Most of us want more or less the same things out of a smartphone: It has to be fast; the screen has to be nice and crisp; the camera should be decent, and its software shouldn’t be terrible. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Then again, how can phone makers give us this while still offering exceptional devices? All too often, standout features disappoint — be it HTC’s UltraPixel camera or Samsung’s fingerprint reader. With the G3, LG tackles this by offering simplicity. It promises minimum gimmicks, and maximum utility and style. Or, as LG would have us believe, “simple is the new smart.”
The G3 is LG’s flagship smartphone. Every smartphone maker has one. Let’s run through its peers — but instead of looking at the raw numbers, I’ll note what is each phone’s claim to fame. They’re all powerful and fast, so what makes each different?
- Samsung Galaxy S5: It’s waterproof, has a replaceable battery, and a fingerprint sesnor. The LG G3 doesn’t have a fingerprint sensor (it has something better, as you’ll see in a moment), nor is it waterproof. You can replace the battery though. Read our review of the Galaxy S5.
- Sony Xperia Z2: Another waterproof phone, with an all-glass build and a 20.7-megapixel camera with a large sensor. Unlike the LG G3, the Z2 does not have a laser-assisted autofocus feature.
- HTC One M8: Sets itself apart mainly in the industrial design department, with HTC’s premium looks. Has an “Ultrapixel” camera that’s purported to do well in low-light situations. No user replaceable battery.
The LG G3 In a Nutshell
The LG G3 has a couple of standout features, so let’s start with those: Its 5.5-inch display clocks in at an impressive 1440 by 2500 pixels, which yields a pixel density of 534 PPI. That’s pretty crazy. The other standout feature is its camera focus system, which relies on a laser beam. That’s right, lasers! The future is here.
The next thing you’ll notice about the G3 is its unorthodox button layout: Rather than having the power and volume button on the sides or top of the device, LG placed them on the phone’s curved back. It sounds like an odd spot, but it’s actually great. You can easily reach the volume and power buttons, no matter which hand you hold the phone with. Because of this layout, you’ll be touching the phone’s back quite a bit. It’s made of plastic, but it feels quite good in the hand. The G3 doesn’t have a dedicated camera button — but it does offer a quick way to launch the camera when the screen is off, as you’ll see in the camera section below.
Apart from these features, the LG G3’s hardware specifications are standard Android flagship, circa mid-2014: Corning Gorilla Glass 3, a MicroSD card slot, 13 megapixel camera, Adreno 330 GPU, and Snapdragon 801 chipset. The front-facing camera lets you take those all-important selfies at 2.1 megapixels. It has an IR blaster which lets you use the device as a remote control, and a user-replaceable 3000mAh battery that easily lasts through a day of heavy use. Sadly, it isn’t waterproof.
There’s a speaker at the back side of the phone, and it’s reasonably loud — but it’s still definitely a smartphone speaker. There’s only so much you can do with a tiny speaker. Its connection is a standard Micro-USB, unlike the Galaxy S5 which uses the newer and wider USB 3.0 connector. I found myself trying to insert the power plug the wrong way in more than once – I can’t wait for USB Type-C connectors.
In terms of memory, LG offers two models: one is a 16GB model which comes with 2GB of RAM and retails for around $500 (that’s the one I tested), and the other is a $600 32GB model that has 3GB of RAM — one of the only Android phones to currently offer such a capacious amount of RAM.
In terms of what you get with the LG G3 in the box, this isn’t going to blow you away. You get the phone and battery, a pair of earbuds, a USB cable, and a charger. Nothing special, and no surprising extras from LG on this one.
Knock Knock, Who’s There?
With so many Android flagship phones touting virtually identical hardware, phone makers try to distinguish themselves on the software front: Take the common and important problem of keeping unwanted people out of your phone.
This is one area where LG’s ingenuity trumps Samsung’s heavy-handedness: Samsung, desperate to go head-to-head with Apple, shipped the Galaxy S5 with a clunky and terrible fingerprint sensor that fails more often than it works. LG looked at this and went a totally different route: Rather than adding on one more sensor, why not solve the problem with software?
That’s where its Knock Code comes in. One of the G3’s most celebrated features, Knock Code divides the phone’s capacious screen into four quadrants. With the screen off, tap out a code only you know (top-right, bottom-right, bottom-right), and the phone unlocks. Your code can be up to eight knocks long, and when it works, it’s very cool.
In practice, the G3’s Knock Code works considerably more reliably than the Galaxy S5’s fingerprint sensor — but it isn’t perfect. As the phone rattled around in my pocket, the screen would register random taps. I would then take the phone out to use it, only to be confronted with a screen that says I must now enter my backup PIN code due to too many failed attempts to unlock the screen with Knock Code.
This, in itself, isn’t a big deal. The real problem is after you enter the PIN code, the LG G3 takes you into the lockscreen settings — and forces you to reconfigure your Knock Code again. Worse still, it defaults to Slide unlock. So if you don’t notice what’s happening, you can find yourself without any lockscreen security at all. This issue happened every two or three days, and was both disappointing and irritating.
Simple doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Some people love having a screen-brightness slider in the notification shade, others find it intolerably clunky. For me, simple is having the Back button on the right side, because I hold the phone in my right hand.
In other words, simplicity goes hand in hand with customization — and LG gets it. You get a bunch of toggles on the notification shade, but LG lets you switch any of them off or rearrange them as needed. And again, unlike the Galaxy S5, you’re not stuck with enormous sliders or buttons you never use. Want to rearrange your navigation bar buttons? Not a problem.
It’s not perfect, though (what is, really?). You can’t customize the quick-launch hardware buttons — Volume Down launches the camera, and Volume Up launches the useless Quick Memo+ note-taking app. Useless for me, that is — perhaps you love it, but I do think you should have a way to reassign the button to some other app just in case you’re not into useless apps.
One of the rare things Samsung gets right and LG doesn’t is the multi-window mode. The massive, high-res 5.5-inch panel begs for side-by-side apps — and indeed, LG does offer a move for putting two apps side by side. But the list of apps you can use is incredibly limited, and doesn’t even include WhatsApp. If you happen to want to have a browser and a Gmail session side by side, you’re in luck. But for many other tasks, the side-by-side feature is basically a no-show.
All in all, though, the best thing about LG’s flavor of Android is that it isn’t annoying. Apart from the terrible Knock Code issue in the section above, the phone was just fun to use during the whole month I worked with it as my main (and only) phone.
Camera and Focus
The LG G3’s camera is very good. It uses optical image stabilization, so images are usually blur-free. And it focuses fast — the laser-assisted focus truly delivers. There are multiple focus areas you can tap on to very quickly (and accurately) change the focus, and there’s face recognition, too.
One thing the G3 does particularly well which I hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere, including LG’s own promotional materials, is take panoramas. The camera’s panorama feature produces images that are virtually free of stitching lines and other artifacts, and is fast and easy to use.
The camera is quick to launch, too: With the screen off, press and hold the Volume Down button at the back of the phone. Within about four seconds, up comes the camera.
As part of LG’s Software Diet approach, the camera doesn’t feel bloated. You get an Auto mode, a “Magic focus” mode (more on that in a moment), a panorama mode, and a Dual photo mode which combines the front and back cameras. That’s it. If you miss any of Samsung’s numerous in-camera effects or silly modes like the one that creates a “virtual map” by letting you walk around while taking photos, well, you won’t find them here.
Now, let’s talk about Magic Focus: One of just four modes, there should be something fairly magical about it. And there is, if the conditions are just right. Basically, as you hold the phone very steady, the camera takes multiple shots while moving through its entire focal length. You can then tap anywhere on the resulting image to readjust its focal point after the fact. Not a groundbreaking feature (we’ve seen this before in the Lytro), but when it works, it’s fun to use.
For the most part, you’re likely to be keeping the camera on its Auto mode, and that’s just fine. It works, it’s fast, and it yields beautifully crisp images.
I often use a phone for an entire month when I review it. My own personal test is: Would I keep this phone? Do I feel a slight twinge putting it back into its box, to await a lucky winner? In this case, yes, and yes. This one’s a keeper.
The LG G3 is a superb phone — one of the best Android smartphones on the market today. If you’re looking for a phone with a large screen, a great camera, and software that’s customizable enough to stay out of your way, you’ve just found it.
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