With only a few exceptions, this year has seen some very middle-of-the-road phone launches. The Samsung Galaxy S6 was quite a dramatic departure from previous models, but it was still doing its best to imitate Apple. The HTC One M9 is almost indistinguishable from the One (M8), except it comes in more colour options and has dropped the awkward parentheses in its title. Meanwhile the Xperia Z4 was so much like the Z3, Sony changed its name to the Z3+ outside of Japan. Even some of the more ‘out-there’ Androids, like the curvy LG Flex 2 and dual-screen YotaPhone 2, were only minor upgrades on there predecessors and didn’t offer any real innovation. Into this monochrome world of mediocrity, enters the LG G4 like a technicolour tornado. With a distinctive leather case, colour-rich Quantum IPS screen, 16MP shooter and a 2TB microSD slot, LG is right to call its new flagship ‘the most ambitious phone of the year.’ But is that a good enough reason to buy it?
Heaven for leather
The first thing you notice about the G4 is its unique leather-clad back. We were big fans when the Moto X experimented with different types of backplates, including bamboo and leather, and we applaud LG for doing the same. The leather feels warm and comfortable to hold and quite distinct from your everyday plastic phone. This reviewer much preferred it to the leather used for the LG Watch Urbane, which felt cheap in comparison. However, the downside is that it is more prone to scruffs and scrapes.
The leather feels warm and comfortable to hold
If you’re not a fan of cowhide, the G4 is also available with a plastic back. These come in three colours (metallic grey, ceramic white and gold) and are textured with a crisscross pattern that judging from the promo images, we had expected to be more pronounced and tactile. Instead it’s actually surprisingly subtle, only visible when it catches the light. This is fine, but it does make the G4 that bit harder to distinguish from its predecessor, the all-plastic G3.
The G4 is also gently curved from 6.3 to 9.8mm. This is not as radical as the banana-shaped LG G Flex 2, but it arcs just enough so that it feels more comfortable in your hand, held against your face and resting in your pocket.
This being an LG phone, the home button and volume keys are also built into the back of the case, nestled under the camera. For first-time LG users this can seem quite odd, but they are actually conveniently placed for when your holding the phone, so it soon becomes second nature. Given how forward-thinking LG have been with the rest of this handset, we have to admit that we were slightly disappointed that the home key didn’t contain a finger scanner though.
Despite the lack of buttons on the front of the phone, LG have left a surprisingly large, centimetre-thick bezel at the bottom of the screen seemingly just to show off the company logo. However, the rest of the screen offers a near edge-to-edge display, so we’ll let the shameless self-promotion slide for now.
The 5.5-inch display is eye-wateringly crisp and colourful thanks to LG’s new Quantum IPS screen. What do they mean by ‘Quantum’ you ask? Well, in addition to being Quad HD in resolution – offering 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, which works out at 538ppi – the screen is 25 per cent brighter with a 50 per cent higher contrast ratio, and has a wider colour gamut than the earlier LG G3’s QHD LCD display. In an attempt to match the standards used by Hollywood movie studios, dubbed DCI or Digital Cinema Initiatives, the G4’s display offers deeper saturation in the reds and blues. LG say the G4 offers 98 per cent of the DCI colour gamut, taking a slight hit for a loss of green saturation. This might all sound like technical jargon, but red is the colour that the human eye can see the most variation in, so by displaying a wider range the screen can re-create a rich overall image.
Our hands-on experience of the display is that it was near flawless. Images were sharp, showing up minute details, and the colours felt rich and true to life. The screen was not only large enough to comfortably watch videos, but it also has wide viewing angles so we never struggled to see what was on screen. When compared to the Galaxy S6, brightness seemed about equal, however, we found the G4 had the advantage in direct sunlight.
Under the hood, the G4 is packing a Qualcomm’s 64-bit hexa-core Snapdragon 808 processor clocked at 1.8GHz. If you’re the sort of person that knows their chipsets, this might give you pause for thought. The HTC One M9 and LG G Flex 2 both use the Snapdragon 810 instead, which was billed as the pinnacle of the firm’s chip design when it was announced last year. However, the 810 has experienced a few PR set backs having been linked to overheating handsets. So is this why LG have opted for Qualcomm’s other current-gen chipset? Both Qualcomm and LG say no and that the 808 has been planned to be used in the G4 for over a year.
What is the difference between the 810 and 808, then? The benchmarks paint a confused picture. When compared using the AnTuTu 64-bit benchmark, the G4 scored 48795, while the HTC One M9 scored a superior 55333, but the G Flex 2 scored just 46353. This reflects the marginal benefit you will see in real-terms. The Snapdragon 810 offers slightly better gameplay and ultra-HD video playback because of its beefed up Adreno 430 GPU, but not enough that you’ll really notice the difference. What you will notice is your battery going down a lot faster as the 810 requires a lot of juice compared to the 808.
Android fans that have been alienated by the Galaxy S6’s iPhone-ificaion should take note.
The rest of the G4’s specs are quite similar to that of the G3. This is not what we would hope to get from the ‘most ambitious phone of the year,’ but 32GB storage and 3GB RAM are still ample and in line with its competitors. What is more interesting is that while Samsung jettisoned many of its internals to squeeze into its slimmed-down metal chassis, the G4 has embraced them with gusto. The 3,000 mAh battery is replaceable, so you can easily swap it out for a fully charged one, but it also supports Qi wireless charging. The only downside is that this requires fitting a different back plate to the phone which has yet to be released. If you have concerns about the 32GB memory, the G4 has also kept the microSD slot which supports an incredible 2 terabytes of extra storage. Android fans that have been alienated by the Galaxy S6’s iPhone-ificaion should take note. Alternatively, the device also comes with 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage for two years.
However, the hardware upgrade LG have been championing as the tentpole feature of the G4 is its rear camera – and with good reason. Packing 16MP and with a f/1.8 aperture, it produces some of the best photos we’ve ever seen taken on a smartphone. In daylight, we found pictures were crisp and well-exposed, while at night and in other low light settings, images remained very sharp with little noise. A new colour spectrum sensor that can distinguish between natural and artificial light and adjust the white balance accordingly also helps improve low light shots. However, we did find that the sensors sometimes seemed to be compensating for lighting issues that weren’t there, adding a slightly yellow cast to pictures.
The G4’s camera app also offers three user modes ― Simple, Basic and Manual ― to meet the needs of all types of photographers, from amateurs to expert shutterbugs. Simple mode does all the hard work automatically, with the laser auto-focus that was so popular on the G3 returning to ensure photos look sharp even when you shoot from the hip.
However, it was the Manual mode that impressed us the most. Packed with a suite of modules and options, we had total control over setting the focus, the white balance, shutter speed and more. For a photographer that knows what they are doing, this will give them the full creative control to produce some truly spectacular photos. Something that will further impress pro photographers is that the G4 can even shoot and save RAW pictures.
[The G4] meet the needs of all types of photographers
The front camera has been updated with an 8MP lens for superior selfies. It also includes a ‘gesture interval shot’ mode that captures a sequence of shots two seconds apart by opening and closing your hand into a fist in front the camera a couple of times, which we didn’t really see the point of.
As you might expect, the G4 runs Android 5.1 Lollipop out of the box so boasts all the operating system’s latest features. However, LG always like to put their on spin own things, so the G4 has a colourful interface and a few extra features. Taking its inspiration from Material Design and running with it, LG’s UX 4.0 skin has embraced neon bright colours, including fuchsia and electric blue. Fortunately, these are mostly accent colours with most menu screens plain white, though even this can be quite dazzling due to the display’s brightness. But, the Smart Notice widget which dominates the homescreen, changes colour to match your chosen wallpaper, giving you some level of customisation control over UX 4.0’s look.
The overall user experience of UX 4.0 is smoother than the UX 3.0 on the LG G3 and G Flex 2, with a simplified design and the redundant configuration steps removed. For example, you can simply drag and drop appointments from social networks straight into the calendar which saves you the time of manually having to type them out. The gallery also automatically sorts photos into albums based on the time and location that they were taken which is a bonus.
LG have also put a greater emphasis on the G4 personalising itself to the user by analysing your habits. One example of this is that the G4 will learn your favourite contacts and assign them personalised ringtones. However, for the most part it means that a greater emphasis is placed on the Smart Note and Smart Bulletin features that were a mixed blessing on the LG G3.
The Smart Notice widget sits comfortably on the homescreen delivering personalised notifications that are relevant to you. For instance, if you enjoy shooting some hoops, it might say, “the weather will be mostly sunny today. It’s the perfect weather to get out and play basketball.” Other cards include traffic reports for places you visit regularly, callback reminders for friends that you haven’t spoken too much recently, and many more. While we found this easy to understand at a glance, they were rather slow to update, which is a shame.
Swiping right from the homescreen will display the Smart Bulletin, which gives you a feed of your step count, daily calendar and other cards. One of these includes a shortcut to the so-called Smart Settings, which enable you to automate routine tasks like a built-in version of IFTTT, such as, turning on Wi-Fi connectivity when you get home. We found these quite helpful, but they were extremely limited with only eight formulas to play with. Ultimately, even with recent upgrades, the combined power of Smart Notice and Smart Bulletin still don’t equal that of Google Now and probably won’t win over users who were against the smart features on the G3.
Smart Notice and Smart Bulletin still don’t equal that of Google Now
In comparison to the rest of this generation’s flagship phones, the LG G4 offers the best value for money. Whereas the HTC One M9 is on sale for £579.99 and the Samsung Galaxy S6 can cost as much as £720, the LG G4 starts at £519.99 for the brown leather edition, which is significantly cheaper than either of its nearest rivals.
If you would prefer to buy your LG G4 on contract, the brown leather model is exclusive to O2 for £36 per month two year contract, with a £19.99 upfront cost. This includes unlimited calls and texts and 3GB of data. If you’re a power user, the G4 is available on EE with unlimited text and calls and 5GB of data for £36.99, with an upfront cost of £39.99 from EE through Carphone Warehouse.
However, if you’re looking for the cheapest deal, Vodafone are offering LG G4 contracts through Carphone Warehouse for £35 per month with nothing else to pay and unlimited texts, but only 1000 minutes and 1GB data. The LG G4 is also available on the Three network.
Should you buy it?
It is incredibly difficult to do anything different in the smartphone world, but LG have pulled it off with a mix of daring design and upgrades to key features. These include things that everyone can appreciate, such as the stunning display and tricked-out camera, without sacrificing the features that have become Android essentials, like the removable battery and the gigantic microSD support that is available.
However, it’s other specs and software are arguably not as impressive as its nearest rivals. But LG compensates for this with a reasonable price, so if you like the leather look, we recommend getting the LG G4 today.