LG G4 review: a leather looker with a killer camera
Back in the days when talking 2G, flip phones, and PocketPC on message boards was still a thing, LG had what you might call a reputation. While the company pushed out its share of winners in the heyday of the feature phone, it also often played second fiddle to the competition in aspects ranging from build quality to cellular reception. For a time, LG was more curiosity than contender in the world of mobile technology.
The tide began to turn sometime around 2007, when in the wake of the first iPhone launch, LG started producing very competitive handhelds for Verizon Wireless that split the difference between smartphone and feature phone. As the decade came to a close, the company began applying lessons learned from its drool-worthy Chocolate family to its budding Android lineup, eventually culminating in 2012’s impressive Optimus G. The following year, LG dropped the “Optimus” sub-brand for the power-packed LG G2, and followed up in 2014 with the world’s first widely available Quad HD smartphone, the LG G3.
With the LG G4, the company looks to top itself yet again. It blends the traditional power and extensibility of its G series with the style of its G Flex line, bumping up the camera specs and tossing in wildcards like novel casing materials and an all-new processor. Join us below for an up-close look at this refreshed flagship in our LG G4 review!
LG G4 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Full disclosure: we’re kind of partial to leather smartphones here at Pocketnow. It was the 2014 Moto X that introduced us to the wonders of Horween leather as a casing material, and ever since ordering our navy blue version, we’ve never looked back. So when T-Mobile US offered us a leather LG G4 to test alongside the plastic test units from LG, we jumped at the chance. (A ceramic-coated version is also available, which we’ll test out once we can get a hold of it.)
As we discussed on our first-impressions podcast, leather as a casing material offers more than just style points. Above all, a smartphone’s hardware should be comfortable, and the soft full-grain leather on our brown G4 is just that, minimizing the harsh corners and giving the slightly curved phone nearly same high-end feel as the aforementioned Moto X. The centerline stitching does a nice job of accentuating the G4’s distinctive rear-mounted power and volume keys, and the ridge it produces offers a nice purchase point for a fingertip, much as the Moto X’s “dimple” does. It’s a shame LG didn’t follow Motorola in adding a metallic siderail, though: the G4’s leather runs all the way to our review device’s corners, which are already starting to show wear and tear after just a week of use.
Fortunately that back cover comes right off, meaning you can swap it for another flavor if it gets too ratty, or just for a change of pace. You can use the ceramic backing for the boardroom, the plastic one for the hiking trail, and the leather one for dinner out at the steakhouse. It seems odd to describe swappable back covers as some kind of new feature, until you remember that there’s been a steady trend toward integrated, non-customizable smartphones in the past few years. In contrast to competitors like Samsung, Motorola and OnePlus, here LG has retained changeable backplates and the hardware extensibility formerly considered a given in the Android world: the G4 features both expandable storage via microSD (up to 2TB) and a removable battery. That power pack is just as beefy as last year’s: 3000 mAh for the global version,
2900 for the T-Mobile US variant. (Update: LG has clarified this issue for us; while early testing units shipped with a 2900 mAh battery, all retail G4 devices will ship with a 3000 mAh pack.)
That battery powers, among other things, a 5.5-inch Quad HD display (534ppi) that builds on last year’s successes and ferrets out some of the shortfalls. The so-called “Quantum IPS” (not quantum dot) screen uses the DCI color gamut for more authentic color reproduction, along with a new panel design that shifts electrodes within the crystal structure to allow more light to pass through the display elements without the need for a brighter backlight. LG says the screen also offers 20% greater color reproduction and 50% more contrast compared to the G3, but the more exciting development here is that added brightness, which really helps the G4’s legibility in direct sunlight. It still wouldn’t be our first choice for outdoor use –the SAMOLED panel in Samsung’s Galaxy S6 gets much brighter– but the G4’s display is definitely an improvement over last year. And in landscape orientation, the slight curve of the cover glass lends it a taste of the G Flex 2’s cinematic wraparound effect – though with only a 3000R curve, you could argue that this is more psychological trickery than practical benefit. It’s still cool though.
Power up that big display with a double-tap on the cover glass, and you get a look at Android 5.1 with LG’s new interface … which looks a lot like LG’s old interface.
Dead-center on the homescreen is the Smart Notice widget introduced last year, a persistent dialog box hanging below the weather clock. It’s been given more functionality –it’ll now let you know if a certain app is drawing too much memory or battery power in the background, for instance– but it rarely justifies its prominent placement. Mainly it just serves to give you the same long-winded weather forecasts as last year, so in addition to the clear-skies icon already displayed alongside the clock, you get a block of text like this: “It will be clear throughout the evening. Dry air for the day. Apply lotion to not have dry, itchy skin.” It’s supposed to be helpful, and there’s certainly some potential here … but as it is, Smart Notice comes across more as annoying robo-nanny than helpful digital assistant. It definitely doesn’t come close to approximating the “info before you ask for it” capability of the Google Now cards it emulates.
The leftmost home screen has been given more to do on the G4. It now contains a scrolling stack of widgets ranging from the excellent LG Health fitness-tracking application to the Quick Remote software that lets you control your TV or entertainment center using the phone’s IR port. There’s also a Calendar card containing your upcoming appointments, as well as a Smart Tips card, which comes in handy for learning some of the G4’s more esoteric functions. Most interesting is the Smart Settings suite, which provides for automatic functions based on your location: it’s nice to have your phone turn on WiFi automatically when you get home, for instance, or change the sound profile to “loud” when you leave the house. But like Smart Notice, this feature doesn’t go far enough: it would be great if the G4 could start a particular app when it detects you’re at a certain location (opening LG Health when arriving at the gym, for instance, or opening Fandango when approaching a movie theater), but it can’t. Even in its current, limited form it seems half-baked: in our testing the G4 never learned the distinction between “home” and “out,” giving us unpleasant flashbacks to the HTC One M9’s Smart Home widget. We should note that our T-Mobile review unit is running pre-release software, so hopefully that’ll improve with time. Sadly, no amount of time will reduce the volume of bloatware T-Mobile ships with the G4; Visual Voicemail, Mobile Money, Name ID, T-Mobile TV, and Lookout Mobile Security are just some of the poorly designed space hogs you’ll be forced to deal with (or disable) after unboxing the G4’s Magenta variant.
Fortunately, all the bright points of LG’s interface are still here. LG was one of the first manufacturers to let users deploy the notification toggle with a bottom-mounted softkey – a godsend on a phone as tall as the G4. Customizability is still extensive, too: home screen animations, keyboard size and color, and icon packs are all tweakable out of the box. Dual Window is available for running two apps side by side, and QSlide is back too, if you prefer running your apps in smaller windows.
While some of those changes look quite nice on the G4’s colorful display, the skin lacks any sense of cohesion. There’s been a general shift away from right angles in much of the software, but homescreen folders seem to have been unaccountably exempted: they’ve been switched from circles to squares. Similarly, the popover windows that show up with each new SMS are harsh boxes, contrasting sharply with the rest of the interface. Text too big for a text field now scrolls automatically when highlighted, making areas like the Settings menu seem too busy. Holding the power/standby key brings you to a translucent shutdown screen that resembles nothing else in the software. And for as cool as Dual Window is, the list of supported apps seems not to have grown in years, so you still can’t run Twitter (for example) alongside YouTube. The list goes on.
It might seem like we’re carping on minutiae here – and to be fair, the G4 runs quite well despite these aesthetic quibbles (see Performance, below). But the current state of top-tier smartphones demands a harsh eye when it comes to cosmetics: stock Android has never looked better than it does in Lollipop, HTC Sense gets more metropolitan with each new iteration, and even Samsung has toned down the most offensive aspects of its TouchWiz UI with its latest flagships. What’s more, the latter two companies now offer theming engines right out of the box, so you can completely change their skins if you don’t like them. Given those advancements, LG now seems like it’s spinning its wheels. While the G4’s interface isn’t bad, it’s not good either. It’s fine … but 2015 will probably be the last year “fine” is enough.
Fortunately for the G4, “super fine” is a better descriptor for the camera that LG’s built into this beast. The specs tell us it’s a 16MP sensor with an f/1.8 aperture and a 1/2.6-inch sensor size, optically stabilized across three axes to correct for up to two degrees of motion and fitted out with a Color Spectrum Sensor for improved white balance, among other things. The result of all that lingo vom is pretty simple: excellent photos.
As Adam Lein noted in a separate post, the G4 isn’t without the usual smartphone handicaps –namely, pronounced digital noise and aggressive artificial sharpening– but these defects really only show up at zoom levels beyond 100%. At normal sizes, the G4 camera performs admirably even against the fabled king of smartphone cameras, the Lumia 1020. Colors are rich, with good dynamic range and contrast … and the wide aperture combined with optical stabilization means that even as the sun gets real low, the camera keeps its cool instead of Hulkin’ out.
LG has changed up the camera launch shortcut for the G4: instead of holding the volume-down key to start the viewfinder, all it takes now is a quick double-click. By default this also snaps a photo at the same time, but that can be disabled in the settings menu. To really fine-tune for exactly the picture you’re looking for, LG provides the most elaborate suite of manual controls we’ve seen on an Android smartphone camera. In addition to full manual control of ISO, focus, white balance and shutter speed (up to 30-second exposures), the G4 also brings an artificial horizon, RAW support, and a histogram. The result: nearly any effect you can dream up, you can probably execute.
Even using automatic settings, the benefit of the large aperture size plus optical stabilization is excellent low-light performance. In a near-dark room, we shot the same photo with five phones on automatic settings … and while the Lumia 930 produced a brighter photo, the G4 produced the best of the bunch when digital noise was taken into account.
The luster fades a little bit in camcorder mode, which might explain LG’s failure to mention video at all at the G4 launch event. Despite the laser-assist module carried over from the G3, the autofocus and exposure on the G4 tend to wander a bit. Also, colors get a little washed out in some lighting conditions, and the frame rate is somewhat choppy overall. On the bright side, the G4 does offer UHD recording and a slow-mo mode, and that newfangled OIS 2.0 is really effective at rendering a smooth picture if you’re a fan of the slow pan.
Switch on over to the front camera, and the G4 keeps on impressing. Whether it’s thanks to the 8MP resolution, the Beauty Face post-processing, or the ease of taking a photo with a hand gesture, the G4 has quickly become one of our favorite selfie-snappers. The rear key gets another chance to shine here too, making portrait selfies much easier to shoot by using the volume key as a shutter release.
As usual, there are nits to pick: the viewfinder could be further simplified, and we’ve already started to notice a slowdown in camera launch time as the heavily-skinned Android build suffers from the typical bogging down. But when you consider the sheer capability of the hardware and software, together with the outstanding results seen above, it’s pretty clear that the G4 camera is probably the best available on Android today. What’s more: it’s one of the best smartphones cameras you can buy in 2015 thus far. Bravo, LG.
We’ve tested the G4 on T-Mobile US in metropolitan New York City, suburban Long Island, Greater Boston, and rural Massachusetts for the past eight days. As a phone, the slight curve of its chassis combines with that soft leather backing to make the G4 very comfortable to talk on. Reception seems on-point as well, with T-Mobile’s network only disappointing in midtown Manhattan (where capacity issues are likely the culprit) and the remote Blue Hills state reservation in Massachusetts (where there are more trees than towers). For conference calls, the rear-firing speaker is kind of a bummer to those of us spoiled by phones with front–firing drivers, but at least it’s loud – and the rear key makes controlling volume a cinch when the G4 is laid face-down on a tabletop.
In a surprise move, LG decided to equip the G4 not with the most powerful silicon on the market, but with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 808 instead. In contrast to the 8-core Snapdragon 810 powering LG’s G Flex 2, the Snapdragon 808 is a 6-core processor, with a pair of A57 cores running at 1.82GHz mated to a quad-core A53 cluster at 1.44GHz, backed up by an Adreno 418 graphics processor. This is surprising because one would expect LG’s halo smartphone for 2015 to carry the best possible specifications; it also fans the flames of speculation regarding the 810’s rumored overheating issues. For its part, Qualcomm calls those claims unfounded, telling Forbes that the decision to optimize the LG G4 for the Snapdragon 808 was made long before the 810’s thermal performance made headlines – a claim that LG mirrored when we asked it for comment on this matter. And indeed, the G4 runs remarkably well. Whereas its predecessor often felt like it was overburdened trying to push too many pixels on its then-groundbreaking display (and getting quite hot in the process), the G4 is almost always solid and slick.
Relatively speaking, that is. Fluid animations or no, this is still an Android phone running a very heavy skin – and despite its 3GB of RAM, it suffers accordingly in memory management. As we’ve noted in nearly every review of an Android phone this year, multitasking on Lollipop is far from ideal. Apps intentionally left running in the background are often forced by the system to close or hibernate if you do almost anything else in the foreground. This is pretty inconvenient if you’re trying to track a hike via MapMyFitness or stream a podcast via Stitcher and decide to simultaneously use your smartphone for something else. During a walk in the woods during our review period, MapMyFitness kept disappearing or force-closing and taking our track along with it, and Stitcher and TuneIn Radio would routinely crash if we opened anything remotely memory intensive in the foreground. Again, this problem isn’t unique to the G4, but it’s a shortcoming that needs to be considered if you’re considering jumping to Android from another platform.
The aggressive memory management might be forgivable if it resulted in a major endurance improvement, but the G4 is just average in this regard. While we were able to get to about 4.5 hours of screen-on time over an eight-hour period between charges, that wasn’t consistently reproducible. Once we got into the habit of clearing all apps via the task switcher, the situation improved. Do this routinely, and the G4 battery will almost certainly last you a full day.
Sadly there’s no provision for fast charging as on most of the G4’s competitors; even though the Snapdragon 808 supports the feature, LG opted to go without it in an effort to save space or manufacturing cost. The LG G4 also includes support for Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0, but it doesn’t ship with a Quick Charge-compatible charger in the box. So while you’ll have to wait just over an hour and a half (105 minutes) to take the G4 from 0% to a full tank on the included charger, you’ll be able to charge it much faster using a wall plug like the one that ships with the Nexus 6. Of course, you could also just buy a spare battery and swap it in as needed – a faster solution that LG no doubt hopes will help it sell some batteries in the months ahead.
+ Beautiful, comfortable fit and finish
+ One of the best smartphone cameras available
+ Striking display
+ Expandable memory, removable battery
– Inconsistent, ungainly software
– Plastic version offers little aesthetic improvement over G3
– Leather version wears easily
Pricing and Availability
As usual, LG has kicked off availability in its native South Korea, where the G4 officially went on sale April 29. A North American release is forthcoming, with all four US nationals having committed to carry the LG G4 and release dates ranging from late May to early June. Our brown leather review sample is apparently exclusive to T-Mobile US; Sprint’s pre-release teasers feature the black leather version while AT&T is currently showcasing the metallic gray build (though it also mentions leather options on its registration page). Verizon Wireless has thus far only tweeted about the G4, with an animated GIF showcasing the plastic and ceramic options and a link leading to a generic email signup. See below for links to the carrier variants, as well as LG’s official LG G4 launch portal.
For cloud-minded folks, all versions of the LG G4 sold in the US will come with 100GB of Google Drive storage free for two years.
No smartphone gets everything right, and the LG G4 is no exception. The software is by far its biggest shortcoming, lacking a unified look and feel and bringing little added utility to justify its existence. Also, with the plastic version the G4 gets close to the “reheated leftovers” territory that cost HTC so dearly with its One M9. It’s easy to see how a non-phone geek could easily confuse the G4 with the older G3 at first glance.
But where the G4 improves on its predecessor, it does so dramatically. Despite its size, the leather version is one of the most comfortable smartphones to talk, type, or surf on – and it brings incredible good looks to boot. The display is vibrant. The modular battery and storage options make it easier to tailor for your own particular uses. And the camera is basically as good as it gets in the phone world (in back and in front).
With the G4, LG puts its competitors on notice – and it puts another tantalizing option in front of smartphone shoppers in 2015. If you’re shopping for an Android smartphone but you’re reluctant to be one of the millions scooping up a Galaxy S6, or you want a handset that lets you change up its look while you’re swapping in a fresh power pack, the G4 is the phone for you. Just be ready to tweak your way around its software shortcomings, and be sure to budget a little extra for the spare battery and memory card you’ll need to truly make it shine.
Scored For Me
Looking for something a little different to chase this review? Check out how HTC blew our minds with the HTC Re Vive, the only Virtual Reality headset ever to give Michael Fisher goosebumps! Then take yourself on a trip back in time with a throwback review of a Sony PDA from a decade ago, and round it all out with our review of the LG G4’s stiffest competition, Samsung’s Galaxy S6!
Pocketnow’s Adam Z. Lein contributed to this review.
Updated May 11 2015 with new information regarding QuickCharge 2.0.
Updated May 12 2015 with new information regarding battery capacity.