Does "different" automatically mean "better"? That's the question I keep coming back to every time I use one of LG's recent Android devices.
The company's been trying fervently to stand out from the pack, first by moving the volume and power buttons to the back of its phones and now, with the new LG G Flex, by adding a curved shape into its design. But do those qualities meaningfully enhance the user experience? Or are they just different for the sake of being different?
LG's rendering of the G Flex; the phone's curve is actually far more subtle than this image suggests.
I've been living with the G Flex for the past week to find out. All hype aside, here's what the phone is actually like to use in the real world.
(The LG G Flex is available as of this week from AT&T for $300 with a new two-year contract, from Sprint for $300 with a new two-year contract and from T-Mobile for 24 monthly payments of $28, bringing its grand unsubsidized total to $672. Verizon has not announced any plans to carry the device as of this writing.)
Body and display
Forget the curve for a minute: The first thing you notice about the G Flex is that the phone is huge. At 6.3 x 3.2 x 0.33 in. and 6.2 oz., the G Flex is more than a third of an inch longer than Samsung's plus-sized Galaxy Note 3 -- and a bit heavier as well. The size alone is going to turn most people off from this device; it's awkward to hold in one hand and even more uncomfortable to carry.
The phone sticks with the glossy plastic construction LG's been favoring as of late, which unfortunately looks and feels rather chintzy and doesn't give off a very premium vibe. The material is said to have a "self-healing polymer" that helps it "recover from minor scratches," which sounds cool on paper but is less impressive in person; the few minor scratches that showed up on my device were still present and visible days after they developed.
So how 'bout that curve? In practical terms, it's far subtler than you might expect ( especially if you've seen LG's marketing materials). Don't get me wrong: You can absolutely tell that the phone has an arc to it, especially when you set it down on a flat surface -- but in terms of most day-to-day use, you don't really think about it that often.
During day-to-day use you may not notice the curve, but you can tell that the phone has an arc to it when you set it down on a flat surface.
The curve is at its most noticeable when you hold the device lengthwise, in landscape orientation, which causes the left and right sides of the screen to slope slightly toward you. LG says it creates a "cinematic-like panoramic viewing" experience for video watching and game playing, but I'd say it's more of an interesting subtle effect than anything transformative. And in regular reading-based usage -- email, Web browsing, social media surfing and the like -- I actually found it to be slightly distracting.
Regardless, any potential benefit the curve might provide is cancelled out by the subpar quality of the G Flex's display. The phone's 6-in. 720p plastic OLED panel packs only 244 pixels per inch, which is a significantly lower pixel density than we've come to expect from high-end phones today -- and boy, does it show.
You can easily make out individual pixels on the G Flex's screen, and colors look dull and oddly grainy. There's also a weird ghosting effect where elements sometimes stay partially visible after they're no longer on the screen -- almost like they're temporarily burned in before they eventually fade away. It's bad enough that I thought maybe it was a fluke defect limited to my review unit, but I was able to observe the same issue on two other devices.
Display quality aside, the curve does make the phone fit nicely against your face for voice calls, though the sheer size of the handset counterbalances that benefit. And the arc is actually counterproductive in terms of pocket comfort; if you could somehow fit the phone horizontally in your pocket, it'd match the shape of your leg nicely -- but in a vertical position, the curve clashes with the natural form of your body and makes the device feel extra bulky.
As its name suggests, the G Flex is flexible, to a degree. If you set the phone down flat on its face and apply heavy pressure to its back, the device flexes slightly downward. It's impressive from an engineering perspective -- and it could potentially help avoid breakage if, say, you had the phone in your back pocket and sat on it -- but with a device this size, I'm not sure how frequently the real-world benefits will come into play.
Like the G2 before it, the G Flex has no physical buttons on its front or sides; instead, the power and volume buttons are located on the phone's back panel. That configuration bothers me less here than it did on the smaller G2, perhaps because of the ergonomic differences presented by this device's size, but I still find it to be a rather awkward arrangement. LG does offer a way to turn on the screen by tapping twice on the display, which is convenient in theory but works too inconsistently to be reliable.
One nice touch: The phone's rear-facing power button lights up to alert you of new messages and other notifications. There's also a dot-sized LED on the front of the phone that functions the same way.
The G Flex has one small speaker grille on the lower-right corner of its back side that delivers respectably decent audio quality by smartphone standards. The phone has a headphone jack and micro-USB port on its bottom edge; the micro-USB port doubles as an HDMI-out port with the aid of a SlimPort adapter.
LG's G Flex packs plenty of punch under its hood, with a 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM. As you'd expect, the phone is fast as can be; everything's been smooth and snappy during my time with the device, and I haven't run into any stutters or performance-related problems.
The G Flex also excels in the realm of stamina: The phone boasts a 3500mAh non-removable battery that should satisfy even the most demanding of needs. I've consistently made it from morning to night without ever coming close to hitting empty; even on days with relatively heavy usage -- as much as three to four hours of screen-on time with a mix of phone calls, video streaming and general Web browsing activity -- the phone's had close to half its charge remaining by the time I hit the hay.
(The T-Mobile version of the G Flex, by the way, is listed as having a 3400mAh battery instead of a 3500mAh unit. LG tells me the battery is actually identical across all the models and the discrepancy is just the result of T-Mobile measuring battery capacity in a different way than other carriers.)
The G Flex comes with 32GB of internal storage, about 24GB of which is available after you factor in the operating system and various preloaded software. There is no SD card slot for external storage expansion.
I've found voice call quality on the phone to be fine, though I haven't been able to detect any of the "enhanced voice and sound quality" that's said to result from the device's curve. The phone supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data transfers. It does not, however, support wireless charging.
The G Flex's 13-megapixel rear-facing camera takes reasonably good but unexceptional photos.
The G Flex's 13-megapixel rear-facing camera is okay but unexceptional. As with the G2, I've found the phone's photos to be somewhat dull and washed out, particularly with outdoor shots. The phone lacks optical image stabilization and also struggles to capture moving objects without adding in a detrimental amount of motion blur. I can detect a visible amount of background noise in the G Flex's images, too, but that's a common issue with smartphone photos and is really only noticeable if you're viewing the images zoomed in at full resolution.
The G Flex does do a decent job with low-light conditions, and LG's camera software is easy to use with a variety of shooting options. For most casual photo-taking purposes, the phone's camera should be good enough, but it definitely falls below the level of quality provided by other devices in its class, such as Sony's recent Xperia Z1S.
The G Flex is capable of shooting 1080p-quality HD video through both its main camera and its 2.1-megapixel front-facing lens.
The G Flex's software is pretty similar to what I saw on the G2, so I'll refer you to the software section of my G2 review for an in-depth look at its pros and cons. In general, I'll say this: LG continues to fall into the trap of attempting to "differentiate" by making arbitrary UI modifications, many of which end up hurting the quality of the user experience.
To the company's credit, the G Flex's software is more polished than some other manufacturers' takes on Android -- but it's still cluttered, messy and a step backwards from the restrained and tasteful base OS upon which it's built. LG also continues to insist on using the outdated Android 2.3-era Menu button in place of the current Android 4.x Recent Apps button, which makes getting around the system far less elegant and intuitive than it should be.
Interface aside, LG has loaded the phone up with a smorgasbord of software features, a few of which are genuinely useful. One example is a new Samsung-reminiscent Dual Window mode that lets you split the screen in half and view two apps simultaneously (with a limited range of compatible programs).
At a Glance G Flex
LGPrice: $300 (AT&T and Sprint with two-year contract), $672 (T-Mobile with 24 monthly payments of $28)Pros: Excellent performance; outstanding battery life; technologically impressive curved form; can run two apps on-screen at the same timeCons: Bulky and awkward; subpar display; mediocre camera; messy user interface; ships with Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean); uses outdated Menu button; glossy plastic casing looks and feels cheap compared to other high-end phones
While that feature can come in handy, it also speaks to the broader lack of focus within LG's software design: Dual Window is one of three separate and confusingly similar multitasking mechanisms LG has added into the G Flex.
That's a common theme with the phone, ranging from the slew of apps that unnecessarily duplicate existing Google services to the smattering of gimmicky features you'll likely never use. A little focus would go a long way in refining LG's products and creating a more compelling overall user experience. It'd also make it more feasible for LG to keep its devices up to date with current Android releases -- an area where the company consistently falls short.
On a related note, the G Flex is jam-packed with bloatware, some of which can't be easily uninstalled. On both the AT&T and the Sprint models of the phone, I counted more than two dozen such applications.
Back to my original question: Does "different" automatically mean "better"? In the case of the G Flex, the answer turns out to be no. The phone's curved and flexible body is a noteworthy feat of engineering but not terribly meaningful in terms of actual real-world value, especially when coupled with the phone's dismal display.
The G Flex does offer excellent performance and outstanding battery life, but with all of the caveats that accompany those traits -- and all of the more well rounded smartphones available within the same price range -- it's difficult to recommend this device as a sensible purchase for most people.
The G Flex is an impressive technological concept -- no question there. Maybe by the second generation, LG will figure out how to turn it into something that's equally impressive from a consumer perspective.
This article, LG G Flex deep-dive review: The curious case of the curved phone, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.