Remember the days when an LG phone was nothing to shout about?
You only have to cast your mind back a couple of years, but then the G2 came along, and since then each new LG flagship has been anticipated as a potential demolisher of the very best that Samsung, HTC and Apple have to offer.
So the new G4 arrives with much fanfare and expectation, and it’s certainly dressed to impress in a shell of real, proper, made-from-the-skin-of-dead-animals leather. If that’s not to your taste (or within your budget) there’s a cheaper plastic/ceramic version. And no matter what it’s wearing, the G4 really is the toughest Galaxy S6 challenger in town.
A friend who's dressed in leather
First off, let’s take a look at the bit that has made many an eyebrow raise: that leather back. LG has really maxed-out that leather look by stamping a join and stitching down the middle, getting you legit-feeling contours. Does it feel better than glossy plastic? Absolutely. It’s a bit like a more organic feeling soft-touch finish, and it makes the LG G4 seem a bit more expensive than its predecessor.
When LG’s asking for extra cash for the privilege, you’re entitled to look a little bit deeper, though. First, that seam down the middle is, predictably enough, fake. It’s just stamped into the leather, although the stitching on either side is real enough.
Next, don’t go expecting the LG G4 leather edition to age like a fine leather handbag or the dashboard of some CEO’s luxury automobile. Its resilience is going be to be impaired by the fact that the leather layer has been thinned to within a micrometer of its life.
This is a pretty common process by which normal leather is whittled down to make it thinner for those purposes where chunky stuff just won’t do. Ever tried on one of those ultra-thinline leather jackets? That would have almost certainly had the same treatment. The LG G4’s backplate is actually plastic once again, with what’s best described as an ultra-skinny leather veneer.
Yes, it’s real stuff, but part of what makes leather so rugged, so able to age well, is its malleability and ability to soak up impacts. And LG has stripped a lot of this away by making it quite this thin. Is it worse than plastic or aluminium? Absolutely not, just don’t go expecting miracles. This ain’t the stuff of motorbike duds.
I do like how LG has gone about customising the leather backs, though. Here’s the thing: it’s a bold look, and lots of people will probably hate it, especially in the tan version of this review sample.
There are loads of other shades, though, which give it a slightly different vibe. The black leather version is kind of disconcertingly kinky, but the brighter shades are a lot more fun. They scream a lot less of S&M.
Just fancy plain old plastic? LG has applied some contouring to the plastic back of the LG G4 and has thrown a bit of ceramic into the mix of the back’s make-up for a harder feel, but really the phone looks and feels a lot like the LG G3. In all the models the little side bits are still plastic, and the phone is roughly the same size.
It’s no wonder LG brought out these leather backs to detract from the idea this is a pretty simple upgrade.
Once again, LG has plonked the phone’s buttons onto the phone’s back: that’s the power key and the volume buttons. There’s no smart fingerprint scanner, but after a few years of optimising this design the rear buttons feel great. They sit right under where your phone naturally lies and make a this larger handset easier to use.
Same old, same old
What many of you may really appreciate staying the same, though, is the freedom this plastic backplate gives you. You can simply rip the thing off, and underneath you can change the battery and pop in a microSD card. With an iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6, you can’t do either.
If you like watching movies on your phone or want to keep the LG G4 for at least a couple of years, these are very good things to have. After a 12 months or so even modern phone batteries will have lost some of their mojo. With this phone you’ll just be able to snag a new one off the internet quick smart.
It handles well too, for a 5.5-inch screen phone with unremarkable thickness of 9.8mm. How come? While it’s a shade wider than the LG G3, the ‘arc’ of the back (as LG calls it) fits your hand pretty well. It is a fair bit bigger than the Galaxy S6, though. Bear this in mind if you’re averse to big phones.
The solace of Quantum
What you get in return is a pretty large screen. LG hasn’t pushed screen size any more this year, though. Just like the LG G3 it’s 5.5 inches on the diagonal. It hasn’t even tried to squish down the screen surround any more either, something LG used to be very much into.
Resolution is the same too, although at 2560 x 1440 you couldn’t realistically ask for any more. This gets you pixel density of 538ppi. These pixels are so tiny, so packed in that I gave myself a headache trying to spot any sign of pixellation. Just like last year, sharpness is incredible.
So is it exactly the same as the LG G3 screen? Not at all. The LG G4 actually has a totally new kind of panel.
It’s still an IPS LCD screen, but this one uses Quantum Display tech. Sounds a bit Star Trek, but what this does is use both blue and white backlight LEDs plus colour filters to get the right shades.
It allows the LG G4 to pump out more vivid and saturated colours, delving further and deeper into the spectrum of colours human eyes can make out. Sure enough, colours pop that bit more than last year’s model. This is a super-vivid screen, undoubtedly one of the best available right now.
A redder shade of Red
But is more colour always good? Looking at the LG G4’s interface, some of the elements look a tiny bit overcooked. The YouTube logo pops so hard it’s almost difficult to look at. But at least it’s not as bad as the Nexus 6’s screen, which is drowned by colour.
There’s a bit of over saturation here because the software doesn’t seem to take account of quite how far into the red spectrum the Quantum display can dig. The general character of the screen is also quite cool, which is no great surprise when the phone uses blue backlight LEDs.
This is one of the best phone screens made yet, but if you have US$700 in your pocket and want the most accurate screen, you’re probably still better off with a Samsung Galaxy S6 or Note 4. They offer screen modes that tame the incredible colour skills of Samsung’s OLEDs. If LG had implemented similar colour options we’d have little hesitation in proclaiming it the very best phone screen available.
The software isn’t bad, but as usual it’s not quite a highlight of the LG G4. Once again, LG’s Optimus UI sticks with very sharp icons and a few other bits and bobs that look a wee bit dated. For some reason, it’s clinging onto the widgets tab of the apps menu when widgets are things you fiddle with for the first day or so and then change maybe once a year.
It really resists the rounder, more accessible visual style of Android Lollipop. And that’s what the LG G4 runs too: under the customisations lies Android 5.1.
LG plasters the phone with a very ugly colour scheme fresh out of the box, too, doing it no favours. As you can tell, I’m not totally in love with how the Optimus UI looks. However, you can tweak plenty of it and if you truly hate it you can always wallpaper over it with the Google Now launcher. I’ve given it a go and it totally changes the visual personality of the software. Nothing’s set in stone with Android.
Think the LG G4’s software looks perfect good? There’s very little to dislike apart from the look. And general performance is great.
One other Lollipop change LG has resisted is the more organic swooshy way it moves. Each way has its charms, but the LG G4 really does feel whip-crack sharp as a result.
That’s all without having as fast a CPU as the Samsung Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9. It rocks the Snapdragon 808, intended to sit one step below the Snapdragon 810. What’s the difference?
Well, while each uses Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53 cores as the muscle and the backup of the show, there are only two ‘power’ A57 cores here. Not four as in the Snapdragon 810.
The result? Where the HTC One M9 can score up to 4200 in Geekbench 3, you’re looking at 3502 for the LG G4. Predictably enough, it’s not as powerful.
The more important question, though, is whether you’ll notice. If you’re into cutting edge games or something really processor-busting like N64 emulation, you probably will, as the GPU is also a bit slower.
But if you don’t have a great gaming obsession, the difference isn’t worth worrying over too much. And the Snapdragon 808 seems to deal a bit better when really going for it than the Snapdragon 810. There’s been a lot of talk about the processor overheating, and in theory this one might run a bit cooler.
In actuality, leave the LG G4 downloading over 3G/4G and it gets a bit warm, but otherwise it stays fairly cool. That said, we haven’t had any serious trouble with any of this year’s flagships to date, despite all the fuss some people have made about it.
All the ‘classic’ GPU-testing games Android offers right now run well on the LG G4 too.
Camera: Heavy on the Tech
If LG has deliberately gone easy on the CPU side, it hasn’t held back with the camera hardware. This is one of the most technically impressive phone cameras there’s ever been.
The roll-call of awesome is pretty long. First, there’s the sensor. Not only does it have 16 megapixels under its belt, the sensor is 1/2.6 inch in size just like the Samsung Galaxy S6. Heck, it might even be the same Sony IMX240 sensor judging by the results.
Next up is the lens. It’s an f/1.8 lens. This is an incredibly fast lens that’ll take in loads of light compared even to the F/2.2 lens of the HTC One M9. That’s even quicker than the Galaxy S6’s F/1.9 one.
LG sure is going for it.
That’s not the end either. The LG G4 has a laser focusing module on the back, for one. What this does is fire off an IR beam, which is reflected back to the sensor, telling the phone how far away the object in question is. It lets the autofocus jump to that point, before using standard contrast detection focusing to finish the job.
The optical image stabilisation has been improved, too. It’ll handle more judder than the LG G3, and takes on another axis for even better performance.
Bored yet? There’s one more bit to shout about. Next to the flash is something called a colour spectrum sensor. It’s the first of its kind in a phone. This takes a look at the scene and judges what sort of flash shade is needed to avoid your friends’ faces becoming all white and ghostly.
Camera: the weigh-in
So does having more tech than Inspector Gadget pay off? It really does, especially the basics of the sensor and lens.
The LG G4 produces cracking shots in just about all conditions. Give it good light and you’ll get fantastic detail. In situations where you’re shooting into the sun the HDR mode can deal with the high light contrast incredibly well.
And at night time the LG G4 can eke out even more detail than the Galaxy S6. Just a smidgen more, but still more. Is it down to the OIS or the faster lens? Who knows, but the results are fabulous.
Virtually none of my shots have been duds. This really is one of the best phone cameras yet.
But is it the very best, the numero-uno of smartphone snappers? Actually, there are a few little issues.
First, It’s a fair bit slower than something like the Galaxy S6. There’s a bit more shutter lag, and more of a delay before it lets you take the next shot. It’s not outright slow, but it is the slowest of the 2015 flagships so far. When you’re actually out there on the street shooting, the HTC and Samsung alternatives feel a bit more limber.
The images are also a bit over-sharpened. Right down at pixel level fine details can look overstressed, especially when you’re dealing with macro photos. The Galaxy S6’s macro shots look a bit softer right down at pixel level, but also a bit more natural.
The camera app gives you more control than most, though. Unless you look deeper, it’s as simple as anything. And with the ‘Auto’ HDR mode set as standard, there’s really little need to do anything but press the shutter button. But there’s more if you look for it.
The LG G4’s manual mode is incredibly powerful, giving you almost as much control as a DSLR camera. All that’s missing is aperture control, because like 99.5 per cent of phones this one has a fixed-aperture lens.
You can still do an awful lot with it. Incredible control over ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, focusing and more unlocks bags of creative potential. We also found that the great optical image stabilisation means you can shoot handheld at up to 1/4 exposure settings without ending up with a blurry mess. You’ll need to keep dead still, of course. No shaky hands.
At night and indoors, though, the manual mode can be crazy-slow. It seems to take a while for the poor little thing’s brains to decide what settings to use other than the ones you specify.
And, another biggie is that throughout the camera app the LG G4 doesn’t accurately show what your photos will end up like in the preview screen. They’ll be as good or better than what you see, but Samsung does much better here, showing you a pretty accurate preview.
What about all the other modes? LG has cut out the guff this year. There’s a dual shot mode that takes pics with both the back and front cameras, plus panorama. Everything else has been dumped. We had expected a Light Trail mode that lets you shoot longer exposures to make lights look like lines drawn in the air, but in the software I’ve been testing you have to do this with the manual mode. Pro tip: you’ll need to use a long exposure time.
LG G4 does battle with the Galaxy S6 right at the top of the smartphone camera game. But where it gets an obvious advantage is the selfie camera. It has an 8-megapixel sensor.
Sure, we’ve this sort of high-res front camera before, and an even more pixel-packed one in the 13MP HTC Desire Eye.
It can produce great selfies, especially as it applies HDR smarts as standard. As usual with an LG phone, there’s also a slider that messes around with your face, smoothing out your wrinkly bits and pores. Just like the main camera, you can get top shots with no fuss.
There’s nothing all that next-gen about the front camera, though, as it can’t use any of the fancy tech you get in the rear camera. No OIS, no flash.
While the LG G4 has a pretty impressive-sounding 3000mAh battery, its stamina is, just like the other 2015 flagships, a bit disappointing. One day using the LG G4 I got up at 10am (yes, it was the weekend), and with mid-to-heavy use I’d drained the battery by 7pm. I spent hours listening to podcasts and around an hour streaming from Netflix, but that’s still pretty bad.
It doesn’t seem to be just down to the screen either. With looped video the LG G4 lasted for 9 hours 52 minutes. While that’s way below the 14 hours I got out of the Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung seems to have really worked on sending as much of the phone to sleep as possible when it’s not used.
The LG G4’s battery life isn’t so bad that you should write it off your most-wanted list, it is a bit disappointing given its battery is actually of a higher-capacity than any of the other 2015 top dogs. Fingers crossed LG will be able to tighten this up a bit with future software updates.
I tried the Battery Saver mode to see if it would improve things. And it does, but it keeps a pretty tight rein on screen brightness so isn’t something you’ll want to use 365 days a year. It doesn’t seem to restrict the CPU either, which is one obvious area the LG G4 could have saved some juice without a big day-to-day sacrifice.
What else is in the bag?
What else do you get? Naturally, at this price you get 4G. There’s also a tiny little infra red transmitter on the top of the LG G4. This lets you control your TV with the phone, and just about anything else that uses a TV-style remote.
It’s a nifty feature particularly useful for pranking housemates or family members, not to mention solving those “I can’t find the bloody remote” woes.
The internal speaker is pretty solid too. It’s very similar in tone and sound quality to the Samsung Galaxy S6. Top volume is good and sound quality is not too bad at all, but the tone isn’t quite as rich as the HTC One M9’s BoomSound twins. It can sound a bit harsh when maxed out, but overall it’s very impressive.
The LG G4 does miss out on a few little bits you can get elsewhere, though. There’s no fingerprint scanner, for example, and no heart rate sensor. Certainly not the end of the world, but some potential buyers will be disappointed.
LG G4 Verdict
Has the LG G4 swooped in and stolen the 2015 phone of the year award from Samsung? Not quite. The Optimus UI is once again not the best-looking in town, and some of the aesthetic hardware upgrades are barely skin-deep.
It doesn’t have the price advantage the LG G3 had, either. At US$760 it’s actually around the same price as the Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9 from the top spots online.
But it’s certainly competing on the same level as those rival flagships. The camera is top notch, the screen brilliant and those extra 0.4 inches of screen space will be enough to convince a bunch of buyers. Only time will tell whether using a slightly lower-end processor was a bad idea, but there are no major sacrifices right now.
In the end there are just a few minor niggles holding the G4 back from taking the top spot from the mighty Galaxy S6, but it should certainly be on your shortlist, especially if you appreciate microSD cards, bigger screens and gadgets wrapped in luxurious animal skin.