Evolution is tedious work. It fashioned us out of primordial goo into the smartest species in the known universe. But that slow work of removing what sucks, fixing what’s broken, and perfecting what’s great takes time. The LG G4 follows in step, creating not the most exciting Android phone ever made—but maybe the best.
What Is It?
The 5.5-inch G4 is the fourth iteration of LG Electronics’ flagship Android smartphone. It’s another contender for this year’s “Best Android Smartphone” award, right alongside the new HTC One M9 and the Galaxy S6. It has top of the line everything—from the screen to the camera to the processor—and the removable battery and SD card that all other flagships now lack.
Why Does It Matter?
For a premium smartphone in 2015, the G4 is unique—but maybe not in ways you’d expect. It’s not really design, performance, or hardware that’s the big eye-catcher (though those things are certainly improved), it’s what the G4 still clings to things many other phones have abandoned. When the S6 announced it wouldn’t be including a removable back, with an equally removable battery, Samsung diehards decreed a crisis of faith. Why had practicality been sacrificed to the gods of smartphone vanity? But G4 sticks with the old ways and tries to find a comfortable middle ground between utility and curb appeal.
For the past two years, LG’s been known for two things in smartphone design—weird power buttons and curved screens. Maybe I’m an LG power-button apologist, but the power and volume rocker on the back panel annoyed me on last year’s G3, and subsequently the G Flex 2, for a couple minutes. When I picked up those phones for a second time, I was over it.
The idea is a weird thing to wrap your brain around, but once you actually hold the G4 in your hand, it all clicks together. Because the physical buttons have been removed from the sides—leaving only the headphone jack, microUSB port, and IR sensor—the G4 is round and slim, which makes the phone incredibly comfortable to hold.
The focus on comfort brings to our second well-known LGism: dem curves. With the G Flex in 2014, and its sequel which debuted at CES this year, LG’s been trying to figure out how to make curved-screen smartphones work. The G Flex 2 was a monumental step in the right direction, and I guess LG was feeling pretty confident and decided to put a little English on its flagship G4. But where the Flex is an exaggeration of a curved phone, the G4 is all subtle. In fact, you can barely even notice the G4’s curves at all, whether in pictures or in person.
But your hands can tell.
The G4 just feels good to hold. That’s usually a throwaway line in lots of smartphone reviews, but I’m telling you I mean it. This phone is super comfy. The curved screen doesn’t really do much else. It lays flat face down, doesn’t really draw your eye into the screen like the G Flex 2, and definitely doesn’t flex (seriously, don’t try it). But it turns out a slight curve goes a long way.
The thing is....the G4 doesn’t really look amazing. It’s kind of like a new Honda Civic. It’s really cool at first, but as the new car smell fades it begins to of blend into the highway of other similar looking, plastic-y slabs of phones. LG tried to spice things up by including lots of different types of backs, including a pretty stylish black or tan leather option (that are much nicer than I expected), but it’s not enough to compete with Samsung’s, or even HTC’s, metal unibody design. If looks are what you want, look elsewhere.
My past week with the LG G4 has been unremarkably amazing. That may sound like an contradiction, but it’s really the best way to describe it. The G4 doesn’t do anything crazy better than any other smartphone, but it’s also not worse. It’s just very good. It sets out to achieve greatness in every aspect—camera, screen, processor, battery life—and it damn near achieves it. You won’t find it boring if you’re coming from a crappy phone.
The software runs Android 5.1 with LG’s custom skin laid on top. It’s definitely not stock Android, but it’s close. The drop-down notification menu and lock screen look a little different, but LG does an admirable job of making all its proprietary applications, like Smart Bulletin and Smart Notice widgets, blend in with Android’s new Material Design.
Performance-wise, the G4 has been flawless for me for a whole solid week. I actually experienced fewer hiccups with the Snapdragon 808 processor in the G4 compared to the Snapdragon 810 in the G Flex 2. The G4’s vivid and bright quad HD LCD display also look incredibly great and—the most important part—battery life has been stellar.
For a day or two, I had a weird situation where Facebook and Messenger were absolutely nomming on my battery. Like, badly enough that it was clear something was wrong. However, once I deleted and reinstalled them, the problem was gone. Pulling this phone off the charger at 7am, I was able to get to 10am the next day on a single charge on moderate-to-heavy use. LG just gets batteries. The G Flex 2 was great, and the G4 is absolutely no different.
LG also packs in some battery-saving features to help things along, such as a power-saving mode that kicks in when you drop below 15 per cent. There’s also Smart Notice, an LG widget that gives hints throughout the day on how to improve your battery life, but it didn’t give me so much as a peep when Facebook and Messenger were doing a little dance on my phone’s grave.
Smart Bulletin is also a similar conundrum. The app, which is much like other widgets like My Magazine on older Galaxy devices or Blinkfeed on HTC’s One, takes up one whole panel of your homescreen with quick access to LG Health, calendar, music controls, the IR remote and so on. It’s LG’s biggest software edition to Android and it’s just...OK. I’d hop in the app once or twice to check the calendar app and so on, but soon disabled the feature altogether. The convenience didn’t justify the screen real estate.
LG’s additional software is a teensy-bit lackluster, but at least it doesn’t succumb to gimmicks and superfluous bloat. The additions are all optional and potentially useful to certain users. No harm, no foul.
The one area where the G4 absolutely shines is in the camera department. We’ve done a full breakdown of the LG G4 camera already with comparisons to the iPhone 6, Galaxy S6, and last year’s G3. I won’t word vomit all the findings here, but here’s the lite version: The G4 absolutely kills the competition in daylight photography. There may be no better Android smartphone for taking well-lit shots. In low light, the G4 slips just slightly behind the iPhone 6 in colour reproduction, but it’s still admirable. The only real blemish on the G4’s photo abilities is its front-facing selfie cam, which has a few problems capturing accurate skin tone.
But even beyond the photos themselves, shooting images with the G4 is actually fun. The G4 has the most comprehensive manual mode I’ve ever seen on a camera. You can adjust almost everything on this camera—ISO, white balance, shutter speed, focus—and the OIS 2.0 module eliminates shaky cam syndrome. F1.8 aperture adds great depth of field, and you can also shoot in JPEG+RAW if you like to tinker with post production software. If you don’t want to mess with all that business and want something more straightforward, just switch to the Auto or Simple modes and the camera software will do the rest.
Seriously, this camera rocks.
While Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and Apple continue floundering around trying to find the perfect formula of battery life and performance, LG has it all figured out. A smartphone that can last all day easy with time to spare for the morning after. That’s the battery life a 2015 flagship smartphone deserves.
Seriously, man. The camera. All other Android cameras really need to get on this level.
A removable back isn’t personally one of my pain points when it comes to smartphones, but I get it. The LG G4 is the last remaining premium device that holds onto the (some would argue) antiquated design choice.
But the removable back brings its own disadvantages. The G4 is just rather plain and the leather options and different coloured back panels can only get you so far.
I’m obsessed with smartphone speakers. Music is a massive part of my life and listening through tinny nightmares is one of my biggest pet peeves. The G4 speaker is loud but unremarkable. It’s also annoyingly placed on the back. C’moooon.
Having used the Galaxy S6 Edge for near a month before hopping over the G4, I had a few hardware withdrawals. One time I went home and placed the G4 on a Samsung wireless charger out of muscle memory. Where the S6 supports both Qi and PMA wireless charging, the G4 supports neither. I grumbled incoherently as I searched for a MicroUSB charging cord.
Also, the fingerprint sensor on the S6 is incredible, responsive, and accurate. The G4 doesn’t even have one, which is less important than wireless charging, but many times better than using the G4’s tedious Knock Code.
Where the G4 does keep up some Android traditions, it continues to ignore others. The G4 is absolutely, positively not waterproof—a bummer for someone who’s taken to reading comics in the shower...is that weird?
Should You Buy It?
From the pixel-dense display to the silicon processor housed inside, the LG G4 is a solid Android smartphone, one that won’t disappoint you. If you’re looking for a stellar camera and need that extra battery-swap utility, the G4 is the one you’ve been waiting for.
With that being said, as soon as I hit “publish” on this review, I’m going to go back to the Samsung Galaxy S6 as my daily driver. The Galaxy S6 seems like a step towards what Android smartphones will become. A shaky step in some spots, sure, but a step into the future. The LG G4 is the perfection of a dying breed, a phone you might have cried tears of joy over—in 2013. (I like it a lot, but the future is kind of my job.)
But if you think the new posh, jewellery-grade generation of Android phones is bullshit, if you don’t need to keep one foot in the future at all times, the G4 is your next pick. And it’s a reminder that sometimes, the past is worth preserving.