LG G3 review: A fantastic smartphone that's more than a pretty QHD screen

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

In the smartphone world, LG is an underdog. Despite making the excellent G2 and teaming up with Google for the equally fantastic Nexus 4 and Nexus 5, the Korean electronics company still trails behind Apple and Samsung's marketing might.

The G3 is LG's latest flagship attempt to redeem itself. The smartphone is big, without being the biggest. It has the highest resolution screen around, a fancy camera that uses lasers to help it autofocus quickly and records 4K-resolution video. It has incredible battery life. It also checks off virtually every complaint everyone had about the G2. But is it enough to crush its competition?

Pixel Perfect Screen

It was only a few years ago that smartphones with HD screens of 720p (1280 x 720) and 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution were released. At the time, I marveled at how sharp the screens were. Even today, with 1080p screens and 400+ PPI (pixels per inch) now the norm, I still can't see the pixels when a device is held from about 1-2 feet away. It's a truly a wondrous time in smartphone innovation.

LG apparently thinks 1080p is not enough, especially on larger smartphones. Hence, the G3 has a 5.5-inch QuadHD display with 2560 x 1440 resolution and an insanely dense 539 PPI. It's ridiculous how sharp this screen is. In sample 1440p video footage preloaded on the G3, I could see the tiniest of celestial stars and individual bricks on old buildings that wouldn't have been noticeable on a 1080p screen.

But as beautiful and clear as the G3's display is, most people will not notice the extra resolution. Yes, us tech geeks will fawn over the pixel density, but ma and pa will tell you a sharp screen’s a sharp screen. Perhaps on a 6-inch or 7-inch smartphone (yes, those really exist), the QHD resolution would be discernible to most people's naked eyes, but in day-to-day use, it quickly becomes forgettable. It's a real shame, too, considering how gorgeous the display — at three inches from your face — really is.

Another thing to consider is that unless you're loading your own QHD-resolution or 4K videos or viewing video recorded in 4K from the G3's rear camera, content won't really benefit from the higher resolution.

For instance, in Chrome (below), you still see the same amount of content on the 1080p G2 as you would on the 1440p G3. If the G3 actually used all of its pixels at actual size for content, you'd need a magnifying glass to see it all.

Of course, if you're a stickler for cutting-edge screens (or maybe you do hold your smartphone up really close to your face), you'll really like the G3's impeccable screen. Thin fonts such as Helvetica Neue Light look sharper on the G3 than when rendered on 1080p or 720p smartphones. I also noticed the G3's panel is slightly warmer compared to the G2, though. However, with daily use, you'll adjust to it.

Checklist Design FTW

The G2 read like a checklist. It had a fantastic screen, super slim bezels which made the smartphone usable with one hand, a camera with optical image stabilization, and killer battery life. At the time it was announced, it was the most powerful smartphone.

The G3 still reads like a checklist. LG's signature rear-positioned power buttons and volume rockers are back again. And of course, everything is faster (it’s not like it was going to get slower). LG’s latest flagship has a 2.5Ghz Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM (3GB for some regions), 13-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization and “Laser Autofocus” (more on that later), and runs the latest Android 4.4.2 KitKat,

If there’s anything LG can’t be accused of, it’s not listening to what people want. People complained the G2 had a glossy back that attracted fingerprints easily; the G3 has a plastic rear with a faux metallic finish that doesn’t attract fingerprints. The G2 only had fixed internal storage; the G3 has a microSD card slot for expansion up to an additional 64GB. The G2 had a sealed battery design; the G3 has a removable battery. The same goes for the G2 lacking wireless charging (Verizon’s G2 was the only variant to have it); the G3 now supports it.

Your usual NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE and IR blaster (for controlling TVs, stereo systems, and set-top boxes) are all on deck. On Korean models, the G3 has a telescoping antenna for digital TV broadcasts that tucks into the top of the phone, but it won’t be available on U.S. models. The rear-positioned speaker is also a lot louder and more audible thanks to a 1-watt speaker with boost amp for deep bass and clear treble.

Battery That Keeps On Going

Battery life is one of the most important features that people look for when considering a smartphone. A high-resolution display is pointless if it drains the battery at such a fast rate that you can’t even enjoy it all day.

The G3 has a 3,000mAh battery — same as the G2, but this time it’s removable. You’d think that the QHD screen would suck power like crazy, but it doesn’t. Whereas the G2 used a “step design” to squeeze as much battery into its smaller frame, the G3 uses what LG calls “3A Adaptive Optimization” — software that controls framerate, CPU clock speed, and timing control to get the most out of the same 3,000mAh.

With light use (checking a few emails, sending a few tweets, browsing a few websites and messaging and calling a couple of friends), the G3 was able to last me from 8 a.m. to nearly 7 p.m. before I needed to find an outlet. With more use (more of everything mentioned and streaming a few videos on YouTube and a few hours of music through Spotify), the G3 was still able to last a very respectable eight hours on most days. If that’s not impressive for a QHD smartphone, I’m not sure what will satisfy you.

Clever Camera Settings

The battle for the most megapixels and best low-light performance on smartphones is a never-ending one. That said, there’s a new battlefront: autofocus speed. Similar to how camera makers are trying to one-up each other with “world’s fastest autofocus” speeds, so too are smartphone makers.

Samsung’s Galaxy S5 was the first smartphone to sport “phase detection” for super fast autofocus and now LG has its own technology that uses the pill shaped cutout positioned on the left side of the rear camera lens to shoot lasers out and detect subjects. LG claims that the G3 can autofocus in 276 milliseconds. In my shootouts, the G3’s camera was indeed wicked fast. Here's a pretty decent low-light shot the G3 was able to capture:

Aside from the fancy laser-blasting sensor, the G3 also some neat camera tricks. You can activate a voice shutter by saying five commands: “Cheese,” “Smile,” “Whiskey,” “Kimchi” or “LG.” Funnily enough, all of the commands worked great except for “Cheese.” The G3 had trouble hearing that one for some reason.

If you’re a selfie kinda person, you can use a hand gesture to trigger a three-second countdown timer; simply raise your hand and when the front camera detects it then make a fist. It worked pretty well. I also really liked the fast transition for switching between the front and back camera by swiping to the right anywhere on the screen.

Another trend every major smartphone seems to tout these days is the “shoot first, focus later” feature. The HTC One (M8) uses two rear cameras to create a “Duo Camera” for detecting 3D depth info and the Samsung Galaxy S5 uses software. The G3 has its own version of this feature called “Magic focus” and it works very similar to the way the GS5 does, but in my tests, I found the post-blurring/de-blurring effect to be poor.

Video buffs will be happy to know the G3, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, can shoot 4K resolution video. If you have a fancy 4K TV, well, lucky you!

Simpler Custom Android Skin

As we mentioned in our hands-on, LG stressed simplicity as the overarching philosophy when it designed the G3; that's for both the hardware and the software. While I would have loved to see a "pure" (also called "vanilla") Android 4.4.2 KitKat operating system without any LG's custom tinkerings and carrier bloatware apps, the G3 really is a big improvement over the G2.

Much like iOS 7, the entire user interface has been flattened down, with almost all skeuomorphic icons and embellishments removed. The result is a cleaner, simpler and more youthful aesthetic that is more vibrant and modern looking.

The cleaner interface also has another purpose (in my opinion): it makes the gimmicky LG features feel less silly. The KnockOn feature, which lets you double tap the screen to turn it Knock Code, which lets you unlock the device using custom knocks within a rectangular space on the lockscreen feels less like tacked on features and more like they're actually integrated into the OS. The same goes for the ability to open two apps at once and adjust their windows. As a couple of Apple designers always say: design isn’t just how something looks, but how it feels too when you use it. On the G3, the responsiveness and fluidity in which these LG-developed features integrate into its own version of Android 4.4.2 simply harmonizes better than in the past.

The Best Big Smartphone

The G3, like the G2 is a really solid smartphone. LG took what was already a high-performance smartphone and threw even more at it. Everything about the G3 is better this time around. The screen is larger and sharper. It’s incredibly light and the “metallic” finish gives the entire device a more premium look and feel. And thanks to super slim bezels, the G3 is still usable in one hand.

Not only that, but LG also included features that people asked for — removable battery, microSD card slot, and simpler Android skin, to name a few. The G3 is LG telling customers “This is a phone designed for you with the features you actually care about.”

The G3 is unequivocally the best smartphone that’s larger than 5-inches. If you like using big smartphones and don’t care about a stylus, the G3 is a no-brainer. Like it or not, all smartphones are becoming big smartphones. (Even companies that have been reluctant to build bigger ones will ship them.) The G3 is the best big, but not tablet-sized big, smartphone available right now. I believe the G3 has the potential to compete with the iPhones and Galaxy smartphones out there. Now it’s just up to LG to bring the bigger marketing guns and compete with Apple and Samsung. If LG can’t, it’ll remain like HTC, a company that’s capable of making first-class smartphones, but always sidelined because nobody knows about them.

(All photos by Raymond Wong for DVICE.)

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