Testing: The LG G3 Android Smartphone

By Ryan Whitwam

A whole new phone for a whole new LG.

Just a few years ago LG was not considered a serious player in most smartphone markets. The most desirable devices the company made all wore Google's Nexus badge, but its own phones fell victim to questionable software and the whims of partner carriers. The LG G2 won some fans for its slick design and passable software, but it's the new LG G3 that might have a shot at completing LG's Android turnaround.

LG isn't playing second banana to Samsung in South Korea or anywhere else this time around. In fact, the G3 is a contender for the best flagship phone of 2014. Let's take a closer look at what it's like to live with this device and its 5.5-inch 1440p screen.

Surprisingly Small for a Huge Phone

The LG G3 has a huge 5.5-inch screen, which makes it one of the larger phones we've used. However, the size of the overall device is within a few millimeters of the Galaxy S5 with its 5.1-inch display. LG has been focusing on slimming down its devices in recent years, and the G3 is the culmination of those efforts. It's almost all screen on the front. I'm not aware of another phone that has narrower bezels than the G3 (other than that new Sharp Aquos device).

One of LG's favorite hardware twists is the rear-facing button cluster. Whereas most phones have the power and volume buttons on the side, LG places them on the back. This helps make the sides a bit slimmer and it turns out to be surprisingly convenient. The power button is almost exactly where your finger falls when you hold the device. It's reminiscent of Motorola's dimple on the back of the Moto X, except it actually does something.

The G3 has a removable back, but it's made of thicker plastic than Samsung's back covers. When it's all snapped together, LG's phone feels solid and high-end. Yeah, it's still made of plastic, but LG has chosen a nice material. There's no disconcerting creaking when you squeeze the device, either. It's no M8, but the G3 will not disappoint.

Moving to the inside of the G3, there's a Snapdragon 801 ARM processor, 32GB of storage with microSD, a 3000mAh battery, and 3GB of RAM. 2GB has been the standard for years now, but we're slowly moving on to 3GB in flagship phones. There's nothing wrong with 2GB, but the extra memory will let you keep more services and apps running in the background without slowdowns. It's also nice that the US version of the device comes with 32GB of storage, which is twice what you get with the Galaxy S5.

Stepping into the Post-1080p World

I've already gone into a lot of detail about how a 1440p screen works with this phone, so you can read a lot more about it if you like. The basic deal here is that you can tell a bit of difference compared to a 1080p screen. It's not a dramatic step forward like it was when we moved from WVGA to HD, but the advantage is there. The size of the panel takes a little getting used to, but it's awesome for video and web browsing.

Low brightness is the biggest drawback--the auto-brightness is somewhat slow to react and is overall lower than I'd like.

Shining light through all those pixels requires a brighter backlight, but the screen on your side is a bit dimmer than most modern displays. The brightness is probably the biggest drawback--the auto-brightness is somewhat slow to react and is overall lower than I'd like. LG also needs to turn off that font sharpening post-processing that makes text stand out bizarrely. Yeah, I get it--the screen is high resolution. You don't need to crank the contrast in this one place.

The increased resolution of the G3's screen also has implications for battery life and brightness. The G3 gets a little less screen-on time than the Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8--about 4.5 hours with average usage. However, this phone has insane standby time. The G3 sips power when it's asleep and not powering the screen. It easily gets you through more than two days of light usage

A Camera with Frickin' Laser Beams

The LG G3 packs a 13MP rear facing camera, but that's not the coolest thing about snapping pictures with the G3. LG has chosen to go with a laser system for determining distance and adjusting the focus. As such, the LG G3 focuses more quickly and reliably than any other phone I've used. Even in very low light when other phones can't make heads or tales of the environment, the G3 can focus in no time. As a nice bonus, you can see the laser flashing on the back of the phone while the camera is open.

As far as image quality, the main camera is capable of taking some awesome pictures. In bright outdoor light the colors are good and details are resolved well. You can even crop photos without getting a bunch of artifacts. In low light, the G3 performs better than the GS5, but it does a lot of smoothing to make the full resolution look passable. Zooming in on these pics looks a bit weird.

LG has stripped out most of the shooting modes and settings from its camera app. You can't adjust things like white balance or exposure at all. That's a bit of a bummer, but in fairness, LG's auto mode is very good. HDR shots are solid as well, but not as good as Samsung's.

The front-facing camera is 2.1MP and it takes very nice selfies, if that's your thing. There's a cool mode where you can frame the shot then hold your hand up to start the capture timer. There's also an image softening "beauty mode" because Korea.

Software that Knows its Limits

Samsung's TouchWiz launcher on the GS5 is better in my experience than the LG stock launcher.

Last year's LG G2 wasn't good enough in the software department for me to seriously consider it as a personal phone. The company had begun to break away from its shameless imitation of Samsung's TouchWiz, but there were still some unacceptable compromises like the incorrect on-screen navigation buttons and oddly placed skeuomorphic design elements. The G3 still bears some resemblance to the G2, but LG is being much smarter about the changes it's making.

The stock launcher is probably the weakest part of the experience for me, but it's also the easiest to replace. I'll just say up front that Samsung's TouchWiz launcher on the GS5 is better in my experience than the LG stock launcher. LG's launcher isn't bad, but I don't find any of the widgets useful and the "Smart Bulletin" screen is even more useless than Samsung's My Magazine panel. All Smart Bulletin does is show you data from LG's health tracker and give you tips about using the phone. You can disable it, but LG's app drawer is also a bit cluttered and the home screen grid is five spots wide, meaning a lot of widgets won't fit correctly.

I'm happy to say that LG's on-screen nav buttons finally make sense--back, home, and multitasking. Just like it's supposed to be. You can even change to the more Nexus-y black nav bar in the settings. This is a big step forward for usability. I also have to give LG points for making the notification tray highly configurable and very clean. If you want to get rid of all the shortcuts and sliders, you can do that. You get more room for notifications that way.

My favorite software feature of the LG G3 is Knock Code, which is an extension of the Knock On feature from the G2. Knock Code is a way to wake up and unlock the device in a single step. Simply create a pattern of 3-8 taps in four quadrants. When you enter that pattern of taps (using the first tap as the point of reference) on the sleeping display, the phone wakes up and bypasses the lock screen. It works extremely well and seems at least as secure as a pattern lock. You can also tap twice on the screen to wake it up to the lock screen.

I've been using the G3 for several weeks to see how the software ages--sometimes a few days isn't enough to know for sure how well a phone will work once you've loaded it up with stuff. In this case, I've found the G3 to be very snappy almost all the time. I see some talk about UI lag on this phone, but I'm really not seeing that. Stability is great (no crashes) and none of the apps I have installed caused any nasty wakelocks. I will, however, point out that LG needs to get its designers in the same room more often. The G3's UI is mostly cohesive, but there are a number of apps and icons that lean heavily on circles, and others that are all about squares. None of them look bad, it's just weird.

Is This the Best Phone of 2014?

I've spent a good bit of time with most of the notable devices in the last year, and I think the G3 is my favorite so far. It has a great design, the camera is stellar, performance is great, and the Android skin isn't obnoxious. Some of LG's additions, like Knock On, are extremely useful and well thought out.

1440p resolution isn't going to blow you away. The screen resolution isn't the reason you buy this phone.

I feel a little conflicted about the screen--it's a very clear display and the viewing angles are above average. However, the brightness is lacking. I don't think I'd say this screen is any better or worse overall when compared to the Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8, but the 1440p resolution isn't going to blow you away. The screen resolution isn't the reason you buy this phone.

LG has created a phone that looks great and feels much smaller than you'd expect a 5.5-inch phone to feel. The software isn't a dead ringer for the Nexus, like Motorola's phones, but it's clean enough that I don't mind using it. The laser autofocus is also an unqualified success. If you need a new phone, this one should be at the top of your list.