Android flagships in 2015 have been launching steadily since CES in January, each with their own strengths, each with their own flaws and potential deal-breakers.
For example the Galaxy S6 has a great display and camera but poor battery life. The HTC One M9 has a great design and speakers but poor camera in auto mode. The Xperia Z4 (or the Z3+ for international markets if rumours are to be believed) is disappointing all around, with some Xperia Z3 strengths and stagnation in camera and battery.
LG’s own curved G Flex 2 posted disappointing results in display, design, CPU throttling and battery life. It’s been a weird year so far for Android flagships, with the one-phone-to-beat-them-all (Galaxy S II-style) proving quite elusive to find.
But LG isn’t done yet. The G Flex 2 was a sideshow, the real thing comes now.
This is the LG G4.
After all, this is how you launch a flagship phone. LG has pulled out all the stops with the G4, providing us with a lot to write about, and even when they didn’t pull out all the stops there’s still a lot to comment on those decisions.
Dealing with things like Quantum IPS Display, an optional vegetable tanned leather back, colour spectrum sensor, hexa-core processor and the ever-important microSD card slot – you can see there’s no shortage of flagship specifications here. So let’s get to it.
LG G4: the background
For the most part, LG has been playing second fiddle to Samsung in the Android smartphone wars. The reason is that LG was simply late to the game. Their first Android flagship, the Optimus 2X in 2011, was disappointing and its international successor, the Optimus 4X HD released in early 2012, wasn’t much to write about either, coming up way below the market leader the Samsung Galaxy S III.
It was with the Optimus G and its cousin the Nexus 4 that LG found its place. The Optimus G could never beat the Galaxy S III in terms of popularity of course, but had much better specifications in all the major areas such as display, processor, RAM, design.
And then of course the Nexus 4 launched at affordable prices (those were the days) bringing top-notch specifications, inviting the public to take a look at LG phones again.
The momentum continued in 2013, with the LG G2, which defeated the Galaxy S4 in overall quality, and was one of the best smartphones of 2013. The G2 had excellent hardware: great display, processor, camera and battery life. In fact, it had few real flaws such as the glossy plastic design and the software, where LG was quickly gaining a reputation as having one of the worst Android skins out there.
LG again got a contract with Google to make the 2013 Nexus, and although prices were higher this time around, they were still lower compared to the competiton and the Nexus 5, despite being a downgraded version of the G2 in areas such as camera and battery, was still a great phone. The main problem of the G2 – the software experience – was solved by having stock Android KitKat.
Both the G2 and the Nexus 5 sold respectably well, and propelled LG to a new level as an Android smartphone OEM.
The stage was set for another great showing in 2014, and although LG didn’t manage to get the Nexus contract this time around (sources say they were making a Nexus phone but it was cancelled) of course they had to launch a flagship, the LG G3.
The G3 was one of the best smartphones of 2014, having a ground-breaking innovation of being the first phone to have QHD (1440×2560) resolution with an astonishing 538 PPI. But that wasn’t all: the camera was also great, the design was better than the G2 and the bezels were only slightly bigger. The software experience was also much improved from an aesthetics and usability viewpoint, and LG also improved the speed of software updates.
But the G3 wasn’t free from flaws, having weaknesses like average contrast and viewing angles in the display, low GPU on-screen scores because the Snapdragon 801 wasn’t built for handling QHD (although gaming performance was still good because games are upscaled from lower resolutions).
Also, there were things like the camera suffering from aggressive noise reduction in low-light (creating an oil painting effect), the battery life also suffered from the high QHD resolution and lack of Panel Self Refresh, and initially, software performance wasn’t great, suffering from stutters and lag.
Not to mention that multitasking and app killing policies were also far too aggressive. LG eventually improved and fixed some of these software problems via updates.
Despite having these weaknesses, the G3 was still a balanced smartphone, and as it was priced lower than many of its competitors, it was yet another respectable seller and a phone highly recommended by the enthusiast community once a bootloader exploit had been found.
After the curved LG G Flex 2 disappointed in several areas and launched with limited availability, all eyes were on LG’s true flagship, which has been leaking since a while. The G4.
And here are its specifications:
LG G4: specifications comparison with Samsung Galaxy S6 and the HTC One M9
|LG G4||Galaxy S6||One M9|
|SoC||Hexa-core 1.8GHz/1.6GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808||Octa-core 2.1GHz/1.6GHz Samsung Exynos 7420||Octa-core 2GHz/1.6GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810|
|RAM||3GB LPDDR3||3GB LPDDR4||3GB LPDDR4|
|Storage||32GB with microSD card slot||32/64/128GB with no microSD||32GB with microSD card slot|
|Display||5.5-inch QHD Quantum IPS LCD||5.1-inch QHD Super AMOLED||5-inch FHD SLCD3 IPS|
|Dimensions||148.9 x 76.1 x 6.3 - 9.8 mm, weight 155 grams||143.4 x 70.5 x 6.8mm max, 138 grams||144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61mm max, 157 grams|
|Rear camera||16MP Sony IMX234 camera,|
1.1 micron pixels, 1/2.6" CMOS size, F/1.8, 3-axis OIS
|16MP Sony IMX240 camera, 1.1 micron pixels, 1/2.6" CMOS size, OIS, f/1.9, object tracking AF||20MP Toshiba T4KA7 camera, 1.1 micron pixels, 1/2.4" CMOS size, f/2.2|
|Front camera||8MP Toshiba T4KA3 camera||5MP f/1.9 camera||4MP UltraPixel OmniVision OV4688, 2.0 µm pixels, f/2.0|
|Battery||3000 mAh, removable||2550 mAh, non-removable||2840 mAh, non-removable|
|OS||Android 5.1 Lollipop + LG UX 4.0||Android 5.0 Lollipop + TouchWiz||Android 5.0 Lollipop + HTC Sense 7|
LG G4: vegetable tanned leather or metallic and ceramic plastic
LG made design a priority when building the G4, which is odd when you see the material choice of the phone. Nope, no metal or glass to be found here.
The company is certainly not shy about criticising the Galaxy S6 for having a slippery glass back – but they have forgotten they once made the same decision with the Optimus G / Nexus 4 in 2012.
So, if there’s no metal or glass anywhere in the phone construction (except in the display, which is Gorilla Glass 3), then it must be plastic, right? Wrong.
Of course the frame of the phone is made of plastic, and the base version of the phone will indeed come with a removable plastic back, which looks eerily similar to the back cover of the LG G3.
The plastic backs come in three colours: metallic gray, ceramic white, and gold; the adjectives describing the coatings.
But at the end of the day they’re still plastic, and what’s worse, the bezels are larger than the G3. So the awesome 75% screen-to-body ratio of the previous two LG flagships has regressed to 72%. Not good.
Instead of LG being the trendsetters when it comes to small bezels, they’ve now regressed to the middle-of-the-pack. The G4 is still better than the Galaxy S6 and the One M9, but that’s not saying a lot.
LG’s signature design move of placing the power and volume buttons on the back remains, but their design is a hybrid of the G2’s buttons and the G3’s buttons, whereas we preferred the G3’s awesome concave and convex buttons.
So if you relegate yourself to simply discussion of the plastic model, it’s ho-hum. Yet another incremental update. The plastic may be durable, but it’s not in any way a game-changer.
LG knows it, of course. If the G4 was simply yet another plastic flagship phone, the critical reception would not be positive. Whether for good or bad, the press would dismiss the phone as a “cheap knock-off of the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6” and even enthusiasts wouldn’t get the proper coverage.
That’s why LG introduced the option of a removable – wait for it – vegetable tanned full grain leather back.
Seriously. Unlike Samsung and their fake leather Galaxy Notes, this is real leather, and according to LG even better than the leather Motorola optionally offers in the Moto X 2014.
It looks cool for sure, and much, much better than the regular plastic back covers. According to LG, it feels more premium and more crucially, behaves better when the phone heats up. We know that plastic is bad for phones, of course, since it traps heat. Metal, on the other hand, acts as a heat sink, sending it to you instead.
Supposedly, leather is the middle-ground, where it will be warm but not too hot in a particular spot. Even temperature dissipation across the back, in short. That’s what they’re promising, and that’s the real cool benefit here.
Now, LG needs to make the leather backs sell at affordable prices and offer a leather-back version of the phone for not too much more than the plastic version.
Conclusion: Certainly seems like a great upgrade over the G3, but only if you’re interested in the leather. The plastic will certainly feel not much different from the G3’s back cover fake metal finish (in the grey version). Most reviewers are coming to the same conclusion: the leather is better.
LG G4: Quantum QHD IPS display
The G3 may have been the world’s first phone with a QHD display, but that didn’t prevent it from receiving a lot of criticism. A lot of that was concentrated in the power efficiency of the panel and how that reduced the battery life, which was perfectly true.
There was also the issue with oversharpening of the panel, which annoyed some, but others, including yours truly have never had problem with it.
More serious though, were the problems with brightness, contrast, viewing angles and colour calibration. The G3’s brightness was around 390 nits, a regression from the G2. The brightness slider was also non-linear, which made the display too dim at auto brightness.
The black levels were higher than average, leading to contrast between 800:1 and 900:1. Certainly not that bad – the Nexus 5 after all had a similar panel, but there were displays with more contrast. The contrast also degraded with shift in viewing angles.
And then there was the colour calibration. Hardly an issue for most, but the G3 display was a tad oversaturated, albeit not like older AMOLEDs, as noted by AnandTech.
Overall, the G3’s display was quite good, the high point being the excellent pixel density which did make a difference when doing text-intensive tasks like e-book reading and web browsing. But it was certainly outperformed by the QHD Super AMOLED display in the Galaxy Note 4, which was said to be the best display in 2014.
The G4 therefore, now has a Quantum IPS display – slightly curved to boot – for higher brightness, contrast and colour calibration.
More precisely, LG says it has 500 nits of brightness and a 1500:1 contrast ratio, which is great. It also uses Advanced In-Cell Touch, one more thing missing from the G3 display. Panel Self Refresh for power efficiency? Check. Better viewing angles? Check.
But the most interesting feature about this Quantum technology is that it enables more accurate colours. LG is promising a 98% adherence to the DCI standard, which sounds great. According to LG, the Galaxy S6 is oversaturated at 110% coverage. (No talk about sRGB though, where the GS6 shines on Basic mode).
LG G4: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 SoC
By now, there’s no need to go over the whole Snapdragon 810 saga again. It’s fair to say that it’s still an OK chip, prone to heating up higher than average if not throttled, throttling in the release firmwares, but having great GPU performance. Also, the battery life impact has been poor.
After all the bad press received on the LG G Flex 2, the G4 interestingly comes not with the flagship Snapdragon 810, but the lower-level Snapdragon 808. This is a 2nd-tier chipset, making numerous downgrades on paper compared to the faster 810.
Firstly, while the Snapdragon 810 consists of 4x Cortex-A57 and 4x Cortex-A53, Snapdragon 808 removes two of the big cores and hence ends up as a hexa-core processor. Both of them are 64-bit.
This is no big deal when you consider that the 810 couldn’t hold to its top CPU clock speeds for more than a few seconds, and then had to throttle. If they’ve fixed this, there won’t be any real-world performance penalty.
Then we come to more serious problems: the memory bandwidth and the GPU. LPDDR4 is absent on the Snapdragon 808, and so is the stunning 25.6GB/s memory bandwidth the 810 had, with the 808 opting for LPDDR3 and 9.33GB/s.
A reminder: this is also slower than the previous top flagship of Qualcomm, the 32-bit Snapdragon 805 which had four Krait cores clocked at 2.7GHz. Will it be enough to drive the QHD display and LG UX? LG is pretty sure that yes, it will.
The GPU also receives a downgrade. While the Adreno 430 was only 8% faster than the Adreno 420 of the Snapdragon 805, the Adreno 418 in the 808 is slower than both of them. By how much exactly? A clear picture still hasn’t emerged yet.
We then come to real-world performance and this is where the S808 will shine on the G4. While the G Flex 2 suffered from lag and stutters due to poor optimisation, LG claims they’ve done differently this time around and performance and smoothness are up to par with Samsung’s Galaxy S6.
We’ll have to see about that, as the GS6 isn’t free from stutters and app reloads as well.
Conclusion: There may have been too much drama regarding the S810, but it also doesn’t perform at the same great level previous flagship Qualcomm SoCs used to perform at.
LG made the decision of going with the S808. A decision made for better battery life, thermal constraints, or simply for less cost? Maybe a combination of all three.
However, this is easily the most controversial aspect of the phone, with neither CPU and GPU performance being at flagship level in preliminary benchmarks (although those figures could improve).
Again, the S808 is cheaper than the S810 and the Exynos 7420, so if the phone’s price is appropriately lower, then the complaints will surely be muted.
LG G4: 16MP IMX234, OIS 2.0, f/1.8, colour spectrum sensor, laser focus
The G3’s camera was one of the better ones of last year, with the 13MP Sony IMX135 sensor, OIS and laser focus. It was a great package, but it’s been outclassed by Samsung’s 16MP cameras in the Galaxy Note 4 and now the Galaxy S6.
To keep up, LG switched to a 16MP 1/2.6″ IMX234 sensor, and that’s just the start. Because of the increase in megapixels, pixel size remains the same at 1.12 microns, but that’s about the only thing to remain constant.
The aperture is important for letting in more light, and LG’s upgraded that to f/1.8, an 80% increase over the f/2.4 in the G3 and even better, so LG proudly claims, than the f/1.9 in the Galaxy S6. To be fair, it’s only an 11% improvement.
OIS 2.0 is in action, which basically means 3-axis OIS like the Lumias instead of 2-axis stabilisation on the G3.
Laser assisted focus remains, with LG saying that the camera can focus in 0.276 seconds. If so, should be fairly competitive with the GS6, which is also a great performer in this area.
Then we have a colour spectrum sensor, a first for smartphone cameras and a sign that after years, Android cameras are going to strive for better colours. The inclusion of the sensor means better colour accuracy in the photo, which is against the prevailing trend of warmer, more saturated photos. That’s awesome – if it works.
So much for the camera hardware. These days though, it’s only one part of the equation. The software is now an equal factor, a fact acknowledged by LG.
The G3 had no manual camera controls at all, which was criticised by many even if the Auto mode shot decent photos. The G4 is the complete opposite of that, with full support in the camera app for manual ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, manual white balance, focus distance, the works.
Best of all: there’s support for RAW photos too, a feature added by HTC for the One M9 and missing on the Galaxy S6.
Conclusion: It does look like a very strong contender, and the early photo samples are confirming this impression. Whether it can take the best cameraphone crown away from the Galaxy S6 remains to be seen, but it’s clear that LG won’t let Samsung run away with it.
LG G4: Android 5.1 Lollipop + LG UX 4.0
On the basis of aesthetics, it’s hard to find a worse looking UI than the one which was present on the LG G2, and someone at LG understood that too. Which is why they started over for the G3, running into lag and stutters as a result of poor optimisation in the process.
The G3 was a decent step forward in UI aesthetics in KitKat and then in Lollipop, and the G4’s UX 4.0 takes another incremental step forward. No, it’s not stock Material Design, but it’s not completely hideous either.
Android offers choice, and thanks to custom launchers, keyboards, system apps, etc, the only parts of a manufacturer UI which can’t be changed is the notification drawer, settings app, and the task switcher.
And these do look improved over the ones which were found on the G3, even if they’re not quite at the level Nexus purists would want them to be yet.
What about the Android version? It’s 5.1 Lollipop, so no problems there at least. We suppose 5.1’s Device Protection will be included as a result, but there’s been no confirmation of that yet.
LG G4: initial conclusions
One thing is sure: the G4 will give us a lot to write about, if nothing else. Its looks are impressive (at least when you’re talking about the leather version), the screen is massively improved, same goes for the camera, and even the software has taken small steps forward.
There’s even a microSD card slot for power users, and the battery – removable by the way – looks like it’s going to be better than the G3 and the S6, thanks to the more power efficient display.
The bad points on paper include the controversial inclusion of Snapdragon 808 (although it could pay off), and the bigger bezels compared to the G2 and G3.
If it launches at a reasonable price tag (by that we mean a lot cheaper than the Galaxy S6 and the disappointing One M9+) then it could be more popular than the GS6 in a value-for-money country like India.
As soon as the reviews are posted on the Web, we’ll be sure to post our analysis. So stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting year for Android.