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LG G Flex review: Daring design, but plays it safe with features

Equipped with a contoured 6-inch display, the G Flex has an interesting shape indeed, but does it have what it takes to outperform the competition?

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Lynn La
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Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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11 min read

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.

LG G Flex (all carriers)
7.3

LG G Flex

The Good

The <b>LG G Flex</b>'s contoured display renders media watching more immersive, it features a scratch-resistant coating, and its sizable battery provides an adequate amount of juice.

The Bad

The G Flex's massive size can be unwieldy, its camera quality is mediocre, and its 720p display can't outpace its competitors.

The Bottom Line

Despite a novel construction and scuff-proof exterior, the LG G Flex's doesn't flex enough muscle against the Samsung Galaxy Round or the Note 3.

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.

LG G Flex shows off its muscles (pictures)

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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.

LG G Flex (all carriers)
The handset is available on-contract at AT&T and Sprint, as well as prepaid for T-Mobile. Josh Miller/CNET

Design

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.

LG G Flex (curve)
The Flex flaunts an uncommon contour that's subtle and comfortable. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

LG G Flex (pressure)
Breathe, man, breathe! CPR might not work on this phone, but it can hold up against the pressure at least. Josh Miller/CNET

Self-healing powers?
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.

LG G Flex (scratch)
After dozens of attempts with a set of keys, I managed to leave just one permanent scratch on the handset's surface. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

LG G Flex (battery)
Inside the Flex is a hefty 3,500mAh battery that's curved as well. Lynn La/CNET

Software features

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.

LG G Flex (Dual Window)
Choosing which apps to open in Dual Window (left), and the final split screen that results. Lynn La/CNET

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.

LG G Flex (QTheater)
Open sesame! Users can open QTheater from the lock screen. Lynn La/CNET

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.

LG G Flex (all carriers rear)
Individual carriers loaded plenty of their own apps to get you started. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

LG G Flex (indoor)
In this indoor photo, the white tree skirt is blown out, and you can see digital noise against the white walls. Lynn La/CNET
LG G Flex (closeup indoor)
Even when I chose the pale white kernel to the center right to focus on, the object still doesn't appear sharp. Lynn La/CNET
LG G Flex (outdoor)
The red hues in this outdoor photo are vivid, and the building's windows have well-defined edges. Lynn La/CNET
LG G Flex (SSI)
In this standard studio shot, objects are sharp, but a yellow hue is apparent around the edges of the photo. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

LG G Flex (selfie)
When the power button flashes green, it means the rear-camera is focused on that selfie. Josh Miller/CNET

As for video quality, the camera showed varying results. Shooting in 1080p HD video yielded sharp footage, with both moving and still objects remaining in focus. Colors appeared true-to-life, and the camera was able to shift its focus for lighting without having that odd "pulsating" effect seen in the Nexus 5.

However I did experience issues with audio. Nearby audio sounded hollow, almost echo-y, and when I shot video indoors and outdoors, I could hear a subtle and continuous rustling noise, as if I were underwater. Lastly, when I recorded a rustling magenta feather boa, the video would suddenly be saturated with a vivid shade of blue. Sometimes the blue stayed, and other times it would switch back and forth to the regular color of the boa. This happened consistently when I was in both camera and video mode.

Like we've seen previously, you can record with both cameras simultaneously, and take photos and pause video while recording. Both cameras have fun live effects that manipulate the shape of your face, as well as an anti-shaking feature that stabilizes shaky video footage which can occur from involuntary hand movement.

LG G Flex (video grab)
This photo, taken while I was recording video, shows the blue hue that would suddenly wash over my footage of the boa. Lynn La/CNET

The rear shooter can record up to 60fps for a fast-forward effect. It also has audio zooming and tracking zoom. The former let's you emphasize certain sound sources while recording, and the latter enables users to zoom in on a particular object or person while recording background video. This works easily and smoothly, and LG has added new frames to tracking zoom and dual recording,so the front-facing camera can appear in many shapes, such as a stamp or a star.

Performance

Call quality
I initially tested an unlocked handset in our San Francisco offices using AT&T's GSM network. Call quality was adequately clear. Although I could hear a bit of static from time to time, it was rare. None of my calls dropped, audio remained consistent, and volume was at an adequate level. My calling partner's voice did sound a tad on the flat side, and I was told I sounded similar. (My partner also commented that I sounded "nasally" but that's most likely due to the fact that I am, at the time of testing and writing, battling a cold.)

I also tested three G Flex models that were optimized for AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile's networks. In general, all units had reliable call quality. Maximum volume was pleasantly loud and even when adjusted to a lower volume, voices were easy to understand and clear. My calls on AT&T's version sounded the clearest, though not by much. Calls made on Sprint and T-Mobile's G Flex did have a distant rumor of static, but it wasn't overly distracting.

LG G Flex (AT&T, unlocked) call quality sample

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LG G Flex (AT&T) call quality sample

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LG G Flex (Sprint) call quality sample

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LG G Flex (T-Mobile) call quality sample

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When I took these phones outdoors, call quality remained excellent. My calling partner couldn't hear any background noise across any of the three carriers, even though I was speaking along a busy street with cars passing by. I was told that there wasn't even a noticeable difference between indoor and outdoor sound quality. However, there was one time during a call made with the Sprint unit that my partner said I sounded just a bit muffled, but that soon went away after a few seconds.

Audio speaker quality with phone conversations, music, and videos yielded the same sort of hollow sound across all models. Sound came off a little thin, especially when volume is cranked all the way on max. Though it never reached an overly distracting or troublesome level, it was disappointing that audio wasn't very impressive given how much this smartphone is touted as a more immersive, media-rich device.

Data performance
When I initially tested our unlocked unit, the G Flex was only able to connect to AT&T's 3G network because of international wireless incompatibilities. Speeds weren't always consistent (sometimes it'd take anywhere from 5 seconds to 2 minutes just to load the same Web site), but keep in mind that our international review unit may not be optimized with US carriers. That being said, data speeds were decent when they managed to stabilize. On average, CNET, The New York Times, and ESPN's mobile sites loaded in 6 seconds. The first two desktop pages loaded in 13 seconds, while ESPN's desktop site loaded in 9. Ookla's speedtest app showed an average 3.17Mbps down and 1.04Mbps up. The (then) 37.61MB game Temple Run 2 downloaded and installed in an impressive -- for 3G, anyway -- 2 minutes and 13 seconds.

Later in our San Francisco offices again, I was able to test the G Flex models that were optimized for AT&T and T-Mobile's LTE networks. While the latter clocked in with slightly slower times, it was the most consistent and reliable of the two. At times, the AT&T G Flex would take more than a minute to load a Web page, but during another trial, the same site would take just take a few seconds. On average however, the AT&T unit took 4 seconds to load CNET's mobile site, and 10 seconds for the desktop page. The New York Times' mobile and full sites loaded in 5 and 9 seconds, respectively. And it took 5 and 6 seconds for ESPN's mobile and desktop sites to load. About 29 seconds passed to download Temple Run 2 (which since the testing of the unlocked unit had now grown to 40.89MB). Ookla results lead to an average 19.92Mpbs down, and 8.39Mbps up.

LG G Flex (Temple Run 2)
Our data tests measured how long it took the G Flex to download and install Temple Run 2. Josh Miller/CNET

As for T-Mobile, our unit took 4 and 9 seconds to load CNET's mobile-optimized and full sites. Both the mobile sites for The New York Times and ESPN loaded in 5 seconds. Their corresponding desktop sites took 7 and 6 seconds, respectively. The 40.89MB game Temple Run 2 took 45 seconds to download, and average speed times showed 10.94Mbps down and 9.86Mbps up.

The Sprint device is currently branded with the carrier's high-speed Spark 4G LTE network. However, Sprint's LTE is currently available in 405 official markets, which doesn't include San Francisco. As such, we were only able to measure the handset's 3G data speeds. In general, it took about 38 seconds for it to load CNET's mobile site and 1 minute and 19 seconds for our desktop site. Mobile and desktop sites for The New York Times took 13 seconds and 1 minute, respectively. It took 51 seconds for ESPN's mobile site to appear, and 1 minute and 14 seconds for the full site. During the time of testing, Temple Run 2 was 44.22MB big, and it took 24 minutes for it to download and install. Finally, Ookla test results showed an average of 0.26Mbps down and 0.66Mbps up.

AT&T (unlocked, 3G) AT&T (4G LTE) Sprint (3G) T-Mobile (4G LTE)
Average download speed (Mpbs) 3.17 19.92 0.26 10.94
Average upload speed (Mbps) 1.04 8.39 0.66 9.86
Temple Run 2 app download 37.61MB in 2 min. and 13 sec. 40.89MB in 29 sec. 44.22MB in 24 min. 40.89MB in 45 sec.
CNET mobile site load (in seconds) 6 4 38 4
CNET desktop site load (in seconds) 13 10 79 9
Restart time (in seconds) 31 23 23 26
Camera boot time (in seconds) 1.75 1.55 1.59 1.65

Processor speed and battery life
The Snapdragon 800 processor in conjunction with the Adreno 330 GPU deliver reliable, ultrasmooth gameplay. Riptide GP, which is graphics intensive, launched quickly, and the app never stuttered or force quit. Animation had a high frame rate, but (understandably) didn't look as crisp as I've seen before on 1080p displays. It goes without saying that less complicated tasks, such as returning to the home page, calling up the keyboard, and launching the app drawer, took no time at all. Though the Flex's 19,826 Quadrant score is impressive (the G2, for example, runs the same processor and scored 19,050), it's important to note that the Note 3 scored higher at 23,048.

What carrier you have plays no role on the processing speeds of a phone, but on average, it took the unlocked unit about 31 seconds for the handset to power off and restart, and a mere 1.75 seconds to launch the camera. AT&T and Sprint's units both took 23 seconds to restart. As for opening the camera, the AT&T model took 1.55 seconds while Sprint clocked in at 1.59 seconds. T-Mobile's model took 26 seconds to restart and 1.65 seconds to launch the camera.

LG G Flex (Ookla and Quadrant)
A few 3G data times of the unlocked G Flex (left), and the Flex's Quadrant score. Lynn La/CNET

As previously mentioned, the Flex contains a 3,500mAh battery. This is slightly larger than the Galaxy Note 3's 3,200mAh battery, and the same size as that of the Droid Maxx. Keep in mind, however, that the Maxx has a smaller 5-inch display and a dual-core CPU. With medium use, brightness turned up to max, and a 3G data connection, the device lasted 13 hours with 36 percent leftover. And even at that level, the Flex estimated that I still had about 8 hours of usage time remaining. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, it lasted an impressive 17.82 hours.

According to FCC radiation standards, the handset has a digital SAR rating of 0.52W/kg on AT&T, 0.73W/kg on Sprint, and 0.92W/kg when operating on T-Mobile's network.

Conclusion

When I first heard about the G Flex, I did roll my eyes. Personally, the bowed shape wasn't initially compelling, and LG's initiative to "mix things up" seemed contrived.

However, after using the device, I stand corrected. The curve does indeed render the massive handset more manageable and comfortable. And not only did I feel more drawn in when I watched movies or played games, but even small tasks like Web browsing and swiping through photos became more engrossing because of the curved depth of the display.

But the phone faces stiff competition from Samsung's own curvy device. Though it bends on the sides rather than on top and bottom, the Galaxy Round has a sharper screen, a newer version of Android, and a better build quality.

LG G Flex (all carriers 2)
Can the LG G Flex stand up against its rival handsets? Josh Miller/CNET

So should you get it? Without taking price into account, the Round is the better device. However, right now you can only get it for a high (unsubsidized) price from third-party vendors.

If you want to remain within the same price range as the G Flex though, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a worthy alternative. It, too, is $299.99 on-contract, or $708 on T-Mobile. At 5.7 inches, its screen isn't as big as the G Flex, but the 1080p display is sharper, and its built-in S Pen stylus and bevy of software features pushes user productivity to the next level.

Don't get me wrong, though -- if you want a bowed phone, the LG G Flex won't disappoint. It's still an excellent device if you're looking for something with a big screen that's fast and reliable. Even as a standalone phone, the handset will prove satisfactory in its performance and novel in its form factor.

LG G Flex (all carriers)
7.3

LG G Flex

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7
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