LG’s new flagship takes aim at the Samsung Galaxy S6 – and pulls off an impressive coup.
D ifferent people want different things from a smartphone. Some value appearance and design above all else. Others want the fastest performance. A fair number, however, value the practical things in life, and it’s these folk who will be looking closely at the LG G4: of the current generation, it’s the only major smartphone with both a microSD slot and a removable battery. The question is, does the rest of it pass muster?
In its basic shape and controls, the G4 breaks no new ground. The rear is still gently curved and fits in your hand nicely. The volume and power buttons still reside in the centre of the rear panel, just below the camera lens.
The overall dimensions haven’t changed much either. The LG G4 is slightly taller and wider than the G3, at 76 x 9.8 x 149mm, but this isn’t as obvious to the naked eye.
One change you might notice is the new “Slim Arc” screen, which curves slightly from top to bottom – a bit like LG’s G Flex models, but much subtler. The leather backing is distinctive, too: there’s a range of different-coloured designs available, all of which are fetching, with precise, close stitching running down the centre and the G4 logo embossed into the bottom-right corner. Depending on the colour you choose, there’s even some variation in the character of the leather, with a smooth, close-grained briefcase finish on the brown and burgundy versions and a coarser grain on the pale blue, black and tan models.
A slightly cheaper range of plastic designs is offered too, in shades including a glossy “ceramic” white and titanium grey, with a subtle diamond pattern moulded into the shell. But we suspect most customers will go for the leather finish, which looks and feels very nice indeed: the black version in particular is fabulous.
Specifications and display
It wouldn’t be a flagship launch without a bump in specifications, so it’s no surprise to see an upgrade to the internals. But LG is doing things differently from the competition, opting for Qualcomm’s six-core, 64-bit 1.8GHz Snapdragon 808 SoC, backed by an Adreno 418 GPU, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Other specs include dual-band, dual-stream 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MU-MIMO, Cat9 4G with download speeds of up to 450Mbits/sec, Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC. What you don’t get is any kind of waterproofing or wireless charging, but the latter can be added via an optional replacement back.
The CPU’s six cores are split in a dual-core/quad-core arrangement, running at 1.8GHz and 1.44GHz. Overall performance compares surprisingly well with the HTC One M9: in the single-threaded Geekbench 3 benchmark, the G4 scored 1,134 versus the M9’s 838, and its multi-threaded score of 3,501 was a mere half-step behind the HTC’s 3,677 – despite having only half as many cores for intensive tasks.
It isn’t all good news. In the GFXBench 3.1 gaming test, the G4 achieved only half the frame rate of HTC’s handset – probably in part owing to its high-DPI 1,440 x 2,560 screen, which is more demanding to drive than the M9’s 1080p display. It’s also worth noting that the Samsung Galaxy S6 easily bested both phones in the Geekbench test, and placed squarely between the two in GFXBench. But it’s possible to get too hung up on such figures: in everyday use, the G4 feels perfectly responsive, and we haven’t yet found a game that fazes it.
Elsewhere, battery life is an improvement on last year’s G3 – something LG credits to a number of changes, including a more efficient display technology. The G4 uses what LG calls “N-type liquid crystals”, which allow more light through so that a lower-power backlight can be used.
In practice, we found that streaming a 720p video in flight mode, with the screen set to a brightness of 120cd/m2, drained the G4 at 6.3% per hour; audio streaming over 4G drained it at 3.6%. That doesn’t quite match the Samsung Galaxy S6’s figures of 6% and 2.8%, but it’s better than the HTC One M9 (9.7% and 2.6%). And since the battery is user-replaceable, you have the option of buying a spare, or even a third-party high-capacity replacement.
With a top brightness of 476cd/m2, the G4’s screen is far from the most eye-searing we’ve measured, but LG claims that it’s capable of producing a wider range of colours than other phones – in conformance to the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) standard, rather than sRGB or Adobe RGB. In practice, we found that the G4 covered 97.9% of the sRGB gamut, which is impressive, and produced a rich tapestry of greens and reds.
The accuracy of those colours is tough to assess, since even with automatic brightness adjustment turned off, the backlight level varies automatically depending on what’s displayed onscreen. What we can say is that the LG G4’s display has plenty of impact, is as crisp as anyone needs, and produces colours that really leap from the screen.
Smartphone cameras have been constantly improving of late, and LG keeps pace here: the G4 ups the resolution to 16 megapixels from the G3’s 13 megapixels, and widens the aperture to f/1.8, just outdoing the f/1.9 aperture on the Samsung Galaxy S6’s rear camera. What this means in practice is that more light hits the sensor, so you can use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISO sensitivity settings. The end result is sharper pictures with less noise.
LG hasn’t stopped there. It’s also improved the G3’s optical image-stabilisation (OIS) system, adding “Z-axis feedback” this time around. The laser-assisted autofocus from the G3 remains in place too, helping the camera produce sharp photos quickly, while a new colour-spectrum sensor is used to measure ambient light and set the white balance and flash temperature accordingly.
Since the core specifications of the G4’s camera are almost identical to those of the impressive cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge – both 16-megapixel units with an f/1.9 aperture, 1/2.6in sensor, OIS and phase-detect autofocus – LG’s new flagship ought to deliver a decent-quality snap. And that it certainly does: in daylight, photos are well exposed and crisp. The autofocus system works well when shooting from the hip, and general image quality matches the Samsung.
In low light, the G4’s camera even beats the S6’s in some respects, delivering sharper, less noisy images, but we found the LG didn’t always choose the correct white balance. Under fluorescent strip lights, for instance, white and light-grey shades were tinged with yellow. So much for the colour-spectrum sensor.
Happily, it’s possible to rescue such images if you switch to the phone’s manual mode and choose to shoot in raw (DNG format) as well as JPEG. This also gives you fine control over shutter speed, white balance, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation and focus. There’s even an auto-exposure lock facility, so you can make sure the settings don’t change from one shot to the next. It’s a pity that LG doesn’t extend this level of control to video capture, which is fully automatic.
Meanwhile, the front camera, as is the current trend, is a high-resolution, 8-megapixel unit, and a host of enhancements have been made to the camera software. We like the way you can now double-tap the volume-down button while the phone is in standby to open the camera directly and take an instant shot.
There’s also a rather gimmicky “gesture interval shot” selfie mode. Simply put, this lets you take a sequence of shots two seconds apart by opening your hand and clenching your fist in front of the camera a couple of times.
New software features
Predictably, the G4 brings a raft of updates to LG’s custom UI overlay, which runs on top of Android 5.1. None of these is particularly groundbreaking: the biggest new feature is the Smart Bulletin service, which – with a swipe left from the homescreen – brings up a card-based view presenting notifications from a handful of preset apps, such as LG’s Health app, the calendar, the QRemote app and a few others. You can customise the view by dragging elements around and enabling or disabling various services, but you’ll probably just want to turn the whole thing off.
LG has also upgraded the Gallery app: it now has a feature called “Memories”, which automatically organises your photos and videos into event-based albums – a bit like Google Photos does with its Stories feature, only offline. Potentially more useful is the “Timeline” feature, which brings up an overview of all the photos you’ve taken in a given day, month or year, as a stream of tiny thumbnails in one or several large blocks.
LG’s Google Now-esque “Smart Notice” system has been improved too: now, purportedly, it has the ability to learn from your “lifestyle and usage patterns”. We’re not convinced by this: during our testing it seemed mainly to present weather-based advice, such as “It will rain today starting in the afternoon. Be careful on the road.” This particular gem was delivered on a day when I’d travelled by train to work.
While we’re not bowled over by the software, it hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm for the LG G4. It’s incredibly hard to be different in the smartphone world, but with some bold design choices LG has managed to pull it off.
Critically, it hasn’t compromised performance, battery life or camera quality, and retaining both a microSD slot and a removable battery means the G4 will appeal to a whole tranche of customers for whom flexibility is most important.
So, while the Samsung Galaxy S6 remains the price-no-object smartphone of choice, the LG G4 is a great option for everyone else. It’s a stylish, capable smartphone, and one that – refreshingly – does things a little differently.