I've spent enough time now with the LG G7 — excuse me, the G7 ThinQ — that I'm positive it won't change the fortunes of LG's mobile division.
I've also spent enough time to know that that's a shame. Because, see, the phone is quite good, excellent even, in the ways that count. And LG's new focus on ABCD — that is, AI, battery, camera, and display — is the right move after years of failed experimentation.
But at the heart of the G7 is a new form of experimentation, or more accurately an investment in an unproven theory, that AI and its ability to unite an ecosystem is fundamental to LG's future. With that lens, it seems somewhat ironic that at once the G7 is detrimental and significant to its bottom line — detrimental because LG's mobile division consistently loses money every quarter, and has done so for over three years; significant because mobile is today the glue that binds corporations, the platform on which all other products stand. The world is mobile, and LG, which last quarter posted record profits on the back of televisions and appliances, not phones, is what drives innovation.
Which leads us to the LG G7 ThinQ. It's the poster child for the company's new ThinQ branding, soon to be appended to everything from phones to televisions and appliances, and it's an important next step in building cohesion throughout LG's disparate product lines. Executives within the company don't even know if the strategy will work — some have admitted that fact — but the G7 can't be viewed in isolation without acknowledging that it's but one cog in an enormous, amorphous machine.
So is the cog any good?
LG G7 The pieces
There are four main tenets to focus on this year: display, sound, camera, and AI.
At its core, the G7 is both a sequel to the G6 and a minor revision of the V30, and it benefits tremendously from the combination of the two. A 6.1-inch super bright IPS LCD panel represents the display, and even though its branding capitalizes Super Bright, it really is just that — 1000 nits, in fact. Not only is that the most luxurious LCD panel on the market today, it's the brightest manually-controlled panel of any kind, since Samsung's 1000+ nit achievement is not user-configurable.
LG, on the other hand, lets you manually enable Super Bright mode for three minutes — a battery-saving endeavor — which boosts visibility from the default 700 nits on Auto mode. It's a really good screen, and reassuring given LG's recent OLED issues. (As you'll discover later, LCD versus OLED will be one of the few differentiating features of the G and V series going forward.)
Yes, there's a notch. It's fine. Seriously, it's fine. It's certainly not a good thing, but it's better than the fat bezels alternative, and LG's done a better job than Huawei getting apps to behave in its presence. And if you're one of the vocal minority dead set on never buying a phone with a notch, know that you can disable the New Second Screen (yes, that's how LG refers to it), or augment it with colors or patterns, if you're into that sort of thing.
The notch is fine. What's not fine is calling it a 'Second Screen' like it's innovative and useful.
Let's talk sound next. LG says that the G7's single downward-facing speaker is nearly twice as loud as the average smartphone speaker, and in a meeting with Android Central at the company's headquarters in Seoul, engineers walked me through exactly how that is achieved.
First, the actual speaker is 40% larger than the one in the G6, but the G7 uses the phone's metal enclosure as a resonance chamber, bouncing the waves of sound around a space 17 times larger than in last year's flagship. Finally, the amplifier is the most powerful LG's ever put in a phone, resulting in top-volume output that rivals some Bluetooth speakers, the company says.
This all culminates in new "Boombox" branding we'll see on the G7 when it's released. Yes, the speaker is loud — very loud, even compared to devices with dual front-facing speakers — but the biggest improvement is in the low-end. Bass is a thing here, and it forms by literally vibrating the entire metal chassis; you can feel it when holding the G7 in your hand. Put the phone on a surface with its own hollow chamber — a guitar or sturdy box, for instance — and the effect is even more pronounced.
To be clear, the single downward-firing speaker on the G7 isn't some miracle cure for the physics-based limitations of smartphone audio, but for what it's worth, it did sound better to me than the Galaxy S9's dual speaker setup, at least in a controlled environment. And while such an acoustic achievement would ordinarily seem superfluous on a phone, LG says that it didn't have to radically change the design or components within the G7 to do it.
The sound coming out of this phone is ridiculously good.
Instead, its engineers realized that the core tenets were already there: a metal chassis, a powerful amplifier, and a perimeter-spanning waterproofing seal that allowed the sound to reverberate so willfully throughout the chamber. (Mind you, this isn't the first time a company has used a phone's metal frame to amplify audio; HTC did it with the HTC 11.)
We also have a headphone jack — on the bottom, natch, which is an improvement over the V30 — and the same beloved Quad DAC has made the LG V series so prized among audiophiles. Indeed, LG isn't leaving much room between the G and V series anymore.
We'll get to camera and AI in a moment, but I want to touch on a couple other parts of the phone's internals. In 2017, much ado was made about the G6 launching with a Snapdragon 821, a mishap necessitated by launching (or at least, announcing) before the Galaxy S8, which purportedly snapped up the first run of Qualcomm's then-new Snapdragon 835 SoC. This year, LG wasn't going to let that happen again, so it took its time with the phone's development, ensuring that there was ample stock of the components that it needed, including the now-flagship Snapdragon 845.
Along with that well-received chip, the base model will have 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, with a G7+ arriving with 6GB and 128GB respectively. The base storage numbers are double that of the G6, but it's still a bit concerning that you have to pay extra for 6GB of RAM — then again, Samsung makes the same distinction between the two Galaxy S9 models.
The phone continues to be IP68 water and dust resistant, which is great, and it still maintains the MIL-SPEC certification that lends the phone some drop-test credence. There's also wireless charging in every model, which is a nice change from the G6 where it was absent in all markets but the U.S.
Perhaps the only number to give me pause is the G7's 3,000mAh battery. It's 300mAh smaller than the one in the G6, and we've seen battery regression on phones running Oreo — the Galaxy S9 comes to mind — so I'm worried the same thing will happen here. Right now my concern is only speculative, as the unit I used wasn't running final software, but given the phone's slimness, and the extra space afforded to the speaker (and the presence of a headphone jack), LG clearly decided to forgo longevity for convenience.
LG G7 The Cameras
These days, a phone is only as good as its cameras, and the G7 doesn't change the hardware formula a whole lot.
Like the G6, the phone shares the same shooter between the primary and wide-angle cameras, but this year LG is using the 16MP Sony IMX351 sensor that debuted in the V30. The main lens, which has a ƒ1.6 aperture, is optically stabilized while the ƒ/1.9 wide-angle lens isn't, but the upside is that you're getting pretty much the same image quality from either camera this time around, and that's fantastic. I love that LG cares about wide-angle photography, and I appreciate that it's making appreciable improvements to the experience every year.
Of all the reasons to like the G7, the camera experience tops the list for me. The interface is sparse but innovative — zoom sliders are positioned by your thumb and provide lovely, subtle haptics — and the transition between standard and wide lenses is much smoother than on the G6, even on this early software build. And the manual mode retains pro features from the V series, like focus peaking and intelligent video zoom, which are practical, useful tools.
I was very impressed by the photo quality and low-light abilities of the G6, which had dual 13MP sensors; I was far less enamored with the V30. LG's decision to prioritize resolution over pixel size is a well-known narrative in the industry, but the company's justification here is twofold: a new, more intelligent image signal processor in the Snapdragon 845, and a Super Bright Mode that uses a technique called pixel binning to combine four pixels into one in low-light situations.
The resulting 4MP photo isn't four times as bright, but it's certainly an improvement. (The technique itself debuted on the V30S ThinQ, but no one owns that phone outside Korea.)
Super Bright Mode kicks in automatically in scenes under 3lux, which is very dark, and in my testing it worked quite well, though the photos produced didn't rival that of the Huawei P20 Pro, which applies the same binning technique to its 40MP sensor, resulting in 10MP photos.
Ultimately, I would have preferred physics over algorithms — Samsung, Google, and Apple agree that 12MP sensors with 1.4 to 1.55 micron pixels is the sweet spot for a mobile sensor — but LG clearly sees things differently.
At the same time, LG is doubling down on its AI Cam mode, which automagically applies filters to photos based on one of 19 scenes, from food to outdoors to portrait, built atop thousands of tags that have been generated by studying millions of photos.
This machine learning-based photo enhancement isn't without controversy or frustration — I may prefer extra saturation when photographing a stunning landscape but not additional contrast when 'Gramming my dinner — but it's easily disabled. It's also off by default, which as a photo purist I appreciate, but in doing so LG may be limiting its eventual uptake.
In the vaguest terms, LG says that AI Cam is supposed to improve over time, but there doesn't appear to be a mechanism by which the company learns your preferences — other than disabling the feature entirely, there is no override for individual scenes, nor does LG upload any data to its servers (which is ultimately a good thing), so it's not clear how the AI Cam will self-correct over the course of phone ownership.
There's also no plan for data migration, which means any on-device learning performed on the G7 will not impact algorithms on the V40 or G8 when the time comes to upgrade.
One benefit to having the same sensor on the wide-angle camera as the primary is the seamless transition between shooting modes. While that was also true of the G6, this year the secondary lens isn't quite as wide — 107 degrees compared to 120° on the V30 and 125° on the G6 — resulting in less distortion and barrel effect, though some users may miss the exaggerated, almost-fisheye experience from those devices.
Perhaps the G7's biggest camera improvement, and its saving grace over the V30, is its 8MP front-facing camera.
It's a night-and-day difference compared to the potato shooters on both the G6 and the V30, and with the addition of portrait mode (using, like Google's Pixel 2, a single sensor), and the retention of an extensive array of manual shooting modes, this is the vlogging powerhouse that the V30 should have been.
LG G7 ThinQ
On the left side of the G7 is a button. It's not the volume button (of which there are two) but a dedicated Google Assistant key, situated in what appears to be the same place as the Bixby button is on the Galaxy series.
Except this one is far better.
First, it's a Google Assistant button — hard to get mad at that. This isn't some half-baked Samsung attempt at a near-useless on-device lackey, but an instant walkie-talkie to the best consumer AI on the market today.
Just because you can add a Google Assistant button to a phone doesn't mean you should.
Would I have preferred not to have an unnecessary protrusion on the left side of what is arguably one of the best phones of the year so far? Absolutely. But having it default to Google Assistant is the only justification for its existence.
Before you ask, no you can't remap it to whatever you like (at least not officially. I assume there will be half a dozen such apps in the first week of the phone's release). You can merely disable it. But in my time with the phone, it didn't get in the way; it's far enough down the left side of the perimeter not to be easily mistaken for volume keys, which has an additional benefit of not being accidentally activated when pressing the power button.
Oh, the power button is on the right side of the G7, not embedded in the rear fingerprint sensor like the G6 (and every other LG flagship since the G5). Why? Who knows — LG said something about a lack of space in the chassis, but the phone is the same 7.9mm as its predecessor — but I'll be honest, I missed the old way of doing things.
AI is a big part of the G7's narrative, but it's clear from the sparsely-populated intelligence feature set that, at least right now, the benefits are slight. A dedicated Assistant button is little more than institutionalized bragging about LG's close business ties to Google, and despite promises of device-specific optimizations — LG says Assistant can, like Bixby, perform local actions like opening the camera and taking a portrait photo — I'm not overly impressed.
It's also unclear to me why, aside from name recognition, I should care about ThinQ. Apple doesn't append 'Siri' to the iPhone, though it lives in almost every product the company makes. And despite Samsung's assurances of Bixby's ubiquity in the near future, it's still just a feature, not an ecosystem.
The ThinQ brand is as much about the name itself as the features it will eventually offer.
LG admits this much: when talking to executives during a recent trip to Korea, one admitted to me that ThinQ is as much about creating an AI-first platform that allows all of LG's smart devices, from TVs to appliances to phones, to easily pair and communicate with one another as it is about reminding people who buy LG's TVs and appliances that it also makes phones. It's about seeing the word so often, and in so many places, that it creates a mental map of LG's divisions.
It may not work, but what does LG have to lose?
LG G7 Software
The best thing I can say about the G7's software is that there isn't much to say.
It runs Android 8.0 Oreo and doesn't barrel you over the head with choice. Sure, digging into the software there are plenty of things to tweak — six display modes, an assortment of navigation key combinations, a full-featured manual camera mode with focus peaking and subject tracking — but it doesn't feel heavy the way LG phones used to.
Despite using very early software, the G7 was snappy and pretty stable, and I look forward to digging into it further in the review.
LG G7 Fundamentals
The first thing I noticed about the G7 was its haptics. They were clean, precise, and sharp. They were exactly what I wanted them to be.
I thought the same of its screen, of its sound, and of its camera.
I am bullish on the phone itself, which despite a few nitpicks I believe to be LG's best one yet. I'm not bullish on its ability to transform the company's smartphone business, but I don't even think that's LG's intention with the G7. Instead, it took its time to produce a competent smartphone that speaks to LG's other components, to its broader goals of being seen as a company capable of producing well-built, nicely-designed hardware — hardware like washing machines and refrigerators and televisions and, yes, phones.
But LG has to overcome a few important things, too. After the boot loop scandal of the G4 and V10, LG's reputation took a dramatic hit and despite improvements to reliability since, customer support concerns linger. An LG executive admitted to me that the company didn't act quickly enough to resolve its phones' reliability problems in 2015, nor did it proactively attempt to make amends with affected customers, forcing them to sue and eventually find compensation through class action.
To its credit, LG is not only promising better-than-ever hardware longevity with the G7, but it's publicly committed to faster and more consistent updates, both for its previously-released phones and ones yet to come.
The G7, like all LG phones, will debut in Korea much earlier than it will in the rest of the world. In fact, fans in North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia will need to wait until late May or even mid-June to pick up the phone, and we still don't know its price or carrier spread. When the G6 hit the market, it cost close to $700 outright, but quickly dropped in price to spur demand; should the G7 experience the same arc, it will probably find an LG version of success.
Nevertheless, the LG G7 ThinQ is a stand-out phone even by 2018's already-high standards, and one with which I can't wait to spend more time.
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