If you were to ask us last year if LG was capable of making a Galaxy Note or Galaxy Note II competitor, we probably would have chuckled a little bit and answered with a stern, straight-faced, “No.” But LG is a living, breathing example of how much can change in just a few, short months.
The highest-end smartphones from LG between 2010 and mid-2012 were not exactly memorable. The T-Mobile G2X, for example, was released with a handful of issues and quickly swept under the carpet. The LG Optimus Vu found itself on our Worst Gadgets Ever list, even while it’s still available for purchase.
That should speak volumes.
But LG went back to the drawing board and came back in full force towards the end of 2012, releasing its latest flagship, the Optimus G, and it’s Google-branded smartphone, the Nexus 4. And though its presence at CES in January was focused more on the smart home – integrating mobile technology and home appliances – than any new mobile hardware, LG had a new flagship in tow at Mobile World Congress the following month.
The Optimus G Pro is LG’s third official entry in the so-called phablet market. But it’s the first entry that may actually pose a threat to the Galaxy Note II’s mind share. It’s 2013, the Note II is now an older device with last year’s specifications and a successor is still several months out.
So how does LG’s Note II competitor stack up? Should you buy the Optimus G Pro over, say, the Note II? Or should you wait for the Galaxy Note III? What about some other future phablet? We have used the Optimus G Pro, extensively, for 11 days now. Read on for the full review.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Specifications are undoubtedly the most notable aspect of the Optimus G Pro. LG pulled no punches and made its latest flagship a complete package with as few compromises as possible.
It comes with everything you can shake a stick at out of the box – save for wireless charging. But that can be added through buying an add-on battery door with wireless charging built in.
It boasts the largest 1080p display in a smartphone to date, a 5.5-inch panel, offering a pixel density of 401ppi. And it’s the same display technology as seen in the Optimus G, a True Full HD IPS Plus panel, meaning it offers wide viewing angles, an extremely sharp picture and the colors are quite vivid – super-saturated, but not quite to the extent of a Super AMOLED display by Samsung. The contrast isn’t quite as high as you would find on AMOLED either; blacks are a dark gray, not a true, inky black, and the black trim around the edges of the display only accentuate this.
It’s no S-LCD3, but it’s still among the best displays available on a smartphone, especially at 5.5-inches.
Other specifications include a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 chip, 2GB RAM, 32GB built-in storage with a microSD card slot for up to 64GB additional storage, a 13-megapixel camera, 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera and a 3,140mAh removable battery. Other features include Wi-Fi b/g/n, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and an IR blaster.
The Optimus G Pro model we received was a Korean model, meaning it came with a few functions that we were not able to make use of. The antenna for Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB), for example, is effectively useless unless you’re in Korea of the short list of countries that use DMB.
On paper, the Optimus G Pro is among the best smartphones available today. It rivals even the upcoming Galaxy S 4, HTC One and likely many phones that have yet to be announced. In other words, it’s pretty well future-proofed.
As far as specifications go, there is virtually nothing to complain about with the Optimus G Pro.
The story of hardware and design of the Optimus G Pro, unfortunately, isn’t quite so positive. It’s not that the build quality is bad, so to speak, or that the phone itself is ugly. It’s not. The phone is built fairly well. However, there is some audible creaking if you firmly grip the phone, and it’s made mostly of lightweight plastics, accented by faux-metal trim.
There is no questioning where LG’s inspiration for the Optimus G Pro came from.
And that’s the problem. It’s difficult to get terribly excited over flimsy plastic, even if it has a sparkly tile pattern on the back. Top to bottom, the Optimus G Pro looks and feels more like something Samsung-made than an LG device. In fact, the Optimus G Pro and Galaxy Note 8.0 look more alike than the Galaxy Note II and Note 8.0.
The face holds a single physical Home button, flanked by a capacitive button for Back and Menu on the left and right, respectively. On the upper portion of the right edge, like most Samsung devices, you will find the power button. The volume rocker sits down from the power button on the left edge. The microUSB port and microphone are on the bottom edge, 3.5mm headphone jack and noise-canceling mic are on top. The camera sits near the top-center of the back face with LED flash to the right and a speaker to the left. Similarities extend to even beneath the battery door with the layout of the SIM tray and microSD card slot.
One hardware advantage of the Optimus G Pro, though, is the Q Button, a physical button located on the upper left edge. This button is a user-defined shortcut button. It can be set to any application – Google+, for instance, or Google Now. If set to be a Camera shortcut, it doubles as a camera shutter button.
Display sensitivity was noticeably higher than normal, as well. When hovering our fingers over the display, either in hesitation or pausing to read something when scrolling, we constantly found ourselves accidentally clicking things on the display … without ever actually touching the display.
We did find the Optimus G Pro much easier to hold than some other larger smartphones (ahem … Galaxy Note II) due to the minimal bezel along the sides of the display. The Optimus G Pro is 76.1mm wide, 4.4mm narrower than the Galaxy Note II. This made the device sit more nicely in the palms of our hands. But make no mistake, this is still a very large device. One-handed use is extremely difficult, and we found ourselves needing a second hand to stabilize the device when stretching all the way across the display with our thumb.
The actual feel of the device in the hand is unmoving. Despite the high-end specifications inside and its large stature, the Optimus G Pro feels unsubstantial in almost every way. The plastic feels cheap and flimsy, and our own Michael Fisher put it perfectly on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast a few weeks back, saying the tiled pattern on the back of the device, unlike the pattern on the glass back of the Optimus G or Nexus 4, looks like “the bathroom floor tile in a budget motel.”
And that single statement pretty much sums up the hardware. No question about it, the Optimus G Pro is a high-end device. But the materials make this flagship feel like a high-end sports car in a Yaris body.
The one redeeming feature of the hardware and design is the physical home button. The click action is … poor. It’s hollow and feels like a toy mechanism. But it’s lined with multi-colored LEDs for a big, highly-customizable notification light. Even when the device is turned face-down, the notification light carries through the glass on the front of the device and lines the outer edges with a dim glow.
Easily, that notification light is the most notable part of the Optimus G Pro’s hardware.
At its core, the Optimus G Pro runs Android 4.1.2. But at the surface, LG was sure to leave no stock Android element unchanged. Meet Optimus UI.
The similarities between Samsung’s thoroughly-developed custom interface, TouchWiz, and LG’s customized UI are unmistakable. Looking throughout the software, nothing is an exact carbon copy. LG has made each of the features its own by slightly tweaking the interface and changing around some colors and shapes. But, once again, LG was shameless in openly showing the source of its inspiration.
From the home screen or lock screen to the notification shade, cues from TouchWiz can be found on the Optimus G Pro. The notification shade, for example, features quick setting toggles at the top with a brightness slider above the actual notifications. Below the toggles is a designated area for LG’s QSlide apps, miniature applications that float freely atop the current application.
The QSlide apps are easily the best part of LG’s software, but with Facebook’s Chat Heads, Samsung’s Popup Note, Popup Browser and Popup Video, they’re not truly unique or differentiating. Not to mention, the selection of free-floating apps is paltry, a total of seven applications: Videos, Internet, Calculator, Calendar, Memo, QVoice and TV. The standout feature here is how they can be made transparent and resized, so that the user can continue working on what’s beneath the maximum of two free-floating QSlide apps.
The unfortunate part of the software is how much bloatware comes pre-installed. On our Korean model of the LG Optimus G Pro, a total of 83 applications come pre-loaded. This number, of course, includes the necessary applications like Camera, Phone, Google Search or Calendar. But the majority of the 83 applications are LG’s own applications, such as SmartWorld, SmartTouch, SmartShare, LG Support, QTranslator or QVoice. Also, many of these applications are fixed in the Korean language, meaning they could not be changed to English, and were effectively useless to us. Only 19 of the pre-installed apps can be uninstalled.
The silver lining is that the global and U.S. models of the Optimus G Pro likely will not come with all this bloatware.
But that doesn’t make LG’s interface any less overbearing. There are tons of in-your-face animations and many things have been changed for the sake of being changed. The Settings app, for example, is tabbed with four sections: Networks, Sound, Display and General. This alone takes some getting used to, and having Sound and Display separated into their own categories doesn’t make a ton of sense. And the notification shade is a total mess.
One of the redeeming parts of the software, though, is the QRemote app. Using the IR blaster, the QRemote application essentially turns the Optimus G Pro into a universal remote for your home entertainment system. Setup was quick and painless (so long as you have a name brand television). QRemote can be accessed from the lock screen (by pressing the home button), from the notification shade (by enabling QRemote in the quick setting toggle) or by the app itself.
There’s something comforting about being able to reach for your phone – instead of remotes and controllers – to control your television or Xbox. And it’s unbelievably convenient.
For what it’s worth, almost every aspect of the interface can be tweaked. LG missed very little when it comes to the intricate details and customization. There are various themes for the home screen, you can edit what toggles are in the quick settings bar in the notification shade, you can even set your favorite function to a hardware key.
In the same respect, though, LG threw user-friendliness and simplicity to the wind. It’s packed to the brim with features, services and customization, which come at the expense of simplicity. The interface – especially the notification shade – is cluttered. If we had to sum up LG’s interface on the Optimus G Pro in a single word, it would most certainly be overwhelming.
The Optimus G Pro has a 13-megapixel camera around back, and we can’t say we’re terribly impressed or disappointed. We’ve seen better 8-megapixel cameras and better 13-megapixel cameras in recent months. So it’s difficult to be blown away by the shooter on LG’s phablet.
That said, it’s not a bad camera. The software is actually pretty nice. It comes with a user-friendly interface and it’s packed to the brim with useful features. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t screen capture the Camera app, as LG removed that functionality.) It comes with several shooting modes: Intelligent Auto, HDR, Panorama, VR Panorama (think Photosphere), Burst shot and Beauty shot. It also has a time machine mode, which snaps several shots and lets you choose the best. There are also the typical settings for exposure control, white balance, focus mode, ISO, etc.
In perfect lighting, the camera was great. There was plenty of detail, color reproduction was nearly true to life and there was little to complain about. In anything but perfect lighting, the camera’s performance started to slip. Pictures lacked detail, showed noise and artifacts, appeared washed-out and lost their sharpness. Low-light performance was pretty dismal, as well, with massive amounts of noise and very little detail.
Most of the time, the camera was hit or miss. The auto-focus was quick to lock-on, but sometimes completely missed focus, resulting in blurry images. And rapidly pressing the shutter (as to not give the camera time to readjust exposure, focus, etc.), successive shots would turn out completely different – one warm, one cool, one over-exposed, one out of focus.
Video with the Optimus G Pro was quite good. Some same lack of proper detail from stills carried over, but the exposure adjustment was quick and panning was relatively smooth. Also, the audio was somewhat tinny, but not terrible. White balance fell on the warm side and colors were slightly over-saturated. In all, the video quality is certainly the best part of the Optimus G Pro’s camera.
The front-facing shooter is 2.1-megapixels. Colors are rich, though there is a noticeable lack of detail. Of course, you can’t expect amazing stills or video, but the camera will suffice for the occasional selfie or regular video chat.
The Optimus G Pro certainly delivers in the performance category, thanks to the 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 chip. Its scores in synthetic benchmarks were among the highest we’ve ever seen, only slightly falling short of the HTC One’s benchmark scores.
Despite all the clutter around the interface and tons of bloatware, the Optimus G Pro zips through everyday tasks without skipping a beat. This can be credited to both the powerful chipset and the fact that the device runs Android 4.1.2, Jelly Bean, with Project Butter.
We installed several graphic-intensive games, such as Asphalt 7, and raced our hearts out. The games played perfectly, without the tiniest bit of lag. And n.o amount of multitasking managed to slow the device down. And the only latency when switching between applications, returning to the home screen or opening an application is due to the heavily-laden animations throughout the operating system.
Keeping the show running is a 3,140mAh battery. And for us, the battery life on the Optimus G Pro was great – among the best we’ve experienced in recent years. If we were to compare it to other devices in terms of stamina, the two devices with comparable battery life are the Galaxy Note II and DROID RAZR MAXX HD, both of which also feature batteries larger than 3,000mAh out of the box.
The Korean model we received came with a spare battery and a battery charger in the box. Rather than plug the phone up and charge it overnight, we ran the device until it powered down and switched batteries to immediately pick back up where we left off.
Not once did we need to plug up for a supplementary charge in mid- to late-afternoon to last an entire day. Through heavy text messaging and IMing, playing games, watching videos, social networking, taking dozens of pictures, emailing and other abuse, the device consistently lasted over 24 hours.
Its stamina in standby was great as well, hitting 51 percent after 22 hours and 24 minutes with only 48 minutes of screen-on time. Keep in mind, however, that this is an LTE device and our unit was limited to AT&T 3G. The stamina will likely be different when LTE is in use.
Call Quality/Network Performance
Speaking of being limited to AT&T 3G, the data speeds were obviously not a high point of using the Korean model of the Optimus G Pro on the AT&T network. The fastest downlink we were able to manage in the Charlotte metro area was 3.92Mbps, and the fastest uplink was 1.07Mbps. All things considered, these speeds weren’t terrible. But now that faster technologies are available, it makes using a 3G device reminiscent of old times and can make an over-the-top device like the Optimus G Pro come off as lackluster.
It’s safe to say U.S. and global models will have wider support for HSPA+ and LTE, and speeds will most definitely be better.
The reception, even in problematic areas, was surprisingly strong. And call quality was quite good. The quality of the earpiece speaker is great, producing loud, clean audio for calls. In noisy environments, the earpiece speaker could stand to be a bit louder.
The loud speaker around back wasn’t much help either. It’s very tinny and not very loud, producing little to no bass. It’s sufficient for the occasional speakerphone call and media consumption. But it’s not exceptional in any way.
+ The display is gorgeous
+ Above average battery life
+ Camera quality is decent
+ The multitasking experience is great
+ Performance is exceptional
+ QButton doubles as a camera shutter
– Build quality and materials are lackluster
– Comes with tons of bloatware
– The interface is cluttered
– Design is uninspired
Pricing and Availability
Officially, the Optimus G Pro is only currently available in Korea through various network providers. It is expected to launch globally – including the U.S. market – in the not to distant future. (Rumors are pointing towards and early May release, but we’re not holding our breath).
Unfortunately, LG has been mostly mum on the issue, leaving us unsure when, where or for how much we can expect Optimus G Pro once it launches outside Korea.
At the end of the day, the Optimus G Pro is a solid competitor in the ultra-large smartphone category. It, surprisingly, stacks up very well to Samsung’s iconic Galaxy Note series and offers a no-compromise experience in the phablet sector.
A lot can change in a few short months, however. By the time the other variants of the Optimus G Pro arrive, they could look slightly different or feature different specifications. The long antenna is rumored to be replaced by an integrated stylus. Hopefully, the majority of these changes will be limited to software, expunging all the bloatware and clutter of Optimus UI.
As it stands, the Optimus G Pro is a great device. And once it becomes more widely available, it would be difficult not to recommend this over the Galaxy Note II, if only for the quality of the display.
Is it a better phablet? Hardly. It’s evident that Samsung has put a lot of time and thought into what separates a phablet from nothing more than a large smartphone. It seems LG is still learning that while it’s changing all of Samsungs apps and services to its own Q-branded apps.