It bends! It flexes! It regains its shape! And it's just the start of things to come for the Korean smartphone manufacturer.
It’s quite possible that we’ve been looking at this all wrong. But can you blame us? For LG, with its new G Flex Android smartphone, has presented us with something that not only is curved — and not just the glass that rests against our face, but the entire body of the phone — but bends and flexes as well.
By now, we’ve all seen the videos, of course. You can press down on the G Flex — and press pretty damn hard, actually, with up to 88 pounds of force. The phone itself is curved. It flattens out, then regains its shape.
What sorcery is this?
Thing is, it’s but one trick the LG G Flex has up its sleeve. And once you get past that novelty, the rest sort of starts to fall into place.
Let’s be clear here — this is not our LG G Flex review. We’ve only had it for a few short days, and this is the proper Korean model — Korean apps and TV antenna included. There’s no way we can get a proper feel for battery life, and we have no idea what the U.S. carriers will do to this thing when and if (ahem) they get it.
But this is quite the interesting phone.
The novelty of the LG G Flex hardware
So let’s start with the obvious — the hardware.
Never mind the bendy stuff — this is, first and foremost, a large Android smartphone.
The LG G Flex is a 6-inch smartphone. Never mind the curve — it’s big. Pretty big, actually. LG will tell you that it doesn’t feel quite that big because of the bend, and perhaps that’s true. But while phones like the LG G2 (5.2 inches) and to a lesser extent the Moto X (4.7 inches) pack large-ish displays into bodies that belie their size, the G Flex still looks and feels like an oversized phone, because it is.
But that curve. In some respects, it’s subtle. Look at the phone straight on, and you might not notice. Renderings of the G Flex have squeezed it at the waist to emphasize the curve. But a quick glance from the top down and things look pretty normal. Pick it up, however, and you’ll immediately spot the difference. The curve, if you’re worried about numbers, is a 700mm radius, LG tells us.
And, yes, it bends.
Plastic bends. Metal can bend. Glass can bend. Anything and (we suppose) just about everything in the G Flex can bend a bit. Or, perhaps more accurately, it bends ever so slightly. You can lay the G Flex on its face and press down on the back and wipe that smile right off its face. With up to 88 pounds of force, which LG says approximates someone sitting on the phone, should it be left in a back pocket.
And that’s fine and all. It’s a really cool bullet point, and it should make for some great marketing. Publishers like us are having a great time with it. This sort of thing is just begging of an animated gif.
But it’s really more a design feature than one of function. You’re not going to be bending and flexing your phone dozens of times a day. At least you shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not cool (it is), and it doesn’t mean it’s not important (again, it is). It’s just not the same sort of active feature like a really great camera or dual front-facing stereo speakers or the highest resolution display in existence.
Let’s keep things in perspective here.
A flexible display is fine and all, but 720p on a 6-inch phone is hard on the eyes.
No, all that bending and flexing lets LG present a sort of large-screen experience that’s accompanied by words like “panoramic” and “theater.” This is a large, curved screen. LG also calls it “immersive.” There’s a cool “QTheater” shortcut from the lock screen that supports this, and LG’s right when it says that the curved body helps put a little air between the speaker and any surface beneath it. Do you truly get pulled into the display like LG likes to think you do? Perhaps not.
That’s partly because it’s sort of tough to swallow a 6-inch display that’s only at 720x1280 resolution, but that’s what you’ve got in the G Flex. And it’s manageable, I suppose, with a 244 pixels-per-inch density. But it’s hardly what we’ve come to expect in flagship device. And on top of that, I’ve experienced some serious ghosting of images when something light is replaced by something dark. The outlines of the keyboard, for example, when it disappears and is replaced by a dark background. It dissipates, but it’s noticeable. Gradients also struggle a bit, with obvious stridation.
It's just not a Korean phone without a TV antenna.
Self-healing scratches are cool — until they don't heal.
The other big buzzword you have to talk about when it comes to the G Flex is “self-healing.” The rear cover of the phone is glossy plastic, but it’s covered by a “self-healing” nano-coating that should hide those annoying little nicks that tend to a phone — particularly one that’s made of glossy plastic. The healing — and that’s a pretty apt description — is a function of time and temperature. The warmer the phone gets — say, when warned by your body heat — the quicker those tiny scratches will heal. It can happen in as little as 30 seconds, LG tells us, or as long as several minutes. Sit and watch it if you want, but we’d recommend coming back after a nice cup of coffee.
Again, that’s a really cool trick. A nice feature. Lord knows just about every phone ever could have used it. It won’t help large gouges, though. And I’d almost rather see something like on the display rather than the body. But baby steps lead to the future. On the other hand, we're going to hear some seriously bellyaching over the scratches that don't disappear. It'll be interesting to see if that's worth it.
The LG G Flex follows in the footsteps of the LG G2, which moved the power and volume buttons to the rear of the phone. But the volume buttons have been redesigned (yes, already), and added in some functionality. Little nubs make them easier to feel with the fingertips. The IR port has been moved (somewhat awkwardly) to the back. And there's a cool new feature to help with selfies. See, the rear 13-megapixel is way cooler to shoot self-portraits with than the front-facing 1.9MP shooter. So LG’s devised a way so that you can know when your ugly mug is in the perfect position for that latest duck face photo. (More on that in a second.)
It’s the little things, I suppose.
Not a whole lot to say about what's under the hood. The G Flex has a Snapdragon 800 and a large (and curved and sort-of bendy) 3,500 mAh battery. We'll wait to do some proper real-world battery testing once we've got a U.S. version on U.S. networks, but a battery with that much capacity should do OK, especially considering it's only pushing a 720p display.
Software's starting to look better
Things have gotten a little better on the software front, too. LG’s alway packed plenty of functionality into its phones — easily on par with the likes of Samsung, even if the smaller South Korean company is often (and sometimes incorrectly) referred to as a copycat. And there’s still probably an overabundance of features here in the G Flex. They still bleed over into the notification pull-down as well, with quick settings easily taking up half the screen, getting in the way of more useful information.
(It's worth noting that LG has moved the settings button in the notification shade to a more obvious place. It shouldn't be mistaken with the shortcut to the volume settings anymore.)
But the good news is the user interface has grown a bit in its sophistication. That’s always been LG’s Achille’s Heel. It’s still full of animations you won’t find anywhere else — I tend to like them, actually — but gone is some of the flatness, and the skeuomorphic folders that never should have been in the first place. The G Flex comes with a "Flex" theme loaded by default. There's also an "LG" theme on board, but it's not quit as dark and mysterious. It looks like you'll be able to download other themes, if you want. (At least in this Korean version.)
Other fun features include:
- A "Swing Lock Screen" that gives a waves-in-the-ocean effect that goes nicely with the curve of the phone.
- There's a cool focus mode in the camera app for taking selfies with the rear camera. That's usually a matter of guessing and hoping your mug is in focus. Switch things to "face detection," though, and the rear power button lights up when you're properly framed. At least in theory. It does take some getting used to.
- LG's "Knock On" feature — double tap the display to wake the phone — is still here.
- LG now has its own "Dual Window" feature for having more than one app on the screen at a time.
The bottom line (so far)
After just a few days with this phone — and a briefing with LG executives — this much is clear: The LG G Flex is just the beginning. This curved, bendable phone is but the first step in what LG sees for the future. Not every phone will be like this, of course — but LG predicts 40 percent of devices will be curved or bendable by 2018 to the end of the decade. It’s about being able to do it, more than it is how it’s done in this particular phone.
It's fun to geek out over all that bending and flexing, but that's just part of the G Flex.
But you know what? Our initial impressions are pretty good. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again here — LG’s always been able to make compelling hardware, even if it’s not supported by an insane marketing budget or insider hype. And consider that the last oversized phone LG attempted was the ill-fated LG Vu. The six-inch G Flex pushes boundaries while repeating almost none of those mistakes. I'm looking forward to seeing this sort of curved design in a smaller phone — something LG says it most certainly can do if it wants.
No, the biggest strike against the G Flex has got to be the low pixel density in the display. To a lesser extent, the software remains temperamental, with menu bars showing in what otherwise should be full-screen apps, plus LG’s awkward implementation of on-screen buttons in the first place. And it's running Android 4.2.2, which is starting to sound fairly long in the tooth considering how quickly other recent devices are being updated to Android 4.4.
We haven't even talked about price, because it's really a non-starter right now. If you want to import this phone — again, it's a Korean device; we don't yet know about U.S. models — it'll cost you just about $1,000. If you have that kind of money to spend on a smartphone, you probably don't care what it costs.
The selling point of this phone, however, is the hardware. The look and feel. Maybe the curvature and self-healing properties indeed are gimmicks. So what. They’ve got folks talking about LG, and talking about the G Flex. And for a phone that’s so obviously the first step at a long future, maybe that’s enough.