Editors' note, March 19, 2014: This review has been updated with analysis of the G Flex's data performance on Sprint. It was previously updated on January 31, 2014, to include call performance and software features on US carriers, as well as data performance for AT&T and T-Mobile.
From the start you'll notice that the LG G Flex is like few other phones before it. Its 6-inch display is slightly curved, giving the handset a striking, even ambitious, profile. But whether you think this bowed construction is a pointless gimmick (remember 3D phones?) or, along with the Samsung Galaxy Round, a welcomed resurgence in a unique and useful smartphone design, the device has plenty of other things going for it as well.
For one thing, its design (which took five years to develop), is pretty tough. It can withstand a good amount of flattening, and has a scratch-resistant coating that "heals itself." It also has one of the sharpest processors -- a Snapdragon 800 -- on the market, and a battery that rivals the Motorola Droid Maxx's.
The G Flex does have its share of drawbacks though. Its 720p screen isn't as crisp as those of its competitors, its camera is mediocre, and the device's large size can prove unwieldy. And while it performs respectably, it doesn't quite have what it takes to surpass both the Galaxy Round or the current reigning king of phablet productivity, the Galaxy Note 3.
Still, the phone remains unique, and it's a memorable device with plenty of potential. The curved shape is more than a party trick; it greatly improves the media experience and feels more comfortable to hold. Although I wish LG had put more effort into the finer details like the display resolution, the G Flex is the right step in a new direction.
Pricing and availability
Both AT&T and Sprint currently carry the G Flex for $299.99 with a service agreement and $694.99 without. T-Mobile will also offer the device starting February 5, 2014, for $672 (or $28 a month for two years). Unlocked models from third-party vendors and Amazon start at around $700.
Caution: Curves ahead
LG reported that it went through hundreds of mock-ups and trials before finally deciding that the 700mm radius curvature was the "ideal curve" for the G Flex. Though the arc is visually noticeable (especially when the device is resting on its back), the actual physical feel of it is much subtler.
Still, its contoured shape does make the 6-inch OLED display a bit more comfortable in the hand. Don't get me wrong -- the device's massive shape can still be unwieldy at times. In fact, there were a few times when I nearly dropped the handset. In addition, I didn't notice much of a difference in terms of comfort when I held the phone up to my face. However, the curve makes the phone more manageable when I'm swiping through it.
Moreover, the bend also helps minimizes glare. When I took the Flex outdoors, the display was already easy on the eyes in the sunlight. But the arc also helped cut down the amount of direct light coming at it. In conjunction with the display's massive size, watching videos and playing games also felt more engrossing because of the curve. The slight inward slope at the ends brings the screen closer on its sides, shortening one's field of vision. Even small tasks, like scrolling up and down Web sites or browsing through my photos seemed to draw me in more.
LG also says the curvature helps amplify audio in and out when making calls. I didn't notice much of a difference here, but when placed on a flat surface, the phone's curve raised the audio speaker above the table, making the volume louder than if placed flat on the surface.
Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Round, the curve goes top-to-bottom. That may not hug a leg as well, but it actually matches the shape of a wallet held in your back pocket for a while. It's a good thing too, because it's meant to survive being sat on. In that vein, the Flex does indeed flex. It can reportedly withstand up to 88 pounds of pressure. I pressed the device down dozens and dozens of times, and I stepped on it as well. You can also place it facing upward and press down on the ends. It held up finely against the pressure, and no visible damage occurred.
The rear finish, which LG says is "self-healing," is derived from paint finishes in the automotive industry. Hydrogen in the finish is involved in the surface expanding over time after being scratched, sealing up any damage. Keep in mind, however, that it's not impenetrable. An X-Acto knife will damage the surface easily, and I managed to put one permanent scar on the back of the device with a key.
That occurred, however, after several attempts. Prior, the Flex would show some scuffs here and there, but those would disappear after a few minutes or so (increasing the surface's temperature with simple rubbing will also help the healing process). This was all pretty impressive given that the handset is supposed to fend off everyday scuffs and scratches, which it indeed does.
The general design
The handset measures 6.32 inches tall, 3.21 inches wide, and 0.34-inch thick. It weighs a hefty 6.2 ounces and, like I said before, its hefty size can be cumbersome for users with small hands. Similar to the G2, the G Flex's power and volume buttons are located in the rear. To wake up the handset from sleep mode, simply double-tap its touch screen (this is called KnockOn). To lock it and put it back to sleep, tap the display again.
The OLED display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution. Though colors are vivid and images are clear, images and videos looked noticeably coarse or "crunchy." True, the display won't be as crisp compared to 1080p screens, but even keeping that in mind, I saw a notable amount of graininess in simple wallpaper images and color banding -- and color banding was common.
On the bottom of our review unit is a collapsible antenna for the phone's built-in TV feature. This is similar to the international version of the LG Intuition, known as the Vu. If the Flex comes to the US, this antenna feature would most likely be excluded.
Hardware and key components
The handset's 3,500mAh curved battery uses patented technology that takes advantage of its unique shape to perform more reliably.
Powering the device is a 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor (the same blazing fast CPU that's seen in the Nexus 5 and the LG G2 flagship) and a 450MHz Adreno 330 GPU. Other features include 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage (with no microSD card), Bluetooth, and near-field communication.
Running Android 4.2.2, our unlocked Flex features your usual lineup of Google apps including Chrome, Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts, Maps with Navigation and Local, Photos, YouTube, and access to the Play Store's Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music, and Newsstand portals. And, as with practically all devices these days, you get basic management apps like a calculator, a calendar, a voice recorder, etc.
As a new LG device, you can expect many of the same software goodies as the G2 or the G Pad tablet. This includes a tool called Clip Tray, which can save chunks of text for use at a later time. The Answer Me function automatically lowers the ringer volume of an incoming call if it senses the handset is being picked up, and it'll also answer the call when you hold the phone against your face. Guest Mode is a privacy protection setting that launches when a guest unlocks your home screen by drawing a different pattern than your own. There's also LG's version of Samsung's S-Voice or Apple's Siri. Known as Voice Mate, you can launch this function by either tapping on the Voice Mate app, or swiping from the bottom edge of the screen.
What's new from LG
In addition to a few cosmetic tweaks with the user interface (like a fresh new set of customizable icons and a more elegant weather widget), the smartphone includes three multitasking features that let you simultaneously access several apps quickly. Though we've already seen Slide Aside and QSlide in previous LG devices like the G2 and the G Pad, one new addition is Dual Window. To launch this, tap and then long-press the "back" hot key twice. A small menu of apps will appear, wherein you can choose the two apps you want to "split screen" by dragging their icons either to the top or bottom of the display.
There's swing lock screen, which changes the perspective of the lock screen image depending on how you hold the phone. It's similar to a parallax effect, and it only works when you either move or tilt the Flex vertically. When I tried it out, the motion was less "swingy" and more "choppy," and it took a few moments after you moved the phone for it to shift the image.
There's also an urgent call alert, which flashes the LED notification light when you miss several calls in a row from the same number. Other new UI features I've noticed include the ability to auto-crop the status bar when taking a screenshot, and three different screen modes (standard, vivid, and natural) which adjust the vibrancy of the display's colors.
You can also change the orientation of the hotkeys to lean either on the left or right side (useful for one-handed operation), and if you want to adjust the brightness of your screen while watching a video, you can do so directly by sliding your finger across the player.
Lastly, there's QTheater. This lets you access your photos, videos, and YouTube directly from the lock screen. To launch QTheater, hold the phone in landscape mode. Use two fingers and slide outward from the center, in both directions.
What to expect from the carriers
AT&T's model is preloaded with a number of its apps, such as a code scanner, a safe-drive mode app, its cloud service, a mobile locator, and its own navigation system. There's also a Famigo app that makes your device kid-friendly, Beats Music, Lookout Security, a mobile wallet from Isis, the Amazon Kindle and Yellow Pages apps, and more.
Sprint included Sprint Zone, where you can check your account information and balance. There's also a ringtone portal called Sprint Music Plus, as well as Sprint TV and Movies, and Sprint ID. ID enables you to customize your phone with preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose.
T-Mobile loaded a conservative number of its apps. You'll get T-Mobile My Account, which gives you information about your phone and data plan; a trial subscription to the caller ID service Name ID; and apps that help set up your visual voicemail and mobile hotspot. Lastly, the media streaming service T-Mobile TV offers a 30-day trial to channels such as Fox News and ESPN.
Camera and video
Although the rear-facing camera operates swiftly, photo quality, once again, failed to impress me. Similar to Sprint's Optimus G and the G2, the Flex's 13-megapixel shooter took photos that were easy to make out and looked satisfactory. However, they weren't exceptional: pictures contained muted, almost dull, colors. Objects taken up close lacked razor-sharp focus, and edges looked blurry and soft.
Even with ample lighting indoors, pictures had a notable amount of digital noise, and white hues often were washed out. For more on the device's camera quality, check out the photos below. Be sure to click each picture to see them at their full resolution.
Both the rear-camera and the 2.1-megapixel front camera have plenty of photo options. These include auto and touch focus; a voice shutter function that lets you operate the shutter by saying certain words including "cheese," "smile," or "whiskey;" a brightness meter; five white-balance settings; three color effects; a timer; geotagging; and the option to select whether you want to volume key to either zoom or take a photo.
Understandably, the 13-megapixel camera has more options, such as four image sizes that range from 1,280x960 to 4,160x3,120 pixels (the 2.1-megapixel camera can only save up to 1,920x1,080 pixels). The rear shooter also has flash, face-tracking and macro focus, 12 scene modes (the front-facing camera has only four), and ISO options. However, there is an extra function in the 2.1-megapixel camera where you can save an image as flipped.
One neat feature about the 13-megapixel camera's "face-tracking" option is that it works in conjunction with the LED light located on the power button. Because you won't be able to see the screen when you take a selfie with the rear-camera, the LED light will light up yellow if it senses a face is in the shot. When it lights up green, it means the camera has now focused on the face, and you can go ahead and take the photo.