LG G3 Review: Ambitiously Regressive


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Ever since the Nexus 4, LG has been consistently upping its flagship game. The company’s first decent flagship device, Optimus G, was the start of a wonderful intra-company relationship in which LG started pulling resources from within its own divisions, like the one for display, the one focused on Chemistry for battery technology, etc. It then culminated into the G2, which was, in fact, as popular as the Nexus 4 at some point, known for its edge to edge design, good camera, screen and great battery life. The G3 is the LG’s ambitious successor, which fixes the few complaints the G2 had related to storage expansion and a removable battery, and adds interesting new technologies to differentiate itself. LG boasts itself as one of the firsts in the industry to have a quad HD display on a smartphone and also touts the new laser autofocus system that can be reliable, even in low light. Armed with all these features, can the LG G3 take on the Galaxies and the iPhones of this world? More importantly, is a Quad HD display really necessary? Lets find out in our full in-depth review.

LG G3 prices announced for India – 16 GB – Rs 47,990 – 32 GB – Rs. 50,990

Unboxing

We had unboxed the UK global variant of the LG G3 in champagne gold, sometime back, and this is what the box contents are like –

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Design, Build and Ergonomics

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LG had a lot of new things going for the G2, like the new design decision of keeping the buttons on the back which thereby realized tighter bezel spaces that created a unique look for the G2. The G3 is an evolution of that design, but this time, LG does it right, with a setup that fixes two major complaints of G2 – removable battery and expandable storage. So the body is two-part this time, but with exceptional quality in fit and finish. The back-facing buttons also have been retained, or rather retouched with different materials, promising improved usability.

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LG has decided to show off on the front too this time, with a circular metal texture below the display. We have the black variant with us, as the review unit, while we had unboxed the champagne gold variant. I personally like the darker colour scheme better, so preference is the one in the photo above, but the white also looks fine.

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Coming to build quality, the phone, although fully made of plastics, maintains a level of density and texture so it doesn’t look tacky or cheap. The plastic has a fake brushed metal texture though, which actually suits the darker variant more than the champagne gold one. The back cover, removable this time, is sturdy and very well made, with a smooth curvy finish that makes it easier to hold in a single hand, but is also very slightly slippery. It’s not a deal breaker and you wouldn’t even want a case on this, as the plastic, unlike on the G2, is a blend of gloss and matte and doesn’t get scratched easily. Overall, we are really impressed by the solid build quality, which is a step above what we had seen on the G2, despite the G3 having a removable back cover.

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On the ergonomics side, LG is still following the zero bezel approach in making its flagship most efficient when it comes to volume. At 8.9mm, the device is not the thinnest in the world, but with a curved back, the edges, without buttons as obstacles, end up adding to a better overall experience. Thanks to a plastic body, the weight is also perfect, which at 149g feels lighter than usual due to good weight distribution. Oh, and if you are wondering about the size, this could be the easiest 5.5″ device that you will ever handle. It’s not as tall as the other 5.5″ devices, and actually shorter than the 5.2″ Sony Xperia Z2, which, at 146.8mm is actually 0.5mm taller than the G3. The larger dimensions, in comparison to the G2, actually works in my favour, as the back buttons seem easier to access without having to stretch or bend the fingers too much. Even the back buttons have gotten a new material treatment that makes it less clickier and easier to find thanks to the rough texture for the volume rockers. LG have overall done a great job in making the device easier to use, which is a commendable thing for a 5.5″ device. Let us walk you through the hardware now.

Hardware Walkthrough

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The G3 is completely covered in glass at the front, with the 5.5″ display underneath. Above it sits the earpiece along with the 2.1 MP front facing camera, the usual couple of sensors and the multi colour notification LED. This setup is very similar to what we had seen on the G2, and the notification LED is configurable from the settings, which lets you set specific colours and of course, even turn it off if needed.

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Below the display is just the LG logo, as shortcuts are rendered on screen.

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Moving to the top, we have an IR LED that will let you control a TV along with a secondary microphone that will eventually be used for stereo audio recording in video.

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Over at the bottom is the micro USB port, the 3.5mm audio jack and the primary microphone.

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The back is where most things are, starting with the 13 megapixel camera, flanked by the laser AF unit on its right and a dual tone LED flash on its left. Right below is the hardware button setup that LG introduced with the G2 but this time, the materials and the design have changed for the better, for a much more pleasant experience of operating them.

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Down at the bottom of the back is the new 1W speaker that has excellent output. More on that later.

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The removable back cover reveals the battery and the stacked micro SD and SIM card slots. Lets focus on the hardware highlights now.

Quad HD Display

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A lot has been discussed about the Quad HD resolution that is currently pursued by the industry as cutting edge in the long running Retina display rat race. While the jump from 720p to 1080p was substantial, the same cannot be said for Quad HD. The LG G3 comes with one, a 5.5″ IPS LCD panel made by themselves, with a resolution of 2560×1440, a 4x increase in pixels from 720p, mandating a super high pixel density of 534 ppi. This makes the display look extremely sharp, but that’s not the only thing that the screen is good at. Unlike the other Quad HD flagship we recently reviewed, it has good white balance, sporting slightly warmer whites, great colour reproduction and viewing angles, which might not be as good as, say an AMOLED screen, but still good enough for a LCD.

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Now, about this resolution again. While Quad HD is immediately noticeable, especially on the G3’s display, we still feel it’s not substantial enough as an upgrade, but it doesn’t stop there. To accommodate this new display in its flagship, LG seems to have made some compromises. One is aggressive brightness control. It’s not as bright as it should be, outside, and most of the times, even indoors, the auto brightness mode hunts for opportunities to turn the display brightness down. We noticed this happen often, mainly when moving away from a light source and then back into it. Two, the over sharpening. LG also seems to employ some weird post processing on its display in an effort to sharpen content like text, which unfortunately shows through because of a ghosting effect, like adding outer glow in Photoshop. This creeps up every time text is involved and makes for a really weird viewing experience. However, the display is tailored to boost its automatic brightness when watching movies, which makes watching videos a better experience than others. We had also noted that the display, when on for a long time starts to sip battery and generate heat, which is very noticeable when inside the camera or while playing games. We will talk about other implications later, but Quad HD definitely feels like a step back, so far.

Camera(s)

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Unlike Samsung, LG has not sought to upgrade its camera module, but has indeed added a few new features to differentiate the flagship from its predecessor. Yes, it has the same Sony made 13 megapixel stacked CMOS sensor as the G2, complete with dedicated ISPs for fast image processing. The f2.4 aperture is not class leading or even fast, by today’s smartphone standards, but seems to be clear at the least, helping in taking sharp pictures. Coupled with OIS+, the new laser autofocus module and the dual tone flash, LG takes the successful combination from the G2, one step ahead. Our in-depth camera review –

The interface is very simple when it comes to selecting modes and taking creative control of your photos. We couldn’t see any power user controls though, like for example, there were no options to control the ISO or any aspect of exposure, but it was good to see the minimalism in effect. A touch of the contextual menu button hides/reveals the utility tray and the shutter buttons, making it easier to just point and shoot pictures when needed. Might be too simple for some, we agree, and LG possibly needs to release a separate app for pro camera control, which we missed on the G3 to be honest.

Coming to camera performance, it is better to judge using the full resolution camera samples below.

Daylight

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One of the really good things about the default setup on the camera is that you can even set the HDR to “Auto” meaning the camera will decide when to turn the mode on and when not to. This makes for interesting results generally, with it turned on for most of the daylight pictures. We let it on Auto while we were shooting and came away impressed with what the photos looked like. The HDR is not too aggressive, nor it is too slow, as it roughly takes the same time as a normal shot. Sure the processing time is a wee bit higher, but you wouldn’t notice, generally. In the end, just like the G2, the G3 impresses in good daylight, primarily in terms of details. The lens is sharp and the algorithms are forgiving when it comes to accurate representation of detail and colour, a job well done by LG.

HDR on/off

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You can clearly see the difference and the HDR mode in action here.

Macro

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Most of the times, when it comes to Macro pictures, all that matters is focus. When you point at an object up close, it needs to focus and focus fast. Here’s where the Laser AF system helps, a lot. While LG’s marketing would want you to think of “lasers” when you see that black module on the back, it is more of a sophisticated IR rangefinder. Infrared beams go out and are reflected back, to provide distance data that’s used for autofocus, even in low light, as IR can see in the dark. You can see the Dual tone flash in action in the last one, as it manages to keep the colours as real as possible.

Low light

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Coming to low light, the results from the G3 are a mixed bag. Thanks to OIS+, all the photos are sharp, without shake and thanks to laser autofocus, you’d never lose focus in low light. This was apparent when we dabbled with a frame where the only source of light was from a LCD monitor. The autofocus still was as fast as it is, in any other favorable lighting condition. To the naked eye, the laser autofocus module looks like it throws a red beam out which does all the magic required. It’s sad that the marketing team had to call it “laser” autofocus though, as it is not that at all.

Video

Moving on to video, the G3 is capable of shooting 4K Ultra HD footage with a decent bit rate and 30 fps frame rate. Optical Image stabilization was initially introduced with G2, but LG took it one step ahead with the G Pro 2 where they introduced OIS+. As far as we know, this is just a combination of the same OIS hardware from the G2 and the EIS software based stabilization, both working in tandem to produce better results. We recorded a 4K video to show you how the performance is like –

There are a few important things to note here. First, the OIS+ seems obviously better. Second, the focus hunting issues from the G2 are gone, thankfully. The audio, recorded in glorious quality, is top end. Last time we listened to audio this good was from a Nokia Lumia PureView device. A good test would be from a concert, but considering that as a rare occurrence, the audio quality by default, for normal conditions is way better than the usual. Other video modes include 720p 120 fps slow motion, which doesn’t turn out that great due to weird banding, like how interlaced videos are.

The 2.1 MP front facing camera is quite good for selfies, but as with many other phones, there exists a beautification mode by default, which tries to enhance skin colour and makes you looks like a wax model. It should be good for video calling too, which is the next important use case, and hey, it can record videos in full HD if needed.

Internals and Performance

LG G3 Benchmarks

Much like any other flagship device out this year, the LG G3 too, is powered by the Snapdragon 801 MSM8974AC chip. The Quad Core Krait CPU is clocked at 2.5 GHz, with the Adreno 330 GPU lending support for graphics. There are two variants of the LG G3, one with a combination of 2GB RAM|16 GB internal storage and one with 3GB RAM|32 GB internal storage. Our review unit is the 16 GB variant so the amount of RAM available to the system is 2 GB, which makes things interesting on the performance side.

On a fresh boot, everything seems fine, with about 700 MB of free RAM and the launcher behaving smoothly. But when you load up even just two or three apps, you are mostly left with 400 MB of free RAM, which chokes things up if you go ahead and open more apps that run in the background. At one point, we saw the launcher reloading the wallpaper when we returned to the home screen. Sometimes it was a short notice “loading” screen and sometimes it was delayed app resuming times. It was clear that the RAM wasn’t enough and the GPU wasn’t coping with the huge framebuffer required for driving a Quad HD screen. This performance tax is a compromise we have to make, for the screen.

To test this further, we ran synthetic benchmarks to see how it fared, in comparison to other flagships. Here are a couple of benchmarks that indicate the kind of performance you can expect, relatively.

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LG G3 GFXBench 2.7 T-Rex OnScreen

Surprisingly, in CPU heavy tests like Linpack, the G3 falls behind its flagship counterparts, which might be the evidence of throttling from LG’s side. The gurus at AnandTech note that LG has gone for a throttling mechanism to control heat dissipation and bring the overall levels down, mainly due to the display. Another impact because of the display resolution is seen in GPU on screen tests, where the Find 7 and the G3 share similar characteristics. If LG had known that the Adreno 330 is not absolutely ready for driving a Quad HD display, at least not on par with the Snap 800 1080p levels, we are not sure why they went through with the decision to use it. It looks like we have to wait for the next generation GPUs to tackle this problem, but it then begs the question “is it really necessary?”.

On the gaming side things are sharper and better. The synthetic benchmarks might have pointed at poorer performance but since most of the games run at 1080p, the difference is non existent, meaning smooth and fast. We tried out some heavy games and found the performance to be consistently good, with the graphics always running at maximum potential. After a while it does heat up a little, and of course, there is battery drain too, but not much of a deal breaker, we’d say.

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Coming to internal storage, the variant we have, as already mentioned, is 16 GB. But of course, listening to feedback, the company has made space for a micro SD card slot this time, which can expand your storage when needed. There’s about 11 GB of free space available to the user, which should be good enough for all the apps and games, while the media junkies will love the micro SD addition. Connectivity wise, LG has got you covered with all the LTE bands, including the TD-LTE ones that Airtel currently supports in our country. Other options include HDMI Slimport support (the MHL competitor), NFC, GLONASS and all the other usual suspects including FM Radio.

Music and Loudspeaker

LG has been bundling Quad Beat earphones with its flagships for a long time now, but the company never really brought in important hardware changes to take audio to the next level, which some companies had consciously done. Times are a changing, because the G3 comes with a 1W amplifier-boosted loudspeaker that ups the game significantly. It can easily deliver sounds in most frequencies that matter, including the low level bass frequencies that never come through on usual ones. We tested out several songs and have come to a conclusion that, except for the placement, the loudspeaker is top notch, and with appropriate tweaking (yes, you can have custom equalizers affecting the loudspeaker directly) it sounds as good as the One M8, which is certainly high praise. On the earphones side, we would say the Quad Beat ones can do a lot better, as we found ourselves using our own custom ones for music playback. Equalizer presets for “Pure Surround” and “Quad Beat” actually make a difference though, so it’s not all bad, but the expectations set by the loudspeakers were high, we’ll admit.

Software

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Google recently unveiled Android L at the IO developer conference in San Francisco. One of the major announcements this year was “Material Design” but it seems like LG already knew about the new design language, as it shows in their UI. Running Android 4.4.2 underneath, LG is using its own custom skin, on the LG G3. The newly designed UI has gone flat, with nicely styled icons, and a lot of inspiration from Material Design principles. All the default apps have received the new UI treatment, with tabbed lists, slide out menus from the left and a clean look for the most part. LG’s UI used to have a weird font and a colour scheme, so that gets a refresh too this time.

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Design aside, LG’s UI is also known to be feature rich and, sometimes, grandiose. The lock screen animations are, although flashy, a nice way to interact with the first screen you encounter on the phone. But even that falls under the aesthetics department. Features like Knock Code, a cool extension of the double tap to wake functionality, is really cool. You just need to setup a pre-performed gesture that has several taps, with a minimum limit of two. There are four quadrants in which you can tap a sequence and then use it while the screen is off, for unlocking the phone directly to the main screen. This is highly useful, and of course there is a back up solution through PINs if you tend to forget the knock code. Other interesting features are one handed control, complete customizability of the on screen navigation buttons (you can have upto 5, in different themes), Dual Window multitasking and Q Slide apps, which are just mini apps floating on the screen.

The UI also has some gesture-based features using the proximity sensor and the front facing camera. It can let you answer incoming calls directly by placing it on your ear, flip to silence, pause video while you are looking away and so on. But one of the best features, of all, would be the default keyboard. LG’s keyboard is fast, accurate and is easily one of the best typing experiences I have had on a phone. It has never corrected me at the wrong time and I always feel so confident to type on it. The G Flex had the same, and we had thought it was good because of the screen, but that is not the case. The keyboard is versatile too, with options for expanding or reducing its height, so that you can have it the way you want it and the keyboard also learns over time, like Swiftkey. Personally, I’d rate the LG keyboard as one of the best in the smartphone industry, yes, it’s that good.

As mentioned earlier, the default apps have all gone for the new look, with tabbed interfaces, flat icons, drop shadows, cards and more. The music player, the gallery, the video player all handle their respective media tasks well, but I found myself noticing the lag in the Gallery app specifically. This might be, again, due to the Quad HD stress on the GPU, which we had noticed even with the laggy dialer app. It’s frustrating to consistently wonder if the Quad HD may be roadblock to an otherwise great experience, and that pretty much sums up what we think of the software on the LG G3.

Battery Life

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Battery life has been a strong suit of LG, especially since G2. The predecessor had one of the best battery life performances amidst all the last year flagships and G Flex had taken it to a whole new level, but the G3 falls short of expectations. With a removable 3000 mAH battery, the trade off might be worth it, but from what we have seen with regular medium-heavy use, the G3 doesn’t quite match up to the G2. The fingers point to Quad HD display again, as it proves to be a battery drain when kept on for a long time. Even the CPU throttling and aggressive brightness control doesn’t help in stopping the drain that happens when you keep the screen on for a longer time. Forget watching movies and long form videos if you are looking for the phone to last a whole day without charging.

We got around 22 hours of usage out of a single charge, on heavy usage over WiFi, with Whatsapp, Twitter, music on loudspeakers and casual gaming taking most of the time. The display was on for more than 3.5 hours and we had 8% battery left at the end. When using it on 3G, the battery life stats take a hit by 4-5 hours. Overall, this is not the same performance we had seen on the G2, but still is good enough for a flagship. There are no extreme power saving measures like the ones on the Galaxy S5 or the One M8, but there are features that will extend the battery life further. Overall, the battery life is not too bad, but knowing that it falls short of expectations at the expense of the Quad HD addition is disheartening.

Conclusion

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It all comes down to this – Quad HD display. Was it really necessary for LG to go down this route? Lets be honest here. LG makes great displays, be it TVs or phones, and we have always liked them, even on the yesteryear Optimus G where certain things were set in motion. LG rode that wave for a nice long time with successes in the Nexus 4, G2 and even the Nexus 5. When it comes to G3, we feel the Korean giant might have been slightly over ambitious, trying to 1up the competitors with, what is considered by the industry, as cutting edge, but without proper use cases.

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Make no mistake, it’s a great device. The display is still very good, despite its short comings in heat dissipation and the amount of pixels stressing the GPU, the camera is very decent, with neat tricks in autofocus and image stabilization. LG have finally nailed the build quality and design, to utter perfection, but performance? Not so great. Battery life? Falls short of expectations, and all fingers point to the reason being LG’s decision to use a Quad HD display. If the G3 had a 5.5″ 1080p display instead, it would still be a really good flagship as the jump in pixel density serves no purpose other than a minor advantage of super-detailed icons, up close. At Rs, 47,990 for the 16 GB version, it’s already gunning for the crème de la crème of smartphone buyers, who might be satisfied with what LG’s offering but the experience won’t be the best of the best and LG needs to fix that, if they want to take on the rapidly innovating competition. To summarize better, here is a list of pros and cons of this device –

Pros

  • Great design and build quality, despite the use of plastics
  • The most usable 5.5″ device
  • Loudspeaker performance is brilliant for listening to music
  • Better camera performance with help from Laser AF and OIS+
  • A good shift in design for software, LG keyboard is the best

Cons

  • Display is noticeably better but comes with a lot of implications
  • 2 GB RAM variant might not be enough, go for the 32 GB/3 GB one, limited free RAM might be due to Quad HD resolution
  • Performance takes a beating, apps take time to load
  • Battery life falls short of expectations, display drains it fast

P.S: Check out the launch offers in the announcement post for the Indian market.


Author: Bharadwaj Chandramouli

Bharadwaj is a content creator who has been obsessed with technology since the early days of smartphones. He loves talking about tech, is a fan of good design and photography. You can follow him on Twitter @gadgetbuff_ to know what he's upto!