Spend a few minutes with the new LG G4 and this much is apparent: LG is getting even more comfortable with the fact that it can make one hell of a smartphone, and do so in a way that's not just different, but also really good.
How good? You don't put your new phone side by side against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 in a room full of journalists who have been singing its praises for weeks without being extremely confident in your product.
We've spent a little bit of time with the LG G4 here in New York City ahead of the unveiling at 1 World Trade Center — enough time for a quick hands-on, but not enough to answer some burning questions and really get a feel for if the G4 is as good as LG says it is.
We will, however, explain what a cow, ceramic paint and something that sounds like a James Bond flick have to do with a smartphone.
LG G4 hands-on video walkthrough
LG G4 hardware
The display: QHD IPS Quantum Display
Those who know the LG G3 will feel right at home with the G4 in their hand. It's got mostly the same look and feel. Sleek, curved, but angular at the same time. The glossy back has given way to ceramic-coated plastic — which sort of feels like glossy plastic. But we'll give LG the benefit of the doubt, because you can't just color plastic and stick it on a smartphone. This removable back cover has a sort of geometric texture to it that's quite smart, but it doesn't do a whole lot to change the fact that it feels like plastic. Not a huge deal, but there's something better lurking. More on that in a minute.
LG's particularly proud of its new 5.5-inch display. It's the same size and resolution (2560 x 1440) as last year's model. It has a very slight curve to it, the kind you won't notice unless you're looking at it from the side, so it's nowhere near as pronounced as the G Flex 2. But new this year is the so-called "IPS Quantum Display." If you're already stifling a yawn at yet another buzzword, we don't blame you. We mostly glazed over quantum dots when they bombarded us in the latest 4K televisions at CES in January. But the same idea is here, in a phone. The oversimplified version is that LG's Quantum Display technology lets you take an IPS display that starts with a blue backlight and get extremely good colors out of it, much better than you get with older filter technology.
So how does it look? You're going to see a lot of strawberries when you see IPS Quantum Display demos. And they look exactly as red as a perfectly ripe strawberry should look. And, in fact, LG put its own strawberries next to the same berries on the Galaxy S6 and its excellent AMOLED display. And they ... looked yellow. Just like that, we'd been shown that what Samsung has been serving us is an oversaturated lie, apparently. But that's just one example, and we'll need plenty more time with the G4 before we completely give ourselves over to the IPS Quantum Display hype. Does that mean the GS6 display is bad? Nah. But there's no denying that in that once instance, the G4's berries simply looked better.
The camera: 16MP and a color spectrum sensor
That was but one swing — call it a carefully calculated punch, rather. The second part of that one-two combination is the "all-new" 16-megapixel rear camera. You have to succumb to a bit of spec overload here as well. We've already heard about the f/1.8 aperture, which lets in 80 percent more light than the G3, LG says. Add to that improved optical image stabilization, a "color spectrum sensor" that does white balance like no other (maybe now we'll find out what color that damned dress was), support for RAW+jpg images, real-time mode previews, quick-launch in 0.6 seconds, huge panoramas of up to 104 megapixels, and a cool new gesture shot that will snap four selfies in sequence, so you can be sure to get the best duck lips. (Or not.)
Again, there are some bold statements from LG here, particularly when it comes to comparing it to the GS6, whose camera we've very much fallen in love with. (And Samsung had its own words for the iPhone 6.)
The race, folks, is on.
The power: Snapdragon 808 plus a removable battery
Flip through the complete LG G4 specs and you'll spot something that might seem a bit out of place. The LG G Flex 2, released not too long ago, is running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor. The G4 backs things "down" to a Snapdragon 808. The big difference for most of us will be that the 808 removes a couple of the high-power cores from the big.LITTLE configuration. LG tells us the 808 was "fully tuned up for the G4, developed over two years with Qualcomm." We'll have to see if the 808 takes care of the concerns folks have had with the 810.
LG also says that the G4 will launch apps as quickly (if not a tad faster) than the GS6, and that GPS is improved across the board as well.
It's status quo as far as the battery is concerned. We've got a 3,000 mAh battery that's removable, so you can swap it out for a fresh one. The trade-off is that there's no built in wireless charging (LG will have an optional folio case that enables it though). (While we were initially told that the G4 also didn't support Qualcomm Quick Charge, both companies have since confirmed that it will indeed support the faster charging system.)
The leather: vegetable-tanning and German stitching
If you're tired of plastic phones, LG has you covered. Or, rather, it has the back of the G4 covered. In leather. We go into it in a bit more detail here. But the gist is that LG has a premium option that completely changes the way the phone feels in your hand. It's smooth, taught, vegetable-tanned leather with premium stitching running down the middle.
It looks better in person than it does in pictures, and it feels excellent. LG seems particularly proud of the attention to detail that went into it.
LG didn't immediately tell us how much the leather backs will cost, or if they'll be available instead of the plastic backs or only as an option. (We'll update here as soon as that's available.)
Just know this: I want one. Just as Motorola did wonders for the Moto X with leather, so, too has LG.
LG G4 Software
And now to LG's Achilles' Heel — software. The G4 is running Android 5.1 Lollipop out of the box, as you'd expect at this point in the yearly cycle. But more important is that its software is continuing to improve.
You can't look at it and not see a similarity to Samsung's scheme — it's definitely taken on a flatter, more Material Design sort of look, but still with its own personality and any number of customizations thrown in. It still won't be for everyone, but it's immediately recognizable as being better than previous versions.
Also interesting is the stance LG's taking toward the built-in apps. Chrome, for instance, is the only browser. (Though some of LG's apps will have their own webviews, like Facebook and Twitter and any number of other apps do now.) That's good for the user, not having to figure out why their phone came with two browsers. But there's still the confusion over whether to use LG's new Gallery app (which, by the way, they say is ridiculously fast) or Google's Photos app, which remains a confusing preload. Some things still haven't changed. But to lessen that blow you'll get 100GB of Google Drive space free for two years. So there's that.
LG G4: The bottom line (so far)
This is an LG phone. It looks and feels and acts like an LG phone. But even after a short time with it you quickly get the feeling that it's probably going to be the best damned LG phone you've used.
The display — impressive. We sneaked a few quick tests with the camera — most impressive. We didn't want immediately wipe the taste of the user interface from our mouth.
The internals will be a big question mark. How will the Snapdragon 808 hold up? And same goes for the leather, actually. There's no way of knowing that without using the phone for some time. But in our quick, initial hands-on, there's no denying that this is going to be a phone a lot of folks are going to want to put in their pockets.
It's got the design. It's got the specs. It's got the buzzwords and color spectrum sensors and ceramic paints and vegetable tanning. And combined, it's one intriguing smartphone.