Innovation is something that is utterly intangible. Are refinement and iteration features of innovation or does it have to be something completely new? However you define it, LG have done something truly innovative with their new flagship device. For the past few years, smartphone hardware design has homogenised around a series of basic design premises - big screen on the front, ports and buttons around the various edges and a camera on the back. It is a simple and tested set of principles which have served us well, but LG have thought differently. They have put the buttons on the back. This change in hardware design informs the whole experience of this phone and whilst it is easy to get used to the unusual placement, nothing is quite the same.
Press my buttons
On removing the G2 from its box, you have no choice but to feel the full force of LG's design as you will need to press the rear mounted power button to switch it on. In theory, you never need to use those buttons again, but in practice there is no way around it.
Lets get it out of the way right now so we can get on with the rest of this review. The button placement is an imaginative and thought provoking, controversial idea that LG have pretty much got right. For a large proportion of the time your fingers are well within reach of the buttons and fairly quickly, you get used to the change.
There are concerns that your fingers will smudge the camera lens each time you want to press a button, but I found this not to be a problem as there is a significant ridge at the top of the button cluster that neatly informs you of where your finger is. The only slight annoyance I found was that to press the buttons occasionally made me reposition my hands so I was gripping the edge a little to be able to apply some pressure. In other words, it is basically a non-issue. Long pressing the buttons will unlock the phone to specific functions, the volume down taking you to the camera and the volume app to the notes app. Nice.
There are two fantastic side-effects of putting the buttons on the back. The shape of the sides of the device are quite different to any other phone I have used. The closest analog I can think of is that the shape is similar to the original Nexus 7 but slimmer. It feels awesome in the hand. The other, and far more important enhancement that LG have been able to employ with the G2 are its bezels. There are almost none. This is the first phone that genuinely feels like you are holding a screen that happens to have a phone behind it. The bezels on the left and right of the screen are genuinely tiny whilst those above and below it are simply very small. It is an impressive feat that makes the G2 an incredibly pleasurable device to look at.
None of this would be of any value if the screen was not good. But fear not, the screen here is fantastic. It is a 5.2" 1080p IPS LCD display that is wonderfully bright and exceptionally sharp. Everything looks fantastic and the overall effect is one of utter immersion. It is similar to the difference that seeing a film in a cinema offers over even a very good home setup. The only slight flaw in this screen is that it is a little reflective but I am nit-picking now.
Plastics are the main material to be found in the construction of the G2 and they are of the Samsung variety which is to say, cheap feeling and a bit slimy. This is not as bad as the Galaxy S4, but it is not all that successful either. Unfortunately this is a slightly creaky phone which does make an audible sound as you move it around in your hands. Safe to say, the G2 is not a premium feeling device but somehow it is a great feeling device despite that. It is very hard to explain, but this is a device that exudes comfort if not a premium feel.
So what of the rest of the phone, the piece behind the screen? LG have not held back on the specs here and have packed the G2 with everything you would expect from a device fighting at the top. The combination of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 CPU, 2Gb of RAM and 16Gb or 32Gb of built in storage means we are looking at a genuine high end flagship device. The problem is that the G2 never quite feels that way. Yes, it is fast, especially in apps, but there is a constant nagging feeling that this is a phone being hamstrung by its software. There are lags and delays that just shouldn't be there and indeed are not there in any other Snapdragon 800 device I have tried. In normal apps, these lags are very limited but they do exist which is really very odd.
Software, software, software
LG's Optimus UI is most probably to blame for all the slowdowns that the G2 suffers. Optimus UI is the name LG give to their Android skin, but this is more than a skin, it is a reworking of large parts of the Android UI in the vein of Samsung's TouchWiz. On the surface there is little to separate LG and Samsung's approach but if you look further, there are some significant differences in what is on offer. To put it very simply, I believe the Optimus UI to be far less obtrusive than TouchWiz and if I had to choose or be damned, the Optimus UI is better looking. Unlike with TouchWiz, there are some genuinely useful additions here and given the smaller number of overall features it is much easier to get to grips with and even more importantly, easier to ignore! I wouldn't suggest totally ignoring it, but it is possible. Lets dive a bit deeper into some of the features on offer here.
Knock-knock is something you cannot turn off, and you will not want to. It is probably the most useful addition on the G2 and changed the way I used my phone. As with all the best features, it is extremely simple and feels weird that no-one else has thought of this before. There are two parts to this brilliant idea, the first of which is not unique: you can switch on the phone by double tapping on the screen. Nokia offer this on most of their Lumia range and there are hacks for many other devices that offer the same feature. Where knock-knock differs is that you can double tap on an empty part of your home screens or on the notification bar or the lock screen to switch the screen off and lock your phone. Brilliantly simple. I am tempted to say that LG only thought of this because they moved the buttons to the back which could be a bit awkward, but frankly, I don’t care why knock-knock exists, I am just happy it does. There are some problems here though, worst of which is that the double tap to switch on simply doesn't work reliably enough. I have about a 75% success rate at best with it which is not good enough. If you replace the LG launcher with another, you wont be able to double tap on it to switch the device off. Hopefully a software update can improve reliability here.
The lock screen is essentially the same one LG have been using for some time now with customisable application shortcuts on the bottom - up to five on the G2. As you swipe in any direction to unlock, you can see what is underneath the lock screen and can choose the animated effects here too. Quite a cool little feature.
Once you are unlocked, the home screen shows with its 5 by 5 grid and dock with spaces for five items below. This is good use of the screen real estate on offer. Folders can be created in the normal way even though they look a little different. You can customise the colour of the folders too. Long pressing on a home screen takes you to a nice screen where apps and widgets can be added to any screen and wallpapers can be chosen. You can have up to seven home screens and can choose which screen is the default.
A less successful enhancement is to be found in the notification drawer which is fairly heavyweight and indeed almost half the screen is taken up by default. There are settings shortcuts, QSlide apps, a brightness slider and a volume slider above the date. Confusingly, very confusingly, there are two settings buttons. This is a very poor design decision as it is unclear which settings button to press. To clarify, the button next to the volume slider opens up a volume settings window and the other button opens up the system settings. To compound the misery of this, if you press the button next to the volume slider - as I did every time for the first week or so - then it opens up an overlay that cannot be closed. Pressing back activates the back action in the last app you had open. All very confusing. On the plus side, being able to have both auto brightness and a slider to control some of the extremes of brightness is a very welcome addition.
The settings have been changed into a tabbed view reminiscent of that on newer TouchWiz devices from Samsung but at least there is an option to switch back to the normal list view. There are quite a few additional items in the settings too of varying levels of utility.
Quiet mode is similar to the do not disturb feature on the iPhone. You can set scheduled times during which the phone will be quiet and will not disturb you and specify when it should still let phone calls ring through, such as when the same number calls you twice within three minutes. Quite mode can also be turned on manually. It is nice to see this on an Android phone but LG ruin it a bit by showing quite intrusive notifications when you are both in quiet mode and when the status of quiet mode changes.
The front touch buttons can be customised. Again though, LG giveth with one hand and yet taketh away with the other. You can change the colour and layout of these buttons but there is no way to remove the annoying and pointless menu button and replace it with the far more useful multi-tasking button. Most apps now support the Android overflow menu rendering physical menu buttons obsolete and the long press home for multi-tasking is not an ideal replacement.
Copying Samsung, the G2 can detect when you are looking at the phone and stop the screen from switching off as well as having the ability to pause videos when it thinks you are not looking. These work as well as on the Samsung Galaxy S4 which is to say, not very well at all.
The weirdest addition without a doubt to the whole package is Slide Aside. Using a three finger swipe across the screen, the running app can be moved to the side. A three finger swipe in the opposite direction will show the apps saved into slide aside, a maximum of three at a time. It is simply another form of multi-tasking but the gesture to use it can interfere with other apps, for example, moving Gmail off the screen in this way will also cause you to delete at least one email thread! Apps saved in this way still appear in the normal multi-tasking screen which in my view renders slide aside totally useless.
Usefully, LG provide a guest mode. Secure your device with a pattern lock, and a separate pattern can unlock the device into guest mode where you can choose which apps can be used.
Applications that support QSlide can be run in a little floating window. This then leads to a couple of very useful features. The messaging app can show a floating interactive notification over whatever other app you are using when your receive an SMS. It is unobtrusive, can be closed quickly and can also be used to reply to the message and carry on with what you were doing. When a call comes in, instead of a full screen incoming call screen, a small popup appears with the callers identity and the usual answer or reject buttons. This is unobtrusive and makes continuing with what you were doing previously easier. These are my favourite app enhancements in the Optimus UI on the G2. Genuinely useful and thoughtful additions.
The calendar has been replace with LG’s version which has a couple of nice features including a split view allowing you to see the full month at the top and an agenda below. This is a nice touch, but in reality the space is just a little too limited to allow anything truly useful here.
The app drawer can be arranged as you choose via a menu option while pressing the settings gear on the top right allows you to re-arrange apps into a totally custom layout, including folders, when using a user customised view. It also gives you the ability to uninstall apps. The fact there is a menu button and the menu options here is another example of the slightly confused UI that LG offers.
LG provide a number of apps pre-installed on the G2 including one for creating backups, a file manager, QuickRemote for controlling the built in IR blaster, and a video editor. There are some creepy options on here including Life Square which can collect and save everything you do with your phone from call logs to posts on social networks. Thankfully almost all of these apps can be disabled which is to be applauded.
This gives just a quick feel of the Optimus UI. There are more customisations and options available but in general, it is not a terrible skin. Unlike TouchWiz there are no duplicated apps and there are decent enhancements on the whole to most of the usually stock apps.
The G2 includes a 13 megapixel camera with optical image stabilisation which should be a compelling combination. In practice, this is a very good camera that still display a number of weaknesses that I believe are all software based. The camera can occasionally struggle to focus even when touching on the screen to focus on a specific element. This is a frustration and has probably affected around one in ten images I have taken. I don't see any reasonable explanation for this behaviour beyond some software bugs that LG will hopefully fix in due course.
When you do get the camera to focus on your subject, the resulting image is full of detail, has fairly low noise and can be captured in a usable manner even in fairly poor light. It is fast to capture the image too. Some of the pictures I have taken with the G2 have been stunning, especially in bright light where the camera seems able to balance colours and brightness with aplomb.
The camera interface is reasonably well designed and there are a lot of features to help you capture the moment just as you would like. The HDR mode is especially impressive really enhancing almost any image. And if you really want, you can just say "cheese" and the camera will capture a picture! In general, Normal mode will be fine, but Intelligent auto is an excellent all round mode for mixed scene shooting for instance when moving between indoors and outdoors between shots. Most of the other modes and settings are fairly self explanatory, and overall this is a simple and yet powerful camera app.
You can see some sample shots below. The last sample is the outdoor scene taken in HDR mode and you can easily see just how impressive it is.
The battery on the G2 is amazing. It is a 3000mAh stacked unit which means that it is essentially two batteries on top of each other of different physical dimensions allowing LG to make best use of the available volume. I had some issues with idle drain at first, but was able to get 50% more screen on time than I typically achieve out of flagship devices which is an astonishing achievement. We don't do battery tests here at MoDaCo, but the endurance of the G2 makes me wish we did just so we could quantify how good its endurance is.
And the verdict?
The LG G2 is a great Android phone. It is truly innovative with an amazing screen and a lovely feel in the hand despite the poor build and plastics. It has a decent camera, a great battery and is generally slick and fast though not all the time.
The biggest problem for LG is that they also just released another great Android phone, the Nexus 5. It too has a great screen and reasonable battery life. The camera may not be quite up to scratch, but it does offer a totally fluid and responsive stock Android experience. It also has better build quality and nicer materials.
Sony have the Xperia Z1 which is a very fast and fluid device that is built like a tank but has plenty of issues of its own including a ludicrously large body and a highly questionable camera.
In the Note 3, Samsung have an amazing flagship device with an amazingly small footprint and low weight for its massive screen size, a great camera, good battery life and improved materials.
In addition to these there are still all the flagship devices from early in the year like the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, both of which are fantastic phones in their own rights.
What these comparisons tell me is that we are living in something of a golden age for the smartphone. There is a lot of choice of great devices even though each has its own set of compromises. You have the choice to pick between these and more to find the one that best suits your needs with a high degree of certainty that you will be getting a great phone no matter which you pick.
The G2 sits in the mix comfortably on its own merits and is my favourite Android device of the moment. The combination of super compact dimensions for its screen size, a simply astonishing screen, great battery life and decent camera is too appealing to ignore and outweighs the cheap plastics and creaky build for me. LG are not known for speedy software updates and that would make me think twice, it may not be my favourite if new versions of Android are not delivered in a timely manner.
Overall, LG have taken a massive leap forwards here and the G2 is great, great.