Editors' note: This review has been updated on July 22, 2014, with further US carrier analysis.
LG has always played second fiddle to Samsung in the smartphone market, especially in Korea, but it looks like its latest flagship, the G3, could cause a major upset. Early reports from Korea show the G3 selling like hotcakes, outdoing Samsung's Galaxy S5 by three times in the initial launch period.
It's not hard to see why. Unlike the Galaxy S5, which shows a more conservative approach in its design, LG's G3 goes bold with a new high-resolution "QHD" (2,560x1,440-pixel resolution) display, as well as adding a laser-guided autofocus for the camera.
That's not to mention the other design changes that address the issues of the previous flagship, such as the addition of a microSD card slot and removable battery. With a cleaner, toned-down redesign of the UI (it's running a reskinned Android 4.4 KitKat), the LG G3 has what it takes to be a top-ranked flagship smartphone for 2014.
AT&T and Sprint customers will be able to nab the G3 first, on July 11. It will cost $199.99 with a two-year contract. Off-contract, it will be $579.99 on AT&T and $600 on Sprint. Then, on July 16, T-Mobile users will be able to purchase it for the full prepaid price of $598.80. Verizon will pick it up a day later on July 17. Its on-contract price is cheaper at $99.99, but the retail price off-contract will be $599.99.
Sporting the same rounded corners and slim bezel as the G2, the LG G3 keeps the same buttons on the rear as well. Instead of the glossy plastic found on the G2, though, LG has given the G3 a metallic-looking back.
LG says the rear cover is mostly plastic (to allow wireless charging to work), but it added a metal film to give it that shiny, polished look. The result is a very premium finish, and Samsung should pay attention here. While the dimpled rear cover of the S5 was a marked improvement over the glossy finish of the S4, the G3's back cover conveys a more luxurious feel that you normally get from metal phones such as the HTC One M8 or the Apple iPhone 5S.
Unlike the LG G Flex, though, its surface has no healing capabilities, so if you accidentally scratch the rear, you'll have to live with the battle scars.
As mentioned earlier, the power button and volume rocker are all found on the back. LG has done this for a few phones now, and while it takes some getting used to, it's actually a pretty good tweak. The keys have a textured pattern that differentiates them from the rear cover. It's also easy to reach the buttons when holding the phone with one hand. There's no need to stretch your fingers to power off the device (especially if it's on the top).
The 13-megapixel camera is located right above the rear buttons, and on the left is the laser autofocus feature, which uses an infrared laser beam to measure the distance between the camera and the intended subject of your picture. On the right is the dual-LED flash.
The best part of the G3, however, has to be that there simply aren't any buttons. Unlike the S5, which has a physical home button, the G3 uses onscreen keys instead. This means that the 5.5-inch, 2,560x1,440-pixel-resolution screen grabs all of your attention, and the superthin bezel enhances that experience, making the phone appear to be "all screen."
The G3's display has an eye-popping 538 pixels per inch (ppi), while the iPhone 5S stops at 326ppi. That's 65 percent more pixels than Apple's handset, by the way. But does this really matter? In short, no. You'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a normal full-HD display and the QHD of the G3. The only time you could really see the difference would be if you were to put a drop of water on the screen and take a close-up shot.
I did that with the Oppo Find 7, which has a 5.5-inch 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution display, and compared it with an Oppo Find 7a, which is a Find 7 with a 1080p screen. Thus, the difference in this shot is similar to what you'd see between an LG G3 and a regular full-HD phone -- barely perceptible to the naked eye.
But as CNET editor Andrew Hoyle found in his in-depth look at the G3's display, the G3's QHD screen has more natural color tones than the S5's screen (which has a warmer color cast). In the end, though, having a 1440p display is more about bragging rights for marketing than any actual visual improvement.
Located above the display is a 2.1-megapixel camera for taking selfies. (LG has also included a few features to make that process easier, but more on that later in the review.) LG has borrowed a page from Apple's book of tricks: the 3.5mm audio jack is located at the bottom of the phone, next to the Micro-USB jack.
Overall, I found the build quality to be pretty solid; the phone is easy to grip. The 8.9mm-thick phone sits comfortably in the palm, but because of the width of its 5.5-inch display, it's often easier to to type with both hands.
Software features from LG
The G3 comes with a redesigned Android 4.4 user interface (UI) that's very clean and flat. This new look is very familiar -- I've seen similar UIs from Asus and HTC, but that's not to say that LG's efforts are copies. According to LG, the G3's UI has been tweaked to keep things simple; instead of adding more features with each iteration, LG has decided to pare it down somewhat.
For example, instead of having 16 camera modes, LG checked its data and got rid of the modes that were used less than 1 percent of the time, leaving just four of the more frequently selected ones.
To enhance the user experience, LG has added a Smart Notice box that gives advice on what's happening around you as well as reminders to return calls. I like the weather tip -- it lets me know when to expect rain, so I can pack an umbrella when I leave the office. This is really useful for me as someone who lives in a tropical country with a very fickle weather.
Like Samsung's S5, the G3 now has a built-in fitness tracker, called LG Health. It tracks your steps, as well as keeping a record of your other activities such as jogging or cycling.
The G3 also has KnockOn and Knock Code, which are features inherited from the G Pro 2. One caveat though: if your pants pocket has a thin lining, you will want to put the phone in your pocket facing outward, as you can accidentally power it on when the screen makes contact with your thigh through the thin cloth. This happened to me pretty frequently until I wised up.
LG's older features such as QuickMemo are present, as well, but Slide Aside, a feature that lets you call up three apps with a three-finger gesture, is gone. It was an awkwardly implemented feature, so its departure should be no surprise. One feature I liked that was retained was Clip Tray, which lets you collect data for easy pasting later.
The new Smart Keyboard is height-adjustable, which makes a lot of sense to me. If you prefer larger keys to type with (or conversely, smaller ones), this lets you tweak it to your liking. I found myself leaving it at default, as this was just the right size. It seems LG has licensed Swype for use as the default keyboard, so you can draw a line between letters to spell out the word you want. I discovered that this doesn't really work well if you're holding the phone in one hand and trying to draw words with your thumb, though.
Overall, LG's new UI is very likable and usable, and I'm impressed with just how simple and clean everything is. While underneath it is still the Android experience that you know and love, LG's tweaks have made using the OS even better.
Software features from the carriers
For AT&T users, the carrier preloaded a healthy dosage of apps and services. One is DriveMode, an app that can send out a customizable message to incoming calls or texts when it senses the device is traveling faster than 25 mph. There's FamilyMap, which helps you locate family members on your AT&T account; and MyAT&T, which lets you check your data and account info.
If your device gets stolen or lost, Mobile Locate will pinpoint its location. In addition, a news app called "att.net Home" is included, as well as a 7-day trial to MobileTV, which lets you stream network TV shows. The carrier also threw in its own navigation app, a handset user guide, and apps to help set up a mobile hotspot and visual voice mail. You'll also get AT&T Smart Wi-Fi, which connects your phone to publicly available Wi-Fi, a usage manager so you can look over your battery and data consumption, and 5GB of free cloud storage through AT&T Locker.