchmark cycles reveal an immediate improvement over the Snapdragon 810's aggressive thermal throttling, with consistently high benchmark scores achievable with little to no degradation in performance during my testing. While not as powerful as the 810 "cold," the G4 easily bests the G Flex 2 in this mini-thermal-stress-test, and also very solidly outperforms the One M9 in single-core performance over time. The G4 also was substantially less warm than either 810 device after the test was completed. But the Galaxy S6 still spanked everybody.
The "cold" scores (on the first GB3 run) in the image below are more in line with what you'd expect based on Qualcomm's price sheet - with the 810 easily outdoing the 808 for on multitasking and providing generally comparable single-thread performance. Once again, the Galaxy S6 is the clear outlier.
In a holistic benchmark like AnTuTu, we still get largely predictable results. The 808 at least matches the 810, beating the G Flex 2 and coming close to the One M9. For whatever reason, AnTuTu still appears to favor the high clocks of the Snapdragon 805 for single-thread performance, giving the Nexus 6 and Note 4 unusually strong showings in this test despite their fairing less well in other areas of the benchmark like memory and read/write performance. AnTuTu favors CPU, RAM, and storage, so the Galaxy S6 gets a major advantage with its UFS 2.0 NAND and LPDDR4 memory here. The G4 does well enough here, but doesn't provide a standout performance.
Moving on to graphics, the G4's Adreno 418 GPU is easily its weakest point on paper. The G Flex 2 and One M9 both get the powerful Adreno 430 - with more than double the ALUs (shader cores) of the 418, and that doesn't sound like a recipe for success for the G4. And it isn't. Here are our results from GFXBench 3.1, which tests OpenGL ES3.1, 3.0, and 2.0 performance. The results are in number of frames, so more frames means a higher average FPS, which is better.
As we can see, the G4 clearly is a bit disadvantaged here. Even with the 418's smaller 20nm process helping out on the efficiency front, the old Adreno 420 has no problem beating the 418, and the 430 outright clobbers it, especially in the new ES3.1 test. Through what I can only assume is brute computing force, the Galaxy S6 sweeps the competition on the ES3.0/2.0 tests, though clearly fares substantially poorer on the new ES3.1 standard. But not all graphics benchmarks are created equal -3DMark aims to take a more inclusive, practical approach to measuring graphics performance, so let's take a look at that.
3DMark definitely gives us far more mixed results. Immediately, you can see the Galaxy S6 trails behind both the Snapdragon 805 and 810-powered devices with their Adreno 420 and 430 GPUs, though it does still outperform the 418 in the G4, which itself only has a marginal (~6%) advantage over the year-plus-old Adreno 330 in the G3.
Finally, we'll look at storage. LG has been mum on any details about the storage tech in the G4, but I think eMMC 5.0 NAND is a reasonably good bet - it's no slouch in the R/W department. Let's go to the Androbench results.
Unsurprisingly, Samsung's UFS 2.0 storage wipes the floor with every other phone I tested, but the G4 gets a well-earned second place overall, I'd say. Random read speeds are over 20% faster than any non-S6 device I tested, with random writes similarly 10% quicker than the next fastest phone. Sequential reads had the G4 coming second only to the S6, though sequential writing put it in the middle of the pack, well below the One M9 and Note 4, and even slightly slower than a G3 on Lollipop.
Overall performance impressions
The G4 is one of the fastest phones I've tested this year, but that's also not saying much. For the most part, the benchmarks bear out what I've experienced actually using the phone: the lack of thermal throttling found on the Snapdragon 810 doesn't really make the 808 quicker in every day usage than the 810, even if it does make it a lot more power-efficient. I also found some familiar performance issues on a number of occasions. Multitasking can still wake up the jank beast pretty easily, and if the phone has been idle for long periods of time, it can take a few seconds to "warm up" and get the UI moving at 60FPS again.
Random system stutter was also an issue, with the phone just not quite feeling 100% there for me all the time. The G4 is fast, but it doesn't always let you get comfortable with that speed - it's difficult to tell just when the frames may start dropping, but it does happen with a less than lovable regularity. Still, when it comes down to launching apps and completing basic tasks, the G4 is definitely very quick - it's just a bit... twitchy. Like it can't just stay on task long enough to keep the UI thread smooth the entire time. Perhaps this is just part of the natural behavior of these complex multi-cluster (eg big.LITTLE) CPU architectures, and we're seeing ripples in the UX as a result of the constant switching between the low and high-power cores. It's hard to say.
Additionally, with single-thread performance of the Snapdragon 801, 805, 808, and 810 all generally seeming to fall within a +/-10% range, you're just not likely to notice major speed gains coming from a 2014 phone running Lollipop. While the G3 had the luxury last year of launching later than its competitors and with a slightly faster chipset, this year, the G4 still launched a little later than its competitors, but with a chipset that Samsung is pretty much beating on all fronts. The 808 may get Qualcomm its battery life mojo back, but as far as competitiveness is concerned, Samsung is shipping the S6 with much faster storage, better and more RAM, a significantly more robust CPU, and a GPU that, while not class-leading, still handily beats the G4.
Frankly, this is not the phone if you're looking for the most powerful internal hardware you can buy - Samsung has everybody beat right now, so we're just going to have to sit tight and see what Snapdragon 820 brings to the table later this year.
The software section will basically focus on the differences between the software on the G3 running Android 5.0 and what's new in the G4. I'm also doing a "quick breakdown" section of new features.
- The G4 now supports Android 5.0's multi-user feature for phones, which the G3 does not support. As such, LG's guest mode has been removed.
- The G4 gains the G Flex 2's "quick glance" feature, which allows you to see the time and notifications by swiping down from the top of the screen while it is off.
- New "smart settings" allow you to change sound profiles, toggled Bluetooth/Wi-Fi, or launch an app when headphones or a Bluetooth audio device are connected. I have no idea if these settings will be on the American carrier versions. I'd say these are similar to, though less powerful than, Sony's smart actions.
- The camera app has been completely redone (see Camera section of review).
- There is a new "smart bulletin" widget on the stock launcher, which you can disable (LG Health homescreen is gone, themes are gone).
- Gesture settings have been removed except for bringing the phone to your ear to answer a call and flipping the phone to silence it. Toggles for flipping the phone to pause video, stop an alarm, and fade out the ringtone on pickup are gone.
- Stock launcher "backup and restore" feature is gone.
- Lock screen swipe effect is no longer configurable.
- A number of stock apps have received minor material-esque touches like floating action buttons.
- The Gallery app now allows you to sync your cloud accounts with photos to the app (this seems exceptionally redundant, though - you have to sign in twice, basically).
- There is finally a flashlight toggle in the notification pane quick settings area, but hard to say if this will make it to American variants of the phone.
- In the battery settings, there is a "game optimizer" toggle. I'm told by LG this just forces games to downscale to 1080p to save battery life. It is enabled by default.
- One-handed mode on lock screen and LG keyboard have been removed. One-handed settings menu is gone (dialer still has one-handed mode toggle).
- Stock browser app is gone (replaced by Chrome).
So, now that you've got the overview, how about the finer points? Well, if I'm honest, there really... aren't many. And that's actually good. Yes, the OS has small visual refinements all over the place, but they're so incremental and individually un-noteworthy that they don't change the experience of using the phone in a substantial way.
Well, apart from perhaps one. On the G4, LG has finally, mercifully, greatly reduced the width of the status bar icons - they now stretch just barely under halfway across the screen if you have NFC, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi enabled.
On the G3, as you can see, you have room for a handful of notifications before the status bar goes into overscroll mode, whereas the G4 gives you enough space that this should happen pretty rarely, if ever. I have no idea why LG had the status bar icons so grandpa-sized on the G3. Also, I think we can all agree that the NFC status bar icon is utterly useless and needs to die. And the Bluetooth one probably, too, because what useful information is that really giving me? This isn't a gripe at LG, almost everyone does it, but this is legacy stuff that needs to die.
To recap LG's own suite of software briefly, you get a few things. First, KnockOn allows you to double tap to wake or turn off the display (turning it off only works with the stock launcher), and still works pretty well. KnockCode allows you to set a pattern of taps as your phone's unlock code, which if nothing else, is probably very, very secure by obscurity of implementation alone. LG's QRemote app is pretty similar to every other IR blaster remote app, and you're probably better off with something third party anyway. There's the dual window split-screen app mode, and it's still just as janky as it's always been. Q-Slide apps are still a thing, though I think they may slowly be on the way out - the dedicated Q-Slide shortcuts in Q-Slide-enabled apps have been hidden back in 3-dot settings menus. Q-Slide itself seems unchanged.
Otherwise, LG's software is largely what it's been like since last year - ugly, but not dysfunctional. The number of unnecessary gimmicks and tricks is kept to a relative minimum, with LG having focused most of its software efforts this year, seemingly, on the camera. I think the investments there will be worthwhile.
Still, looks aren't nothing, and LG's modifications to the system UI are, at best, only sometimes noticeable with the use of a third party launcher. Byzantine settings menus with layouts that continue to change with almost every handset release (again, not an LG-exclusive thing) don't help the discoverability of the new stuff, either.
Once you get past the visuals of LG's software, of course, it's still just an Android phone running Android 5.1 - some things are different, but functionally, it doesn't stray too far from what Android does out of the box.
While the G4 does have its flaws, it's still a significant improvement over the G3 in multiple ways, and that alone should win LG some praise (one could not necessarily say the same of, for example, the One M9). The excellent camera experience (DNG issues aside), great battery life, more easily visible display, and mostly respectable performance keep it firmly in the running among the current crop of high-end phones. While some enthusiasts may see it as the only logical choice, having both a removable battery and microSD slot, even without those things the G4 is still a very good phone.
What may be key in certain markets, too, is pricing: LG has consistently priced its devices $50-100 lower than Samsung, and if you're going into your next smartphone with value as a major consideration, LG makes a compelling argument. Sure, it's not as nice as a Galaxy S6, it's not as technically powerful or advanced, and it lacks conveniences like a fingerprint scanner (or gimmicks, like a heart rate monitor).
But LG's been doing surprisingly well with Android OS updates lately, and I have to think that's going to be a trend going forward. They're also doggedly devoted to the camera experience this year in a way I don't think anyone else really is. While I can't be sure if the G4 takes better photos than the Galaxy S6, I can be sure the G4 will offer me more flexibility in the shooting experience if I really want it.
All things considered, the G4 may currently be the best flagship smartphone of 2015 on balance - while it does have weaknesses, they're generally not as bad from a practical standpoint as those of its competitors. The G4 focuses on doing a few things right - battery life, camera, and display (apart from accuracy). Its large display but slightly lower price also give it a unique place in the market - it's not a "huge" phone, but it's big enough, and it won't break the bank quite as much (don't be surprised to see the G4's MSRP continue to drop - I bet that will be key to LG's strategy). These are all huge considerations for most smartphone buyers, and so it's easy to see why the G4 will have strong appeal to someone looking for the "total package." Because if there's one thing that struck me about the G4, it's how rarely I found myself wishing I was using a different phone.