LG has risen through the ranks in the smartphone world, its large-screen G3 happily going elbows-out for a deserved spot on the 2014 flagship podium. Relying on high-flying specification rather than designer branding - as some of the company's less successful Prada models of old did - its 2015 follow-up, the LG G4, is playing a slightly different game.
For one the G4's 5.5-inch screen makes it larger than many phones on the market - in terms of body size even more so than its G3 predecessor - so think more phablet than phone (yep, we used the p-word). Second, the leather-backed option - a must-have given the nominal price bump and generally non-lux plastic option (and the white one is a real no-go) - is dipping a toe into the world of designer, selling a visual point of difference to make the G4 truly stand out. And lastly, having opted for the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor, it is (on paper, at least) marginally less powerful than the Snapdragon 810 found in the HTC One M9 (and even LG's own G Flex 2).
But in a year when we're spoiled for choice, and the most powerful chipsets have found something of a plateau in terms of real-world power delivery, the G4 focuses on striking a balance of style, power, performance and, importantly for some, price. Does this all combine to once more give LG a shout for the flagship podium in 2015?
Design: Details and downfalls
For the purpose of this review we've been sent a plastic-backed G4 that we've been using for six days non-stop as our personal device. It looks fine finished in the almost metallic gunmetal, but having handled the leather-clad options at the G4 launch event, we can say without hesitation that these cowhide options are the more interesting ones to plump for. All the backs are removable for access to the battery, microSD card and mini SIM slots, so there's no sacrifice in opting for one or the other.
But even with its standout leather finish catching some attention, the LG G4 is a large-phone proposition that will be too big for some. Measuring 149 x 76 x 9.8mm - making it larger by volume than even the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 - the G4 goes a step further than the G3 by adding additional chassis bulk, despite still using a 5.5-inch Quad HD screen.
It's not the very same screen, mind, as the G4's front is also ever so slightly curved. You might not immediately think so to look at it, but it is to the tune of 3000R - a curvature so subtle (and expressed in an almost incomprehensible format to all but physicists) that you're more likely to read about it than notice it by eye. Supposedly this curve will bring benefits, including making and receiving calls by being better matched to your facial curve. We've noticed no such benefit at all, simply that it looks more designer and interesting than a standard display when you catch it at certain angles.
The curve to the rear, which bends laterally in sync with a palm, is far more pronounced, making for a comfortable hold that's typically warm to the touch. However, at 9.8mm thick overall, the G4 is one of the chunkiest handsets we've seen for a while - topping even the Lumia 930 from back in mid-2014, and not a million miles behind more budget handsets such as the Motorola Moto G (2015). You'll certainly feel that in a pocket, especially when other makers are aiming for the claim of "world's slimmest", so we wonder if the G4 will look outdated more quickly in the future on account of its scale. At 155g all in, however, it's not an overly heavy phone considering the size.
Principal to the G4's design is that there are no buttons to its sides, instead they reside on the rear to the upper centre, in almost exactly the same fashion as the G3. In the G4, however, the up and down volume controls and larger, while the centre button is now an oblong rather than circular shape. It falls to the hand just as naturally as in its predecessor, and if it feels odd at first - as we felt with the G3 - it really takes over and becomes part of the furniture. Don't want to always use the buttons? A double-tap of the front screen will wake it up for use.
If there's something lacking from the feature set its the presence of a fingerprint scanner. Despite having qualms with the earlier swipe-to-use versions, the latest scanner in the Samsung S6 and S6 edge, and the iPhone 6's Touch ID scanner, and are prime examples of how a press-and-hold system can work really well - and we would have loved to have seen this implemented in the G4. Not an essential, but something flagship devices tend to opt for.
In summary the G4 tweaks the established G3 design, but despite some distinctive qualities - the leather rear and barely noticeable front screen curve - the position to make it a yet larger phone feels like an oddity. We're used to big phones, and we rather like them, but there are plenty of people who will find the G4 simply too large. As a phablet, conversely, it's on the smaller side. So it's all about preference - but with the all-metal and glass Samsung Galaxy S6 an obvious competitor, we think Samsung is the step ahead.
Screen: A Quantum leap?
When it comes to the screen the G4 isn't mucking about. The 5.5-inch panel delivers a pixel-packed 2560 x 1440 resolution (538ppi), delivering more pixels than, well, you can see without the phone wedged half way towards your nose.
On the one hand that makes everything look ultra-sharp, and is up there as a class-leading resolution, but on the other it leads to potentially more power consumption than you might want (more on that later). Without lots of distinctive use for a Quad HD resolution such as this, and as we said with the Samsung S6, it feels like yet greater use could be made of all those pixels.
Where the G4 stands apart from the rest of the competition, to the point of bettering them in many regards, is with its choice of display technology. By using an IPS Quantum Display - which is different to the Quantum Dot of its latest televisions - and N-Type Liquid Crystals, LG has been able to create a brighter and more colour-packed screen.
The company claims a 25 per cent brightness boost over the G3, while colours cater for 98 per cent of the DCI colour gamut (that's Digital Cinema Initiatives, a swish Hollywood standard that the grading boffins like to use for high-end movie colour). But all these figures and acronyms are meaningless waffle to the common man, so how does the G4 screen actually hold up? We've been comparing it to our G3 to see.
Above: LG G3 (left) vs G4 (right), both set to 100 per cent screen brightness
The G4 is evidently brighter, at 100 per cent brightness with auto switched off, while colours - in particular the reds - are far punchier than the older handset. Unlike some AMOLED panels it's within the remit of believable, rather than always pushed to retina-bleeding excess - even the Sony Xperia Z3 has some less-saturated colour modes to stop things appearing over the top - to make for good looking, contrasty images, with great angles of view.
It all adds up to being a definite selling point for this handset. But, again, the Samsung Galaxy S6 gives it a run for its money in our view.
Software: UX redux?
However, despite the ability to present pronounced colours, the LG UX 4.0 user interface (a reskin over Android v5.1) has a pastel colour palette which seems to make everything look almost cross-processed and off-colour. It seems an odd choice of colours, and not evolved compared to the earlier G3's UX visuals.
If you're wondering what the heck we're talking about, and what UX even is, then fear not: with the Android operating system running things in the background, you get all the goodies that offers. Apps, email, calls, texts, browsing, file management and so forth, in an easy-to-use manner. The UX layer simply adds some of LG's own interventions and additions, plus the odd glitch such as auto-rotate not always working (we've had issues with the video player; a relic of G3 programming issues?).
There's now LG Health, for example, which is much like Samsung Health - a locked-to-manufacturer GPS-tracking and step-tracking app to track your progress - in among browsing, battery saver and other apps.
The most prominent of these LG apps are presented in Smart Bulletin, via a left swipe from the home screen. Comprising Health, Calendar, Music, Smart Settings, QRemote, Smart Tips, each can be switched on or off, or Smart Bulletin can be turned off in its entirety. It's a sensible place to gain quick access to, say, your latest calendar appointment - but as we're already more-or-less hardwired to simply load the calendar separately it's been of rare use for our needs.
Initially we also had issues with some LG apps, as InCalAgent refused to update for four days, which caused a blockage in the updates system. And this despite multiple updates and restarts. This had a knock-on effect with Weather, Calendar, File Manager, and some other LG-reskinned apps from updating in the apps updater (which is separate and slower than Google Play). That hurdle eventually overcome and there have been no qualms since, but it could be a future sticking point.
Another "LG special" is Smart Notice, which presents pop-up cards on the home screen with relevant advice based on your usage and location. Whether a b warning, or that you should use an app less to conserve battery, we find them overly frequent, excessively large on the front screen and, just as we did with the G3, turned them off after little time at all. We're not a fan of stock Google Cards either, though, so no surprises.
The really good stuff is what existed in the G3 and carries ovwer to the G4: Dual Window, used for running two apps in display such as Email and File Manager (although not just any old apps, as more demanding ones restricted or unavailable for this arrangement), and QSlide, used for pop-up apps such as watching a video while doing another activity, are both great additions.
The second is that the three default home buttons can be extended to five in total, with a shortcut to Dual Window, Notifications, QMemo+ and QSlide all possible options to drag into the on-screen arrangement. Five might sound a lot, but we've found it rather handy.
Overall the LG UX 4.0 user interface is fine; it's non-invasive, but other than the dual window applications it doesn't add a huge degree of must-have moments to the G4 experience. Plus there's the occasional minor glitch (but not to debilitating levels like the Huawei P8) such as auto-rotate or app updates stalling.
Performance: Bettering the battery?
If there's one thing that almost any LG G3 owner will tell you, it's that the battery life isn't great. Multiple updates, some of which were designed to improve its longevity per charge, seemingly had relatively little impact on its performance.
In the G4 LG has taken an interesting step: by using the hexa-core Snapdragon 808, not the octa-core Snapdragon 810 chipset, there ought to be less pressure on the battery and less heat generated by that choice of chipset. We've rarely felt it get warm, and it certainly hasn't got as hot as some devices we've tested.
It may lack the ultimate top-end power, but spoiled as we are with the options available, it makes relatively little difference in day-to-day use. Apps load as quickly as you want (if not just as quick as any competitor), games run just fine, and we've had few issues. The only lag we've spotted are images in the Gallery taking an excessive amount of time to render at full resolution, playing catch-up, despite some being under 300KB in size.
But there's a problem to the battery theory: the G4's battery is 3,000mAh, echoing the performance found in the G3, and we've been struggling to get through a full day's use from it. While the battery can be swapped out for a second one unlike many other current flagship devices, it should have been more capacious in the first instance.
Think of it this way: LG has made the handset larger, there's plenty of room scattered around the outskirts of the current battery container area, the G3 was known to have so-so battery life, yet the same battery capacity has been opted for again in the G4 despite a brighter screen being utilised. We don't get the logic.
To give a few examples to contextualise: just seven and a half hours into day five and we were down to 25 per cent battery remaining, leaving around two and a half hours of juice. We hadn't played a game once, with the screen output being 20 per cent of the total power consumption. Gmail, Skype and WhatsApp are the main other culprits - but haven't been running at all times. On the flip side of that a more casual Sunday saw just over 16-hours use from a single charge, which is the best we've managed from more casual use - but again the screen is the main culprit of consumption, eating away around a quarter of the power outage.
There are battery options available to assist with consumption, including Battery & Power Saving's Game Optimizer (to adjust video quality in games) and Battery Saver which limits background services when reaching 15 per cent battery level remaining. Either option can be toggled on or off, while individual apps can be forced stopped if necessary. It still lacks the minutiae control of something like Sony's Xperia Z3 setup though.
Most users aren't likely to notice the power difference of the Snapdragon 808 chipset choice (rather than 810), but we had hoped for better longevity per charge as a result. That's what will mean more to those users, the people who will largely be picking up a G4 on account of its more standout design features such as the leather design option.
Camera: A touch of class
We'll come to look at the LG G4's camera in a separate and deeper feature, as it's such a defining feature of this phone. If there's one thing that's clear, it's that LG wants to be crowned the smartphone camera king, offering a 16-megapixel rear sensor paired with f/1.8 fast aperture lens (there's a front-facing 8MP snapper too).
In 2014 the G3 made headway in the camera department with its fast laser autofocus system - a system that the LG G4 adopts, but builds upon with a larger sensor size and faster aperture lens. The two autofocus systems are identical - achieving focus in a purported 276ms - so there's no detectable speed jump between the two. However, given its speed - and it really is fast - it didn't really need to be any quicker. That's how good it is. So whether daylight, low-light or even night-time, we've found the G4 to do a grand job of achieving focus with its laser system.
The sensor at the core of the camera is a 1/2.6in sensor size, rather than the 1/3.0in sensor typical in many competitors such as the iPhone 6. That "inch" description doesn't describe the size literally though: a standard compact camera sensor has a 1/2.3in sensor, which is approximately an equally large increase in size again (or the same size as the sensor found in the Sony Xperia Z3). It's not nearly as large as that found in a DSLR camera, for example, which is what LG's marketing is promoting the G4 camera level to be.
Even so, of the shots we've taken we're impressed. Even snaps in really dark conditions - taken at ISO 2450, for example - show ample detail, compared to the smushed images some competitors would render. They're not pixel perfect, though, with some degree of colour noise being visible, but that's always going to be the case with a smartphone camera.
One thing the LG does offer to help keep settings to an optimum is a fast f/1.8 aperture. Delivering around sixty per cent more light than the iPhone 6's f/2.2 optic (two thirds of a difference in f-stops), that means more light and therefore more scope to play with: faster shutter speeds, less processing to achieve exposure, thus avoiding the worst of image noise and processing. Shooting at night handheld without flash isn't too much of a problem either, although the flare from streetlamps and light sources is pretty abysmal - stretching right across the frame sometimes.
Three modes are available for shooting: Simple, which shows next to nothing on screen to keep things ultra simple; Auto which adds in touch-to-focus autofocus; and Manual which opens up every available option - from manual focus (if desired), to ISO, shutter speed, aperture value, white balance and exposure lock. The options for controls are great, and there's even a DNG raw file format to get the utmost from your images if you have a compatible software editor, such as Photoshop, and wish to tweak settings after.
Straight from the G4 camera we found the colours to be a little oversaturated, but the white balance settings were really well considered - bettering even our DSLR and compact system cameras of choice (the ones we use for taking the product shots in our reviews, and which are almost always colour balanced in post). We put this down to the colour spectrum analyser on the rear of the camera, which uses infrared (IR) light to recognise subjects for focus, while the analyser can take a more accurate read of ambient light colour temperature to produce a better balanced, more natural image. Save for the saturation, we agree, even with low colour temperature bulbs avoiding the often green or yellow cast that can be commonplace.
Elsewhere there's an tri-axis optical image stabilisation system which seems to work well, especially given how easy it is to move a smartphone when taking a snap. Most stabilisers work on a dual X and Y axes principle, whereas LG has added in a Z axis to compensate for a third rotational dimension. We've seen five-axis stabilisation in some higher-end dedicated cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, which are very impressive for steady video and still work. The G4 is therefore great for handheld shooting with confidence.
We can't call the images DSLR quality, but in smartphone camera terms LG has created a camera that's brilliantly fast, capable of producing well balanced images, offers raw capture (helpful to counter some blown highlights and de-saturate colours), and is well up in the ranks of the best smartphone cameras out there. Whether you're a point-and-shooter or do-it-all manual kind of snapper, there's depth here at every juncture. Good job all round.
The LG G4 has heaps of positives going for it: from the leather finish options, excellent camera performance, through to the ultra-subtle curve and that bold, colour-packed 5.5-inch screen. Just because it doesn't opt for the most powerful processor on the market doesn't mean it isn't every bit the flagship phone. Quite the contrary.
Thing is, it's a big phone; bigger than its predecessor and both bigger and thicker than many other flagship devices on the market by some distance. We can't help but be distracted by the Samsung Galaxy S6 or S6 edge. But if you're on the hunt for a phablet rather than a small and skinny phone then the G4 is perhaps the ideal solution.
The one thing that holds the G4 back from greater success is its battery life. Despite squeezing a brighter screen and new processor into the mix, the 3,000mAh battery is too much an echo of the earlier G3, delivering performance that's a little below par. A shame, as the body size would suggest there's more than the scale required for a more capacious battery. On the upside, the battery is removable so you can easily swap it for a reserve - if you have one.
The LG G4 is a great phone, striking a balance between smartphone and phablet, delivered with little compromise and at a price point that undercuts many competitors. And with camera performance as good as this the G4 will certainly make LG's name stand out in the smartphone world.