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LG G Flex review: the smartphone of the future

By Michael Fisher December 6, 2013, 12:00 pm

“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.

htc one max size comparison

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!)

Video Review · Specs/Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance

 Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

url: //www.youtube.com/embed/DezN8YvaIe0

Index

Hardware & Specs

url: public://2013/12/LG-G-Flex-specs.jpg alt: LG G Flex specs align: center

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.

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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.

url: public://2013/12/lg-g-flex-battery.jpg alt: lg g flex battery align: left

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.

url: public://2013/12/flex-display1.jpg alt: flex display align: right

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.

url: public://2013/12/g-flex-side.jpg alt: g flex side align: center

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).

url: public://2013/12/lg-g-flex-self-healing.jpg alt: Approximate elapsed time: 90 minutes. Click to expand. caption: Approximate elapsed time: 90 minutes. Click to expand.

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):

url: //www.youtube.com/embed/sxmbPDe0h-I

Index

Performance

url: public://2013/12/lg-g-flex-benchmarks.jpg alt: lg g flex benchmarks align: center

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.

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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.

url: public://2013/12/battery.jpg alt: battery align: center

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.

url: public://2013/12/lg-g-flex-back.jpg alt: lg g flex back align: center

Index

Pros

+ Beautiful, innovative industrial design
+ Outstanding battery life
+ Responsive software, powerful hardware
+ Solid audio quality

Cons

Middling low-light camera performance
Software needs a little streamlining
Lower-resolution display than competitors

Index

Pricing and Availability

url: public://2013/12/LG-G-Flex-dat-curve.jpg alt: LG G Flex - dat curve align: center

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.

Index

Conclusion

url: public://2013/12/LG-G-Flex-out.jpg alt: LG G Flex out align: center

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.

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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.

Index


Scored For Me

url: public://2013/12/GFlexScoredForMe.jpg alt: GFlexScoredForMe align: center

 

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