LG Corp. makes things. Some are classified as “white goods” by retail experts: Fridges, stoves, dishwashers, laundry machines… durable stuff that has white enamel paint. They also make televisions, home theatre audio systems, vacuum cleaners. They make smartphones too.
Not long ago this combination of devices might have been cause for guffaws. But in recent years another giant South Korean company, Samsung, proved that multiple product lines do not necessitate a lack of focus (they make all the same stuff, and also military hardware among other divisions). Samsung’s Galaxy line is the class of Android phones in sales and features.
Over the last several months, the Google Nexus 4 was the go-to Android phone I recommended to wary shoppers. It was a cheap, high-quality device that LG built for Google, based largely on its LG Optimus handset tech. Now LG will launch a new phone for Canadians on Friday, the LG G2 (the company’s naming conventions have been rightly mocked by my colleague Omar El Akkad) and it is an eye-catcher.
As soon as it powers up you’ll realize that LG has cottoned to the idea that many casual smartphone-buying decisions are made by looking at the screen. Assuming you’re in the market for an Android phone and you don’t care about better-known brands, shoppers may be stopped by the extremely bright IPS screen (which stands for in-plane switching, a method to improve the response time and viewing angles of liquid-crystal displays). The G2 is not a huge phablet-style phone like the Galaxy Note – in fact it is only slightly wider than an iPhone 5 with a case on it – but it is taller and by expanding almost to the edge of the bezel on the chassis, the total screen size hits 5.2 inches. And by bright, I don’t mean washed out… the colours are rich, the blacks are deep and it’s very nice to look at. If you want a very technical description of why IPS impresses, check out AnandTech’s descriptions, diagrams and benchmarks.
Part of the way LG managed this edge-to-edge screen, while still keeping the phone svelte, is to move the buttons to the back. This is where LG may start to lose some people. This is an unconventional form factor, even if they’ve done some things to make it appealing. First, you can double tap anywhere on the front screen to get the phone to wake up (a feature the Nokia 1020 has too, though it wasn’t as responsive as the G2) which replaces much of the need for physical buttons. The centre button on the back also wakes up the phone, and it’s bracketed by two huge volume rockers, great news for anyone who’s ever fiddled and fumbled with tiny switches. If you press and hold the lower rocker, it launches directly to the camera from lock screen or sleep mode. The same move on the upper rocker launches a built-in note-taking app.
That’s it. That’s all the physical interaction … the rest of phone is about software and chips.
The rear camera is very good for a phone, and at 13 megapixels is part of the new era of big sensors that Apple likes to try and talk down by saying that they are just more megapixels, not better ones (the new 5S has an 8 MP sensor). The G2 also has some top quality OIS image stabilization tech, and the video camera can record in 1080p, another rarity in the market. It doesn’t escape the cameraphone flash curse though; it will let you down in lower light scenarios.
The other big-time improvement is battery life; I was shocked at how infrequently I recharged during testing. The 3,000 milliamp hour battery pack been engineered to be thinner and has replaced some of the graphite with another anode, silicon monoxide (SiO). This doesn’t produce a battery that is orders of magnitude better than standard mobile packs – you can’t watch video and surf the web for 20 hours straight or anything – but it managed an average of eight to 10 hours depending on my use before charging. And I wasn’t trying to save battery power by dimming the screen or turning off data as often as I could.
Industry benchmarks put the quad core processor and GPU right near the top of the range among smartphones, even if that kind of thing is hard for users to appreciate in a real way. What you can experience is the tweaked version of 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, which is for the most part pretty snappy. But if you’re looking to nitpick you’d notice it’s already feeling a little old, the software’s lag while launching apps and running functions is just barely noticeable if you’ve tested the newest Android OS versions or a new iPhone. In a year or two this interface might feel truly ancient, and when you get an Android flavour like the one LG added here you have to rely on their schedule for OS updates. Admittedly, that’s one of the challenges for most devices in this fast-iterating space, but you like to feel your brand new device starts at the top of its class.
What’s not to like about it? As usual, most of the software that Google’s partners junks into their version of Android is subtraction by addition. Apple fans were over the moon when iOS 7 updated to finally include a version of the swipe-down control centre that Google has provided for some time now. LG added a bunch of so-so features to its control centre that ended up making it less useful.
I did like the addition of the QuickRemote which makes use of the IR blaster on the device to enslave and TV you happen to be near, and the Qslide tray sounds like a cool idea, as it opens up to two apps side by side in widgets on the home screen. Full-screen apps have become so much the norm on mobile that even Windows 8 mostly dispatched this eponymous feature. But the first problem with Qslide is that it only works with a limited list of LG-made apps, which you cannot replace with superior Play Store equivalents. The second problem is that when coupled with the other added-on menus, the control centre’s notifications area and system toggles are pushed down, some were below the bottom horizon of the screen. This chips away at the very reason for a control centre: one swipe should access critical features… not non-critical bloatware.
Another easily fixed but still baffling addition: A digital rainbow of cheery system noises. Early on a woman’s voice blared out a sing-song bit of spoken audio when I got a new e-mail; I couldn’t make out the words, but it sounded awful. Waking the screen doesn’t launch a crisp “click” like, say, the iPhone, it runs a trill of digital muzak. All the default tones are weak, and unless you like that sort of ear-scraping cellphone burbling (maybe you still have the original Nokia ringtone?) you’ll ditch them asap.
The G2 should be on all the big carriers starting Friday. Pricing will be key (Rogers says it will sell for $200 with a contract), but in my view it has passed the HTC One as the most appealing Android smartphone, and it gives the Samsung S4 a run for its money. The unconventional buttons may stop it from earning the broad success of those Galaxy devices.
But here’s what I am really hopeful for: This very solid hardware may end up forming the base of a new Nexus phone running Android 4.4 Kit Kat. If that happens, based on my experience with the LG G2, that’s a chocolate bar I would recommend you snap up immediately.