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LG G4 review: It nails the fundamentals

LG has long played second-fiddle to Samsung’s inimitable smartphone dominance. And that’s no fault of LG’s; the company has released some stunning phones over the years, and, in the case of the G3, one of the best devices we had ever seen. But, try as it might, the company just can’t seem to catch up, like its destiny is to forever exist in its countryman’s shadow.

Equipped with nearly every top of the line spec imaginable, the G4 is looking to change that. The LG G4 is a stronger, faster, bigger version of last year’s beauty. Not to mention it perfectly—and smartly—panders to the die-hard tech crowd. You want a swappable battery? Done. You want expandable storage? That’s here, too. In essence, this is the anti-Galaxy S6; it just comes down to whether consumers want that or not.

If specs are all that matter to you, the G4 is a great choice; it has a beautiful screen, terrific battery, expandable storage, and an excellent camera. But, beyond sheer brute force, it lacks some key features that are sooner or later going to be Android standards. Things like wireless charging. It also lacks a fingerprint reader, which has become integral for security, convenience and payment services.

The G4 covers all the fundamentals. But is that enough?

Design

I’ll just say this upfront: I’m not a fan of the G4’s rear button placement. I didn’t like it in the G3, and I still didn’t like it in the G Flex 2. The G4 did nothing to change my mind. You either love it or you hate it; I happen to fall in the latter camp, and don’t think it’s any more convenient or easier to use than, say, the button layout found on the Galaxy S6.

I couldn’t train myself to get used to it, and often found myself turning the phone over just to see where the buttons actually were. Do that a few dozen times throughout the day, and you can see how that might become annoying. I wanted to love the back button placement—I really did—but it just wasn’t for me.

I actually thought the G4’s design as a whole is actually a step back compared to last year’s G3. That phone was more compact, sleek, rounded, manageable. This year, LG decided to follow the more rectangular sharpness of the G Flex 2, which means the corners are more squared off, making the phone less comfortable overall. The G4 also feels oddly weighted; there were a few times when I thought the device was going to fall out of my hand because of the strange weight distribution.

Besides the sharper corners, the only major difference between the G4 and G3 is the curved screen, which is so imperceptible—especially compared to something like the G Flex 2—that you won’t even notice a curve there to begin with. LG says the curve actually makes the device more durable, but I wasn’t about to test the company’s claims at the expense of a potentially broken phone.

You also get the option of a leather back, though the international model we received was plastic, which isn’t the most premium material out there; the G4’s plastic isn’t self-healing, by the way. Compared to designs being offered in the Apple, Samsung and HTC camps, the G4 seems like something out of 2010, which is to say it’s not the most beautiful phone we’ve ever seen. It’s fine, but it doesn’t have a wow factor.

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See full gallery on TechnoBuffalo

If you do manage to get your hands on a leather back, know that you’re getting a meticulously crafted material that gives the device an air of sophistication. I didn’t get to personally try it out, though when we saw the device in New York last month, the leather did look pretty fantastic. LG actually goes to great lengths to prime and treat its leather, utilizing methods fashion brands use for high-end hand bags. Fancy.

The upside of the plastic is that the back can be removed, which means you can switch to leather whenever you want. Even better, removing the back gives you access to the battery, so you can swap to your heart’s content. There was a major uproar following the Galaxy S6’s announcement in March, with many folks lamenting the death of the swappable battery trend. But the G4, perhaps seizing the opportunity, isn’t quite ditching the option just yet.

In addition to that, the G4 also comes with expandable storage (32GB built-in), which is another big feature omitted by the Galaxy S6. Two very big differentiating factors from Samsung’s new flagship, and a way for LG to flaunt its new wares. But do these two features actually matter to the overwhelming majority? My guess is no. There’s no question how valuable these two features can be (were?), but I doubt the average consumer will notice, or care, in a few year’s time.

When you have advancements in cloud storage and charging technology, is there really a need for removable batteries and expandable storage? Perhaps a debate for another time. In my particular case, I never found the need for either. I’m around enough outlets to charge up, and found that 32GB was enough. My daily routine is different from yours, however, so it depends on what kind of user you are.

Overall, the G4’s design is about as unremarkable as they come. That’s not a knock, but the device doesn’t do much, at least aesthetically, to stand out, which, again, automatically means the G4 will face an uphill battle; put this plastic unit on a shelf next to the iPhone 6, Galaxy S6, and HTC One M9, and it looks about as attractive as a new Camry. The market is very slowly moving toward aluminum as standard, at least among today’s top flagships. That puts the G4 in the minority, and, in some ways, at a disadvantage.

Performance

With such high-end technology at our disposal, you’re pretty much guaranteed solid performance out of today’s super phones. In the case of the G4 and its six-core Snapdragon 808 processor, the device is perfectly capable of handling any and all tasks you throw its way.

The G4 comes with LG’s skin laid on top of Android 5.1—let’s applaud LG for getting users Android 5.1 already—and it’s, you know, OK. Don’t get me wrong, the skin is quick, and offers some neat touches that folks might find useful.

LG gives you some smart features like dual window, Smart Bulletin, and a pretty handy quick settings menu. Additionally, there is a “smart settings” feature, which is designed to adjust settings depending on where you are. When you get home, for example, the G4 will automatically change sound profiles, turn on/off Bluetooth, etc.

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For the most part, the software is indistinguishable from what we’ve seen from LG in the past. Double tapping the screen to wake/sleep—an underappreciated tweak—is still present, and you can also change the combination of the on-screen buttons, giving you quicker access to features like notifications, dual window and more. What LG adds doesn’t overwhelm, which is a plus; it’s there if you want it, and mostly out of the way if you don’t.

Like I said, the G4 has been solid performance-wise, on a par with something like the Galaxy S6. I didn’t notice much lag or frame drops, and it seemed to speed along without issue when jumping between email, games and YouTube. And the camera launches in a flash when double tapping the volume down button; just a tad slower than launching the camera on the Galaxy S6. This is the kind of performance we should expect from a modern day super phone.

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We also expect solid battery life, and that’s exactly what the G4 provides. The 3000mAh battery—compare that to the Galaxy S6’s 2550mAh battery—gave both Jon and I enough juice to get through not one, but two full days of moderate to heavy usage (email, YouTube, games, pictures, etc.). That’s about all you can ask for from a flagship phone. We’ve lamented on dwindling battery life at the expense of thinner designs, but the G4 doesn’t disappoint.

And the fact that the 3000mAh battery is removable is when handy. Again, I didn’t find myself utilizing the option, but there is always someone out there who will. I simply went from my home, to work, and around town, back to home, which means I was always around an outlet when I needed one. I’m guessing that mirrors the usage of 95-percent of buyers. Will OEMs continue to design around removable batteries as wireless and quick charging options become standard?

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Finally, the display.

LG says the G4’s 5.5-inch IPS Quantum display comes with better contrast, brightness and color range compared to the G3, and I have no reason to dispute those claims. In fact, the G4’s screen boasts a 25-percent increase in brightness, 50-percent increase in contrast, and 56-percent increase in color accuracy, giving the display a clarity and vividness that, to my eyes, is only bested by the Galaxy S6’s 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen.

Blacks are deep, and colors are beautiful and accurate, producing a more even and muted look compared to the punch of the Galaxy S6’s screen. Displays today are getting better and better, and the G4’s screen is among the best out there. Certainly not the best, but very pleasing, let’s put it that way.

Camera

LG has made some lofty claims about the camera technology included in its new flagship, the biggest of which is that the G4 can replace your DSLR. And while no smartphone has a sensor and glass combo good enough to do that, let’s address what the G4 does offer: a very excellent mobile camera, probably the best on the market right now. We’ve already talked in-depth about the quality of the device’s shooter, but, man, after spending a week with the LG G4, I already know it’s going to be hard going back to something else—it’s that good.

First, a breakdown of what makes the G4’s camera so special. The device sports a 16-megapixel 1/2.6-inch sensor, an f/1.8 lens, extensive manual controls, the ability to shoot RAW, and a “color spectrum sensor,” which measures both infrared and the RGB spectrum; it also sports improved laser auto focus and better optical image stabilization. Those functions translate into some very beautiful, very crisp photos, which is what it ultimately boils down to.

Outdoors, the G4 produces some of the best quality we’ve ever seen from a smartphone—I’m taken aback by how far the market has come in such a short period of time. Images are sharp, (mostly) evenly exposed, and the colors appear very accurate and true to life. There is a hint of oversharpening, and there were a few instances where the highlights were blown out. But, by and large, the G4’s auto mode handles outdoor situations very well, and produces some excellent results.

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The device also faired pretty well in low light situations, though some of the shots we got were a bit soft and noisy. Although the G4’s sensor is bigger than a lot of its competitors, the quality can only be so good in low light, and unfortunately LG didn’t manage to perform any miracles. You’ll still get decent performance, however.

So, no, this won’t replace an entry-level DSLR, but the G4 makes a case as the king of the mobile camera mountain. We’ve seen some big players—Apple and Samsung—produce excellent quality over the past few months, and the G4 puts LG among that illustrious list. We’ll have a full comparison between other phones in the future, so this topic hasn’t been closed just yet. But image quality is pretty darn good.

In Jon’s review, he noted that the G4 couldn’t always pull focus, so be cautious of that. There’s nothing worse than whipping your phone out and having the hardware fail (another reason not to ditch your DSLR). I didn’t run into any such issues, but know that they’re there. (I’m sure some LG software magic will clear this right up.)

I did notice, however, that the G4 struggled to capture fast-moving action. In Manual Mode, you can use a shutter speed all the way up to 1/6000, but when I had it in auto, it failed to freeze my dog when we were playing outside. That’s going to be a big area concern for pet lovers and parents, though, like I said, you can adjust the shutter speed with the manual controls, but that’s not ideal.

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Wrap-up

Rating

8.5
There isn't much to dislike about the G4. There also isn't a lot to get too excited about.

LG G4

The G4 is fundamentally sound, but it fails to dazzle. It’s a beast of a phone—there’s no question about that. But what new ideas does it bring to the table? How is this going to challenge and push the market forward? Ultimately, it doesn’t, instead focusing on ticking off a series of boxes without much consideration for the future.

That’s OK for a lot of people; it’s nice to have the latest specs, and there is a very vocal group who appreciate being able to swap batteries and expand storage. But it sacrifices features like wireless charging, and, at least in the international model we received, Quick Charge 2.0 support. It also doesn’t come equipped with a fingerprint sensor, which I feel is one of the bigger omissions here. Fingerprint sensors aren’t just glitchy gimmicks anymore. They’re actually useful additions that add convenience, security, and, yes, an extra cool factor.

Beyond that, the design is so very ordinary, and the speakers aren’t all that great (they’re on the back of the phone, which is just unacceptable in 2015). 

With that said, you do get a very good phone with very good specs and a very good camera. The G4 is a great, safe, predictable package, one that offers a pleasant experience overall. But it isn’t better than a competitor like the Galaxy S6—not by a long shot.

What LG is doing is staying the course, giving fans and technophiles a device that’s powerful and functional.  

Disclaimer: LG sent TechnoBuffalo an international "preview" unit for this review. Jon used the device for five days before filming his review; Brandon used the device for four days before writing his review.


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