LG G3 ReviewWelcome to the era of Quad HD

by Alex Dobie

LG's new flagship heralds the era of 'Quad HD' smartphones. But do you really need more pixels than an HDTV in the palm of your hand?

"It turns out there’s a magic number right around 300 pixels per inch," said Steve Jobs, introducing the world to the iPhone 4 in 2010, "that when you hold something around 10 to 12 inches away from your eyes, is the limit of the human retina to differentiate the pixels."

Though somewhat controversial at the time, the years that followed saw Jobs' "magic number" become a target rival smartphones would strive towards — and eventually surpass. And as LG prepared to launch its flagship smartphone for 2014 with a whopping 538 pixels per inch, the Korean company chose to address this point head-on.

Steve Jobs was wrong on smartphone pixel density, LG claims.

"Steve Jobs was wrong," LG's head of smartphone planning, Dr. Ramchan Woo, told us at the launch event in London, "We love Steve Jobs, but he was wrong." Woo uses the example of high-quality printing, and the distinction between lines per inch and pixels per inch to back up his assertion. High-quality art books are typically printed at up to 300 lines per inch, he tells us, and to accurately represent this much detail you need around double that number in pixels per inch.

There's also the implication that like a high-quality print, you might want to enjoy a large, high-resolution smartphone screen from a little closer than 12 inches away. The idea of watching a TV show, or even an entire movie on your smartphone is less outlandish than in the early days of Apple's groundbreaking Retina Display. As screen sizes have increased, handsets gradually have become more adept at all kinds of content consumption.

That's where the LG G3 comes in. With a 5.5-inch display packed with more pixels than any mainstream phone, LG is hoping the G3's visual credentials will help set it apart in an increasingly crowded high-end smartphone market.

A great display is a start, and there's no denying the G3 brings unparalleled sharpness to the table. But what about the rest of the experience? Can LG afford to field another plastic smartphone in an year when even Samsung is starting to think further outside the box when it comes to materials and build? And what about software design, where LG's typically lagged behind the pack?

We'll explore all this and much more in the Android Central review of the LG G3. Join us after the break.

LG G3

About this review

This review was first published on June 5 based on a week with a Korean LG G3 (LG-F400K) running pre-production software. It was updated on June 19 based on our experiences with updated firmware on the Korean model, as well as a final European version of the phone (LG-D855). Our Korean G3 had 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, while the European model had 2GB and 16GB. The Korean model featured some Korea-only features like a built-in DMB TV antenna; the European G3 shipped with built-in wireless charging capabilities.

We've been using both G3 models on the EE network in the UK, in areas with solid 4G (LTE) and 3G (HSPA) coverage.

LG G3 video walk-through

LG G3 hardware

Pixels on the front, plastic on the back

LG G3 internals

Pushing high-end Android hardware to the limit

The G3 runs a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor — not the rumored Snapdragon 805, which we've still not seen in any production hardware — along with 2GB or 3GB of RAM, depending on where you buy the device. That'll also dictate how much internal storage you get — the 2GB version has 16GB of built-in flash, the 3GB is coupled with a roomier 32GB. We've used both versions of the G3, and we've found basically no appreciable difference in performance between the two. The 3GB will be able to hold more apps in memory before having to re-load them (since that's how RAM works), but we never found the 2GB version's multitasking capabilities in any way lacking.

LG G3 display

These SKU differences may be perplexing, but LG tells us the phone's software is optimized for the 2GB version, so buyers picking up that version shouldn't get an inferior core experience. What's more frustrating is that some countries — notably the UK — seem to have been left out of the 32GB party altogether.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 801 is a powerful chip indeed, as we've seen from just about every Android flagship released so far this year. For the most part, the LG G3 is every bit as speedy as its Android rivals, making short work even of traditionally demanding tasks like desktop site browsing in Google Chrome and running two apps on-screen at the same time through the Dual window feature. A couple of LG's home screen widgets can cause things to chug a little, however. The animations when expanding the Smart Notice widget, and when swiping into the Smart Bulletin home screen pane, for instance, occasionally show a little slowdown. Fortunately both of these are easily disabled.

In an earlier version of this review, based on pre-production G3 firmware, we noted a few widespread performance issues throughout the UI. Thankfully these have been almost completely resolved in the final firmware. We'd hesitate to put it on the same level as the almost flawlessly smooth HTC One M8, but it certainly gives rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 a run for their money.

LG G3LG G3

On the other hand, the gaming impact of running such a high resolution on the same hardware as many 1080p phones is evident in more demanding titles. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S5, the G3 consistently scored around 10 frames per second lower in Epic Citadel, and this frame rate gap was also apparent in visually rich games like Asphalt 8. That makes sense considering you're pushing more pixels through the same SoC. And when it comes to graphically-intensive apps, all those extra pixels aren't free.

Elsewhere, you're looking at HSPA+ (42Mbps or 21Mbps depending on market) and 4G LTE connectivity along with Wifi up to 802.11ac, and Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX. And yes, it's still a phone, so you can make calls on it if you're so inclined; on the whole, call quality on our European G3 was comparable to other Android flagships we've used. The same goes for data connectivity over Wifi, 3G and 4G.

LG G3
 

2.94 in

74.6 mm

 

0.35 in

8.9 mm

   
   

5.76 in

146.3 mm

   

5.26 oz (149 g)

5.5" 2K QHD

2560x1440

538ppi

IPS LCD

3000mAh

Talk: 6 hrs

Standby: 310 hrs

Qi wireless (except US & Korea)

  • Rear: 13.0MP BSI sensor, ƒ2.4 lens, OIS

    4K video

    Laser autofocus assist

    Front: 2.1MP

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor

    Quad-core 2.5Ghz

    Adreno 330 GPU

  • 2GB/3GB RAM

    16GB/32GB internal storage

    microSD expansion, up to 128GB

  • LTE

    HSPA

    Wi-Fi 802.11ac

    Bluetooth 4.0

    NFC

  • Android 4.4.2 KitKat

    LG UI

    Smart Notice, Knock Code, Quick Circle

LG G3 software

Squares, circles and simplicity

After a couple of years with no real design language to speak of, LG's taken things back to basics in 2014, with a focus on software simplicity and more geometric UI elements. The company has also stepped back from its fixation on bright primary colors, using what it calls more "mature" tones in its latest Android UI. In reality that translates into cool blues and teals, light grays, dark oranges and the occasional hint of beige or brown. The new color scheme might do less to show off the G3's high-quality display, but it's also less shouty and more refined throughout.

LG's new UI has been flattened, simplified toned down and debloated.

Icons are made up primarily of squares and circles, which LG attributes to its own logo, though it's hard to look at the arrangement of circular power toggles in the notification shade and not suspect there's been some cross-pollination from Samsung's Galaxy S5.

Regardless, that's mostly where the TouchWiz comparisons end. LG's color palette and icon style is new, unique and refined, and while it's not as visually consistent as stock Android or HTC Sense, it's a monumental improvement on what was there before.

LG G3 home screenLG G3 Smart NoticeLG G3 Smart Tips

The same restraint is also evident in LG's wallpaper gallery — the company has loaded the G3 up with ten superb-looking 2K backgrounds, in stark contrast to the cacophonous stock wallpapers found on the Samsung Galaxy S5.

LG's UI sits atop Android 4.4.2 KitKat — not quite the latest version of Google's OS, but it's only a minor point release behind the cutting edge. (And as LG launched this phone only days before 4.4.3 dropped, we'll let it slide.)

Just as the folks at Mountain View intended, LG's using on-screen buttons, though thankfully the menu button from the G2 has been killed off, replaced on the far right by a traditional task-switching key. And as before, you can customize the look of these buttons, making them black or white, or adding extra keys to bring down the notification shade or launch the QMemo note-taking app, QSlide or Dual Window.

LG G3 task switching

For the uninitiated, these are two additional multitasking methods from LG. QSlide, also available through the notification shade, is a windowed setup that supports a handful of the company's built-in apps. And Dual Window is analogous to Samsung's Multi window, allowing you to split the screen between two running apps. A few basic LG apps are supported, along with Chrome, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail and Hangouts, and on the G3's large, high-res screen this feature really comes into its own. We'd like to see a few more third-party apps working with Dual Window, though — Samsung's version of this feature supports the likes of Twitter, Google Play Music and Play Movies.

Back on the home screen, LG offers a trimmed down experience with a few attractive, angular widgets. The Smart Notice widget is front and center, incorporating weather, time, date and a dropdown area populated with hints and suggestions. For instance, it might remind you to take an umbrella (or "rain boots") if it's going to rain later in the day. Most of the time, however, the Smart Notice box simply parroted whatever the weather portion of the widget was saying.

Smart Notice is helpful now and again, reminding us to call back a contact after a missed call, and notifying us of a birthday. But it mostly struck us as less developed, less useful version of Google Now. While LG has the information on your phone to work with, Google has its vast reserves of cloud data backing up its predictive search feature, allowing it to be a little smarter.

After a few months of use, however, Smart Notice might help us avoid our phone becoming cluttered up with junk. The widget ties into LG's Smart Cleaning feature, which helps you clear out unneeded files, apps and other stuff to free up internal storage space if you're running low.

LG's Smart Notice widget aims to bring you information just as you need it, but it's not quite Google Now.

If you're using the Smart Bulletin feature, which slides out from the leftmost home screen, you'll get updates from its Smart Tips and LG Health panels in your Smart Notice space, too.

Users familiar with Fitbit or Samsung's S Health, will find a familiar feature set in LG Health, allowing them to track types of exercise that the phone can automatically record — for example running, jogging or hiking. There's no way to add stuff manually, though, so if you were hoping to key in food details or details of other types of workout, you'll be disappointed.

And to share stuff with your friends, you'll need to make sure they've got an LG account and a compatible device. Ultimately, if you're after a more complete fitness package, you may want to look elsewhere. But at least LG Health lets you keeps track of the basics out of the box.

LG G3 health tipsLG G3 Dual WindowLG G3 album art lockscreen

The "Smart Tips" panel functions as an interactive manual of sorts, guiding you through certain features of the phone. LG tells us it adapts as you use your phone, only showing features you're not actively using, and this is a process we've seen in action over the past week. Is it something you'll want to use long-term? Probably not, but it's useful in the early days, and easily turned off once you've gotten to grips with things.

Elsewhere, there's QMemo+, LG's note-taking app, accessible at all times through the pull-up menu at the bottom of the screen, to the right of Google Now. And this is joined by LG's voice assistant app, called Voice Mate on the European G3 or QVoice on the Korean model. LG's voice assistant gives you access to the usual voice commands for sending messages, adding calendar events and checking the weather, among other stuff. And the apps's speech recognition is generally fast and accurate. The same can't be said for its hotword detection, however. You can configure the Voice Mate to respond to "LG Mobile" or "Hello Genie," but neither seemed to work particularly well on our European model.

Along with welcome UI changes, the G3 manages a substantial feature set without feeling overburdened by functionality.

LG's Knock On and Knock Code features return on the G3. The former, enabled by default, lets you wake the phone by double-tapping the screen when it's off — and you can even double-tap on the lock screen or a blank home screen area to power off again. Since the power button's on the back, this is an easy way to quickly check the time or your notifications when the phone is lying flat. What's more is that it works without having to ping the accelerometer first, something that still annoys us about HTC's implementation (read: shameless borrowing) on the One M8.

There's also Knock Code, an extension of this feature which secures the phone by requiring you to tap the screen in a specific pattern to unlock. We've seen it before on the phones like the G Pro 2, and it works just as well on the G3.

So the LG G3 has a lot going on, but it manages to bring along a fairly substantial feature set without feeling bloated, together with some welcome UI changes. Compared to earlier LG offerings, the G3 provides a lighter sprinkling of software extras, and an experience that's more thoughtfully designed and closer to vanilla Android.

LG G3 cameras

OIS, 4K and lasers!

In a world of Ultrapixels, oversampling and phones with real, actual cameras strapped to their backs, the LG G3's imaging setup represents something of a return to sanity. It's got its one major whiz-bang feature to boast — the laser-based autofocus system lurking to the left of the lens. But mostly it's just a really solid all-round smartphone camera that does a whole bunch of things really well.

Optical stabilization smooths out motion in videos, improves low-light potential and reduces the likelihood of capturing blurry photos.

First, the broad strokes. The rear camera uses a 13-megapixel sensor (not the same one as the G2, LG tells us, but an upgraded unit), behind an f/2.4 lens with LG's latest implementation of OIS (optical image stabilization), dubbed OIS+. The new setup, LG says, has wider angles of compensation than the G2's stabilization system. LG isn't the only smartphone maker including hardware stabilization in its camera setup, but it's the only major Android player that's stuck with it over the past year, and that's a good thing. OIS+ lets the G3's shutter stay open longer to capture brighter low light shots, while eliminating motion blur caused by shaky hands. It's also a great help in video mode, smoothing out jitters in handheld shots.

LG G3

Around the front there's a 2.1-megapixel "selfie camera," as LG brands it, with larger pixels than the G2's equivalent for improved low-light performance. And the results are promising, though like the G3's rear camera, there's a tendency to over-smooth selfies through aggressive noise reduction.

One neat trick of the "selfie camera" is its new gesture control setup — hold up your hand, then make a fist to trigger a three-second countdown. It's an easy way to take pictures without contorting your hand to reach the shutter key. Naturally, you've got skin-smoothing, beautifying effects at your disposal too.

While we're talking buttons and shortcuts, LG has built in the ability to unlock the phone and launch directly into the camera app by long-pressing the volume-down key. And thanks to its placement on the back of the phone, it's an extremely convenient shortcut to use, as you can start pressing the volume key before the camera's in place, and the button itself is naturally situated near your index finger. It's only a couple of seconds quicker than using a lock screen shortcut, but it feels so much faster.

Adapted from vacuum cleaner robot technology, LG's autofocus system uses a barrage of infrared lasers to judge distance.

Now, onto the lasers. The G3 blasts infrared lasers out its back in a cone pattern, helping it to detect the subject of your photos more quickly. LG's Dr. Woo tells us this approach has been adapted from the tech used in its vacuum cleaner robots to sense distance as they move around a room. The result is less bombastic than you might expect, with only a small red light visible on the back of the phone while the camera app is active, but it seems to work well enough.

The company claims its laser-assisted camera can focus in just 276 milliseconds, compared to 300-plus for other leading phones, and in our testing we've found it pretty fast and accurate, dealing with off-center subjects better than the Samsung Galaxy S5, and focusing in low light quicker than Ultrapixel-equipped HTC cameras. The differences aren't huge, but it's clear the G3's new autofocus is an area of strength.

Should the phone's barrage of lasers be unable to give it a firm fix on its subject, we're told the camera falls back on traditional contrast detection autofocus.

On the other side of the G3's lens sits its dual-tone LED flash, which does a good job of producing shots with accurate white balance where it's used, compared to traditional single LED setups.

In well-lit scenes, the G3 captures images that almost match up to what we've seen from the ISOCELL-toting Galaxy S5, only with slightly softer edges than Samsung's flagship. Regardless, daylight shots from the G3 have accurate colors and very little noise, and its photos generally impressed us. As mentioned earlier, the G3's camera software tends to be a little over-aggressive when it comes to noise reduction, eliminating some fine detail along with noise in certain instances, and this is especially noticeable in low-light captures, which lean towards being blotchy rather than grainy. That's less of an issue when you're capturing 13-megapixel images, however, and on the whole the G3's optically-stabilized sensor performs better in low light than many high-end competitors. The Sony Xperia Z2 is close, however Sony's camera (which lacks OIS) tends to capture noisy low-light shots, and its dedicated night mode is only available at 8 megapixels or lower.

The more interesting comparison is the Samsung Galaxy S5. Although the GS5 excels in daylight, it's never been great in darker conditions, relying on a frustrating software stabilization technique that asks users to hold still while waiting for a window to capture a non-blurry image. Not only are night shots from the G3 superior to those produced by the GS5, but the former's stabilized camera allows it to capture photos in a fraction of the time.

The G3 is also a competent video camera, recording footage at up to 4K resolution (that's a 3840x2160) from the rear camera and 1080p from the front-facer. With 4K support and optical stabilization, the G3 is one of the most capable Android-based video cameras we've used, producing incredibly crisp footage with no visible artifacting, tearing or other aberrations. The video camera's dynamic range is wide enough to capture plenty of detail in both bright and dark areas, and even in night scenes where things get a bit grainy, footage remains sharp and clear. The audio captured alongside it is unspectacular, but by no means terrible — about what you'd expect from a standard smartphone mic.

There's also a "fast HD" mode that captures 720p footage at 120fps, though you're on your own when it comes to figuring out how to share this content elsewhere.

LG G3

LG's new simplified camera app reflects its efforts to cut down on software clutter throughout the G3's UI. When you load the camera up for the first time you'll see no software controls, just your image preview, which you can tap to take a photo. Never fear, however — tapping the menu icon brings up a familiar array of settings, though even these are remarkably pared-back compared to most smartphone camera apps. You've got the standard options for flash control, switching between cameras, resolution, grid lines and other stuff. But this isn't one of those camera apps where you'll be digging through layers of menus to find the setting or mode you're after — the camera UI is pretty spartan.

The best thing about the G3's camera is that it isn't particularly bad at anything.

Elsewhere in the camera app you'll find panorama and dual-capture modes — no VR Panorama on our unit, oddly — as well as "Magic Focus." This is LG's take on a background defocus effect, of the sort we've seen just about every smartphone maker attempt this year. Magic Focus works reasonably well, however its defocus effect is less pronounced than those offered by rivals, and there's no way to keep going back and continually refocusing after you've initially saved your image.

On the whole, the LG G3 has one of the most consistent, reliable cameras we've used on an Android smartphone. It doesn't reach the dizzying heights of the GS5 in terms of resolution or daylight photo quality, but it's closer to the crucial middle ground of mobile imaging, where it's versatile enough to take good photos in just about any situation. It doesn't have its rivals beaten in all areas, but it's more balanced than most across the board.

To put it a different way, the G3's camera doesn't have any single Achilles' heel — it isn't really bad at anything.

LG G3 battery life

Plenty of juice

With high-end internals and a large, high-resolution screen, there were concerns that the LG would inevitably have to compromise on battery life. Not so, the company told us at its launch event, touting new software features like adaptive frame rates, CPU speeds and timings to offset the handset's demands on its 3,000mAh power pack. So how do things shape up?

If you were losing sleep over the battery implications of that 1440p display, then fear not.

All things considered, we've been reasonably impressed with the G3's battery performance. With heavy use hopping between LTE and Wifi, we've been getting up to 15 hours of heavy use, depending on the proportion of time spent on LTE. That's with mixed usage patterns consisting of web browsing and social app use, streaming Google Play Music over Wifi, taking a dozen or so photos and recording a few minutes of 4K video, along with a couple of brief phone calls.

With similar use but limited to Wifi, we found our device closing in on 17 hours before needing to charge.

It's also worth noting that the European G3, which is fully optimized for the British LTE networks we we've been using, stood up to heavy 4G data usage much better than the Korean version of the phone, which wasn't tuned for European LTE networks.

LG G3

Unsurprisingly, the phone's enormous screen seemed to be the biggest battery-guzzler. Even so, we've managed to get more than four hours of screen-on time per charge out of the G3, including outdoor use with the device's brightness level set to Auto at 100 percent. That's comparable with what we're seeing from the HTC One M8, another phone with enviable longevity.

LG G3 battery stats

And we should mention again that the G3's battery is removable, so you've got the option of swapping in a fresh one once it's depleted. What's more, the widespread availability of wireless charging in some countries will make it easier to keep the phone topped up throughout the day. In fact, built-in Qi charging support — a feature so often neglected by manufacturers — is probably one of our favorite things about the European G3.

On the software side, there's no EXTREME or ULTRA power saving mode like some other handsets, but there is a regular battery saver mode that'll cut down on background data, screen brightness and other stuff when it's enabled. There's also the option to turn it on by default after a certain point, and if you're using the Smart Bulletin widget on your home screen, this will prompt you to enable battery saving mode once you hit 30 percent.

The Settings > Battery menu also gives you detailed info on your use, along with a projection of how long's left before you need to charge, based on your most recent usage.

With the arrival of more efficient smartphone hardware, and ever ballooning battery capacities, great smartphone battery life is thankfully becoming more common. Nevertheless, LG deserves credit for packing a 1440p display into its new flagship without any significant battery cost. It might not boast the multi-day battery life of the Sony Xperia Z2, but in our opinion the G3's built-in wireless charging (in some countries) and easy battery replaceability more than make up for this.

LG G3: The Bottom Line

LG's 2014 flagship is one of the best

You might have expected the G3's astronomic resolution alone to push it head and shoulders above the Android competition. That's not quite the case. It's good — really good, in fact — for a variety of reasons. But the eye-melting 1440p display is but the icing on LG's 5.5-inch cake. The display size, strong battery life, improved software and reliable camera are the core of what makes the G3 an enjoyable phone to use. The fact that it's got more pixels than your TV? That's a bonus.

LG's competitors have set a high bar for build quality, but the G3 excels in other areas.

There are areas where the G3 is surpassed by the high-end competition, however. Although LG has upped its hardware game, rivals like HTC and Sony have it beaten in terms of build quality, and arguably software design too. In a generation of smartphones where premium materials have emerged as a major differentiator, LG's still only pretending with its plastic, faux-brushed-metal exterior. And though the manufacturer has advanced in leaps and bounds in the past year, its latest UI still feels a little rough around the edges compared to the finely-crafted (and super-responsive) HTC Sense.

LG G3

But there's a lot to like about the G3. I love how paradoxically big and small it is at the same time, and how easy it is to hold for its size. To my surprise, I'm fully on-board with the idea of buttons on the back. And I'm glad LG's taking wireless charging seriously enough to bundle it in with a phone, at least in territories where carrier scheming hasn't scuppered these plans. Though I don't see the benefit of its immense pixel density every time I use it, I'm still impressed by the G3's display, due to its size as much as its retina-popping resolution. And there's no denying how stunning it looks when viewing high-res photos and videos recorded on the phone.

The G3 is a fantastic Android phone for anyone, but its strengths make it a really great fit for smartphone enthusiasts — those who want the biggest screen, the highest-resolution display, and relatively niche features like wireless charging and a removable battery. It's not as outwardly alluring as many high-end rivals — and certainly not as refined as this year's high water mark for smartphone design, the HTC One M8 — but you can't argue with the hardware or the way LG's packaged it all together. This is a beast of a phone, one we can highly recommend.

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