LG is the company of bendy screens, epitomised by the LG G Flex smartphone. While Samsung is pursuing the same goal, it is not quite at the same level.
Honestly have very mixed feelings about the whole flexible screen thing. In TVs we're quite sure curved screens are pretty pointless. In phones, and wearable technology, it makes more sense - after all, if you can make a screen bend, then you might start to follow the curves of the body or make phones that are more compact when you don't need them, and large when you do. It's some Back to the Future level stuff.
The G Flex is a product worthy of consideration all on its own. It's based on the LG G2, a phone that we really loved. It uses the same processor, memory and has the same high quality audio support, which we love it for. However, the G Flex has a lower resolution OLED screen - and that's interesting because LG says this improves the speed of the phone and battery longevity per charge.
Improvements or not, the G Flex is a phone that many will find that downright strange. We spent some time with the handset to see if we could love its curve or not.
It's bent like a banana
When we showed it to our wife, she said "it looks broken". And we kind of get that point of view: a curved phone is so unusual that to see one makes you look at it very strangely indeed.
People are interested by the handset too because it's big and bold and the curve means it sits on a desk in a weird way. If you buy one of these, you're going to get questions from passers by. The only time we've been asked more about a device is when we've been flying a drone - because people love drones.
We do think that the G Flex's shape makes less sense than Samsung's Galaxy Round in the pocket - the former curved on the vertical, like a banana, the latter on the horizontal, like a shoe horn - because that phone fits nicely in the hand or even against the leg when in the pocket. However we would argue that the LG is nicer to use as a phone.
So what about the rest of the design? Well, it’s a big phone, make no mistake. That 6-inch screen has to go somewhere.
The curve makes it seem thicker than a normal handset too. It’s comfortable to hold, but just takes up more space overall - despite much of that space being the unused bit between the curve. It feels sturdy, well-built and slightly weighty, but we have a feeling the people who are buying this phone want something substantial. It fits nicely in out jeans pocket, but those with skinny trousers are not going to have a good time. Unless they're just hoping people will look.
As with the G2, there’s that rear-mounted volume rocker and lock key. This isn’t popular with everyone, but we totally love it. For calls, it’s in the right place for adjusting the volume when you’re chatting away. If it’s in your jeans then it’s a really good way of adjusting your music volume without getting your phone out.
READ: LG G2 review
If you don’t want to use LG's screen tapping method then the lock button can be also be used to - wait for it - unlock the phone too. It's likely that's what you'll end up doing as we found the G Flex was harder to register the unlock tapping method than the LG G2.
A new kind of screen
LG is at the forefront of OLED panel research and this shows both in its TVs - which are amongst the first to be available for purchase, even with high costs - and its phones, where OLED panels are more common. LG is one of the first to sell a handset with a curved screen, and the first to let you bend it. It takes a fair amount of pressure to bend the curve flat, and the handset will ping back to its original shape after, but it's still rather cool that a screen can be manipulated and not break.
There's some interesting stuff behind the scenes too. For example this is an OLED that doesn't use a pentile panel, but an RGB one. The technicalities of this aren't relevant for us, but this should help to maintain a better colour than you'd get on a pentile OLED, and perhaps meet the whites you get on an LCD, rather than the blue tone you can sometimes get on OLED handsets.
The big downside, however, is that the screen has a resolution of just 720 x 1280. This puts its dots per inch number at a reasonably modest 245ppi. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3, for example, offers 386ppi on its 5.7-inch 1080 x 1920 resolution display. But we've said this a lot: resolution doesn't always matter in the real world.
Yes, sometimes you will notice the pixel structure on the G Flex, and yes it looks less impressive than a higher resolution screen - but the image isn't overly soft, and it's certainly not hard to read. The colours and brightness are certainly good enough by any measure to keep most users happy, only specification lovers will really notice.
There are some things about the screen that are a little odd though. The first is that it does have some minor image retention. We noticed this most when we moved from the white clock on the lock screen into a dark screen on the OS. The image faded away quickly, but it was noticeable. Image retention has always been something of an issue for OLED, but this won't really upset your experience of the phone.
The second problem is a little more bothersome: the screen has a grain to it that's quite obvious all the time you're using the handset. It's an interesting look, one that we didn't hate, but purists will likely find it unpalatable. We wouldn't like it in a TV, but on a phone we can live with it. But why should we?
Android customisations are mostly positive
As with most big phone companies, LG continues to add its own polish to Android devices. In general we feel good about these, although there are still some slip-ups here and there.
You get the usual LG gesture and touch controls as featured in the G2. A double tap to the screen wakes the phone from sleep. We found tapping the top or bottom had the best results, while in the middle it often didn't seem to register our touch - which was weird, but perhaps something to do with the curve.
You can silence the ringer or a playing video by physically turning the phone over. Bringing the phone to your ear will auto-answer a call, and picking it up will quieten the ringtone too. These all work really well, and we turned them all on because they are actually helpful.
Visually, LG's design uses toggles that look like switches, which is unnecessary, but looks reasonable enough. It's the concept that Apple has recently walked away from, but we don't object to it completely.
We like the way the lock screen is handled. Generally it has a good way of detecting what you are doing, and presenting context-sensitive widgets or shortcuts. For example, when music is playing you get a mini-player. When you plug in headphones, you're prompted as to which app you would like to start to either listen to music or watch videos.
What's a little odd about the way the G Flex performs is that, despite the same processor and memory as the G2, it does feel a bit more laggy. We suspect this is because it's using a new version of LG's user interface.
We noticed some problems with the LG keyboard too, which seemed to be very laggy when we typed. This affected it in pretty much all apps, so it's unlikely to be a result of a problem application. We also noticed that sometimes the lock screen would be blank for a few seconds after we woke the phone up. Neither of these things is really a massive deal, although the keyboard is frustrating at times, but given how snappy the G2 felt, we are puzzled. Perhaps this will be adjusted in a software update soon.
In general use, though, and with games, we noticed that the phone was very responsive and easily as quick as the G2 in all our standard apps. There is loads of power available and the G Flex should see you through the usual two year ownership cycle without any major hassle. If, that is, you can accept having a curved screen.
Audio quality and storage space
As with the G2, the G Flex supports high quality audio. You'll need to load the phone with FLAC-encoded music to take advantage of this, although the audio quality of the G Flex is first-rate, as we found with the G2. If you have good headphones there are loads of advantages to this and you could have one of the best sounding phones on the market if you invest in some good music.
Also, it's worth pointing out that the phone comes with 32GB of internal storage, but no microSD expansion. Available space on the handset is 24GB once you subtract the Android OS and other space munchers. That's a bit disappointing because while most services can use the cloud for storage now, most streaming audio isn't of great quality. Shame.
One thing that surprised us was that the camera on the G Flex is rather good. It's the usual phone camera software that you get on Android devices and it doesn't provide the brilliance of the iPhone 5S or something like the Lumia 1020, but it's better than a lot of other cameras on phones.
We've been using the Nexus 5 and the G Flex felt like a jump forward. We found that detail in images is good, and while there is some of that blurring and lack of fine detail it's still on par with what you'll see on most small sensor cameras with cheap lenses. Far from a disaster that's for sure.
READ: Nexus 5 review
Video capture is reasonable too as the G Flex offers stereo sound and 60fps. That means you can a decent half-speed playback without getting a juddery, stuttery end product. All of this happens at 1080p.
The battery in this thing is great. With cautious use, we think you could get two days life out of the G Flex. We managed a solid day and there was still plenty left in reserve. Spot on for those days where you're out from 8am to midnight. It's truly impressive thanks to the capacity of the cells, but also the lower-resolution OLED screen.
No matter how you look at it, though, the 3500mAh battery has a huge capacity - it's 300mAh larger than the one in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and even that drives the higher-res phone for a respectable amount of time.
The only thing we noticed is that recharging the G Flex can be a bit slow on some chargers. We have one that works brilliantly for the Nexus 5, but is too low-powered to quickly charge the G Flex. Still, the included charger works fine, so no major problem.
We do love the G Flex, because it's an interesting phone and one that worked for us. However, the reality is that most people will find it's too big, too irregularly shaped and, most crucially of all, too expensive. There will, of course, be those for whom this is a great choice, and to those people we can't endorse it enough. But for the majority this curved phone probably isn't the smartphone you're looking for.
The screen shape is something of a gimmick. We didn't notice it as a less reflective surface, but we still did enjoy using it as a screen. The curve is interesting, and makes phone calls a good fit as the device feels less like a slab against your face than other large-scale phones.
But the whole bendability thing is just a little underwhelming. We don't doubt that this phone is more likely to stay in one piece if you drop it, and better generally if you sit on it, but we never found those to be a huge problem before. You're just as likely to shatter the front of this phone as you are any other because it uses Gorilla Glass 2. The bendability might be handy for some, but because it's curved, there's more chance of you bending it than a normal phone, so it sort of answers a problem that doesn't exist.
But there is enough amazing stuff in this phone to make it a pleasure to use because, essentially, it is an LG G2 in a different body. We like LG's customisations a great deal, its user interface is attractive and the company has added in some nice stuff. Add killer battery life that you just won't get elsewhere and there are loads of positives.
But the whole curved thing? We're not convinced it was ever needed here, despite it being a fun and clever technology.