LG G3 Review: Pop-eye

Overview

It is no secret that while LG is a massive family-owned conglomerate, it is widely viewed as the lesser of the two South Korean giants compared to Samsung. LG only really made their mark last year in October with the G2, and now they have launched the G3 in quick succession. The G3 is a stellar device, sporting a 1440p display spread over a mammoth 5.5 inches, but as it turns out, the enhanced display ends up being its Achilles’ heel instead.

 Pros:

  • 5.5 inch body in a (relatively) impossibly small body
  • 1440p (2K) resolution display
  • Nearly non-existent bezels improve looks immensely
  • KnockCODE is convenient and highly secure
  • Removable battery
  • Double-flash results in highly accurate skin tones at night

Cons:

  • Abysmal battery life due to high powered display
  • Display has extremely poor contrast
  • Brightness often limited to 90% in warm weather due to temperature issues
  • Camera’s noise reduction algorithm is too aggressive at night
  • 720p 120 FPS video is laughably bad

Introduction

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The LG G3 is the last in the crop of Q2 flagships for 2014, launching so late, in fact that it is technically an early-Q3 2014 release. Comparatively, Samsung, HTC and Sony have captured huge chunks of the market by releasing their next flagships a month earlier. Still, the G3 has a trump card over all of them – a 1440p (2K) resolution display, the first from the Big Four of the smartphone industry. Or so one would think.

The G3 looks to add on to a highly successful recipe that debuted with the G2 – pricing it a full S$100 less than competitor flagships (the figure is nearly S$200 compared to the Galaxy S5). That said, let’s have a look at the specs sheet first.

  LG G3
Display 5.5”, 1440p (2K) IPS LCD display
Camera 13 MP, Optical Image Stabilisation+, Laser Autofocus, Dual LED Flash, 1/3 inch sensor
Video Recording 2160p/4K
Processor 2.5 GHz Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
GPU Adreno 330
RAM 2/3 GB (with respect to storage)
Storage 16/32 GB, micro-SD expandable
Battery 3000 mAh, removable battery
Other Rear buttons, IR Blaster, NFC, LTE

So, on paper it is a definite behemoth. It does lack waterproofing ability like the Galaxy S5 and Xperia Z2, but looking at those two devices, it’s plain to see the bezels would have to increase in size greatly to accommodate the waterproofing feature.

LG G2 owners will probably not feel the need to upgrade – their chipset is only marginally slower, and their 1080p display actually outperforms the G3’s 1440p panel in everything but the pixel race.

Well then, enough with the basics, let’s get in deep.

Unboxing, Design and Build Quality

Opening the box you are greeted with the G3 looking extremely snug, and below are the earphones, the charging socket, micro-USB to USB cable and a Quick Start Guide. Compared to the Xperia Z2’s huge box, it’s nice to see the G3 being so compact.

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The LG G3 (left ) and its predecessor, the LG G2

Moving on to the design of the G3, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the device is made of metal. Even when holding it in your hand, a cursory brush of the back plate does not reveal that the device is actually encased in plastic. It looks fantastic, is removable and supports wireless Qi charging, all of which are large plus points for the G3. It also has an IR blaster at the top.

The LG G3 (left) and G2 (right)
The LG G3 (left) and G2 (right)

The Xperia Z2, HTC One (M8) and iPhone 5s are primarily made out of aluminium, but all three lack a removable back plate for battery access as well as wireless Qi charging.

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The gentle curves at the top and bottom of the device also wrap around the back, giving it a soft appearance which is more appealing than Sony’s hard edges to many consumers. The best part about the device though, are its practically non-existent bezels, which hugely improve looks and immersion when gaming or watching videos. One issue I did have with the design was that the notification LED was way too small and dim, making it hard to notice in the day and especially at angles.

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With the G3, LG continues with their trend of having the power and volume buttons at the back of their devices, which debuted with the G2. Long-pressing the volume up button (even when locked) launches QuickMemo and long-pressing volume down launches the camera. LG has also designed the G3 with a raised lip around the front of the device, so if you do happen to drop it on a largely flat surface, your screen will be somewhat protected.

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The back of the LG G3 (left) and G2 (right)

In the design department then, LG has surpassed the G2 by leaps and bounds. Gone is the non-removable, glossy rear panel, and in is the matte metallic, and removable back plate. Compared to the HTC One (M8), I would actually prefer the G3 thanks to its tiny bezels, but that’s just in terms of the looks.

Handling

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For a device with a 5.5 inch display, you would naturally expect the G3 to be a behemoth. Well, that’s hardly the case. With a chassis measuring  146.3 x 74.6 x 8.9 mm, it is wider and thicker than the Sony Xperia Z2, but it is a hair shorter by 0.5mm.

This does create some issues, as it is a difficult task to continuously operate the G3 one-handed. Often times when required to tap the far corners of the display, you simply have to use two hands to support your gestures. However, it has a gently curving back which allows it so fit somewhat easily into your palm.

The biggest concern many might have about the G3 will be about the continuation of rear power and volume buttons. Fear not, for these buttons are extremely easy to press (you don’t even need to use the power key thanks to KnockCode). Unlike the G2 where the power button was stiff and protruded out significantly, the G3 use one which has a concentric-rings texture, is easy to press, and is more recessed. The power keys are also easy to hit, but they are stiff enough to prevent unwanted volume variations. The departure from the standard placement of the volume and power buttons is not as unbearable as one might fear, and one does get used to them.

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In short, the only prohibiting factor for the G3 is its sheer width which makes one-handed operation extremely difficult. Its screen size also puts it nearly into phablet category – only its superbly minimised bezels allow for its size to come down to other flagship smartphones.

Display

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The display of the LG G3 is at an unprecedented resolution from the big four of the smartphone industry. One of the first to feature a 2K resolution display, LG has not let a single moment pass without proclaiming that the G3’s 1440p display is its crown jewel. On paper, it certainly seems so and I was excited to try it out for myself. However, under use, it falls well short of the panel featured in the LG G2, as well as Samsung’s offering with the S5 AMOLED display.

The display of the G3 (left) isn't nearly as good as that of the G2 (right)
The display of the G3 (left) isn’t nearly as good as that of the G2 (right)

While LG has continued with the IPS display in the G3, it fails to match its IPS and SLCD rivals in black luminance and contrast levels and is a huge disappointment.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
LG G3 0.14 109 763 0.72 570 789
Sony Xperia Z2 0.41 488 1195
Sony Xperia Z1 0.38 580 1513
Sony Xperia Z 0.70 492 705
Oppo Find 7a 0.33 280 842 0.68 580 852
Samsung Galaxy S5 0 274 0 529
Samsung Galaxy S4 0 201 0 404
HTC One (M8) 0.20 245 1219 0.46 577 1256
LG G2 0.10 149 1522 0.45 667 1495
HTC Butterfly S 0.15 165 1117 0.43 451 1044
Apple iPhone 5 0.13 200 1490 0.48 640 1320

While colour reproduction is largely accurate, one struggles to canonise the G3 as having a more superior display than the iPhone or HTC One (M8). Even under sunlight it does not fare well, falling far behind the Samsung and Nokia devices. The IPS panel used here results in a wide viewing angle of 178 degrees, but even the brilliance of IPS cannot save the poor contrast and black luminance of the G3.

Sunlight

While the G3’s low contrast and ridiculously high black luminance levels will not be immediately obvious to many, the power draw by the 1440p display overloaded with pixels is a much larger issue. While the LG G2 flew past all battery tests, laughing at their attempts to drain it, the G3 capitulates easily with extremely low screen-on durations.

Being unable to obtain 100% brightness under the sun is frustrating
Being unable to obtain 100% brightness under the sun is frustrating

The G3 also often refused to output 100% brightness, limiting itself at 90% thanks to rising temperatures which definitely did not help sunlight legibility. With a climate such as Singapore where sweltering weather is the norm, this does not bode well for daily usage outside.

Even though LG crows about the supposed superiority about the G3, I can only hazard a guess as to the reason for the sudden crash in display quality. It is entirely possible that in their rush to keep current with Sony, Samsung and HTC launching their flagships, they asked too much from their display department and ended up with a half-polished product. This is, after all, but new technology, and that is often the hardest to perfect.

A note of importance is that the G3’s less than stellar display should not be taken as the standard quality of all LG’s smartphone displays, and I firmly believe that the G4 will remedy the issues seen here.

User Interface, Apps and Audio

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LG’s new UI (right) compared to the old one (left) | PHOTO: Digital Trends

The LG G3 comes out of the box with Android 4.4 KitKat, but your mind will hardly wander to the version of Android, for the LG Optimus UI has been completely overhauled. And it looks absolutely fantastic.

Behaving and looking very nearly akin to stock Android, the Optimus UI is a joy to use. Aside from the usual PIN, password, face and pattern locks you have for the majority of Android devices, the G3 offers you an absolutely genius security system in the form of KnockCode which debuted earlier this year with the LG G Pro 2.

It allows for you to unlock the device by tapping in four quadrants of the device even while the display is switched off, eliminating the need for a double tap or pressing the power button. While it worked wonderfully most of the time, there were some frustrating instances where I failed to tap in the accurate quadrant.

The G3’s lock screen also features a weather effect that displays the weather with stunning effects. Rain appears as droplets rolling down the screen, while a thunderstorm is depicted by a storm cloud with lightning flashing all around.

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When playing music, the lockscreen switches to display the album art in the background, with the back, pause/play and forward buttons appearing as well.

With the G3, you get 7 standard home screens as well as an optional Smart Bulletin which can be toggled on and off from the settings menu. When active, it appears at the left-most screen and is fixed there. Similar to Samsung’s Flipboard and HTC’s Blinkfeed, its key difference is that it is geared only towards fitness and Smart Tips regarding the use of the phone.

LG has also included Smart Notice as a widget that brings you weather details, advice pertaining to the weather, as well as the standard date and time. It also informs you when your fitness goals are met.

You can also select two kinds of home launchers – one which displays the standard home screen, and “Easy Home” which is geared towards senior citizens who like their experienced simplified and easy to read.

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Unlike stock Android, you don’t have to deal with two tabs for notifications and quick toggles – all of them appear in one place together with brightness and volume sliders. While it is nice to see this, it would have been a better choice to have them removable as well (not that you’ll miss the real estate with 5.5 inches worth of display).

The app drawer smartly separates apps and widgets, and placing them on the homescreen involves a simple drag-and-drop operation. You can arrange the apps in alphabetical, downloaded date or a custom order.

Curiously, LG has eschewed the stock task switcher for something that looks like an amalgamation of the HTC and stock interface. Apps are always displayed in their portrait orientation, but you can choose to display 2, 4 or 9 of them at once.

The G3 also has 11 dual window apps available which split the screen in two in order to run two apps stacked on top of each other. It is much easier to do so on the G3 than the Xperia Z2 or Galaxy S5 thanks to the large 5.5 inch screen.

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LG also has overhauled their keyboard, which now offers various customisability options, as well as a variable height. As well as the customisation was, the keyboard did act up weirdly sometimes, such as the autocorrect insisting that I meant to type “too” instead of the numbers “499”.

With the new Optimus UI, the three navigation keys’ colours can be customised when not at the homescreen. Similar to the G2 and G Pro 2, you can also switch the positions of the task switcher and back buttons and can also add a QSlide and Dual Window button.

Swiping up from the home soft key gives you the option to launch Voice Mate, Google Now or QuickMemo+. Voice Mate is LG’s own personal assistant, but it severely lacks functionality in the face of Google Now’s “Ok Google” command. It could not tell me the square root of 4, nor could it tell me Michael Jackson’s date of birth (both of which Google Now pulls off flawlessly).

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What I really liked about the Quick Remote app paired with the IR blaster was that it recognised all my living room appliances without me having to “teach” the phone the remote – hardly an easy task when the remote is broken. It recognised my 14 year old Sony TV, Mio set-top box, Sony HiFi system and Philips DVD Recorder.

LG has also included an automatic collage maker in their Gallery app, which is a boon for the younger generation. Creating collages is extremely easy, and simply involves the selection of images followed by the selection of orientation.

All in all, the G3 has a fantastic UI, and in my opinion, the best of any OEM. However, there were many moments when the device experienced severe lag and froze up, however that should take just a simple firmware fix.

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LG has equipped the G3 with a 1-watt rear speaker and a Boost Amp that pumped out loud, though underwhelming audio. Bass in “Boom Boom Pow” from Black Eyed Peas failed to impact and higher notes fell flat. It was also easily muffled when placing the device face up, and issue which only the Galaxy S5 had.

Battery Life

When the LG G3 was announced, many (including myself) expressed concerns about the power draw the 2K resolution display would have in the G3, especially considering the number of pixels is 178% of that compared to the G2 and screen size has increased by 0.3 inches too. The concerns grew more vehement when it was revealed that battery capacity remained constant at 3000 mAh. Unfortunately, all of it shows.

We unleashed our daily usage test on the G3, and it finished with a dismal showing. We used the device in the following situations:

  • 1 hour LTE web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi YouTube video streaming (720p)
  • 30 minutes gaming (Asphalt 8)
  • 2 hour 1080p movie
  • Standby idling under Battery Saver mode

Battery Life

It could only stay alive for 17 hours and 10 minutes, with a pathetic screen-on time of 3 hours and 5 minutes – which meant it had an even worse showing than the 2600 mAh HTC One (M8).

Unfortunately for a power user like me, it is imperative to either have a spare battery in my pocket or carry the charger around everywhere. Both are not ideal – the spare battery costs approximately S$60 while the charger is simply an inconvenience. One benefit is that the charger takes just slightly over an hour to charge the G3 from 0 to 100%, but at the end of the day I’d prefer a battery able to last me upwards of 30 hours even if it has to be non-removable.

Performance and Benchmarks

The heart of the G3 features Qualcomm’s latest and greatest – the 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801. An incremental clock-speed and power saving upgrade from the S800 found in the G2, it performed extremely well in the other three Q2 2014 flagships. Together with the 1440p display though, real world gaming does take a hit as I saw when Asphalt 8 had multiple moments of stutter. In synthetic benchmarks, though, it did fall short of expectations.

AnTuTu

In AnTuTu, a highly comprehensive benchmark, the G3 scored 33942, a respectable score on the tail of the Xperia Z2 but it was some way off the HTC One (M8) and Samsung Galaxy S5.

BrowserMark

The G3’s worst performance was with BrowserMark, scoring a dismal 1233, far behind flagships from as far back as late-2012.

Vellamo

In Vellamo, it scored a decent 1706 continuing the puzzling trend of 2014 flagships falling behind their late-2013 counterparts. Its showing was far from bad in between the 2014 ones, however, placing ahead of the S5 and Z2.

In real-world usage, while the device ran like clockwork most of the time, there were some moments where menu and input lag was ridiculously high and caused the device to freeze up for a few seconds. The blame seems to lie with the 1440p display being too powerful for the G3, but that is still speculation.

Camera Interface

LG’s camera interface remains largely similar, however they did introduce a much faster method for photography by simply tapping the area you wish to focus on, and it would capture an image after it had focused without further input. While this worked in the day thanks to the laser autofocus, it was much more difficult at night, and it was much better to switch to the standard method for mobile photography.

There are a surprisingly low number of modes available, namely, Auto, Panorama, Magic Focus and Dual. You can choose to shoot images in 3, 9, 10 and 13 MP and videos in 720p 60 FPS, 720p 120 FPS, 1080p 30 FPS and 2160p (4K) at 30 FPS.

Camera Performance

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With the G3, LG has included dual-LED flash first seen in the iPhone 5s and a laser autofocus system that is properly quick, but only in the day. The 13 MP module is unfortunately limited by the 1/3 inch sensor, and often times the lack of fine detail upon zooming in is apparent – though the prime culprit for this at night is the extremely aggressive noise reduction software. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Still Image Quality:

Day Samples (HDR Off):

Day Samples (HDR On):

In the day, the images are clean with plenty of detail. Colour reproduction is generally accurate, but often times the shutter speed is too high resulting in darker images. In such instances, HDR works wonders and it looks fantastic.

Night Samples:

At night, the images have a great deal of noise, but it is not visible when zoomed in. There is a further loss of detail due to the extremely aggressive noise reduction – simple, straight lines appear jagged with the algorithm snuffing out fine detail.

The dual-LED flash works wonderfully, allowing for skin-tone reproduction to be nearly 100% accurate. There was an issue of the flash picking up surrounding objects’ colours at the fringes of the image, but it worked flawlessly otherwise.

Video Quality:

The G3’s laser autofocus comes in handy here, allowing for quick autofocus changes when needed. There is a bit of noise in the night videos, but that is to be expected with a sensor size of 1/3 inches.

Day (2160p/4K):

Day (1080p):

Night (2160p/4K):

Night (1080p):

Slow Motion (720p 120 FPS slowed down to 24 FPS):

The 2160p videos captured by the LG G3 are of the same great quality we found with the still images: great exposure and contrast, accurate colors, and a high level of detail. The autofocus laser and OIS took care of any focus and stability issues.

1080p videos are much the same in terms of colors and exposure, although obviously they can’t stack up to 2160p in terms of resolved detail. They are useful, however, if you want to save on space, as just a 15 second 2160p clip comes in at around 55 MB.

Unfortunately, while the 4K and 1080p videos are great, the 720p 120 FPS videos are abysmal. The resolution seems to be actually 360p upscaled to 720p resulting in tremendous loss of detail. Furthermore the white balance and autofocus goes completely nuts when recording rendering your video useless. The file size is also greater than the higher quality 1080p video. It’s a surprise that LG even allowed a product with such low quality to be publicly released.

All in all, the LG G3 has a great camera, but could do with better noise reduction software, a larger sensor size and a complete overhaul of the slow-motion video recording software.

Conclusion

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Overall though, the LG G3 is a marvelous device, though not without its faults. The 1440p display, while eye-popping, simply does more harm than good in terms of contrast, black luminance levels and battery life. The G2 was already a really good smartphone, but while LG has taken two steps forward by including a micro-SD card slot, removable battery, a better design, and UI, it has taken a stride backwards with the display.

I really like the G3, and on its own I would brand it a spectacular smartphone, but in the face of competition – especially with the gap closing every 6 months – I cannot say the G3 is definitely superior to each and every one of them. While my colleague Timothy has been bowled over by it and has purchased one, I do not see myself fawning over it.

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It does have a brilliant design thanks to the miniscule bezels, and much improved rear buttons, and it also does have a brilliant dual-LED flash for accurate skin-tone reproduction at night. Its 1 W speaker is also crystal clear and loud (albeit prone to muffling face up) and the 1440p display is pin-sharp. But with all said and done, I’d like to stick to my Z1.

The G3 is not a poor device, far from it. It’s just that considering its competition, I had been expecting much more from the G3, and it has fallen just short. No worries though, as it seems that LG is also adopting a half-yearly release cycle like Sony and Samsung. LG is definitely on the right track though, and till then, I eagerly await what the G4 has in store for us.

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