While Samsung and Apple carve out the smartphone market between them, the battle for the number three spot is being hotly contested between Chinese players Huawei and Lenovo, and Korean giant LG.
Lenovo has raised the stakes with the acquisition of Motorola, and with Huawei on track to meet its target of 80 million smartphones this year --almost double last year’s figures -- the pressure is on LG to produce an attention grabbing smartphone.
That’s exactly what LG set out to achieve with its latest flagship, the G3, which is the first smartphone (at least outside of China) to boast a headline-grabbing 2560 x 1440 resolution Quad HD display.
There’s a new laser-guided autofocus system for the camera, the custom Android skin has been given a welcome facelift and there are some unique design choices on the hardware front with the relocation of the volume and power buttons to the back of the device.
With the well-received Nexus 5, an industry-first, curved-screen phone in the G Flex and consistent wins in the low-end market, LG has been on an upward trajectory. But does the G3 deliver on the flagship promise?
There is a lot to like about the G3’s design: the impressively thin black bezels that allow the 5.5-inch QHD display to dominate the front of the device are standout, as are the clean, buttonless sides to the dramatic sweeping curve on the back, which also houses the volume and power buttons.
The curved back -- or what LG refers to as the “floating arc design” -- goes a long way to making the G3 feel deceptively smaller than other 5.5-inch smartphones on the market, like the OnePlus One and Samsung Galaxy Note 2. By tapering the edges in and going with an almost wedge-like design, the G3 feels thinner in the hand and narrower in dimension than other smartphones in its class. However, it’s still physically bigger than rival flagships like the Galaxy S5.
You won’t be straining to reach for the volume or power button, though, with the rear keys positioned directly underneath the camera lens, where they are easily placed for you to tap with your index finger.
However despite the ergonomic improvements, the G3 is still very much in phablet territory and will require two-handed operation for most tasks.
It also sports a 'brushed metal' finish, which looks nice but is, disappointingly, all plastic.
Razor sharp display but too many compromises
LG is the first mainstream smartphone manufacturer to bring a razor sharp 2560 x 1440 resolution QHD display, leap-frogging its 1080p rivals. As a point of comparison, while the Galaxy S5 Full-HD screen packs in 2 million pixels, the G3 almost doubles the pixel count at 3.6 million.
This translates into 538 pixels per inch (PPI) which, according to LG, makes the G3 appear as crisp and clear as high-quality print.
While all this sounds impressive on a specs sheet and the display does appear slightly sharper to the naked eye, the differences aren’t significant enough for them to be noticeable to the everyday user. What is more apparent however is the display’s shortcomings in other areas -- namely, dim brightness, muted colours and poor viewing angles.
At just 289 nits, the G3’s display is the dimmest of any flagship smartphone, making it harder to see in direct sunlight than the GS5 (373 nits) and HTC One M8 (402 nits). Colour reproduction is well short of the mark, with movies lacking that rich, visual pop. Worse still, tilting the device causes images to appear washed out.
The other issue is the scarcity of native content made for such high resolution. Apart from a couple of short nature videos pre-loaded on the phone, there’s precious little. In fact, unless apps have been optimised for 2K/QHD displays, they won’t even run on the phone. That situation is likely to change once other smartphone manufacturers make the eventual resolution leap but, for now, it’s a frustrating limitation.
Clean but lag-filled user experience
LG has made some notable design improvements to its custom Android skin. The cluttered and cartoon-like UI found in previous LG smartphones has been replaced with a more mature software experience, complete with flatter elements and a restrained colour palette.
There are some useful software features such as ‘Dual Window’ which offers split-screen multitasking for select apps. We also like how incoming text messages will automatically appear in their own window, allowing you to respond to the message without having to leave what you were doing. But there are also unnecessary features, such as Smart Notice, which is essentially LG’s take on Google Now.
The biggest problem, however, is sluggish performance.
Performing rudimentary tasks such as swiping through the home screens, navigating menus or jumping between apps suffer noticeable delay under the finger. We did notice a slight speed improvement when we removed things like Smart Notice and Smart Tips from the home screen but the overall experience was still a far cry from the snappy interfaces of the One M8, Nexus 5 and Moto X.
Battery life is also disappointing: we struggled to get through a full day of moderate-to-heavy use before the phone went completely dead. While LG has packed the phone with a sizeable 3000mAh battery, it’s not enough to compensate for the fact that the processor has to constantly push more pixels to the screen, resulting in a greater hit on the battery. The G3 does, however, have built-in support for wireless charging so you can charge the device cable-free -- provided you have a Qi compatible wireless dock lying around.
The G3 comes with a 13-megapixel snapper and right alongside the lens is an infrared laser-focus system that, according to LG, can focus the camera in just 220ms in comparison to the 300ms it takes the GS5 and One M8. In practical day-to-day use we found the G3’s auto-focus to be blisteringly fast, performing slightly quicker than the S5 but about on-par with the One M8. The G3 is also able to focus quicker on a subject in more challenging low-light conditions than either handset but it’s not fast enough to eradicate motion blur when the subject is moving.
Coupled with Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) on board, the G3 was able to produce more blur-free shots and record video with less camera shake than either the GS5 or M8. That said, the Sony Xperia Z2 still packs the best camera in the Android world.
Not enough to beat the competition
The G3 is the best smartphone that LG has produced to date but it’s far from perfect and falls short of the competition in critical areas.
The phone’s biggest drawcard feature, the QHD resolution display, misses the mark when it comes to brightness, colour reproduction and viewing angles. The extra resolution display is also a power hog and lacks the endurance of competitors like the Z2 and GS5. You also won’t find any water-proofing or dust resistance.
On the software front, LG’s custom Android skin is clean and easy to use but is let down by performance issues.
That said, the G3 might hold some appeal to those who are after a big-screen phone or phablet. The curved design and ergonomic placement of the volume and power buttons on the rear of the device make it feel great in the hand despite the larger profile, and the camera outperforms most of the Android competition.