By Michael Fisher | September 20, 2012 2:22 PM
It’s been a pretty wild week for mobile tech, and the one before that wasn’t too shabby, either. Before that came IFA, which brought us some new hotness itself. You could say this autumn has so far been an epic explosion of new technology in the smartphone and tablet world.
That’s good news. For OEMs, for us, and for you. But it also means that sometimes, things can slip through the cracks. Take yesterday: we were so entranced by the news coming out of NYC’s launch event for the HTC Windows Phone 8S and 8X and its implications for the Windows Phone landscape that we completely bypassed the other newsworthy announcement of the day, LG’s announcement of its new Optimus G Android flagship.
Actually, “we” isn’t quite proper there. Hiding behind that editorial convention is sometimes convenient, but I’m not going to use it to cover my own tail; I dropped the ball, and I apologize to those of you waiting for news of the LG Android variety yesterday. Let’s go ahead and make up for it now!
To review, the Optimus G is LG’s newest, flashiest, hardest-core Android smartphone. We’ve been hearing about it for a while, but yesterday’s announcement made it official for the U.S. Check out our news post on the official announcement for the full spec rundown, but the pertinent specs include a WXGA, 4.7-inch display; 32GB of on-board storage and 2GB of RAM; 13MP and 1.3MP primary and front-facing cameras, respectively; and a 2,100 mAh battery.
Oh, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU. Yep, the SoC our own Joe Levi called the future of smartphone processors, with quad-core performance and LTE. LG is saying it’s the first company to offer such a pairing in a smartphone, and while the advantage may not last long, it certainly looks that way for the moment.
So should you be considering the Optimus G? Should you be excited about it? Might this phone change the marketplace?
In order: not sure, probably not, and we doubt it.
Cool Features, But Nothing Earth-Shattering
Let’s put aside the CPU and other low-level guts for a second. What’s LG giving us in the Optimus G?
In the physical sense, we’re looking at a reasonably attractive casing that, yet again, “places value on simplicity,” in the words of LG’s press release. We’re getting a little tired of “minimalism” being used as a synonym for “boring,” and that’s what this phone’s design says to us. There’s just not much to fawn over in the device’s lines; it’s very straightforward.
That’s not to say it has nothing to offer; there’s some innovation here. The back side is coated in what LG calls a “Crystal Reflection finish,” which reflects light into patterns that shift depending on what angle you view the device from. It also provides a somewhat cool polarizing 3D effect that some might enjoy.
LG is obviously trying to position the camera as a big selling point here. It’s a 13MP shooter (LG calls it “the industry’s highest-resolution camera,” which some companies might disagree with) and includes software features like stabilization, wait-to-smile, voice-activated shutter, low-light noise reduction, and so on.
On the software side, on top of Ice Cream Sandwich -not Jelly Bean; we’ll come back to this- there are some innovative features that bear mentioning. “QSlide” is LG’s new form of “cross-tasking,” allowing two apps to be displayed side-by-side on the screen and kept active alongside one another. There’s also “live zooming” in video, allowing users to focus on one particular section of a video being played, as well as the “icon personalizer” we test drove on the L9 at IFA, and a handful of other features.
The thing is, none of that is really revolutionary. We’ve seen most of those features before, particularly the camera-centric ones. The innovative multitasking is interesting, but it requires specialized software running on top of Android. Which brings us to …
Any OEM offering a custom Android experience usually does so by way of a skin on top of the OS. Samsung does it with TouchWiz, HTC does it with Sense, and LG does it too, with the aptly-named “LG UI.” We took it for a brief spin in the L9 video linked above, and found it to be responsive and loaded with a few fun features, like custom homescreen visualizations and so on.
The problem with those customized experiences, as we’ve come to know and loathe, is that they muck up the update process when a new Android version comes out. We talked extensively about this on today’s edition of the Pocketnow Weekly Podcast. Whether the problem is with the OEMs, with Google, with carriers, or some combination of all three (hint: it’s that last one), the delays that skins add to Android updates are real.
Some companies are better than others at dealing with this challenge, but LG isn’t one of those better ones. As we noted earlier, the Optimus G is shipping with Ice Cream Sandwich, not the more-modern Jelly Bean. Other OEMs like Samsung have certainly had no trouble telling the world that Jelly Bean is coming to their phones; in Samsung’s case, it’s coming to its flagship Galaxy S III. As LG hasn’t chosen to elaborate on when we might see Android 4.1 hit the Optimus G, cautious users wouldn’t be wrong to take that as a red flag.
First Isn’t Always Best
I talked about this a little bit in a piece I wrote about LG on Monday, where I said:
LG has managed to consistently make headlines with its Android offerings, churning out a bevy of “firsts.” The company was the first to roll out a dual-core Android smartphone, and the first to offer a glasses-free 3D smartphone. We expect to see the company unveil another first-in-class very shortly as it takes the wraps off the Optimus G, the world’s first smartphone packing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro, which will offer LTE and quad-core performance on the same chip. Clearly, the company hasn’t been standing still.
Some people say that you have to be the first, or the best; it’s not necessary to be both. Certainly that’s true sometimes, but in the cutthroat mobile tech world, it certainly helps if you can do both. In LG’s case, the company is often first out of the gate with new features or services, but it doesn’t often execute them well. This translates to a kind of unintentional gift to competitors, who -if they’re far enough behind, or agile enough to move quickly- can use LG as their Beta tester, seeing where the company makes mistakes and then swooping in with their own similar offering. Sure, they’re not first, but they’re better as a result. Certainly that kind of thinking has worked for other companies in this field for years.
None of this is saying the Optimus G is a bad device, or that you shouldn’t be interested in it, or that LG is doomed. We won’t know how the phone performs until we’ve given it the full review treatment, and LG isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Few things would make me happier than to see the company return to the brilliance it once displayed when dumbphones ruled the landscape, those years it brought truly innovative and spectacular design to the tech world.
For now, though, I have my doubts. As cool and as well-appointed and as legitimately significant the Optimus G is, as a milestone, I find it a difficult device to get excited about. I just hope my hands-on time with the phone makes me eat some of those words.
Specs and info source: LG
Title image, assorted info source: UberGizmo