LG G3 deep-dive review: A phone with great specs, but real-world issues

The LG G3 Android phone has some impressive qualities -- but when you use it, you discover some interesting surprises.

LG really wants you to want its phones.

The Korean manufacturer has been working diligently to improve its devices with each passing year -- and it shows. This year's new flagship, the LG G3, is by far the company's best effort to date. For the first time, LG is moving beyond mere specs and finding meaningful ways to make its products stand out. But is this enough to make the G3 actually worth owning?

The LG G3 stands out from its competition in several ways.

I've been living with the U.S. model of the LG G3 for the past several days to search for that answer. (I also spent some time getting to know the international variant earlier this year.) The phone is available now for $200 with a two-year contract from AT&T, $200 with a two-year contract from Sprint, $598.80 with a two-year payment plan of $24.95 a month from T-Mobile or $100 with a two-year contract from Verizon.

So what's the G3 like to use in the real world, and is it the right device for you? Time to find out.

Body and display

When you get the G3 in your hands, one thing's immediately clear: This isn't what you'd call a petite phone. The G3 measures in at 5.8 x 2.9 x 0.35 in., making it one of the biggest handsets you'll find in the non-plus-sized range (LG insists the device isn't a "phablet" like Samsung's Galaxy Note products).

For perspective, the G3 is almost the same height as HTC's unusually tall One (M8) -- and a touch wider, too. Suffice it to say, the G3 is a bit of a giant compared to its contemporaries.

What's interesting, though, is that even with its large frame, the G3 doesn't feel terribly bulky or awkward to hold. In fact, once you've had it for a few days, you don't even think about its size. With its thin profile and subtly curved back, LG's done a really nice job of making the phone comfortable in the hand despite its heft.

That's even more remarkable when you consider that the phone has a 5.5-in. screen -- the same size panel used on 2012's Samsung Galaxy Note II, which was a significantly larger device. LG slimmed down the bezels on the front of the phone to eliminate extra space around the display, which allows you to get such a spacious screen without all the bulk that would usually accompany it.

The screen is a noteworthy point, too -- though perhaps not quite as noteworthy as LG would like you to believe. The G3's display utilizes an extraordinarily high resolution known as Quad HD. For the number nerds among us, it's 2560 x 1440 with a whopping 538 pixels per inch. For comparison, a typical 1080p screen -- like the one on HTC's One (M8) -- is 1920 x 1080 and 441 pixels per inch.

Unless you have superhuman vision, however, you probably aren't going to notice the difference. Plain and simple, we're reaching the point where screens of this size have more pixels packed into them than the human eye can detect. I did a real-world comparison with the G3 and the One (M8), and the differences in sharpness and detail between the two were virtually imperceptible.

That's not to say the G3's screen doesn't look fantastic -- because it does. It's bright and crystal clear, with image quality sure to satisfy even the most discerning eyes. And it's easy to view outdoors, too, even in direct sunlight. I find I actually prefer the contrast and color saturation on the M8, but that's getting nitpicky; the G3's display is absolutely gorgeous and among the best on the market today.

The device itself is also impressively designed: The G3 has a plastic back made to look like brushed metal -- it's a great example of plastic done right. The phone has a classy, attractive appearance and doesn't pick up any visible fingerprint smudges. To be sure, it's still plastic pretending to be metal -- something that's very apparent when you touch the surface -- and it doesn't match the premium feel of an actual metal phone like the aforementioned One (M8). But it doesn't come across as in any way cheap or gaudy, either, as Samsung's plastic cases tend to do.

LG is sticking with its unconventional rear button setup on this device -- a volume rocker and power key on the upper-third of the phone's back panel -- and while I've been critical of that configuration in the past, I've actually grown to enjoy it in its current implementation. It still takes a little getting used to, but LG has refined its approach and found a way to make the rear-facing buttons easy to locate and natural to use.

The LG G3's unconventional rear button setup takes a little getting used to.

The button placement also provides the benefit of making the phone's body especially sleek -- with those elements on the back, the device's sides are completely smooth and free from interruptions.

The G3 has a single small speaker on the lower end of its back panel. Audio played from the phone is sufficiently loud, although quite tinny. It's not bad by typical smartphone standards but is nothing spectacular.

Depending on which carrier you go with, you'll be able to get the G3 in a choice of white, black or gold. The gold is the most elegant and distinctive of the three and would be my first choice, followed by the less bold but still striking black. The white looks somewhat pedestrian in comparison, if you ask me, but it's ultimately just a matter of personal taste.

Under the hood

On paper, the G3 ticks off every box a spec-head would want to see in a high-end phone -- things like a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor and a full 3GB of RAM.

But like many Samsung phones, LG's latest effort is a lesson in why specs only mean so much: Despite all those impressive-sounding numbers, the device's performance is surprisingly imperfect.

There's frequent jerkiness in animations and transitions, for instance, along with a lag in opening and switching between apps -- the types of flaws you absolutely shouldn't see on a phone of this caliber. The issues aren't unbearable, but they're definitely noticeable; the system just isn't as smooth and snappy as a high-end smartphone should be.

The only logical conclusion I can reach is that the G3's software is to blame -- and as we'll discuss in a moment, that makes an awful lot of sense.

With its 3,000mAh removable battery, the G3 does a reasonably decent job in the realm of stamina. With moderate to heavy use -- as much as three to four hours of screen-on time with a mix of Web browsing, video streaming, voice calls and miscellaneous app use -- I've generally been able to make it from morning to night on a single charge, though sometimes just barely. The phone's battery is by no means bulletproof, especially with all the power that the Quad HD display requires, but it should be able to get you through a full day most of the time.

The G3 comes with 32GB of internal storage, about 24GB of which is available after you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone also has a microSD card slot beneath its back cover that allows you to add up to 2TB of additional space (theoretically, at least -- 128GB is currently the largest microSD card you can buy).

The G3 doesn't support wireless charging out of the box; you'll need to purchase and use a special $60 case if you want to have that functionality. It's also worth noting that the AT&T model of the phone uses a different wireless charging protocol than the other models of the device: Rather than sticking with the Qi standard, which the vast majority of charging pads are designed for, AT&T opted to go with the far less common PMA protocol for its device. That means in addition to the case, you'll have to buy a specialized charging gadget in order for things to work with that model.

As far as connectivity goes, I've tested two different models of the G3 -- one on T-Mobile and one on Sprint -- and both have had call quality and data reception that are typical for those carriers in my area. No problems or anything unusual to report in that regard.

The G3 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. It also has an IR blaster for wireless control of your TV and other home entertainment components.

Cameras

LG is using the G3's camera as a major marketing point, emphasizing that the device is the world's "first phone with laser auto-focus." Yup, you read that correctly: There's an actual laser involved with the picture-taking process.

It certainly sounds cool. The laser system is supposed to allow the phone to focus faster than other cameras and to take sharper images, even when the subject is moving.

In real-world usage, however, you'd never know any such system was in place. The phone isn't noticeably faster at snapping photos than other recent flagships I've tested, like the HTC One (M8) or the Galaxy S5 -- and in fact, it feels slightly slower than the M8, which is practically instantaneous in its photo-snapping ability.

In terms of image quality, the G3's 13-megapixel shooter is adequate but inconsistent. Photos, especially those taken outdoors, often look washed out and under-saturated -- and despite the manufacturer's lofty laser-centric claims, the G3 struggles as much as any other smartphone to focus on a moving subject and capture it without motion blur. On the plus side, the camera does offer optical image stabilization, which can help make up for an unsteady hand.

LG has toned down its camera UI quite a bit, too, which is a welcome change. By default, the Camera app is just one giant viewfinder; you touch anywhere on the screen to focus and snap a pic. It's similar to the minimalist approach Motorola has taken lately and makes for a pleasingly simple user experience.

If you want more advanced settings, the G3's Camera app has an icon in its upper corner that you can tap to bring up options for adjusting things like the image size and shooting mode. The options are fairly limited -- you won't find any settings for tweaking stuff like ISO or white balance -- but they do give you a little more control.

The phone also provides a novel gesture for capturing selfies with its front-facing camera: When you have the lens pointed at you and the Camera app open, you can hold up an opened hand and then make a fist to start a three-second countdown. Why, you might ask? I'm no expert on excessive documentation of one's own face, but I suspect it'd hold appeal for teens who use tools like the "selfie stick" (yes, that's apparently a real thing) to take photos of themselves from afar.

The front-facing camera is capable of capturing video up to 1080p in quality. The rear camera, meanwhile, can go as high as 3840 x 2160 -- a level known as 4K or "Ultra HD" -- which can get you some great-looking video (though you won't find many displays that can actually take advantage of it).

The software

The G3 runs custom LG software based on Google's Android 4.4.2 KitKat operating system. LG has not yet made any promises as to if or when it'll upgrade the phone to this fall's upcoming Android "L" release. Given how significant of an upgrade that release is expected to be and how poor of a track record LG has when it comes to upgrade delivery, that's certainly something to keep in mind.

The LG G3's software is an improvement from the past, but it still packs too many overlapping elements into the device.

Visually speaking, the G3's software is a definite improvement from what LG has created in the past, with a flatter and more subdued design. It's more palatable than Samsung's take on Android but significantly less user-friendly than Google's stock configuration or HTC's Sense UI.

The real problem with the G3's software is that LG just tries to do way too much. Features and options are great when they exist for a reason. But there's a limit -- when you pack too many overlapping and unnecessary elements into a device, it starts to hurt the user experience (not to mention the system's performance, as I alluded to earlier).

Case in point: The G3 has three -- yes, three -- built-in methods of multitasking: You can press the on-screen Recent Apps key to jump to any recently opened app (and within that screen, you can choose from three different methods of viewing the icons); you can use LG's Dual Window mode to open a limited selection of apps in split windows on the screen; or you can use LG's QSlide feature to open a limited selection of apps in movable windows on top of other content.

The phone's notification panel, meanwhile, is cluttered up with half a screen's worth of links, sliders and settings -- including two near-identical wrench icons that take you to different places.

And instead of just opening Android's excellent Google Now intelligent assistant, as it does on most phones, swiping up from the G3's Home button presents you with three choices: Voice Mate, an embarrassingly inferior replica of Android's native Voice Search functionality (which is also present on the device); QuickMemo+ (a note-taking app); and Google Now.

Instead of just offering Google Now, the LG G3 gives you three "swipe-up" choices.

LG is even trying to create its own version of Google Now with something it calls Smart Notice. The system promises to act as a personal assistant and deliver contextual cards to your home screen. In my time with the phone, it's provided tips about using the phone, info about the day's weather and notices about missed calls. LG says it can also provide info like birthday notifications and memo reminders. Why anyone would need that when the vastly superior Google Now is also on the system is beyond me.

All in all, it's just a bloated and overwhelming mess. The good news is that if you're reasonably tech-savvy and willing to take the time to dig through the phone's labyrinth of options, you can disable enough of the redundant elements and bad design decisions to make the phone pleasant to use. But the vast majority of consumers aren't going to do that -- and out of the box, the G3's software just doesn't provide a great user experience.

To its credit, LG has added a few legitimately useful touches to the OS. Like on past LG devices, you can double-tap the screen to turn it on or off (and unlike on past devices, that gesture now works consistently well). The G3 also has a new security option called Knock Code, which is a specific pattern you can set and then input anywhere on the display while the screen is off to unlock the device.

Another handy shortcut is the ability to long-press the phone's volume-down button to quickly launch the camera or -- slightly less useful -- to long-press the volume-up button to launch LG's note-taking app. (You can disable those shortcuts if you want but can't remap them to other apps.)

At a Glance

LG G3

LGPrice: $200 with a two-year contract from AT&T, $200 with a two-year contract from Sprint, $598.80 with a two-year payment plan of $24.95 a month from T-Mobile or $100 with a two-year contract from VerizonPros: Spacious, outstanding display; sleek and attractive design; comfortable to hold; decent battery life; removable battery; expandable storage; some useful features like tap-to-wake and guest modeCons: Large compared to other phones in its class; imperfect performance; no native wireless charging; inconsistent camera quality; convoluted software; unclear upgrade path to upcoming Android "L" release

The G3 also has a limited-use guest mode in which you can create a separate environment where only certain apps (and no settings) can be accessed. It's a bit confusing to configure, but I can envision several circumstances where it'd be quite useful -- like for a mom who wants to let kids play specific games on her phone without being able to get on the Internet or mess anything up.

Beyond that, there's a plethora of gestures, options and settings baked into the G3 that you'll probably never use. And the carriers have really larded the phone up with bloatware of their own, too: I counted nine added apps on the T-Mobile model and a ridiculous 22 items on Sprint's device. Some of them can be easily uninstalled while others cannot.

Bottom line

The G3 boasts no shortage of compelling qualities. The device has a big, beautiful display in a sleek and nicely designed body. It has decent battery life, expandable storage and some genuinely useful features like a tap-to-wake option and limited-use guest mode.

At the same time, however, the phone's software is bloated and convoluted -- and while you can hide or disable many of the UI-related sins, the out-of-the-box experience leaves something to be desired. Equally important, that overly ambitious foundation is likely to blame for choppy performance throughout the system.

The G3's camera quality is also hit and miss, and LG's history with upgrades doesn't inspire confidence when it comes to the phone's odds of getting the upcoming Android "L" release in a timely manner. With other manufacturers now making speedy ongoing upgrades a priority, future support is something important to consider.

No device is perfect, though -- and if you can deal with its downsides, the G3 is a really good phone with a lot to offer. Maybe by the time the G4 rolls around, we'll see the really great phone LG is so close to creating.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+ or Twitter.

This article, LG G3 deep-dive review: A phone with great specs, but real-world issues, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

Join the Computerworld newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags consumer electronicsat&tsmartphonesAndroid

More about GalaxyGoogleHTCISOLGMotorolaNFCSamsungSmartSprintT-MobileT-MobileTopicVerizonVerizon

CIO
ARN
Techworld
CMO