When it comes to smartphones, I’m a pretty shallow guy. It doesn’t matter what capabilities are baked into your software, how long your battery life is, or how vast your internal storage; if you’re not a good-looking device, you’re not coming home with me.
So it was with a halfhearted smile and forced enthusiasm that I walked into the LG event in NYC yesterday, responding to a company rep’s “are you excited?” with a too-blunt “is there coffee?” It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to the show – I was. But the company’s newest flagship had already been leaked so thoroughly that we knew essentially everything there was to know about the hardware long before the unveiling. And from an aesthetic perspective, what we knew wasn’t all that exciting.
I would have been even less enthusiastic about the event had I not been the one to write Pocketnow’s review of the Optimus G, LG’s 2012 Android flagship. I came into the review experience expecting very little from the company formerly known as Lucky Goldstar -the folks behind the infamous Optimus Vu monstrosity- but what I got was a surprise. The Optimus G turned out to be an incredible smartphone, a paragon of software responsiveness wrapped in an elegant and beautiful casing. LG had succeeded in impressing me for the first time since the dumbphone days of yore. And it’s been aging pretty gracefully, too.
In fact, we loved the G so much that our own Brandon Miniman bought one at full price for his own use, later volunteering it for one of our podcast giveaways. So when word of the Optimus G’s successor first started trickling out earlier in the year, I was hopeful. Maybe the company really was on the path to success with its new flagship line. Maybe I could finally carry an LG device as a daily driver without having to compromise too much.
And to be fair, LG met -and even exceeded- my expectations in some areas. The G2’s software is loaded with “innovations,” as the company repeatedly reminded us at the unveiling. The phone can be set to answer an incoming call when it detects you’ve put the earpiece to your head. Text messages containing time, date, and place information can be magically transmuted into calendar appointments with a single tap. The new SlideAside multitasking view looks to be one of the smartest app-juggling approaches since webOS. And the new “Guest Mode” is something I could see myself using pretty regularly.
So it’s not the features that have me pouting about the device; it’s the hardware. And I’m not talking about the LG G2 specs, either; that Snapdragon 800 SoC powered by a 3000 mAh battery is impressive stuff, and the 5.2-inch IPS display is one of the more vibrant LCD screens I’ve ever seen. But the casing surrounding it -indeed, the G2’s entire aesthetic message- is a pretty huge disappointment to this build-centric mobile maven.
It’s not just because LG’s design approach is a shameless photocopy of Samsung’s (though it is). Everyone copies each other in this business; it’s the nature of the beast. My issue is that here, the copying didn’t result in a nicer-looking device. While I certainly have my problems with Samsung’s too-light and too-glossy builds, at least that company makes a pretense of catering to style. The Galaxy S 4’s faux metal trim might be a little gaudy, but its design is at least balanced. The G2, by contrast, boasts about a buttonless front but fails to deliver a truly minimalistic design. The ports for the various sensors above the screen detract from the seamlessness of the face; even devices like the Moto X and Nexus 4 do a better job of using button-free faces to an aesthetic advantage. The G2’s tenth-of-an-inch bezels are impressive, and I’m a huge fan of the home-button omission, but the screen dominates the face of the device to such an extent that it actually looks a bit strange. Really, the only thing that sets the G2 apart from the sea of Samsung slabs is its rear-mounted control key, which LG wants us to believe is a much bigger deal than it actually is.
The unremarkable nature of the G2’s build quality is compounded by the UI design, which could charitably be described as “fun,” but is more accurately termed “tacky beyond belief.” Again, we’ve given Samsung its fair share of bunk for the aging and cartoony TouchWiz, but LG’s interface is taking things to another level. It’s not just overcrowded and confusing; it’s downright ugly. Maddeningly, we’re given hints that someone inside LG does know what good design looks like: all of the phone’s new features are called out in a special hub with a wonderfully minimalistic look and feel. But sadly, that taste and restraint is confined to the demo software. Actually using any of the new features means you’ll have to deal with the phone’s clownish UI. I’d suggest using QuickMemo to call out specific complaints in red pen with a screenshot, but the feature is almost useless on a stylus-less phone like the G2 (so why does LG keep including it?).
Here’s the sad part: it didn’t have to be this way. I wouldn’t be piling on LG if it was a loser company with no clue, or a new entrant to the smartphone space. This is the world’s third-largest smartphone maker. More important: it’s the company that brought us the Optimus G and the BL40. And before that, the gorgeous and popular Chocolate line – the “Droid” of the dumbphone era. This is a company that knows how to make beautiful hardware, but for some reason it would rather ape a corporation that regularly takes flack for its own uninspired hardware designs. I don’t get it.
The G2 has a lot going for it. It’s going to be available on a slew of carriers worldwide. It will benefit from the buzz of being one of the first devices to pack the Snapdragon 800, and one of an elite clan of smartphones to offer a camera with optical image stabilization. If LG is able to communicate the advantages of those and other features, the G2 may sell very well. After all, not many folks have been shy about buying that other lightweight plastic phone with a cartoony UI.
But I can’t help but think of an alternate future for the G2: one where LG stuck to its design guns and gave us a more fitting successor to the Optimus G. A device of glass, or metal, or composite, or raw polycarbonate – or some combination of all four. A phone that felt like a high-end piece of equipment, rather than another set of (compelling) features stuffed inside an unremarkable toy-like plastic box. It would have been glorious.
As it stands, it’ll just be okay. At least for shallow people like me.