Optimus G

The Optimus G brings LG's 'A' game to Sprint, but is great hardware enough to sign on for two years?

A high-end, premium LG smartphone on a U.S. carrier is like a hen's tooth -- pretty darn rare. While other manufacturers were busy releasing top-tier products on the carriers in this country, it seems like LG was focusing more on the value space, and its products were lackluster to a dyed-in-the-wool Android fanatic.

There's something to be said for bringing the best of the bottom-end, and the various LG Optimus One phones really were a standout for the entry-level market, but as someone who is lucky enough to get to play with the heavy hitters LG has released in Europe and Asia on occasion, I've been waiting for this. The Optimus G is the best LG has ever offered, and it's a taste of quality hardware from LG that everyone needs to look at twice.

But there's a dark side to LG's foray into Android. Ask anyone who was excited and rushed to buy the T-Mobile G2X. I was one of those people (I bought one for myself and one for the wife) who was awfully impressed with the quality of materials and the build of the phone itself, and felt the small niggling software issues would soon be ironed out. Here we are, over a year later, and still waiting for those fixes. To put it frankly, the software on the Optimus G needs to be great out of the box, because there's no guarantee that it will ever get any better. 

Read on to see what I think of this one, and how my week with the best-spec'd phone ever made (so far) has turned out.


The Good

The specs. The best way to describe them is OMG, because they are just that good. The processor is blazing fast, the GPU handles anything you throw at it like it's child's play, and the screen is fan-freaking-tastic. It's also built very solid, and lacks that cheap feeling you find with phones built from 100-percent glossy plastic.

The Bad

The 13MP camera is only adequate, which is a disappointment when you consider "lesser" phones came before it with great shooters. There's also a big honking menu button on the face of the phone, which is something that Android has abandoned in favor of some familiarity between application UIs. Lastly, and possibly most troublesome, is that the underlying framework for LG's Optimus UI is Ice Cream Sandwich, which will soon be two versions behind.

Conclusion

If you're a fan of the best hardware, this one is a no-brainer. As of today, there is nothing that compares to what's under the hood of the Optimus G, and what's currently available isn't even close. Of course, that will change soon enough, and you're left with the same specs s other phones, but dependent on LG to keep the software up to date.  I really think LG will turn things around now that they have the same chance with a Nexus device that Samsung had. Time spent working with Android software engineers worked wonders for Samsung (remember #neveragain, anyone?) and it stands to reason that a company the size of LG will commit the resources to turn things around the same way,

Inside this review

More info

A look at the two U.S. Optimus G versions

In the words of a famous hotel-empire heiress, that's hot. There also are some differences -- more than you would think given the two phones have the same name. You should read the AT&T Optimus G review if you're interested in that version, because from here on out things are all Sprint.

Hardware -- Awww Yeah!

Optimus G

The Optimus G is the epitome of a rectangular black slab. You've got an amazing 4.7-inch display (we've got a separate section to discuss this one), ample bezels across the top and bottom, capacitive buttons, a front facing camera for video conferencing and fixing your make up, and an earpiece so you can hear what a caller has to say. There are no surprises here, no free-flowing forms of nature, just a utilitarian hunk of glass and plastic that puts all focus on the content. We can't knock it for that, because it works. When holding the Optimus G, your eye is immediately drawn to what's on the screen versus any fancy geometry in the case design. 

buttons  Bezel

Optimus G

Flip it over, and you're presented with a slab of "not glass" inset in the rear of the device. The Optimus G has no battery door, but if you imagine where one would be, in this case it's made of LG's special secret blend of sand and chemicals that feels as good as glass but has less propensity to break. There's speculation that it's a form of Gorilla Glass (or perhaps a competitor's), but LG has never said as such.

Yes, there are pictures floating around the Internet of an Optimus G with a broken rear panel. Nothing is break-proof if you try hard enough, but this unit took my standard outstretched arm, drop to the hardwood floor test with nary a ding or scratch. I don't need to try any harder than that, so I'm satisfied with the material choice here. It looks great, feels great, and unless you're extra hard on your stuff it should stand up well.

Besides the fancy "not glass" panel, you've got a 13MP camera, LED flash, and a vertical speaker grill riding along. The only thing I don't love about the way LG is doing things back here is the fingerprint mess that happens when you mix shiny and black together. Rubbing it on your jeans or shirt to wipe the prints away is the new sexy I guess.

Optimus G  Optimus G

In any case, it has the sparkles in the right light. Everyone loves sparkles, right?

Sparklies

The usual accouterments -- buttons and holes -- are present, with a volume switch on the left side, a power button on the right, a 3.5mm audio jack up top and a microUSB port and two tiny TORX head screws on the bottom. The T3 screws come out, but it appears that some extra force is needed to remove the back of the phone to see the guts. I stopped trying so I didn't have to buy a Sprint phone with a broken shell, but normal force from a guitar pick didn't seem to budge the case. I'll let the fixit experts sort that one out. The controls are placed well, and easy to find while half asleep in the dark. 

Optimus G  Optimus G

Optimus G  Optimus G

When you wrap this all together into one package, you have a phone that handles well, pockets well, and looks pretty darn nice while doing it. Unless some fatal flaw is found that causes the phone to self-destruct in a month, you'll get the lifetime's use out of this one.

The specs (BOOM. Headshot.)

Optimus G Optimus G

This phone is a beast. Unless you've tried one, you don't know how beastly of a beast it really is. Even stuck on Ice Cream Sandwich sans butter, the Optimus G feels faster than a souped-up Galaxy S 3 or International HTC OneX running CM10, and even faster than an over clocked Galaxy Nexus running the native odex build of 4.1.2, Not just a little bit, either. It flies between home screens, bounces between open apps like nobody's business, and is a new breed of performance. And that's a stock, out of box experience. 

I know it sounds like a hefty helping of hyperbole, but the performance of this phone will wow you. Have a look at the mandatory bullet points.

  • 1.5GHz Krait CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core S4 Pro processor
  • LG Optimus UI 3.0 on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • 1.9 GHz CDMA PCS,800 MHz CDMA, EVDO rev A, LTE
  • 4.7-inch WXGA (1280x768 resolution) True HD IPS Plus at a 15:9 ratio
  • 32GB on-board storage (about 25GB free after the OS is loaded and fancy math is done)
  • 2GB DDR RAM
  • 13.0MP rear camera,  1.3MP front
  • 2,100mAh battery (talk time: 15 hours; standby: 335 hours)
  • Size: 131.9 x 68.9 x 8.45mm
  • Weight: 145g
  • Other: Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, USB2.0 HS, A-GPS, MHL and DLNA, NFC

If you're the benchmark type, be sure to have a look here where I broke my own rule and ran a few. I'll drop the video here, because everyone loves videos.

The phone performs the normal smartphone functions as it should. Mundane stuff like the light and proximity sensor work just fine, calls are clear on both ends, and while Sprint's 3G service is dismally slow and there's no LTE to speak of yet, Wifi is as good or better than all the other phones here in my desk. GPS locks really quickly, while still or while driving around. A week is by no means a long time, but I see nothing show-stopping here.

Battery  WPA supplicant

Battery life was pretty good. A full day on Wifi, and lots of time playing games and web browsing gets me about 26 hours between charges and about six hours of screen time. That's six hours of ramped up quad-cores and backlight running. It's pretty unheard of from a stock phone on the stock battery. On cellular, I imagine it will be less -- much less if you're in an area of low signal. There's also a bit of weirdness going on here, as the standard tools we use to troubleshoot show the phone as wake-locked from the wpa supplicant far more often than it should be. You really notice it while the phone sits around idling, as instead of life measured in days it's still only gets you about a day and a half before you'll need to find a charger. I've talked to a couple of my peers who are testing the AT&T version, and this isn't happening there. This could be a bug in the way it's reported or displayed, and if so it's not an issue. If it is a real wake-lock issue, battery life should improve once it's isolated and fixed. To me, even with a potential battery killer happening the phone's battery life is more than acceptable. We'll know more when hackers get this one into their hands -- and with this hardware, they will.

The screen (or things that make you say giggity)

Screen

It's good. Really good. LG is using a fancy new "Zerogap Touch IPS plus" tech in the display, which means there is no air between the digitizer and glass. This makes things thinner, clearer, and stronger. The IPS Plus part makes for accurate colors, great viewing angles, and clear text. 

You will like this screen.

Pixels1  Pixels 2

There is no screen-door effect, no quirky Pentile arrangement, just a standard RGB layout to deliver things as life like as possible. If you zoom in close enough, the pixels are there, but I promise you won't notice any in normal use. Any color anomalies you see in these photos is because of the setup I was using to get the shots. The screen is every bit as good, or better, than anything else available. LG really deserves our kudos for this one. 

The software seems out of place

Optimus G

Things get a little more grounded here. LG is using the Optimus UI (version 3.0) on the G, and where the phones design looks sleek and modern, the blocky and colorful software looks like something from 10 years ago. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with it, and it's certainly chock full of features (and they work surprisingly well), it just doesn't seem to fit with the minimalist look and feel of the hardware. 

Optimus G  Optimus G

During the initial device set up, you'll come across two things that may be new to you -- Sprint's Connection Optimizer and Qualcomm's Enhanced Location Service. You are free to opt out of both (that's good) but you might not want to. The Connection Optimizer runs in the background and will help you remember and connect to Wifi networks that you've used before, saving bandwidth and battery, at the cost of sharing some data back with Sprint. Qualcomm's Enhanced Location Service helps determine where the phone is when a location is requested, saving battery by not having to poll a Wifi AP or cell tower. I left both enabled, and saw no issue. Neither seemed to affect performance, and never showed up on the list of apps using the battery. Your mileage my vary.

Apps

Sprint has kept its hand out of the app drawer for the most part, substituting the normal pile of bloatware with the intrusive Sprint Zone and relatively harmless Sprint ID. Sprint Zone will hound you every time you restart your phone, and at some random interval, with a notification that won't slide away. This will be one of the first apps hackers yank out of the system, as disabling it kills the notifications but doesn't stop it from running in the background. Sprint ID is a bit better behaved, and stays out of the way unless you use it to install one of the numerous Sprint ID packs. Advanced users may scoff at this notion, but app discovery never hurt anyone. One really cool trick here is the way you can set a custom wallpaper for your app drawer. A simple, but neat little touch.

Optimus G

All the expected Google applications are included (for better or worse -- you may not want Chrome or Google+), and LG has bundled a whole slew of applications into the Optimus UI. Some are great, Quick Memo in conjunction with QSlide allows you to scribble notes on the screen, and keep them as a semi-transparent overlay while looking at the content on your phone, the video player includes "live Zoom" which allows you to zoom in while watching so you can see detail (porn enthusiasts will love this), and the Dual Screen Dual Play function allows you to mirror one thing to a TV or monitor while showing different content on the phone screen itself.

Optimus G  QSlide

Of course, some of the other features and applications have better counterparts available from Google Play -- I'm looking at you, Finance and News. Other notable features of Optimus UI 3.0 are customizable folders that allow you to resize the widget and select the color, and Eco mode in the settings that throttles the CPU to save power (it works), and the Icon Personalizer which lets you select the image and size of homescreen icon shortcuts. All in all, the UI is completely functional, works surprisingly well, but seems out of place on the hardware. I'm left feeling like the Phone was designed at the Bauhuas school, while the UI was designed at preschool. Again, your mileage may vary and I've never been known to have impeccable taste. Here are a few screenshots to look through.

The camera (a snoozer)

Optimus G

The Sprint Optimus G's 13MP camera is just about the highest number of pixels we've yet seen on an Android phone, but it is also proof positive that it takes more than MP to make for a good camera. Paired with the 13MP rear shooter is a 1.3MP front facing camera, and they both deliver adequate results. We're not saying the camera is bad, because it's not, but it's just not that holy grail of smartphone cameras many were expecting.

The software is feature rich (notice a theme here) with options like adjustable ISO, white balance, and brightness as well as features like HDR, panorama, timelapse and scene modes. One really neat little touch is the ability to customize the toolbar with the features or settings you use most instead of the ones LG thinks you'll use most. We like ti when we have a choice, even in camera software.

We dissect the camera a bit in a separate post here, and it's worth having a look at. The short version is that the Optimus G wil take a picture of what you're pointing it at, and the result will be good enough for most people. If you're looking for the ultimate camera on a smartphone, you're not one of those people. It's definitely not a deal breaker in my opinion.

Optimus G  Optimus G

Optimus G  Optimus G

The bottom line

You're looking at the best phone on Sprint, bar none. The power under the hood will keep you going well into your two-year contract, and while the UI is a bit blocky and out of place, it's functional and works as advertised. (And you at the very least can toss a third-party launcher on top of it.) The camera seems like a disappointment, but that's mostly because we were expecting something special instead of average. 

If a friend on Sprint asked me which phone to buy today, as in right now, I would have to suggest the Optimus G. It's not bug-free (what phone is?), but the package as a whole measures up well. If you're on the Internet, reading about Android smartphones, you're getting data to make your own decision. I commend you, that's how it should be done. Here's what I say to you.

This phone was made for the 14-day return policy. Get one, try it for the trial period. See how well you like the software, how well you can deal with the idiosyncrasies, and how the things you need your phone to do get done on it. I could live with this phone, even if it never saw an update to the OS (barring some critical exploit or bug). You'll need to see if you can for yourself.

If you're a certified, dyed-in-the-wool Android nerd there's one thing you will need to consider. The supposed LG Nexus 4. This hardware, with stock Android direct from Google will be the holy grail we've been wanting for the past couple rumor cycles. While the collective wisdom of the Internet says carrier-specific LTE versions of the next Nexus are out of the picture, it may be worth waiting a while just to be sure. The new LG isn't very developer friendly with easily unlocked bootloaders, so there is no guarantee that this particular piece of sex will ever see stock Android or a custom AOSP build like CM or CodeName Android. The Korean version has been rooted, and I'll see what we can do with the Sprint version now that I can screw it up with fewer complications and now so has the Sprint version, but root does not mean everything -- as many a Motorola customer can tell you. Holding off a while won't kill you.