LG G Flex review: the smartphone of the future
“There’s nothing flat about you.”
Depending on your gender, self-image, and the cultural values where you live, that quote (from Dr. Ramchan Woo, LG’s Head of Mobile Product Planning) could be taken any number of ways. But applied to the whole of humanity in the most general sense possible, it’s true: we’re a race of rather rounded organisms. Yet the smartphones we carry with us to communicate with our curvy compatriots are almost invariably flat: boxy, right-angled handhelds that often pay little more than passing attention to ergonomics.
That’s the reason, according to Dr. Woo, that LG went out of its way (three years out of its way, in fact) to craft a curved smartphone. “We got bored of flat,” he says with a modest grin at a recent press event, and it’s a genuine challenge to keep myself from raising my fist in solidarity. I’m bored of flat, too (differently-curved competitors notwithstanding) and the past two weeks using the G Flex as my daily driver have reminded me how powerful a little change in form factor can be.
But it takes more than a little curve to make a solid smartphone, and any device with a six-inch screen is a pretty tough sell on our side of the globe. Does the G Flex bring enough heat to make it appealing to folks outside its current East-Asian market, or will LG’s dreams of a flexible-phone future fall victim to the inflexibility of Western tastes? Read on for our take.
(Note: This review was made possible by a device loan from Negri Electronics. If you like what you see of the LG G Flex, do what we did: visit Negri to pick up a unit of your own!)
Hardware & Specs
More than anything else, the G Flex is defined by its shape: a gentle (700mm radius) curve from top to bottom. LG settled on this degree of curvature after testing over 300 prototypes, and the end result is a phone that’s more comfortable to use than a typical phablet in almost every position. In portrait mode, there’s less thumb travel needed to tap the upper portion of the display. In landscape, viewing movies or playing games is more immersive thanks to the display’s slight wraparound effect. Against the face, the phone’s gentle angle evokes memories of yesteryear’s comfortable landline receivers (and, yes, of that song). And when pocketed, the G Flex conforms better to the body – especially if you keep your phone holstered in the pockets around back.
To accomplish this feat, LG’s four major divisions -Electronics, Innovations, Chem, and Display- worked together to innovate their way out of the restrictions that had kept phones flat for so long. Some of the solutions the company devised bear the inevitable mark of compromise: the G Flex’s 6-inch Plastic-OLED display is 720p instead of the increasingly-common 1080p, resulting in a fairly low pixel density of 244ppi. Colors, though, are brilliant on the RGB Stripe panel, and we don’t think most folks would notice the resolution downgrade in daily use. Our only real complaint is with the whites the screen generates, which seem muted and dull compared to other devices.
On the flip side (literally), LG Chem’s new curved battery is a marvel of engineering that, as far as we can see, doesn’t suffer at all from its unusual shape. The lithium-polymer powerplant is nonremovable, but it packs an impressive 13.3 Wh (3500 mAh) of juice, bigger than other devices in its class like the HTC One max (3300 mAh), Galaxy Note 3 (3200 mAh), Nokia Lumia 1520 (3,400 mAh) and Sony Xperia Z Ultra (3,050 mAh). While raw numbers don’t always translate to real-world performance, we’re pleased to report that in this case they do: the G Flex is an endurance champion, outlasting almost every other smartphone we’ve tested. More on that in the Performance notes below.
Curved though it may be out of the box, the G Flex is as vulnerable as any phone to bending forces during day-to-day use. Unlike most other devices, though, the G Flex is designed to withstand being stressed far beyond its resting state. It’s rated to withstand at least 100 separate applications of up to 88 pounds of force without a permanent change in shape – something we confirmed by applying considerably more than 88 pounds of force to our review unit, with few ill effects. It’s one thing to build a phone that fits nicely in a back pocket; it’s quite another to guarantee it survives the trip. LG has delivered on both promises here.
Then of course there’s the G Flex’s other armor against damage: the “self-healing” back cover. The means by which this shield heals itself are still shrouded in some obscurity -LG waffles between calling it a “urethane-like coating” and a “specially-modified resin” and an “elastic coat”- but whatever the underlying technology, it works … to a degree. Light scratches made by a key or a coin will disappear after the G Flex has sat for a period of several minutes to several hours in a warm room (the more heat, the better).
But the shield has its limitations. Deeper gouges, such as casing chips from a drop onto concrete, will not heal, and even some minor hairline scratches remain on our demo unit long after they should have vanished, which is a shame. The material is also very slippery and readily attracts (and retains) dust, and the “Titan-Silver” coloring isn’t the most eye-catching finish on the planet.
Still, it does what it’s designed to do -heals some minor scrapes by itself- and it’s the only phone on the market that can make such a claim. For an in-depth exploration of just what the G Flex’s shield will and won’t tolerate, check out our real-world torture test (fair warning, though – it gets gruesome):
Beneath all the fancy casing tricks, the G Flex packs a spec sheet that wouldn’t be out of place on any modern flagship: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC runs at 2.26GHz, backed up by 2 GB of LP DDR3 RAM and 32 GB of (non-expandable) onboard storage. The radio loadout includes support for GSM and HSPA+ alongside LTE and LTE-Advanced, but the supported bands for the latter two categories aren’t compatible with U.S. specs, so those importing the G Flex to the States will be stuck on 3G. Data speeds at home or the office will be plenty quick though, with support for 802.11ac alongside the usual a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, IR, and NFC. And to top it all off, a big DMB-TV antenna sits collapsed in a silo at the bottom of the phone – again, useless in the States, but a handy novelty trick for impressing your friends at parties.
We’ve had an up-and-down relationship with LG’s mobile software over the years. The Optimus G surprised us with an Android skin that was blisteringly fast, almost impossible to trip up and loaded with customization options. That was quickly followed by the LG G2’s third-party UI, which matched its predecessor’s responsiveness but injected a lot more ugly into the Android experience with overbearing fonts and cloying colors. We expected something similar from the G Flex’s skin (which runs atop Android 4.2.2 on our demo unit), but got a somewhat pleasant surprise with LG’s aptly named “Flex” theme.
LG’s new software is visually more modern than its earlier interface, favoring a much darker palette occasionally spiced up with neon accents that isolate smaller components like folders. The iconography is simplified, and greater attention to detail has been paid to out-of-box elements like the weather widget, which now work in harmony with the interface rather than riding clumsily atop it.
More important are the functional improvements LG has built in, particularly the ones that take advantage of the G Flex’s large screen. Of course the webOS bastard child SlideAside is still here in all its awkward glory, and the windowed QSlide apps are marginally more useful given the added display acreage – but the real improvement here is the inclusion of Dual Screen multitasking. This feature, familiar to those who’ve used a Samsung Galaxy Note device or a Microsoft Windows 8 tablet, allows a user to run two apps at the same time, side-by-side. So someone who, for example, wants to browse the web while watching YouTube is presented with an option screen like this:
Which results in a dual-app split-screen like this:
While there are handy options like drag-and-drop support between some titles, Dual Window isn’t quite up to the level of utility that Samsung provides on its devices; support is limited to a smaller handful of apps than we’re used to seeing. Still, in concert with LG’s multitasking alternatives and Android’s default app ribbon, this new feature makes good use of the G Flex’s ample screen real estate – the bare-minimum requirement for a solid software experience on such a large device.
Smart touches abound in the LG UI, some of them ported from earlier builds. There’s still the option, for example, to install a toggle in the home key row to deploy the notification shade, which makes up for that shade being so far out of reach. Little pieces of flair like the animations when you plug in a cable are quite nice, as is LG’s Guest Mode for peace of mind when loaning the phone to a friend across the table. And almost every animation and scroll effect can be tweaked: if you’re the tinkering type, you’ll find an awful lot to keep you busy here.
It should come as no surprise that LG has ported its unique rear-mounted volume/power/standby keys from the G2 to the G Flex. Thankfully, KnockON is still here, allowing for a double-tap on the display to turn it on and off. The company has also used software shortcuts to compensate for the inconvenience of not being able to easily adjust audio volume when the device is lying down: in the stock video player, invisible gesture areas float over the video, allowing a user to increase or decrease volume and screen brightness. In other players (such as YouTube), the dedicated volume slider sitting in the notifications tray serves as a quick shortcut for quieting or boosting audio. And any of these media apps can be accessed directly from the lock screen with a quick reverse-pinch, a feature LG calls “QTheater.”
The software on the G Flex certainly has room for improvement: there are too many multitasking paradigms, there’s too much cruft enabled out-of-the-box, and the UI is still in need of a solid unifying aesthetic to propel it completely from the cartoon-land of yesteryear. But the “Flex” theme is LG’s best-looking one yet, and there’s a lot to be said for the almost-endless customization that the company allows – some of it more useful here than on smaller devices. Add to that the interface’s almost perfect fluidity and responsiveness, and you’ve got a recipe for satisfaction, if not perfection.
One of our favorite features of LG’s current flagship, the G2, is its camera. When we first learned of the Flex, we had high hopes that the G2’s camera made the leap over to the larger device mostly intact. Sadly, though, that’s not how things turned out. The G Flex’s camera bears the same resolution as its sibling (13MP), but it lacks a crucial selling point: optical image stabilization.
There’s a good reason for that, according to LG: though it’s a bigger device, the Flex’s 8.7mm-thick curved shell doesn’t have the space necessary to accommodate the OIS hardware. So while it’s a shame, it’s an understandable sacrifice. Unfortunately, that makes for slightly choppier videos, and low-light photo quality also suffers as a result.
On the plus side, LG told us the G Flex’s camera employs faster shutter speed than the previous generation modules, which should result in sharper captures of subjects in motion. Indeed we did find that these blades of beach grass appear quite still, even though they were blowing madly about on the day we snapped this photo.
The camera’s software suite is just as well-developed here as on previous LG smartphones, and the company again uses the rear notification light to good effect, tying it in to the self-timer and face-detection features to make it easier to snap a selfie with the primary camera. And of course all the usual shooting modes are here, from “Dynamic” to “Time Machine,” alongside some nice pro touches like a manual-focus slider.
The camera does very well in broad daylight, especially when shooting in Dynamic mode. The saturation might be a little high for some folks, but we find it’s just enough to make photos pop. Indoor shots get a little dodgier once you take the sunlight away; noise starts to creep in to even well-lit scenes, and photos with sharp differences in lighting reveal the purple blotching we remember from the G2. So while it’s not a perfect experience, you can still get some really nice stills from the G Flex’s camera given the right combination of lighting and patience.
All that holds true in video performance as well: outdoor videos are sharp, crisp, and soaked in beautiful color, with audio capture holding up pretty well even in a gale-force wind. Indoors, more noise creeps in to the image and brighter areas tend to appear washed-out. We’re hoping that can be corrected via a software update in the future; for now, it’s a pretty underwhelming camcorder indoors.
We noted above that the G Flex absolutely flies in terms of software responsiveness, and that effortless fluidity is evident even when taxing the device with games like Asphalt 8 and Sky Gamblers: Air Superiority. With a Snapdragon 800 down in the engine room, maybe that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. LG’s Dr. Woo calls the G Flex “the smartphone of the future,” and while that’s more a comment on curved devices in general (LG anticipates 40% of phones will incorporate flexible technology by 2018), it certainly applies to this particular device as well. Anyone buying the Flex today will likely be future-proofed for the majority -if not the entirety- of a two-year contract.
A bigger surprise, at least for us, was the G Flex’s endurance: with a 6-inch screen and a new battery design, we weren’t expecting miracles. But the oversized power pack delivers. In concert with the Snapdragon 800’s power management enhancements and LG’s reduction of the device’s cutoff voltage, the curved battery just. keeps. going. In fact, the G Flex may be the longest-lasting smartphone we’ve ever tested: in our first extended run featuring very heavy usage, it took us 21 hours to hit the 10% mark, counting nearly 6 hours of screen-on time.
But that figure includes a lengthy overnight standby period (everyone needs sleep), so we recorded a second test with roughly continuous usage: several hours of moderate to heavy mobile usage while connected to an HSPA+ network, followed by several hours of gaming and media playback in Airplane Mode as we flew across the country, capped off with more heavy usage on-network after we landed. In this test, we made it to 13 hours before auto-shutdown, with 6 hours 11 minutes of screen-on time. If the G Flex had a removable battery, we’d rate it a perfect 10 in the Road Warrior category. Its endurance is that impressive.
Talking on the G Flex is indeed more comfortable than conventional slabs thanks to its curve, and callers said we sounded fine over AT&T’s network in Greater Boston, San Francisco, and rural New York State. On our end, calls were clear and loud over both the earpiece and the rear-mounted speaker. The G Flex speakerphone uses a bounce effect to amplify its output when placed on a desk; it’s loud enough (but not nearly as throaty as the Lumia 1520 we were testing alongside).
Plug in some earphones and you’re in for a treat: the G Flex includes support for 24bit, 192kHz Hi-Fi reproduction, allowing locally-stored music to be played back with “profound sound quality,” according to LG. We loaded a few Pinback tracks onto the phone using Airdroid and tried them out. The sound was indeed rich and delightful, especially through the included QuadBeat 2 earbuds. As we’re not necessarily audiophiles, though, we encourage you to seek a second opinion on this particular point. These days, a lot of phones sound good to us.
+ Beautiful, innovative industrial design
+ Outstanding battery life
+ Responsive software, powerful hardware
+ Solid audio quality
– Middling low-light camera performance
– Software needs a little streamlining
– Lower-resolution display than competitors
Pricing and Availability
The G Flex started life as a South Korean exclusive, but Singapore and Hong Kong recently joined in on the fun as well. As for the US and Europe, LG still has nothing official to announce, though one company official went as far as to say that the company “hopes” to bring the phone to other regions “soon.” If you’re burning with curve-lust, though, and can’t bear to wait another second, our friends at Negri Electronics have the G Flex in stock: head on over and snap one up if you’re so inclined.
It’s easy for some to dismiss the G Flex as a gimmick. It’s an easy mark, after all: the curved build is ripe for “but why?” questions, and the self-healing coating is perhaps a bit more hype than hero in its current form. Tack on the significant price tag and the phone seems almost like a one-off hobby project from a company trying to make a splash.
But I don’t see the phone as a stunt. Instead, I see it as evidence of a creative resurgence within LG – a reawakening of the bold, innovative spirit that gave us designs like the BL40 and the Optimus G. After being disappointed in the industrial design and software load of the G2, I desperately wanted LG to release something that felt inspired. This is it. The G Flex is what I wish the G2 had been. It flouts convention in a way the LG phones of old did, but it doesn’t go so far afield that it forgets how to be a great smartphone.
Because it is a great smartphone. The LG G Flex stands with the HTC One, Lumia 1020, and the Moto X as a prime example of what happens when a company gets tired of the status quo. It’s proof positive that the mobile landscape isn’t done surprising us yet. If this is the smartphone of the future, then tomorrow can’t come soon enough.