I don't know how to feel about the LG G8.
If you watch me in the video above, I'm genuinely excited about the technological innovations that I'd just seen minutes before at my briefing with the company. Talking to the engineers who created the Air Motion system and using it in person thrilled me, as I tend to feel after seeing something genuinely new and interesting.
But like most gimmicks, the high was short-lived, and today, as I write this, I'm genuinely concerned that LG is reverting back to relying on what amounts to a glorified tech demo to sell a phone that is otherwise only minorly improved over its predecessor.
The consternation is exacerbated by the Galaxy S10+ I have in my pocket, too. I'd yet to see the Samsung phone when I recorded that video, and now that I have had a few days to reflect on what phone makers can and will bring to the table in 2019, I just don't think LG can compete — any least not in the meaningful way it hopes to.
Before I get ahead of myself, let's back up a few days and talk about the LG G8 from the perspective of that wide-eyed and sun-starved person you see in the video.
Nine days ago...
I really like the G7's hardware, so the moment I set my eyes on the LG G8, I was impressed. Notch it may have, but this relatively compact device is a solid combination of shiny-but-grippy metal and Gorilla Glass, made even better by the lack of any camera protrusions. It even fixes one of my major issues with the G7, where the back sloped just enough to be uncomfortable to hold for long periods without a case.
In fact, at 152mm tall, 8.4mm thick, and weighing 167 grams, it's slightly stouter and heavier than its predecessor, which actually lends it a density that I truly appreciate in something I'm going to be manipulating on an ongoing and near-constant basis. That LG managed to hide the slightly upgraded dual camera architecture behind Gorilla Glass, lending both the front and back an impressively unbroken design. There's nothing especially dramatic about it, but this is easily LG's most subtle flagship to date, and that pleases me greatly.
Fundamentally, the G8 is strong — it's no 5G phone, whose honor is being reserved for the awkwardly pedestrian V50 — and shares many of the basics of a 2019 flagship. That includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform, 6GB of RAM (up from 4GB in the G7), 128GB of storage (double the G7), and a 3500mAh battery (a 17% bump from the G7), and an upgraded primary rear camera (taken from the V40).
And while the 6.1-inch display is the same physical size as the G7, the panel has been upgraded to OLED — and a pretty decent one at that.
The OLED display is now also a speaker, thanks to a technology that LG calls Crystal Sound. It uses the OLED panel's inherent aural transparency as a diaphragm, pushing sound through the glass. It's also the reason the G8 doesn't have an earpiece, which introduces one of few cautionary tales of this phone: given the fact that audio disperses more widely from the front speaker than a more directed earpiece, it's possible passersby will be able to hear voice calls unless the volume is set very low.
LG did this because it needed room for the other major innovation, and the most divisive and potentially gimmicky aspect of this phone, the front Time of Flight cameras, that enable Hand ID and Air Motion.
Which brings us to last week.
Four days ago...
The technology behind Hand ID and Air Motion is impressive. It combines the front RGB camera with a Time-of-Flight camera (well, two cameras — one's a sender and the other a receiver) that uses infrared to read the blood flow in one's hand to create a proper 3D representation of one's hand, both for biometrics and for gestures.
When I first saw this, I was taken by how accurate it all was — you hold up your hand to the sensor to not only unlock your phone, say in a car or when sitting on a desk — but to control various aspects of the LG interface using gestures.
This is called Air Motion, and it lets you quickly switch between a pre-determined duo of apps, or to control media and volume by, well, creating a claw in front of your phone. Getting it to work takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it it's quite exhilarating. Soon enough I was clawing my way around the phone by holding my palm to the front camera until the colorful line started dancing, and then twisting and turning until it did what I wanted.
Air Motion is very cool technology with very few use cases.
LG positions Air Motion as something you'll engage only when your phone is out of reach — "useful in scenarios like cooking or cleaning," according to the press release — but given the phone's IP68 rating, it took me a few days thinking about the use case to realize that there are almost no situations I'd rather wave my hand in the air near my phone rather than pick it up and poke a grubby or wet hand at the screen.
The most disappointing part about Air Motion is that LG didn't have an answer for me about how it would benefit the most obvious demographic that needs it most: those with disabilities. The Time-of-Flight sensor relies on pretty precise movements, but it could probably be easily adjusted to account for tremors or unstable movement, and easily engaged as an accessibility tool (and I hope it does). Right now, however, it's positioned as a way to lower the volume inside the Spotify app from a couple feet away.
On the other hand, the ToF camera makes face unlock more secure by backing up the RGB camera with infrared depth data, and it allows for Hand ID, which isn't a terrible way to unlock your phone if you're in a pinch.
But that's the biggest problem LG faces today.
As it stands today, I've gone through a lot of feelings about the G8. At its core, it's a slightly improved G7 with better specs in a near-identical body. Even its rear cameras aren't new — while there will be a triple-camera model in some markets, complementing the wide and ultra-wide lenses with a V40-like telephoto option —as they're taken straight from the V40. Certainly an improvement over the G7, I was merely whelmed by the V40's output, and underwhelmed in the dark.
The G8 appears to embody two (or three) sides of LG competing for attention, and the chaos is obvious.
The major issue I have with the G8 is how there appear to be so many forces within the company competing for attention. The hardware team makes iterative improvements to a storied, if predictable, design while the marketing team conspires with R&D to ensure that there's something splashy to talk about in the ads. And while Air Motion and Crystal Sound are certainly innovations in the objective sense, they don't strike me as essential or even useful.
There's also a side of me, though, that really likes what LG is bringing to the table, too. It's possible to ignore Air Motion altogether, which leaves you with a phone that still has great specs, a decent set of cameras, a large-for-its-class battery, and some of the best audio credentials in the industry (yes, there's a Quad DAC, a headphone jack, and the existing Boombox speaker solution still in here, which is fantastic).
LG's software loadout, which is based on Android 9 Pie, is its best ever, too. Not only does it skillfully implement Google's two-stage Pixel launcher and, optionally, its pill gesture scheme, but it's added a bunch of niceties like the ability to bring down the notification shade by swiping down on the rear fingerprint sensor.
But then I remember that there are now three biometric solutions for unlocking the G8 and the software is still overloaded with features you're almost never likely to use.
Running the gamut of emotions
I left the LG G8 briefing truly impressed, and to some extent intoxicated, by the technology on display. But when the effect of the magic trick wore off, and I succumbed to the realities of the market, I reconsidered.
Now I'm somewhere in the middle. I love LG's ambition and its throw-it-at-the-wall mentality when it comes to feature additions — G5 Friends, anyone? — but I'm also a little tired of them going nowhere.
It's also not possible to view the G8's release in a vacuum. Not only is LG itself releasing a 5G-powered V50 towards the summer — which has the benefit of the G8's spec sheet and the gee-whiz conversation starter of 5G capabilities — but Samsung's Galaxy S10, which will be available in just a couple of weeks, is already proving itself a far more substantial and, dare I say, innovative update than even the G8.
I want a longer review period with the phone to hopefully change my mind back, but it takes just one look at the claw to realize that no one, not even tech enthusiasts like me, are going to willfully use that feature in public.