For the past couple years, it’s been hard for LG to stand out among the many, many players in the flagship Android smartphone space. HTC was known for its hardware, Nexus devices were known for their pure Android experience, and Samsung for its laundry list of features, but what about LG? Unfortunately, LG often stood in the shadow of Samsung and resorted to copycat features and designs. Even devices like the G2, which surpassed most of its competition on the spec sheet, just didn’t have the design finesse or marketing money to really get consumers’ attention.
After months of rumors about new designs and technology, LG announced the G3, a phone that by name sounded like just another annual upgrade. Yet the G3 may be the smartphone that we’ve been waiting for LG to build for a long time. Does this new smartphone stand out from the crowd or is it just another pretender? Let’s take a look.
There’s quite a debate about how big a phone’s screen should be. iPhone diehards swear by their 4-inch wonders, while people looking to do more with their phones are increasingly looking to Android devices of the 5-inch or higher variety. While just saying the G3 has a 5.5-inch screen could potentially turn buyers away, it shouldn’t. In reality it’s often the phone’s overall footprint, not the screen size that matters. With that in mind, the G3 does a great job squeezing a typically large size screen into a manageable size device.
Putting the 4-inch iPhone on top of the G3, it’s hard to imagine that LG’s phone has a screen that’s an entire inch and a half bigger. LG has stripped out every trace of unneeded bezels to make for a sleek piece of hard with a front face that is pretty much entirely devoted to the display.
Speaking of the display, the phone’s “Quad HD” screen really is the headlining feature of the LG G3. By “Quad HD”, LG means that the display has a resolution of 2560×1440, which significantly higher than your average HD smartphone. In addition to the super high resolution, the display also packs in 538 pixels per inch. The more pixels in a given area means that the closer you get, it’s still hard to see the dots making up the image you’re looking at.
Even once I set aside all the marketing hype that comes with a phrase like “Quad HD”, I really did find the demo videos on the phone to be quite stunning. They were the kind of super high resolution videos that made actually put the insane resolution to work. In day to day use, however, the screen turned out not to really differentiate itself all that much. Don’t get me wrong—it always looked great and everything was really crisp, but often I would forget it was much better than the 1080p screen on the HTC One (M8) or the Samsung Galaxy S5. That being said, who knows what content might show in the next year or two that will actually put this magnificent display to use.
The next big story on the G3’s outer appearance is the material feel of the phone. LG has finally listened to the masses and tossed out the slimy, fingerprint-attracting plastic shell that has been on so many of their devices. The body of the G3 is still plastic, but the thin, metallic layer on it certainly gives it a more premium look and feel. While the end result still hardly competes with phones like the HTC One (M8) or even the iPhone 5s, it’s hard not to be pleasantly surprised at how the G3 looks and feels in the hand.
As has become the trend with recent LG devices, LG has decided to once again put all the buttons on the back of the phone. If you’ve experienced having the buttons on the back and don’t care for them there, then there’s not much that will change your mind. If you don’t have any preference or are new to them, they really do work well. The G2’s back buttons just weren’t tactile enough to be able to use them consistently without looking. Fortunately, that isn’t the case with the G3. Once I got comfortable with it, having power and volume buttons on the back of the device—top and centered—ended up actually being a win for me in the case of the G3.
The exposed 1-watt speaker is also on the back on the phone. The placement makes sense with little place else for it to go, but it really does feel like the sound dissipates very quickly. The actual sound quality is fine for a phone, it’s loud enough, but like every other phone, it feels weak in comparison to the dual front-facing speakers on the HTC One (M8).
Another highly touted feature for the G3 is the device’s 13-megapixel camera. However, the main draw for the G3’s camera is its new laser auto-focus feature. Using a laser to scan and focus on objects can be done in just over half a second. The goal is blur free photos, but in testing it isn’t able to perform magic. Any time a camera can auto-focus quicker, it’s a good thing—but it doesn’t mean every picture is going to be clear and in focus in real world use. From my time with the G3, I found that for every ten pictures taken in unfavorable conditions, the laser auto-focus might have saved 2 or 3.
Joining the latest trend, the G3 is also capable of taking pictures and then refocusing after the fact. HTC’s One (M8) includes two back cameras to deal with this task while the G3 uses software tricks to perform a similar operation. In practice it’s not a game-changer by any means since you still have to save a final copy with only one focus point. Overall, though, the G3 has really nice camera that performs better in every situation than pretty much any Android device available, which is something we’ve come to expect from LG’s flagship devices.
Most Android phone manufacturers have tried to differentiate themselves through software, which usually involves re-skinning the operating system and adding new features unique to their devices. Just a year or two back, most of these software changes bordered on terrible, especially in the LG camp. But as stock Android has gotten better and better, LG has finally scaled back across the board including here on the G3. In fact, most of the software changes or tweaks are positive.
LG re-skinned the Android OS to give the design a “flat” look. The G3 definitely doesn’t look like “flat” iOS 7 redesign, but it’s familiar and on par with the industry wide trend. Instead of bright colors, LG used ones heavily in the blues, greens, and browns. Out of the box, the colors and design looks great. Once the design is riddled with third party apps, there’s some mismatching in aesthetics. LG also took it upon themselves to redesign the default keyboard. Usually Android manufacturer keyboards aren’t very good, which is partly why Google released its own keyboard as a separate app freely available in the Play Store. LG’s new keyboard isn’t perfect, but it’s refined and unique enough that I didn’t feel a need to switch it out.
The keyboard includes a dedicated number row on the top which is a handy little addition. Another super handy feature is that the keyboard can also be adjusted in height to get the right fit for all different sized hands. If you prefer the swype-like method of input, it’s available as well.
Partly because of its screen size and partly because of the lack of a fingerprint scanner, the G3 is the first to see LG’s KnockCode. The security software allows a user to tap a unique code onto the screen to bypass the lock screen. You’re able to move from a black off screen right into using the phone with a few taps. There’s not really room for a fingerprint scanner on the G3, but as Samsung showed with its S5 (and to a certain extent Apple as well), if you can’t do it well you probably shouldn’t do it anyways. Instead, KnockCode is a wonderful addition that imposes security without inconvenience. KnockCode might be one of the features you end up using the most on the G3, but it probably won’t be what you notice first.
One of the interesting additions is the ability to move the cursor position without taking your fingers off the keyboard. If you hold down on the spacebar it will enable you to slide the cursor left and right. This feature was mentioned during the G3 event in the context of people tapping back and forth between the phone keyboard and above text which slowed down text input. LG also included the feature to encrypt content you want kept from guests. A nicety for advanced users, but something likely to remain untouched by casual ones. There’s also a remote app for the built in IR blaster on the top of the phone.
All in all, it’s another situation where it’s hard not to be impressed by how far LG has come with the G3. It doesn’t have the clean, appeal of stock Android, but in terms of Android skins, it’s just as good at getting out of the way as efforts from HTC or Sony.
Most all of the software and hardware features come together well for the G3. Aside from the size of the phone, there’s not really a single thing about the phone that should deter a prospective buyer from heavily considering it—it’s got the whole package. The G3 might not be the absolute, undisputed, best Android phone, but LG’s new high end Android phone the G3 is the physical representation of a company that actually listens to its customers. The result isn’t just a good phone—it’s a device that’s made the manufacturer a serious part of the high-end Android conversation again.
Also see our side-by-side comparison of the LG G3 with the HTC One (M8).