Phil in Seoul

What do you do if you're a company with some good products, but pretty much zero mind share? If you're LG, you pack up a handful of journalists and bring 'em to Seoul for a week-long media tour. That's where I was last week -- Seoul, South Korea, where LG hosted a number of us for the launch of the Optimus G, some closed-door meetings, a little bit of sightseeing, a lot of great food, and a new understanding of how this crazy smartphone business works in general, and for LG in particular.

Meanwhile, the world went crazy for the iPhone 5. Bat-shit crazy.

It's been a little while since we last chatted. Let's make this one count, shall we?

The LG Media Tour

What can I say? When someone invites you to South Korea, I highly recommend you go. Yeah, it's a hell of a long way. Half a world away. The city is massive in scale, impressive in height, but it's also got a more friendly vibe than you might get in New York.

The Optimus G

The purpose of the trip was twofold: First, the launch of the Optimus G and the introduction of "G Style." (That goes along with the "L Style" line introduced at Mobile World Congress in the spring. Get it? L Style. G Style. LG Style.) It's very much a marriage of high-end hardware with an updated software experience, and LG's not messing around with this one. You're going to see a lot of it worldwide. 

LGLG gave us each an Optimus G to use for a couple days. These were preproduction units, so there was a little of wonk to them, and I'm not yet passing final judgment. But my initial reaction was pretty good. The hardware is solid both in specs and build quality. The phone's a bit heavier than what you're probably used to. It's not a deal-breaker, especially given how thin it is. I'm also not sure exactly what hardware you're going to see where you live. Specs might change slightly, as might physical details. The version of the phone with the 8-megapixel camera actually slims down a tiny bit more, with the camera lens flush with the body of the phone, instead of sticking out ever so slight, as you get in the 13-megapixel version. We'll find out more with regional announcements over the next couple of months.

The software, while not quite final on the units we used, is decent. The user interface didn't wow me. LG's putting a lot of emphasis on the "user experience," but they're all kind of blurring together to me. Maybe I'm just getting bored with the current paradigm of widgets/icons/features. But LG has definitely loaded up on the features, much as Samsung's done with the latest version of TouchWiz. It'll be interesting to see just how many of these new features actually get used. QSlide is pretty ambitious. Say you're watching a movie, and you need to send a text or e-mail (or do something else). Instead of pausing the video, it turns transparent and sort of fades into the background, and you bang out a few quick sentences in the foreground. (A slider lets you control the transparency.) It works well, but how often is that really a thing?

The camera app is full of good features as well as some novelties -- no, I don't think I'm going to trigger the shutter by saying "Cheese!" or, worse, "LG!" QuickMemo takes a page from Samsung's Galaxy Note, letting you draw on top of just about anything.

Again, these are not bad things. Features are good. But simplicity is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and I'm not sure that's a good thing as the smartphone market continues to attract first-time owners. High-end phones need not be burdened by gimmicks to be good.

More from Seoul

Seoul

We had a series of meetings with folks from the hardware and software end of things. There were some pretty frank discussions, not unlike what we've been doing as part of the HTC Frequencies group. That sort of back-and-forth is invaluable. On one hand, it helps us understand the motives behind the hardware and software, and that's not something you can get from a press release, or even from using a phone. And it also lets us give unfiltered feedback directly to the manufacturer. Will it directly influence the next generation of smartphones? Probably not as much we'd like to think. But then again we're nerds, not designers or engineers, much as we might like to pretend we are. But it's that dialog -- the manufacturer telling us its story, and us sharing our thoughts -- that helps to shape both sides of the equation.

We also donned blue booties and yellow jackets and took a brief tour of a production facility, where we got a glimpse of stress testing -- torture testing, if you well, with thousands of repeated button-presses and screen touches. But the real gem was seeing a production line up-close. And, yes, we got to see a couple of unannounced U.S-bound smartphones being assembled. (Look at the recent headlines and you can probably guess what they are.) The assembly was impressively fast, and much more hands-on than you might expect. It's a mix of human and machine, ending with the hard-coding of the phone's unique identifiers, and finally the ROM itself. (A process that takes around 10 minutes.) 

Fun fact: All the women working on the production line were on salary, I was told. Presumably there are quotas that must be met (and I have no idea what the pay scale is), but it's nice to see they're not working on a per-device-assembled basis.

What's next for LG?

So what's kept LG from breaking through in the States?

It's not that there haven't been chances. The Optimus Black hit Sprint and others as the LG Marquee, but it didn't get much traction. AT&T picked up the Nitro HD, our version of the Optimus LTE. And for what it's worth, Verizon has snagged the LG Intuition, aka the Optimus Vu. The Optimus S made a bit of a name for itself as a decent low-end/hacker-friendly phone. So it's not like we've had a shortage of brand-name material from LG.

On the other hand, LG's throwing more and more adjectives at its revamped user experience. It's newer, and it's better, but it's not that different. Comparing it to itself, sure. It's probably worthy of some superlatives. But up against the friendliness of HTC Sense, the "inspired by nature" TouchWiz from Samsung, as well as stock Android, is it really bringing anything we haven't seen before?

We're asking a lot of questions here, and we're not ready to answer them. We need some more time with this phone for that.

But we're going to be asking this question of you all, starting now: LG's got the pieces in place. What's kept it from making the big play?

The iPhone 5 and iOS 6

Make no mistake, folks. This is a great update to a great phone. That much is apparent in just a few minutes of playtime.  (And if you have a few more minutes, check out iMore.com's excellent iPhone 5 primer and iOS 6 review.) Still, a few thoughts:

  • Despite the slightly larger display -- it's up to 4 inches -- it still feels a bit like a toy. A high-quality, expensive toy, but dainty nonetheless.
  • Apple's new Maps app -- part of iOS 6 and not just the iPhone 5 -- is a decidedly un-Apple way of doing things. It feels more like Google, actually, in that it was released without being anywhere near good -- never mind being anywhere near finished.
  • Siri still kinda sucks. She's slow as hell on the iPad 2.
  • I'm all for excitement over a new product. But with the iPhone, folks have their priorities all out of whack. How the hell do people have time to wait in line for days at an Apple store? Jobs? Families? Smart people preorder, and perhaps have a little patience.
  • Whether or not Google does a new Nexus phone this fall, something has to be done about having a polished experience. Apple's still the king of this.

Phew. That's quite a bit for a Sunday. And there's no rest for the weary. We've got plenty more in store, and the fall CTIA event (erm, MobileCON, it's now called) is just two weeks away. Let's get to work.

 

Reader comments

From the Editor's Desk: So long, Seoul

39 Comments

Phil, you took the words right out of my mouth, I also said that the I- Phone 5 felt like a toy. After using my SGS3, I could never buy a toy.

Phil, I'm with you on the people waiting in line thing. Apple is undoubtedly the king of marketing, and they get heaps of loyal fans. IMO, Apple may have started this whole smartphone frenzy but they're now lagging in innovation. Other than that finely tuned (and apparently in-house) A6 SoC found in the iPhone 5, there isn't anything really groundbreaking.

I'd love to see them do well in the iPhone 5 sales, and make no mistake about it they will do great. Competition is very important to Android and the average consumers alike.

I've often wondered about these people that want to go camp out in a line to be the 1st to have some new gadget. Do these people actually have jobs? I certainly don't know of many that give that kind of time off. I work as a teacher at a community college & I watch some of these kids get a tuition reimbursement check & rush out to go buy something like the iPhone. Then I wonder how they will pay their school expenses. Oh that's right, they don't. They go on TV & complain about the rising cost of tuition & textbooks or they complain to Congress. But hey... At least they got the new iPhone or iGadget that is all the social rage of the day.

And coming up next they are going to camp out for days on end for the premiere of the final Twilight movie!

...sheesh...

My girlfriend really wanted the iPhone 5. She was on AT&T. I was on Sprint. We walked into the Verizon store on Friday which was the day the iPhone came out. Ask if they had any left. The guy asked her what color she wanted. She decided on white. I got the blue sgs 3. I saw the videos of people camping out and died laughing.

Phil,

Hope you enjoyed Korea. My family and I were stationed in Seoul from 2005-2008 and we loved it. Please tell me you went to the massive electronics market!

Oh my God Phil! You have betrayed us!!! How dare you touch an iPhone!!! May lightening and brimstone rain down on you from the heavens! Hope you didnt get #iLost in South Korea :) Just kidding.
iPhone is good but not as good as people make it out to be. But the new windows 8 devices are looking mighty sexy...I might even get the HTC 8X in addition to the one X I already have. One X plus EIGHT X=HTC giving me a free trip to Taiwan

Imagine how long the lines would be if there was only ONE Android device release per year? That is just another benefit of "choice" in our ecosystem. Wouldn't it be nice to see what first day sales of ALL Android devices in a year and translate that to what a line would look like at retail stores?

What I would like from a device manufacturer is to dedicate a team for 18 mo of a phone's life to ensuring upgrades/updates. The purpose, "we know you are on a 2 year contract and you also know we want to sell phones. We guarantee to keep you on the latest releases and in turn please come back to us for our latest/greatest in 2 years" They would publish exactly when submitted to the carrier and the status of the carrier's efforts. Honesty and timely updates do a lot for my vendor loyalty.

Actually, the "lines" are a result of Apple's marketing convincing people that they need to be the *first* to get it. It's not about the iPhone being a good phone. It's about it being a phone that "defines" who you are and makes you one of the "elite".

In fact, there's been some talk over the years that Apple intentionally holds back a bit on first-day supply to encourage people to stand in the lines. Lots of pictures and video plastered all over the web makes your device look desirable. It's called a "band wagon" marketing strategy:

"Look. All these people want the iPhone so badly that they're willing to stand in line over night. That must mean it's awesome. Don't you want one so you can be as cool as them?"

Welcome back Phil.. Let see what do you have for us about Apple new Ilost.. ops I meant Apple new map... and other new features.

"LG's got the pieces in place. What's kept it from making the big play?"

I think their hardware designs are lackluster and frankly fugly (especially the back of most of their devices). Also their software interface is clunky and unappealing.

Similar sentiments toward the iPhone 5. In particular that stretched screen looks really odd to me. It's just too tall and makes the phone look unusually skinny. Reminds me of a lanky teenager. Not to mention it has too much bezel! Yuck

The iPhone 5 is actually in line with a lot of Android phones -- think HTC One S. It's the same 16:9 ratio. It just looks a bit odd because of the narrow design. I'm using one right now to type this, even, and you very quickly get used to it. There's very little bezel, actually...

I just picked up an LG Escape, and am pretty happy with it, so far, after being a longtime Blackberry user. I considered Samsung and HTC, but LG won.

iPhone is the past, Apple is proving it with 4S and now 5. On software, Android is growing fast and better; On hardware, Apple is being behing the top Android hardware. I'm not seeing future for iPhone.

LG has very ugly and unappealing phones, in both look and software. That is why I would never buy them. At least some of moto's phones have a nice industrial look to them. The new iPhone is very, very good. It would easily be one of, if not the best, phone on the market if it wasn't for the hefty price tag for the 16 GB model. $200 is a bit much for 16 GB of non expandable storage (especially when you can get a HTC One X on AT&T for $99 and get 25 GB of drpbox on top of it). I can get the S3 for $200 and have 64 GB of removable storage AND 50 GB of Dropbox free AND 20000 songs in Google play. If the 32 GB model was $250 instead of $300, them MAYBE I'd consider buying one.

Phil is Gangnam style!

Just kidding, welcome back, and do tell more about the new LG phones. They don't look half bad, btw, but it's difficult to stand out among so many good Android phones lately.

As to iBleat, no need to pollute AC with mentioning it, it's really not that important any longer...

"LG's got the pieces in place. What's kept it from making the big play?"

My *perception* is that LG is horrible with updating / supporting their devices. I'll have to dig around on that - but I won't buy a device from a manufacturer that doesn't actively update it and keep up with Android releases.

Having said that, that was the main reason I've stayed away from Samsung (I've pretty much stuck w/ HTC) - so it's good to see that they are really supporting the SG3. It will be interesting to see when they do actually get JB.

I'm with you on iPhone 5. After playing with it today, I can see where they wanted to take the design. Apple clearly hopes to make its competition look bulky and oversized with a thinner, sleeker design, but it comes off a little too small and insubstantial, like the form factor would be a great MP3 player or smart remote, not a phone. It felt somewhat top heavy to me; the weight seems to be concentrated in the top third of the device, so the balance is a little odd. It isn't feather light either, more like a GNex with half the weight of the regular battery. The display is set into the bezel and protrudes slightly, giving it an edge around the glass. The volume buttons also stick out a bit too much. A nice device, but I'm not sure enlarging the display while decreasing the overall size gives iPhone 5 the feel Apple intended. If anything, I can see someone picking it up and thinking "too small."

And a shout out to the Verizon GNex users who got Jelly Bean! The speed is unreal. It's something you have to use to understand. The phone is so dialed in now that almost a year later, I'd still recommend it over most phones out there.

Welcome back .. about LG I have the Rev and I love it just wish they would have supported it better or at all....you invest in there phone and they do not support it at all. .

I miss seoul.... Did you go to the seoul tower? Everland is a must hit stop too.. Hopefully you did some fun site seeing. I miss watching tv on my phone... Lol starcraft competitions on the go, so wish I had stayed another year. We'll, I may get to go back I suppose next year. Mmmm, hey! Did you try a McDonalds bulgogi burger? Mmmm, bulgogi.....

"Whether or not Google does a new Nexus phone this fall, something has to be done about having a polished experience. Apple's still the king of this."

I agree Phil.

I also think Google needs a better, high-quality materials, designed phone. This cheap plastic feel has got to go.

That line jumped out at me. Can you spend more time on this "polished experience" concept? This is a sincere question with no hidden agenda ready to pounce on your answer - I am curious as to what makes up the polish and how Apple reigns supreme in this area. I have a vague notion of what it could mean, but seeing it in print makes me want to hear more from Phil and the Gang about this concept.

I wish I had known you were here in Seoul. I would come to see you and taken out for Korean BBQ. I've lived in Seoul for the last year and listen to Android Central pretty often.

Did you get a vibe about the Apple attempt to BAN SAMSUNG from selling most of it's range in the USA? Somebody must have commented on that.