For the past few years, most new-product announcements from South Korea’s LG have been greeted in America with a heaping helping of “who cares?” The company has spent so long in the shadow of its more-successful rival Samsung that its smartphones, particularly in the United States, have struggled for even moderate mind share. That struggle is also a product of the widely held conception that LG devices just aren’t that good, a conception that devices like the LG Intuition have only reinforced.
But recently, LG has caught a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. We had the opportunity to get hands-on time with the Optimus L9 at IFA last month, where we were pleasantly surprised by the unit’s responsiveness and software customizability. The company has since shifted its focus -and ours- to its new flagship, the Optimus G. The new device is the first to marry Qualcomm’s new quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with 4G LTE capability- a standout combination if there ever was one.
Announced last month for the international market, the device is slated for arrival at American carriers AT&T and Sprint in the coming weeks; unlike the more recent Samsung devices for the U.S., though, these are not uniform products. The Sprint version of the Optimus G adheres more closely to the international unit’s specs, whereas the AT&T model we’re reviewing here features some altered dimensions and revised specifications to go along with its blazing radio and chipset.
But in a lineup alongside headliners like the Samsung Galaxy S III, iPhone 5, and HTC One X, and about to be joined by HTC’s Windows Phone 8X and the Nokia Lumia 920, can the Optimus G stand out? Or will LG find itself trampled underfoot yet again, perpetuating its status as the also-ran of the American wireless space? Spoiler alert: it’s probably not the latter. Read on for the full story.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
As mentioned above, LG is counting on the Optimus G’s specs to help it stand out, and it’s picked the right combination to do it. Quad-core power mated with LTE is still a rarity in the United States, but that’s exactly what LG is bringing with the G’s Qualcomm-sourced S4 Pro APQ8064 processor, running at 1.5GHz and backed up by an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM. Onboard storage totals 16GB, but a microSD slot allows expansion up to an additional 64GB of memory via microSDXC (AT&T includes a 16GB card out of the box). The radio supports LTE in the 700/800/1700/1900MHz bands, and features the usual HSPA and GSM support for AT&T’s non-LTE areas.
The camera around back has taken a step down in resolution compared to the 13MP shooter on the global and Sprint versions; it’s an 8MP sensor with autofocus and LED flash, capable of shooting 1080p video. Up front is an unremarkable 1.3MP camera for video calls or self-portraits.
LG has fitted the Optimus G with a beauty of a display bearing a mouthful of a title. The company calls the screen a “True HD IPS Plus Display,” and it features a technology called “Zerogap Touch” that bonds the ITO sensor film directly to the display glass. This results in the same gapless, touching-the-graphics-directly feeling as found on the HTC One X and modern iPhones, among others. Colors are sharp and saturation is quite good for an LCD. That holds true for black depth as well; it’s obvious the screen isn’t an AMOLED panel, but it still outperforms many other LCDs in “true black” reproduction. Those attributes, combined with a 768 x 1280 resolution and pixel density of 318ppi, make for a stunning visual experience on the Optimus G.
Powering all this is a nonremovable 2,100-mAh “high-density” battery which LG says outperforms the identically sized package on Samsung’s Galaxy S III- more on this below. The company also claims to have upped the life expectancy on this battery, boosting the total lifetime endurance from the 500 charging cycles found in earlier smartphones to 800.
With this device, LG recalls a period not too long ago when it was regarded in America as a leader in beautiful industrial design. Devices like the BL 40, the Chocolate family, and the Prada line helped define “style” in mobile hardware in the latter years of the last decade; the Optimus G looks to rescue LG from its more recent detour into the worlds of the ho-hum (L9) and the bizarre (Vu).
AT&T’s version of the Optimus G is an all-glass slate measuring 130 x 72 x 8.4mm – that’s just as thin, but almost 3mm wider across the face than its global and Sprint counterparts, a girth that makes the device feel just a tad awkward in our average-sized hands. The device’s front and back are solid sheets of Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2, bisected by a pewter-accented bezel running around the sizes, and stipple-textured plastic end caps on the top and bottom.
The transparent backplate is an expanse of almost-total smoothness, broken only by the slightly raised border around the camera’s LED flash and the port for the rear-mounted speakerphone. Everything else sits beneath the glass surface, including the camera lens and the absolutely stunning metallic AT&T logo. We’ve never seen carrier branding quite this beautiful before; if every operator’s logo treatment were like this, we imagine there’d be far fewer complaints.
Also beneath the protective glass layer is the Optimus G’s most striking visual feature: a diamond-weave pattern of tiny carbon-shaded pyramids that alternate between gray and black depending on the angle at which they’re viewed. The effect is frankly beautiful; it’s not too flashy for a boardroom, but certainly not subtle enough to go unnoticed for long. The optical illusion gives the Optimus G a bold, unique, premium appearance without straying into ostentatiousness.
That “premium” apellation also applies to the phone’s feel in hand. Its 147g heft feels solid, but is still eminently pocket-friendly. Being all-glass, though, it’s slippery – more so than similar glass devices like the iPhone 4/4S, because the Optimus G’s sides are also glossy and slick. It has a tendency to slide off tables, chairs, audio docks … essentially anything that’s not perfectly level. And while a few drops onto the carpet from waist-level didn’t bother our review unit, you’ll definitely want a case if you don’t plan on treating this device with kid gloves.
Finally, we’re heartened to see LG’s inclusion of a notification LED on the Optimus G. Here, the flasher is embedded within the power/standby button on the device’s right-hand side, its breathing red glow oozing out from the button’s sides when illuminated. Its position on the device means it’s not visible from every angle, and the software powering it doesn’t always fire it up at useful intervals, but it’s still better than nothing.
Overall, the Optimus G’s hardware marks a welcome return to a good balance of form with function for LG. While it’s a little heavy on the “form” part of the equation, the aesthetic triumph achieved in the trade-off is well worth it. For the first time in a while, LG has built a spec-packed smartphone for the masses that we don’t hesitate to call beautiful.
Due in no small part to the recent dearth of compelling devices from LG, our experience with the third revision of the aptly-named “LG UI,” or “Optimus UI,” if you prefer, has been somewhat limited. The short hands-on time we did have with a finished unit wasn’t the most favorable, in the case of the Intuition’s error-ridden interface, and while we were impressed by the software performance on the L9, we found the skin’s aesthetics underwhelming.
Striking the right balance between those competing concerns has long been a challenge for manufacturers. Though HTC has crafted a unified, distinguished look for its Sense 4.0 skin, the interface layer frequently feels sluggish to the touch, bogging down the Android OS running underneath. Samsung seems to have found a better balance: as we noted on the most recent episode of After The Buzz, the Galaxy S III’s TouchWiz Nature UX runs very speedily atop the same Android version the HTC One X runs. But it does so by sacrificing a little in the looks department; for all its refinements, TouchWiz still comes off a little “cartoony.”
Back to the Optimus G. In contrast to its decisions on the hardware side, LG chose to emphasize function over form in the Optimus G’s software. We’ll get into its responsiveness in the “performance” section below, but suffice to say LG spent much more time honing the software’s functionality than it did applying a new coat of paint. Parallels to Samsung’s Nature UX are at times embarrassingly apparent: the out-of-box lock screen features floating leaves on a water-like surface, rippling unlock patterns, and dripping-dewdrop touch-response sounds. Sound familiar, anyone?
It’s a shame LG chose to ape Samsung so closely with its default settings, because the rest of the Optimus UI offers interface elements that are frankly much more compelling. There are seven different animation options to transition between homescreens, for example, from the pedestrian “Breeze” to the exotic “Accordion.” App icons can be replaced with other images, including photos taken with the device’s camera. The been-there-done-that “Ripple” effect on the lock screen can be swapped out with the incredibly cool “Dewdrop” -our favorite- or if you’re feeling sinister, “Spreading Ink.”
The fun doesn’t stop with UI enhancements; LG has included a lot of functionality improvements as well. Some, like the row of shortcut toggles in the notification drawer and the Smart Stay-esque “Wise Screen” feature, fall somewhat short of original. Others are less-dazzling and more utilitarian, like the revamped, friendlier settings menu and the screenshot-doodle app “QuickMemo.” Still others find a kind of middle ground, inspired by an idea from elsewhere but taken in another direction.
The best example of this latter category is the awkwardly named Pop Up Play lookalike “Qslide,” which allows users to continue watching a video on the device while running other apps simultaneously. Rather than confining the video to a movable window, however, Qslide lets the foreground and background elements overlap, playing the video behind whatever other app is running, with opacity controlled via a small popover slider. The whole setup is pretty awkward, but it does feature an edge over its Samsung equivalent: it works with YouTube, not just the on-board video player.
Less glamorous, but perhaps more useful, is the “Live Zooming”/”Screen Zooming” feature, which behaves similarly to the pinch-to-zoom functionality on Macbooks and some notebook PCs. A movie being watched in the device’s video player can be selectively cropped and zoomed just by using a pinch action on the screen. Similarly, text in applications like Messaging can be increased or decreased in size with the same action.
While we’re here, a quick word on that on-screen keyboard: you’ll probably want to replace it. We seldom like the custom implementations dreamed up by OEMs and slapped onto smartphones in place of the stock Android keyboard, and this one is no exception. Its autocorrect is alternately too aggressive and not aggressive enough, and the haptic feedback doesn’t keep up at high speed. It’s annoying that manufacturers and carriers often disable the option to revert to the stock keyboard, as they’ve done here. Fortunately, this being Android, you can jump into the Google Play Store and replace it with SwiftKey or a similar alternative with very little hassle.
Unfortunately, nothing short of a custom ROM can save you from the perils of the new, heinously ugly logo that sits in the Optimus G’s dock when NFC is enabled. You win some, you lose some.
Overall, the software driving the Optimus G is well-designed, friendly, and reasonably attractive. The bonus features LG has added on might not be the most original, collectively speaking, but those that are add real value to the experience. Just as with the Optimus G’s hardware, LG has surprised us- in a good way.
Smartphone cameras are a mixed bag, running the gamut from excellent to not-so-much, sometimes even varying wildly in quality between devices from the same manufacturer. So we weren’t sure what to expect when picking up our first high-end LG review unit in a while.
Turns out the drop in resolution versus the Sprint and global versions hasn’t hurt this device too badly; the 8MP shooter on our AT&T Optimus G performed well. Photos appear gorgeous on the device’s display, and retain much of that beauty when inspected on a computer or another mobile device. Color saturation is good, if a bit on the high side, and the HDR shooting mode assists in settings featuring both brightly- and dimly-lit areas. As we discussed on recent episodes of both the Pocketnow Weekly podcast and the Pocketnow Daily, the “purple haze” lens flare nonissue affects all smartphones, and the Optimus G is no exception; see the Quincy Market photo below. The only true complaint we had regarding the device’s optical performance came in the form of some minor color bleed when shooting in a harshly incandescent environment:
Otherwise, the camera performed admirably, with a full suite of exposure settings, scene modes, and smart features like automatic noise reduction and dynamic shutter speed to make capturing stills easier. In addition to old standards like continuous-shot and panorama mode, LG has also thrown in a few novelty features like variable shutter sounds, Time Catch Shot (continuous stealth shooting to capture “the moment before”) and Cheese Shutter (camera waits for subject to say a trigger word before snapping a photo).
Video shot in 1080p featured good saturation and crisply rendered shapes, with very quick automatic white-balance adjustments. Those adjustments were a bit on the aggressive side when faced with a challenging sunset-lighting situation (as you might expect), clamping down on the exposure when faced with a shot almost directly into the sun. Videos shot under more even conditions fared better.
Auto-focus response time was average, but ultimately rendered a sharp picture when an object was brought close to the camera lens. Audio pickup was very sensitive, able to pick out the conversation of a neighboring couple speaking quietly. And sneezing loudly.
A notable processor like the Snapdragon S4 Pro demands the full battery of benchmarks, so we put the Optimus G through its paces almost as soon as it came through our door. Against another recent smartphone packing a quad-core processor, the Optimus G did well. Bear in mind, however, that the Samsung Galaxy Note II on the other side of the boxing ring rocks an Exynos Quad with a completely different processor architecture; we present these results side by side only to such extent as you find them personally useful. Head-to-head results can and will vary.
Raw numbers aside, the Optimus G absolutely destroyed our expectations for real-world testing. From a UI perspective, this is one of the fastest Android phones we’ve ever tested; it’s certainly the fastest Android device we’ve encountered that runs a manufacturer skin.
Swiping, flicking, and tapping our way through the interface, it proved almost impossible to slow the Optimus G down. Even running a live wallpaper behind the most elaborate home-screen-transition and lock-screen animations, the device didn’t seem to break a sweat. When a smartphone brings that kind of power, executing any given task with raw competence, even the most mundane action becomes fun again. We’ve spent embarrassing lengths of time unlocking and re-locking the home screen and flipping through pages in the app launcher; its absurd responsiveness is a novelty in and of itself. Without going so far as to espouse one processor architecture over another, we’d say the Optimus G stands a pretty good chance of becoming the new halo device for proponents of Krait vs Cortex.
Those results were achieved by running the device’s processor at full speed, unchained by Eco Mode or any power-saving options. That’s the out-of-box configuration, and while we always welcome the opportunity to save a few milliamp-hours, that hasn’t proven necessary during our test period.
LG’s claims of significant endurance improvements appear to be well-founded. The Optimus G’s 2,100 mAh rating is becoming more commonplace in a technology market increasingly dominated by jumbophones, but LG has gone beyond the reactive thinking of throwing more milliamps at the problem. The Qualcomm S4 Pro at the heart of the device features Asynchronous Symmetric Multiprocessing for independent control of each of its four cores, and the company says the Optimus G’s IPS Plus display “shows more consistent power consumption on a white background,” for whatever that’s worth.
Whatever the actual reasons behind the device’s enhanced staying power, our testing proves that some or all of it is working. The Optimus G delivered excellent battery life, even while connected exclusively to the more power-hungry LTE network here in Boston. LG claims around 15 hours of talk and 335 hours of standby time, figures becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s world of data-centric power consumption.
For our purposes, useful measurements are the total time from 100% battery power to depletion, along with the total amount of screen-on time during the same period. We were able to squeeze just over twelve hours of use from the Optimus G under moderate to heavy usage conditions, just over five of which were spent with the screen on. That usage pattern includes constant polling/push notifications for two email and five social-media accounts, extended streaming music and browsing sessions, over 200 text messages, several short phone calls, and a brief GPS navigation stint, all over LTE. That’s pretty solid endurance under such a load, and paired with LG’s promises about having extended the battery’s long-term charge-cycle lifetime, it helps counteract the instinctive -if dated– resistance to the idea of a non-removable battery.
Call Quality/Network Performance
We tested the LG Optimus G on AT&T’s HSPA and LTE networks in the Greater Boston area. AT&T’s LTE coverage is excellent in and around Boston, with speeds averaging 26Mbps down and 14Mbps up over the course of our test period.
Cellular reception seemed right about average in both HSPA and LTE modes, and the Optimus G handled voice calls fine. The device was slightly slower to reconnect to the network following an extended no-service period than some other devices, but not to an alarming degree. Similarly, the WiFi radio frequently displayed a lower signal indication than we’re used to seeing on other smartphones, but this was only a problem in actual use once, when Netflix buffering issues forced us to move the Optimus G a few feet until it found a stronger WiFi connection. Again, we’re talking a minor inconvenience here, not a crippling radio problem, but it was consistent enough to warrant a quick mention.
Voice calls were clear on both sides, though the device’s speakerphone is more disappointing than that most other mobile devices’ units. At first we thought we might be judging it too harshly, fresh from the memory of the loud and bass-y Galaxy Note II’s speaker, but when we played the same song on the Optimus G and a neighboring Galaxy S III, the latter came out on top, by a long shot. The Optimus G’s speaker delivers a thin, tinny, quiet sound in both media playback and voice calls – and becomes almost completely inaudible when the phone is laid on its back. Don’t position the phone that way when you’re counting on it as an alarm clock, folks; if you’re anything but a light sleeper, you’ll be late to work that morning.
+ Beautiful, premium design
+ Class-leading hardware with quad-core CPU and LTE
+ Stable, incredibly responsive, customizable software
+ Better than average battery life
+ Gorgeous display
– All-glass design is slippery, slightly wider than global version for no good reason
– Low-quality speakerphone
– Ships with Android ICS, not Jelly Bean
Pricing and Availability
AT&T recently announced that the Optimus G can be pre-ordered for $199.99 with a two-year contract (but free shipping) by visiting www.att.com/optimusg. The device will officially launch on November 2, with Sprint’s version following close behind on November 11.
With the Optimus G, LG has made two significant achievements. First, it’s surprised us -positively- at nearly every turn, helping to brighten the company’s tarnished reputation. The Optimus G is to LG what the One X was to HTC earlier this year: a return to esteem following a fall from grace. For the first time in a while, it feels like LG is on the right track.
The more important accomplishment is the one consumers will experience firsthand: LG has crafted an excellent smartphone in the Optimus G. Within its well-crafted, jewel-like casing, industry-leading hardware and one of the most responsive implementations of Android we’ve ever seen combine to deliver a smartphone experience that’s not just adequate, but outstanding.
Like all mobile devices, it’s not perfect. The device’s older Ice Cream Sandwich software, combined with LG’s historical difficulty in releasing timely updates, might give more forward-looking purchasers pause despite the company’s Jelly Bean upgrade promises. But in this case, the present-day positives far outweigh the possible future negatives. For those in search of an excellent, modern Android smartphone with the proper balance of aesthetics, performance, and utility, it’s tough to beat the AT&T Optimus G.
Thanks to commenter joecascio2000 for the suggestion on battery-life metrics offered on our Galaxy Note II review.