There's no doubt - LG's here. But will the Optimus G be here to stay?
When was the last time you were excited about an LG phone? It has been a while since the handset maker had both buzz and substance on its side; upon entering the Android market, LG lost a bit of its luster, and pitted against such fierce competition like Samsung and Apple, LG began its descent into the brink of obscurity. Enter the Optimus G. With its latest flagship model (and accompanying marketing blitz), LG hopes to regain its fair share of the spotlight, and reestablish itself as a major player in an increasingly crowded market.
Its strategy is simple: stuff a smartphone with the biggest and best specs, pump dollars into its marketing budget, and one-up nearly every other flagship on the market today. But will the strategy pay off, and will the Optimus G catch the eye of AT&T customers? After a week with the phone, I’m ready to make a prediction.
The Optimus G's display just might be the best in the biz today, and at 4.7 inches, it's both usable and huge. The Snapdragon Pro and 2 GB of RAM, coupled with AT&T's consistenty-impressive LTE, add up to the fastest Android experience yet.
The Optimus G's camera doesn't come close to some of its competitor's optics, and the lack of a removable battery might be a drag for some. The G ships with Ice Cream Sandwich, just as Samsung and HTC are shipping their next wave of Jelly Bean-powered devices.
Inside this review
LG Optimus G: AT&T vs. Sprint
LG has a lot to prove with the Optimus G; not only is there pressure to create a blockbuster device, but there’s also pressure to show that the company can make devices as nice (if not better) than its main rivals Samsung, HTC, and Motorola. And with the G, LG comes as close as it ever has.
As we’ve established, LG chose to take a different route than the one Samsung took with its Galaxy S 3 launch, customizing a variety of models to meet carriers’ specific wants and needs. Despite this custom tailoring, all Optimus Gs retain a sense of commonality, including AT&T’s model. Though it differs from the “standard” international version as well as Sprint’s model in both its hardware and software, the AT&T-specific Optimus G very much lives up to its branding.
AT&T’s Optimus G is striking with its “crystallized” back (part of that "Crystal Reflection Process" thing), though even this differs ever so slightly from the rest of the family with a slightly larger pattern. This isn’t something you’ll notice unless comparing two different models side-by-side, though it was at least worth a mention. It’s of a high-gloss finish that is stunning to look at but absolutely dreadful to handle. It is extremely slippery, even more so than most other glossy finishes, and is nearly impossible to keep smudge-free. Keep a microfiber cloth with you at all times if this is something that gets your goat. The 8MP camera sits flush on the backside, with a framed LED flash located directly underneath. The Optimus G’s less-than-stellar speaker is located on the bottom right-hand corner of the backside.
This model has sharp corners whereas the international and Sprint versions are a bit more rounded, giving the AT&T Optimus G a completely different feel in the hand. I can’t help but think of Verizon’s LG Intuition — this very much reminds me of a smaller version (or is the Intuition a larger version?) — both have a certain boxy feel to them. The edges are curved so despite the sharp-cornered squareness, the G does indeed feel contour to your hand. This model has a matte finish on the top and bottom edges, where the headphone jack and micro-USB charging slot lie respectively. The left and right edges are glossy, with the power button located to the right and the volume rocker and micro SIM/microSD door located to the left. LG has chosen to integrate their notification light into the power button, which glows upon incoming messages and calls. It’s a cool idea and LG manages to execute it in a subtle yet highly effective way.
But all that’s just fluff. The real star here is the Optimus G’s breathtaking display. It’s huge at 4.7 inches without feeling obtrusively large. There is a considerable bezel, especially on the top and bottom, but it frames this display beautifully, and I really don’t know if there would be much I would change about its size and shape.
In terms of quality, this screen is as good as it gets. It’s using IPS technology complete with a 768 x 1280 resolution, resulting in a PPI of around 318. What does all that mumbo-jumbo add up to? A mind-blowing experience. This is without a doubt one of the brightest, clearest, sharpest displays you’ll ever see. Viewing angles are simply unmatched, and color representation is as close to perfectly accurate as I’ve seen in a very long time. Outdoor viewing is a pleasure-- this is one of the best performing displays in direct sunlight. In My only complaint is that colors, while accurate, don’t seem nearly saturated enough, and at times even a bit washed out, but I’ll go ahead and chalk this up to my personal history with (and preference for) AMOLED displays.
Unfortunately, not all apps are designed to take full advantage of all those pixels, and rather than scaling them up, the Optimus G defaults to keeping them scaled down. In less-than-technical terms, this means that a few apps only take up a portion of the screen, leaving a black frame where the unused pixels lie. These apps are few and far between, as most are designed to scale themselves, but I managed to run across one or two. You can correct this in the device’s settings menu under “Aspect Ratio Correction”, but I can’t figure out for the life of me why LG hasn’t made scaling-up default. Perhaps those more tech savvy can explain it to me, but this is going to leave a lot of less-than-expert users scratching their heads confused about why their apps look so small.
On the other hand -- perhaps the most beautiful thing about the Optimus G isn’t even visible. Inside is where the G’s heart and soul lies, and where it falls short in terms of original design, it makes up for in terms of top-notch internals. LG has managed to pack a 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2 full gigs of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage, and LTE connectivity into its flagship, and the results payoff. The G is the fastest, most fluid Android device I have ever used, a title previously claimed by the Galaxy S3. I don't put too much faith in benchmarks, but when they accurately reflect how impressive performance really is, I feel the need to include them-- take Quadrant, for example, on which the Optimus G scores a whopping 7,682. Wow. For now, you simply cannot find a faster Android smartphone.
And what happens when you put an ultra-fast phone on an ultra-fast network? Unspeakable things. AT&T’s LTE network is blistering, and consistently provides speeds equal to or faster than Verizon. Here in New York I consistently saw download speeds between 15 and 20 mbps, with upload speeds between 8 and 10 mbps.
Don’t worry about the toll that LTE radio will have on your battery: it’s non removable, but at 2,100 mAh, I don’t really see the need for a spare or extended battery. I consistently got through a full day with juice to spare with moderate to heavy usage, and with light usage and standby, I went for days without a charger. And if you’re a mega-user, LG has included a handy “Eco Mode” for that quad-core beast, limiting its power to gain extra sips out of the battery. Take my word for it: there’s nothing to worry about here.
Despite that mega screen and gut-busting internals, the Optimus G is a mere .33 inches thick, managing to get very close to the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S 3 in that regard. It’s also pretty light at 5.11 ounces, though at that weight it’s noticeably heavier than some of the competition. Overall, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is the nicest LG-produced hardware I have ever used.
In my opinion, one of the reasons LG has had such a hard time gaining traction in the Android market is its custom software, a bloated, over-the-top skin that takes Android and turns it on its head. If you’re asking how this is any different than Samsung’s TouchWiz, you have a valid point. The difference lies in performance: in the past, LG has taken it too far, weighing down its devices to the point of aggrevating sluggishness, while Samsung has always given its devices enough guts to handle TouchWiz. That changes with the Optimus G—the skin here is as obtrusive and in-your-face as ever, but thanks to the G’s warp-speed performance, this custom software seems a lot less annoying. Screens transition with ease and eye-popping animation, the app drawer flies open, and multitasking laughs at whatever you throw at it. This thing flies.
LG's skin has some eye-popping graphics built into simple tasks like unlocking the phone and transitioning between homescreens, made possible by that super fast processor and RAM.
There is a downside to so much fluff. The Optimus G ships with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is already flirting with tired, boring and outdated. LG has said that it expects to push Jelly Bean to the G in late 2012, and as much as I want to their word for it, prior experience with LG’s software updates keep me on the fence. We’ve got some pretty in-depth customizations, which can get in the way of quick and speedy updates, and compounded with AT&T’s testing and other unexpected delays, I’m guessing it’ll be a while before we actually see Jelly Bean on the Optimus G. I hope I’m wrong, and you know that the tinkerers are already out there working on a port, but if you’re the type to depend on traditional OTA updates and you’re craving Jelly Bean, this is something to keep in mind.
It seems to me, at least, that LG is doubling down on its Optimus skin, focusing on refining and tweaking it enough to create a whole-hearted, undeniable LG experience. Things like unlocking the screen and transitioning between homescreens are grandiose with over-the-top animations, and icons are as cartoonish as they’ve ever been. But not everything is as in-your-face. Some changes are subtle, like the settings menu, which has been given the old LG overhaul-- it’s now broken into side-by-side categories rather than the traditional scroll screen, and includes some intuitive settings like “Quiet Time”, which sets times to turn off all sounds and “Wise Screen”, which keeps the display lit while you’re looking at it.The Optimus G's custom skin isn't always in your face: here, LG has made subtle yet effective changes to the settings menu.
Despite LG’s heavy skinning, the Optimus G doesn’t ship with much LG bloatware, and the functionalities that are included are luckily quite useful and a welcome addition. Take for example Quick Memo, which trumps Samsung’s S-Memo by allowing your notes to stay on the screen even after you’ve exited the application, eliminating the need to toggle back and forth to see your notes. There’s also Q-Slide, an oddly-named yet super-cool way to watch your movie while using your phone for other tasks. Instead of making the video smaller to fit alongside whatever else you’re doing, it makes the video transparent, so it still takes up the full screen, but you can see through it to the rest of the phone. A lot of what LG is doing with their skin is based on what Samsung has already done, but LG is improving and adding to it rather than just lifting it.
Before you get too excited about the lack of bloatware, be aware that AT&T hasn’t been as kind as LG, and has stuffed the Optimus G with its usual bag of mostly-useless goodies. AT&T’s Code Scanner, FamilyMap, Locker, Navigator, Ready2Go, and Smart WiFi are all here, and the carrier has cleverly labeled them all with its moniker, ensuring they are close to the top of your app drawer. But despite its best attempts, AT&T hasn’t managed to slow the G down one bit, so I wouldn’t fret too much about all that unnecessary bloatware.
The Optimus G has a nice camera, but unfortunately, that’s not enough to compete with the really stellar optics offered by HTC, Samsung, Apple, and LG. Yes, that's right-- the AT&T Optimus G can't even compete with its Sprint-bound sibling, which outperforms thanks to its 13 MP shooter. Nevertheless, this camera has fast autofocus, little shutter lag, and offers some really cool features, like LG’s Cheese Shot, which will take a self portrait with your 8 MP camera just by saying “Cheese.” But despite its bell and whistles, the end results fail to wow. I remember the first time I saw photos from the One X, the Galaxy S 3, and the iPhone 4S/5. I truly felt that we were looking at a post point-and-shoot world. With the Optimus G’s photos, I’m reminded that cell phone cameras are cell phones first, cameras second. Again, this isn’t to say that you won’t get some stellar shots under ideal lighting conditions after tinkering with some settings, but I’d be remiss to praise the Optimus G’s optics while you can something noticeably better with the competition.
With the current state of Android hardware, it would be hard to say that LG doesn’t have a struggle ahead to reclaim some of the market share. But with the Optimus G, the company is coming out swinging. This device is as close to the total package as we’ve seen: top-of-the-line internals, amazing performance, and a refined and useful user experience translate to a future-proof phone that is worth every single penny of its $200 price tag. In terms of specs and overall usability, the Optimus G is the best phone on the market today.
But specs and usability are only part of the story, and that’s really unfortunate for LG. The Optimus G performs better than the Galaxy S3, and some would say it even looks better, but I’d be hard pressed to recommend it over Samsung’s flagship. The main reason is the market that supports a smartphone. The GS3 has reached such success that third-party manufacturers have thrown their support behind it, similar to what they did to make the iPhone such a huge phenomenon. Like it or not, an ecosystem can make or break a smartphone, and thanks to its overwhelming success, the Galaxy S 3 has a plethora accessories, cases, speakers, cables, docks and more on the market. I’m skeptical that LG can generate this level of excitement among third-party manufacturers.
So this is what it boils down to: you can spend $200 on a top-of-the-line phone that outperforms just about everything out there, or you can spend $200 on a nearly-as-great Galaxy S3 (and it's damned close) that brings with it enough accessories, support, and customizability to make it through your entire two-year contract. This is a double-edged sword, because LG may in fact be able to find a niche that wants something different than what the masses are carrying. But as history shows, niche audiences don’t make blockbuster phones. I’m afraid that the Optimus G won’t be successful enough to buy into, and that’s really too bad, because it truly is the best of the best.