If I were to ask Malaysians who are the top five Android smartphone makers, chances are LG is not one of them. And that’s a pity, because this other South Korean electronics giants have been making pretty impressive phones for years, starting from the G2 in 2013. The main reason, of course, was simply because LG does not see Malaysia as a key market – its 2014 G3 flagship only started selling in Malaysia in late December last year.
This year, rather surprisingly, LG has decided to bring in its latest flagship, the G4, to Malaysia in a timely fashion. And now that we’ve got our hands on a review unit, how does it compare against the top-tier flagship smartphones?
DESIGN & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
It is safe to say that the G4 is nothing like any Android smartphone that’s available in the market. Wrapped in real leather and featuring a subtly curved screen, LG takes a completely radical approach to what “premium design and materials” mean on a smartphone. With several leather and plastic back covers available, the Korean company proves you don’t need metal and glass to produce a stylish device.
Our review unit came in a brown leather back, and mind you, this is real leather – not plastic made to look like leather. It’s strikingly different and unique, while the leather texture offers an organic feel to an electronic product. The stitching down the middle of the back cover further adds to the overall classy look of the G4 – hands down, this is one of the top three best designed smartphones for me.
The use of a real leather back cover will raise some questions about the long-term durability of the cover itself – after about two weeks of use, there are some slightly visible discoloration on the cover’s stitching (the blue dye of my jeans lightly transferred over). This post certainly didn’t help either. Perhaps this is why LG Malaysia bundles in a free cover with every purchase. But hey, nobody said a high-end smartphone is low on maintenance.
Another aspect where the G4 delights is in the subtle curve of the screen. Like the G Flex 2, the curve is in the opposite direction from Samsung’s Edge screens; the G4 curves from the top to bottom – it sits better in your hands, and is also more comfortable when placed against your face during a phone call. While these are minor benefits, the overall aesthetics is further enhanced by this curve.
Here’s another trick that LG crafted: power and volume buttons located at the back of the device. LG’s made it a signature on its devices, and despite sounding like a gimmick, it actually works. LG claims that shifting the buttons to the back was simply because that’s where your fingers naturally are when holding the phone. Originally, it took a bit of time to get used to, but after about a day, LG was right – it was more natural and intuitive for my index finger to reach for the power or volume buttons (which are textured and are lower for easier recognition).
Overall, the G4 provides a stunning first impression, while its heft perfectly toes the line between being too heavy and cheaply light.
The G4 is also unique in several ways when it comes to hardware. This is virtually the only flagship Android smartphone that runs on Qualcomm’s hexa-core Snapdragon 808 chipset. It is also one of increasingly few smartphones that offer a removable back cover and battery, as well as a microSD card slot.
Unlike the Snapdragon 810, which has had so many overheating issues it is hard to pass off as mere rumour or conspiracy theory, the 808 offers a great balance between performance and thermal issues. Despite the rather heavy LG Android skin, the phone never felt genuinely hot to the touch, and battery life is very solid as well.
Let’s talk about LG’s Android skin. It used to be called Optimus UI, but it actually has no official name currently. Like Samsung’s TouchWiz, LG’s skin used to be unnecessarily filled with a suite of its own software that replaced plenty of Android’s default apps. It was also deemed rather childish, with an array of lock screen animations that is rivalled only by TouchWiz’s “bloop bloop”-ness.
That said, LG has toned down its software since I last used its smartphone (the Optimus G Pro). Apps like QSlide and Quick Memo are still there, but you’ll need a little more effort to find them. Also, kudos to the over-the-top cheeriness of its default alarm clock tune, which never failed to wake me up (if only to shut it off).
Despite this, the G4’s software feels closer to stock Android compared to other skins, mainly due to the heavy use of Material Design elements, from the animations down to the choice of pastel colours throughout the system.
There are also several genuinely useful additions. For instance, the G4 not only has double tap to wake, but a double tap on any unused area of the home screen puts it back to sleep. Few phones have double tap to wake, but even fewer have double tap to sleep – these are genuinely useful features that manufacturers often overlook.
On top of that, there’s the Knock Code lock screen. I was blown away by it in demos, and I’m still equally impressed now that I’ve used it. The premise is simple: create a “knock code” combination of up to 8 taps on the screen which is divided into four square quadrants, and the software stores this combination in such a way that you can tap this “knock code” as large or as small as you want, and it’ll still work.
I use a PIN lock screen on all smartphones that do not have a fingerprint sensor, and this is honestly a hugely underrated feature from LG. It’s so much faster than keying in a PIN, as I can unlock the phone without even looking, and the speed at which the system recognises the knock code is close to immediate.
Diving further into the software, there is something LG calls Smart Notice. Sitting proudly at the home screen and incorporated with the weather widget, it is a less futuristic virtual assistant compared to Siri or Google Now, but it is powerful in the sense that you do not need to summon it – Smart Notice prompts you with reminders and alerts which get better over time as it learns from your usage patterns.
For instance, Smart Notice will tell you the weather conditions first thing in the morning, giving context such as “bring an umbrella” or “be careful when driving” if it will rain later. It also detects if an app is draining the battery, and will prompt you the next time you come back to the home screen. There are a few more alerts such as these, but what I like about them is how unobtrusive they are – it is simply there on the home screen, with no additional steps or even ringtone to inform you.
The rightmost home screen is the Smart Bulletin screen, which works in a similar way to HTC’s BlinkFeed app. The main difference here is in the information provided: while BlinkFeed pulls news and social media updates, Smart Bulletin pulls calendar entries and other data from the device, as well as hints and tips of using the phone (which is unnecessary, really.) Data from the LG Health app is shown here, and music controls are present on this screen too.
Not to forget, the G4 also has a dual window mode that lets you use two apps at once. LG’s got this feature for some time now on many of its devices, and it works the same here: on the Recent Apps screen, there’s an option to open Dual Window, which then lets you drag one app to the top and another at the bottom of the screen. Most popular third party apps work in this mode, including Google Maps, Gmail and YouTube.
Despite the heavy skin, the G4 appears to be very well optimised. Not once did the phone slow down, nor did I experience any lag or jerky animations – and there’s also little impact on battery life.
At a time when Android flagships are struggling to fit a day’s worth of use on a single charge, the G4 is one of the exceptions. On normal day-to-day use I consistently managed about 12-14 hours of battery life, which is just about enough to last until I recharge it at night. There’s support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 as well, which means you actually only need to charge it for about two hours or so to fully charge the 3,000mAh battery.
Speaking of which, the battery is also removable, and LG is offering a free spare battery with each purchase of the G4 in Malaysia as a limited time offer. So if you ever find yourself in need of backup power, a slim spare battery definitely is a lot more portable than a power bank.
Besides Samsung, LG is one of few genuinely great makers of display panels. The G4 packs a 5.5-inch Quad HD display with the company’s Quantum IPS technology, resulting in stunning clarity and colour reproduction. As an IPS display, it is not as saturated as Samsung’s brilliant Super AMOLED panels, but it is by no means inferior.
The G4 also sports a thin top bezel which reduces the phone’s overall footprint, making it feel smaller than it actually is.
The G4 is really an impressive device, and the audio quality is no exception. For such a small speaker the G4’s audio output is surprisingly loud, and has pretty impressive range at mid-volume levels. Even at the highest volume most audio tracks play without cracking, though obviously this is a very subjective observation.
If there is any downside of the G4, it is with the location of the speakers. Being at the bottom left corner of the rear, it is easy to muffle the speaker when it is being held. That said, it really is a very small issue that few will take notice of.
Since the G2, LG has been improving in leaps and bounds in its camera software. On the G4, this is easily one of the biggest reasons you would want to invest on this phone. The rear camera on this phone is brilliant, and closely rivals Samsung’s flagship offerings as the best Android smartphone cameras in the market.
The G4’s laser autofocus locks focus sensationally quickly, and on Auto mode it is really hard to get a bad photo under good lighting. In low light conditions, however, the G4’s sensor tends to over-expose images to capture more detail – at the expense of not looking true-to-life.
But the real magic happens when you turn on Manual mode. I’m a firm believer in testing just the Auto mode on a smartphone camera (since that’s the way the majority of consumers use it), but the array of options offered on the G4’s manual mode is stunning.
There’s the usual range of manual settings such as white balance, auto/manual focus toggle, RAW/JPG saving formats, ISO, exposure, and even shutter speed, but what really impresses is in how much you can tweak each individual setting. The G4’s ISO can be set as low as 50 (50!) to 2700, shutter speed has a range from 1/6000th of a second all the way to 30 seconds, and there’s also a histogram that will delight advanced users.
And really, what I enjoyed about the manual mode is how much freedom there was to tweak the settings to suit the conditions – and not just lighting conditions. With nothing more than a selfie stick, I was happy that the G4 allowed me to use the timer and custom manual settings for a quick long-exposure experiment with the G4, Xiaomi Mi Note and the Samsung Galaxy S6. The Mi Note did not allow the use of a timer in manual mode, while the S6 does not have control for shutter speed (so no pretty light streaks). That said, in every shot I took, the Mi Note took markedly better long-exposure shots than the G4, which appears over exposed every time.
In addition, LG added a new Colour Spectrum Sensor on the G4. Located below the flash module, it is a separate sensor that as its name implies, helps the camera sensor with better, more accurate colour reproduction and improved white balance. On all camera modes, this results in more natural, true to life hues on image output, with less colour saturation compared to images shot on other flagship smartphones.
In all though, I thoroughly enjoyed the camera on the G4. That said, I’m still leaning towards Samsung’s Galaxy S6/S6 edge shooters for a couple of reasons. First, Samsung has a neat quick-launch feature on the S6’s camera that almost never fails. The G4 has a quick launch camera mode as well: double-pressing the volume down button launches the camera, but also snaps a shot straight away – from what I can tell, there’s no way to disable this feature. Think about your hand position when pressing the volume button that’s located at the rear, and you’ll understand why this doesn’t quite make sense.
Secondly, I found the autofocus to be unreliable in a few occasions. On the S6, the autofocus was faultless, always locking correctly without requiring me to tap on a specific part of the frame. The G4, on the other hand, occasionally locked focus slightly off, resulting in images with softer focus. Nevertheless, AF lock is flawless when you tap to focus.
Click on each image for full resolution image
Example of over-exposure in low-light shots on Auto mode. The sensor attempts to capture more detail in the ceiling, which even the naked eye struggles to perceive.
Another example of just how much light the sensor is capable of absorbing. Captured at around 9pm, with little more than ambient lighting from street lamps and building lights behind the camera.
At RM2,499, the LG G4 isn’t cheap. That said, this is perhaps the best Android smartphone package you can find today, closely rivalled by the Samsung Galaxy S6. Both are excellent, top-tier Android smartphones, with zero compromises on every aspect of the device. The only real differences here are with the external design – whether you prefer the cold, modern feel of metal and glass, or the classy, organic mix of real leather, you can’t really go wrong with either device.
The G4’s camera prowess is only really matched by the S6 and of course, Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Though the iPhone’s strength lies in its easy, point-and-shoot ability to deliver fantastic shots, the G4 offers this as well as a comprehensive manual mode that frankly isn’t seen on any other smartphone today.
I have not used an LG phone since the Optimus G Pro in 2013, and that phone didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Since then, LG has been improving in leaps and bounds that I honestly really wanted to try out the G4 to see what the fuss is all about.
After spending just two weeks with it, it’s no wonder LG’s premium smartphones are so critically acclaimed. There are so few downsides to this phone, and it’s not too far-fetched to claim this as one of the two best Android smartphones released this year, alongside the Galaxy S6.
It’s too bad then, that LG’s marketing prowess is dwarfed by so many other players in the market, and as a result, few would know how good this phone actually is. Even fewer, I suspect, would eventually decide to own one.