|Introduction and Specifications|
|Although it's already flooded with a slew of excellent devices, the smartphone market has shown no signs of letting up. While Samsung and Apple are dominating the charts in terms of global hardware market share, Android's continued rise in the smartphone space has also been bolstered by devices from companies like HTC, Sony, and LG. In fact, LG was the company chosen to produce the most recently released Nexus-branded smartphone, the powerful Nexus 4.
The Optimus G that we're reviewing here has a lot in common with the Nexus 4, and it's impossible to evaluate this handset without drawing direct comparisons to its Google branded sibling. Before we break down the specifics, let's look at the internals found in one of AT&T's most powerful smartphones yet.
If you weren't aware, the Optimus G was the first commercially available smartphone to use Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC (APQ8064) paired with an LTE radio. That's a 1.5GHz quad-core chip, inside a smartphone. That's about as cutting edge as it gets right now, and when you consider the beefy 2GB of RAM and Adreno 320 GPU, it's pretty clear that the bar is set high.
From the onset, however, we're somewhat bothered by the stock operating system. Android 4.0.4 is now two full point releases behind the latest iterations of Android; Android 4.2 Jelly Bean is already available on select devices. But will the omission of things like Google Now and things like LG's own Android skin put a damper on those powerful technical specifications? That's what we plan to find out in the pages ahead.
|Design and Hardware|
|LG's Optimus G is the first high-end smartphone from the company to have a serious presence in America. In the past, LG's offerings in the U.S. have largely been mid-range handsets that were, in large part, easy to overlook. Its mobile marketing efforts in the U.S. have also been somewhat unimpressive, hindering the company's chances to increase its market share. But the Optimus G is something different. It's a fresh and powerful piece of kit that seems to hit all of the right marks, at least from a technical standpoint.
What's most interesting about the overall design of the Optimus G is its size. With a 4.7" display, it falls somewhere in between a larger-than-average size smartphone and a phablet. It feels huge compared to the iPhone 4S, but a bit on the small side compared to the Galaxy Note II. Ultimately, the phone feels wide overall, but we suspect those that like larger screens will dig the Optimus G.
The 4.7" display is clearly the star of the show. The company's Zerogap Touch technology places the capacitive layer inside of the panel, enabling LG to make the phone a little bit slimmer, and the images on the panel a little bit clearer. At first glance, images are pin sharp, and colors are remarkably vibrant. It's easily one of the more stunning mobile panels in terms of clarity. But there's an issue here that you'll notice after you spend an extended amount of time with the phone: if you tilt the screen at a more extreme angle, you'll notice a subtle discoloration. Whites turn a slight off-white, almost yellow, and based on the information we have available, this issue seems to be uniform across these devices. It's not a huge issue until you tilt the screen at fairly extreme angles, but most other devices don't have the same issue. For a flagship phone, it's fairly disheartening to see such an obvious weak spot in the panel.
The front of the phone is a glossy black, with a 1.3MP (720p) front-facing webcam in the top right corner. The right edge of the phone is home to a power / screen lock key (with an illumination light for notifications), while the top edge has a 3.5mm headphone jack. The left edge is home to a volume up / down rocker, as well as a pop-out lid that hides the micro-SIM slot and microSD slot. (AT&T's version of the Optimus G has 16GB of onboard storage + 16GB microSD card.) The bottom edge is home to a microUSB / MHL port. The rear of the phone is home to an 8MP sensor and an LED flash, as well as a silver AT&T logo. Oddly, the global version of the Optimus G (and Sprint's version) has a 13MP camera.
Overall, the phone feels like a rigid device, but it's an ultra-slick piece of hardware that may slip out of your hand as easily as in your pocket. Clumsy hands best opt for a case with some grip. At over five ounces, it also feels a tad on the heavy side, but most concerning is the somewhat underwhelming feel of the build materials. Unlike the iPhone, which uses metals that are smooth to the touch or even the cheaper RAZR M, which relies on a svelte Kevlar backing, this phone relies on cheaper plastics from top to bottom. For a low-end or mid-range phone, this would be expected. For a flagship product that costs $549.99 (off-contract), we were left longing for more premium materials.
|Software and User Experience|
|While the hardware used on the Optimus G is clearly high-end, if somewhat polarizing in design, the software experience is decidedly underwhelming for a flagship phone. LG's shipping this unit with Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which is now two full point releases behind the most recent build of Android Jelly Bean. We understand that it's difficult to completely sync up with Google's release schedule. And LG has made clear that it's intending to update this handset to at least Android 4.1 in time, but LG's track record in this department is less than stellar, and given the carrier attachment, that's an additional layer of QA testing that'll likely hold things up.
What does this mean for end users? It means they're paying a premium price for a premium phone, but they won't have access to all of the goodness Jelly Bean has to offer. Mostly, that's the lack of Google Now, which is a killer feature that'll be missed by those that may have experienced it on a pal's phone or a Nexus tablet. With no time table in place for Android 4.1+ to arrive on the Optimus G though, we're forced to take the software as it is.
As with most other Android device builders, LG has placed a light skin atop Ice Cream Sandwich. It's a mixed bag, with several useful additions and a few that left us wanting. On the plus side, LG has a great scrolling settings bar in the drop-down menu, which make it quick and easy to access virtually any setting on the device. There's also a QuickMemo option, which allows you to scribble and save notes with your finger or a stylus. There's also a "Quiet Time" setting which works almost exactly like Apple's "Do Not Disturb" feature, enabling notifications and buzzes to be silenced during designated time periods.
The "Wise Screen" feature prevents the phone's display from falling asleep when your face is looking at it, and it supports wireless video streaming to an LG Miracast dongle should you own one. There's also an NFC chip here, but sadly, Google Wallet isn't supported. The usual litany of AT&T bloatware is included, but thankfully, they don't seem to have too huge an impact on performance. Speaking of performance, there's a switch in the settings menu that'll flip the CPU down a notch in order to conserve power, which is nice for those times when access to a charger isn't available.
One of the major downsides is the overall look of the UI. LG's design language is somewhat bland in our opinion. The icons look almost cartoonish, and really don't serve to add any real style. The built-in widgets are also unimpressive. Compared to something like HTC's Sense, there's just a lot less substance found in LG's Android skin. None of this serves to have a negative impact on use, and you can still pick up something like HD Widgets to spice things up a bit, but it all leads us to one point that we just can't ignore: LG also makes the Nexus 4.
Unfortunately for the Optimus 4G, the Nexus 4 is available (for less money) with pure Android 4.2. The software found on the Nexus 4 is much better than what's included on the Optimus G, and since it's a Nexus device, it will always be first in line to receive updates from Google as well. In terms of software, the Nexus 4 is clearly the better option.
|General Performance, Camera and Battery Life|
Now that the specifics are out of the way, let's talk performance. The 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor is a powerful SoC, and the inclusion of 2GB of RAM is another plus. While downloading a dozen apps, we were still able to flip across home screens, sort icons in folders and generally hop into and out of anything we wanted without so much as a stutter. We viewed HD videos, threw a game or two into the mix, and never really found a way to make this phone feel slow. Not surprising given that there really aren't any more powerful SoCs shipping at the moment in mobile phones.
The 8MP rear camera with LED flash is actually one of the better ones in the Android space. Quality and sharpness were above average, and the ability to take multiple shots without experiencing much shutter lag was impressive. There's also an incredible amount of options in the Camera app. You can adjust the scene mode, flash, exposure, and effects, while the "Modes" screen lets you select Panorama, Multi-shot, Timed shots and HDR.
One of our biggest gripes with iOS 6 was Apple's refusal to open up more advanced options in its camera app; it's great to see LG (and most other Android OEMs, truthfully) going against that grain and providing shooters with far more tools. It should be noted that stock images look a tad bit flat in terms of color saturation, but inbuilt editing help pull out the colors and generally makes them "pop" without too much effort.
Even in dim lighting, the Optimus G camera held its own. The only major gripe we had was the omission of a hardware shutter button. With many Android and Windows Phone products, as well as iPhones with iOS 6, there's an option to use a dedicated shutter key or the volume rocker. But on this phone, you have to tap the screen to capture an image, which introduces a subtle but notable amount of camera shake, particularly when trying to capture an image in low lighting. The only silver lining is the option to say a handful of "cheese" phrases, allowing voice to snap the shutter as well.
As for call quality it's outstanding. We tested mobile-to-mobile calls an they were clear and loud throughout. It's also worth praising AT&T's LTE network. It's easily quicker than many home broadband connections, which in turn makes it super easy to blow through your monthly data allowance. A major question, though, is how the LTE network will stand up now that the iPhone supports LTE and millions of additional devices are going to be taking advantage of it. Also, AT&T's LTE network is far smaller than Verizon's LTE network, but the company is planning to double its reach in 2013. Better late than never, we suppose.
You may remember how the introduction of the iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4 put AT&T's 3G network in a world of hurt, particularly in major areas like New York City and San Francisco. There's little doubt that more devices on LTE will saturate those towers more and degrade performance overall for everyone, but only time will tell just how bad it gets. Hopefully, all of the major carriers have had enough time to properly ramp up for the onslaught.
As for battery life, it's not great. The quad-core SoC in this phone can be a real power hog. Yes, there's an option in the settings to throttle things back in the name of battery life, but we ran our standard test with things left wide open.
In average use, which includes browsing the web, checking social networks, sifting through e-mails, making a few calls, navigating to a few nearby locations and just generally enjoying the spoils of having Instagram and Foursquare at our fingertips, we were able to get around 16 hours of use. Lighter, more casual users could easily get through a full day, and perhaps two full work days if you don't use an app like Navigation which keeps the display on for an extended period of time.
On a more measured note, we put the phone through our typical browser refresh test, which loads a page automatically every three minutes. Display brightness was set to 50%, while LTE was flipped on and social networks and e-mails were set to refresh every 15 to 30 minutes. As you can see in the chart above, it outperformed the Spectrum, but fell short of the flagship Galaxy S III, HTC One X and HTC Arrive. Still, for a phone with this much horsepower, its battery life is pretty solid.
|Performance Testing: CPU, Browser And Graphics|
|In addition to using the Optimus G in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the handset compares to other smartphones in the same league.
In the Linpack test, the quad-core Snapdragon powered phones here (the Optimus G and Droid DNA, review forthcoming) took the lead by a wide margin, smashing flagship phones from six to nine months ago, destroying the Galaxy Nexus, and even besting the HTC One X and Galaxy S III. We ran the test a few times, and yes, it really does double the score of most other phones. Clearly, that quad-core chip is making a dent in this test.
In the An3DBench XL, the Optimus G held its own, but didn't really pull away from rivals as it did with the Linpack score. It's amongst the top when looking at high-end, flagship phones, but still fell a few points behind. In real-world use, you'd never know the difference though.
Only the excellent HTC One X completed the SunSpider test with a quicker time here, and even that one just barely inched ahead of the Optimus G.
Here, the Optimus G held its own, ranking in the upper echelon of phones in this intense graphical benchmark. It came close to matching scores put forth by a host of other powerful phones, with just a few points separating this guy and the One X and RAZR M.
Rightware just launched version 2.0 of its BrowserMark test, which outputs scores very different than version 1.0. We'll be building up our benchmarks as time marches on, but for now, we can report that the Optimus G scored 2081 under the new test, which is currently superior than 81% of all phone browsers in the BrowserMark database. That's just slightly lower than the score pulled in by the Nexus 7 tablet, but it's inferior to both the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: Performance wise, there's no denying that the LG Optimus G is in an elite class. The quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC at the heart of this device is about as powerful a chip as you can get in a smartphone currently. The Optimus G put up one of the best scores we have seen in Linpack, and while graphically intense benchmarks didn't show similar gains, the Adreno 320 GPU is still plenty powerful. In real-world use, this phone feels as fast as any Android handset on the market, and that's without the aid of Project Butter, which is only available in Android 4.1 and beyond. With those optimizations, we can only imagine how zippy this phone would feel. Sadly, LG hasn't given us a definite date when we can expect Jelly Bean, but even as is, there's no denying the Optimus G is a powerhouse.
Beyond the high performance though, things get a bit murkier. If you're in the market right now for a phone like the Optimus G, then you are -- by default -- in a market that includes the Nexus 4. Strangely, that phone is also crafted by LG, and in practically every way it's a superior yet more affordable phone. The Optimus G is saddled with an old Android operating system (v4.0.4), with no confirmed for a Jelly Bean update. To make matters worse, LG's Android skin doesn't stand out. There's a handy Settings menu in the drop-down menu, and QuickMemo will be useful for those who like to jot notes on their screen in order to send annotated screenshots, but otherwise, the Nexus 4's pure Google experience will likely please more users. It's quicker, it's free of AT&T bloatware, and it's sure to be updated by Google well before most other Android phones.
On the design side, there's nothing inherently bad about the Optimus G. It's a solid piece of kit, doused in a fingerprint-attracting glossy black finish. It feels a bit wide in the hand for those who aren't coming from a phablet, and we aren't huge fans of the decision to hamstring AT&T's version of the phone with just 16GB of internal storage. The global version has 32GB, and while AT&T's version does offer 32GB of total storage, half of that relies on a microSD card. Moreover, AT&T's version of the phone receives an 8MP camera, compared to the 13MP camera on the global variant.
The Optimus G is $199 on a 2-year contract, but the real price (unsubsidized) is $549.99. When you compare that to the unsubsidized cost of a Nexus 4 ($349.99 for a 16GB model), it's very hard to find reason to justify the increased cost. The Nexus 4 lacks LTE, and if that's a huge deal to you, be sure to take that into account, but it more than makes up for it in our eyes by being a true global handset with wireless charging and a pure, Android Jelly Bean experience. At this point, and with its current version of Android, the Optimus G should be priced a bit lower in light of competing offerings. If it drops to $99 or less on contract for the holidays though, it'd be a very worthy contender, that will only get better when LG released a Jelly Bean update for the device.