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Bright screen with a blazingly fast processor

We get our hands on an international LG G2 handset, down to its bright 5.2-inch screen, 13-megapixel camera, and wacky rear-mounted buttons.

Now playing: Watch this: The powerful, blazingly-fast LG G2
Now playing: Watch this: LG's ultra thin, super fast G2

LG has yet to usurp either Samsung or Apple as leading mobile giants in the US, but that hasn't stopped the company from trying its hardest with its new flagship device, the G2.

Dropping the "Optimus" moniker to shake off a humdrum mass-market image, LG hopes to elevate the handset to a more premium plane somewhere beyond its predecessor. The company may have stumbled a bit while hyping it up, but when it comes to the G2 itself, it's a definite heavyweight contender.

Not only is it the first globally available device to boast Qualcomm's lightning-quick Snapdragon 800 processor, but the G2 is also equipped with an expansive 1080p display and 13-megapixel camera as well. As if that weren't enough, LG also, oddly, moved the handset's main hardware buttons to its backside, claiming it as a more ergonomic setup.

But perhaps the G2's most appealing characteristic -- the one feature that will surely play a large role in either its popularity or unpopularity in the US -- is the fact that it's available on all four major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint). Of course, until I know its final pricing, I'll hold off on a buying recommendation. But for now, let's just say that with its beastly specs, LG is definitely putting its gloves on for this smartphone battle.

Editors' note: This is a deep dive into the international LG G2 with preproduction software. We'll fully rate and review US models as soon as they arrive.

Glossy, smooth, and thin, the device measures 5.45 inches tall, 2.79 inches wide, and 0.35 inch thick. Now, I have a small grip, so I already run into trouble maneuvering the GS4 or the HTC One with one hand. Because the G2 is a hair wider than both those handsets, I experienced the same problems: my thumb doesn't reach across the display; I have to constantly readjust my grip in order to tap certain regions on the screen; and since I also wear slim jeans, it isn't the most comfortable thing to bury in my front pockets.

Another drawback of the phone's design is how easily it accumulate fingerprints and smudges. There were plenty of times I had to wipe down its screen and back plate to eradicate streaks.

LG G2 (profile)
The device's 0.35-inch profile keeps the G2 lightweight and slim. Josh Miller/CNET

Keep in mind, however, that my preferences may be different from yours. If you don't care much about fingerprints, always handled big-screen handsets comfortably, and never had any problems with the size of your jean pockets, you won't have the same gripes as I do. Plus, I like how pleasantly skinny the phone is, and how its lean profile doesn't make it feel too fragile. In addition, I dig the iridescent highlights hidden under the back skin, and this Nexus 4-esque styling added flair to the otherwise common black aesthetic.

As an aside, LG will sell Quick Window Cases for the G2, similar to the G Pro's case and Samsung's S View cover. Like the latter, the Quick case will have a window so you can see some parts of your screen, which can include the date and time. It will come in several colors and will be sold separately. LG will also sell QuadBeat earphones to take advantage of the device's hi-fi (24-bit, 192KHz) audio.

The massive 5.2-inch IPS LCD display has a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and 423ppi density. Responsive and glove friendly, it runs edge-to-edge against the bezel, thanks to a dual-routing touch-screen sensor technology that reduces the size of the bezel to just 0.1 inch thick.

Images are incredibly crisp and on maximum brightness level, colors are vibrant. It has a wide viewing angle and it accurately displayed a white swatch. Looking at the display in sunlight was easy, however, I could only see it clearly after I had thoroughly wiped the screen. When it comes to viewing it outdoors, I was surprised how easily the screen could be obscured by fingerprints.

LG G2 (screen)
At 5.2 inches, the handset's display is big, bright, and impressive. Josh Miller/CNET

So...what's up with the buttons?
When the phone debuted in New York, many wondered if moving the volume rocker and sleep/power buttons was really that necessary. Was it a crazy move, or did everyone else have it wrong the whole time?

After spending some meaningful time with the G2, the location change doesn't really feel like either of those sentiments. The keys sit below the main camera and LED flash, and while LG touts their convenience for adjusting audio midcall, I found them small and tricky to locate without looking.

Long-pressing the volume-down button on the back will launch the camera, while holding the volume-up key opens LG's note-taking app, QuickMemo. To take a screenshot, hold both the power and volume-down key. All these actions worked when I could find the buttons, but all three keys are small and hard to locate blindly. It also felt odd to press the back of the device to activate the camera. The twisting motion on Motorola's Moto X, or even tapping a button on the side, felt a bit more natural.

LG G2 (rear)
LG moved its volume and power keys to the back, which makes it stand out. Josh Miller/CNET

In the grand scheme of things, it isn't that jarring, and there were times when it felt more convenient to have my finger just stop midway at the rear, rather than having to stretch all the way to the opposite edge. However, the advantage seemed negligible, and it does take a while for your hands and fingers to unlearn years of muscle memory. In addition, with the power key so close to the camera, there was always a risk of me smudging the lens with my oily fingers (it's a natural occurrence OK? Cut me some slack!), and it's not like the prospects got any better when there was food around.

Software and features
It's important to note that the international model I received does not run a finalized version of the device's intended software. So not only is our model's software obviously varied from the US version, but it's also slightly different than the global units that will eventually hit the mass market in the next couple of weeks.

Having said that, the device currently runs with Android 4.2.2. You'll get your standard stock of Google apps including Gmail, Chrome, Maps with Navigation, and YouTube.

The handset also comes with a number of software features seen in previous LG phones like the Optimus G and the G Pro. QuickRemote, for instance, uses an IR blaster at the top of the G2 to turn itself into a universal remote for things like TVs, DVD players, and projectors. Interestingly, you can program in multiple gadgets and merge them into one virtual universal remote. If you've got a wacky AV device not in LG's database of home theater gear, the Quick Remote app also lets you train the G2 to control any gadget. Just make sure you have its associated remote in reach.

LG G2 (screenshots QuickMemo)
Like past LG handsets, the G2 features QuickMemo (left), which is now accessible by swiping from the bottom edge of the screen. It also has universal remote functions. Lynn La/CNET

There's LG's staple note-taking feature, QuickMemo, which lets you jot down notes and doodles either directly onto whatever your screen is displaying at the moment, or on a virtual memo pad. To access QuickMemo, slide your finger up from the bottom edge of the screen.

There's also QSlide, LG's multitasking function that allows you to overlay video, the calculator, and the browser while you browsed through your device and accessed other apps. You can resize your QSlide window, too, and change its transparency.

In addition, the handset includes 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage (but with no expandable memory), and NFC.

What's new from LG
As its new flagship, LG introduced a slew of new UI and gesture control features with the G2.

One such feature is Slide Aside, which lets you pull up and access three apps of your choosing. On the surface this sounds like a really great feature but I found swiping three fingers across the display to engage the function very awkward and unintuitive. Though it's nice to customize which three apps you can bring up, it's much easier to hold down the home button and bring up the recent apps menu.

Another tool called Clip Tray can save chunks of text to use at a later time. In the opposite of our experience with Slide Aside, I was skeptical of this trick at the outset but have to admit it began to grow on me. When I saw how easy it was to dump detailed data such as address and contact information into e-mails and texts, I quickly grasped Clip Tray's appeal.

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. Though it takes some time to even remember that the phone can even do this, it's convenient and operated well. I also acknowledge that KnockOn helps address the fact that when the G2 is resting on a table, you can't reach its power button on back (unless you pick it up, of course).

LG G2 - new UI
The G2's new features include GuestMode (left) and SlideAside. Lynn La/CNET

The device's 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. The G2 executed this ability well when I tried it, and it even provides a short haptic burst of vibration when the line becomes active.

Lastly, Guest Mode is a privacy protection setting that launches when a guest unlocks your home screen by drawing a different pattern than your own. With it you'll be able to lock down sensitive apps and other areas of the device so you won't fear software damage when handing the G2 over to energetic toddlers. However, it appears you cannot change the wallpaper of Guest Mode, which means you're unfortunately stuck with an image of a family of ducks trailing behind a big red balloon.

Though all these software features sound nifty (especially Guest Mode), as I said before, some of these controls aren't initially intuitive to access, and took a few moments to get used to. LG includes a tutorial with all these new functions, which is helpful, but can be overwhelming. If you want to become an expert with your G2, you'll have to be willing to put in some time and effort.

Camera and video
LG's first mature 13-megapixel debuted with Sprint's G Pro. Though that camera's photo quality didn't blow anyone away, its pictures ended up being largely sharp and colorful. The same can be said with this handset, which also proved itself as a fast, respectable camera. In general, photo quality was good. Pictures taken both indoor and outdoor were sharp, in focus, and had true-to-life colors. In addition, recording in 1080p HD video looked sharp, audio picked up well, and objects remained in focus.

One new feature is the camera's optical image stabilization, which worked well. Used in conjunction with the phone's fast processor, I was easily able to capture sharp images while hurriedly walking down the street. Even though my hand was unstable, photos showed little to no motion blur at all.

LG G2 (indoor)
In this indoor shot, several details in the background are retained, but colors appear a bit muted. Lynn La/CNET
LG G2 (indoor)
In this amply lit indoor shot, the flowers do not look particularly sharp around the edges. Lynn La/CNET

LG G2 (outdoor storefront)
The chairs and this man's face is sharp in this sunny photo of storefront. Lynn La/CNET

This image was taken while I was quickly walking down the street. The camera's OIS helped to stabilize and sharpen this photo. Lynn La/CNET

In our standard studio shot, you can see how the flash casts a blue hue against the white background. Josh Miller/CNET

I tested the G2, using AT&T's network, however, keep in mind that this is an unlocked, global version that isn't optimized for any network. From what I can tell, call quality was respectable. None of my calls dropped, there was no extraneous buzzing or sounds, and audio didn't clip in and out. Voices sounded clear and understandable, but I could hear a bit of static with every word. I was also told that I sounded fine as well, though audio could have been a bit sharper.

LG G2 (audio speakers)
The smartphone features dual speakers along its bottom edge. Josh Miller/CNET

One of the major improvements with the device was its audio speaker quality. In the past, LG handsets tended to have small, narrow speakers that made audio come off pinched and harsh. This phone has two speakers located at the bottom edge, and voices sounded much better: I didn't hear much tinniness, audio had a bit more depth, and music was finely tuned and robust.

Listen now: Unlocked LG G2 (AT&T) call quality sample

Some preliminary data tests on AT&T's HSPA+ network showed the CNET mobile and desktop sites loading in 5 seconds and 13 seconds respectively. The NYT mobile site loaded in 4 seconds. The ESPN mobile site loaded in 6 seconds and its desktop site loaded in 9. Early testing with Ookla's speedtest app showed 4.34Mbps down and 1.06Mbps up, again on HPSA+. The 35.01MB game Temple Run 2 downlodaed and installed in a minute and 14 seconds.

The phone is powered by a superfast 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor that's backed up by a dedicated allotment of memory specifically meant for handling graphics chores (called GRAM). I can attest that it certainly handles like a speed demon. Menus flew by with almost blinding swiftness, while apps and home screens opened and closed in the blink of an eye.

Of course we can say the same about other handsets, like the Motorola Moto X, which relies on a less souped-up X8 processing system composed of the Snapdragon S4 processor and two digital signal processors. However, the G2 executed a bevvy of tasks quickly and smoothly. While playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP, the app didn't stall or quit, and frame rates looked impressively high to the naked eye. Initial tests showed that the device can power off and restart in about 30 seconds and launch the camera in under 2 seconds. When I get my hands on a finalized model, I'll carry out more-thorough testing, so be sure to check back with this review.

LG G2 (quadrant)
Quadrant result on the smartphone clock in at 18,429. Lynn La/CNET

Juicing the handset with power is a 3,000mAh battery that has a reported usage time of up to 1.2 days. Although I have yet to conduct our drain test, on paper, that's a sizable power source. Especially since the long-lasting Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD used a 3,300mAh battery and the Droid Maxx's is 3,500mAh. Unfortunately, this phone's battery is not removable.

When it comes to the mobile market, the G2 faces stiff competition -- not just from reigning flagship phones like the HTC One and the GS4, but also against Motorola's recently updated Droid family.

And while the phone may not be a game changer by any means, it absolutely meets current expectations for a superpremium phone. True, the absent microSD card slot and embedded battery may be deal breakers for some, but the handset makes up for all that with its lightning-fast processor, great camera (now with image stabilization!), and fantastic screen.

We’ll need to wait for the phone’s US launch before really teasing out its real-world performance, but from what I can tell, the G2 brings on plenty of heat. What is clear is that the G2 is a fantastic performer, and LG's most ambitious handset to date.

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