LG G2 review: Blazing-fast performance is an Android standout

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The Good The LG G2 has a top-of-the line processor, an expansive screen, and a powerful camera that's lightning-quick.

The Bad The handset's rear control buttons take time to get used to, its new software features are buried and unintuitive, and there's no microSD card slot.

The Bottom Line If you're willing to live with some minor design compromises, you can't go wrong with LG's ultrafast G2 workhorse.

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8.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

LG has yet to usurp either Samsung or Apple as leading mobile giant in the US, but that hasn't stopped the company from outdoing itself 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 up its new marquee phone, but when it comes to the G2 itself, it's a definite heavyweight contender.

The G2, for example, was the first globally available device to boast Qualcomm's lightning-quick Snapdragon 800 processor. It's also equipped with an expansive 1080p display and 13-megapixel camera. LG's strange placement of the G2's power and volume buttons on its backside takes some getting used to, but doesn't ruin the experience. Indeed, with its beastly specs and ultrafast processor, LG is definitely putting its gloves on for this smartphone battle.

AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint currently offer the LG G2 for $199.99 with agreement. The handset will also be available from T-Mobile, which will sell it for $603.99 off contract.

Editor's Note: This review was updated on September 20, 2013, to include analysis for the LG G2 on Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile.

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 from the edges of the device to the back was really that necessary. Was it a crazy move (similar to the Motorla Atrix 4G's power button placement), 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, and 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 the 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. Give it a few weeks and anyone should naturally get used to it, and personally, 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 natural finger oils, and it's not like the prospects got any better when there was food around.

It is important to note here that the back buttons in the Verizon model look slightly different than the ones featured in the unlocked, AT&T, or T-Mobile versions. The buttons are smaller, and physically more difficult to discern with the finger. However, with their brushed chrome look (compared to the black plastic design see in the other carriers), the buttons on the Verizon model look more stylish and chic.

Handset design
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 if you can relate, you'll probably run into the same problems I had: my thumb didn't reach across the display; I had to constantly readjust my grip in order to tap certain regions on the screen; and since I also wear slim jeans, it wasn't the most comfortable thing to bury in my front pockets. This isn't anything new of course, since these are the same issues I have with the GS4 and the HTC One (the G2 is a hair wider than both of those phones).

Another drawback of the phone's design is how easily it accumulates 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. Sarah Tew/CNET

I must stress that my preferences may be different from yours. If you don't care about fingerprints and always handled big-screen handsets comfortably, 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 adds flair to the otherwise common black aesthetic.

As an aside, LG sells colorful 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 the date and time from your screen. Unlike the G Pro, the G2 doesn't have a removable battery door. This means that its Quick Case merely snaps on top of its rear, instead of replacing it altogether, thus adding a bit more heftiness. 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 423 ppi 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. When compared side by side, it's a tad brighter than the HTC One, but notably brighter than on the G4 -- especially when displaying a blank white swatch. It has a wide viewing angle, and 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. Sarah Tew/CNET

Software and features
The device currently ships with Android 4.2.2 and you'll get numerous Google apps including Chrome, Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts, Maps with Navigation and Local, Photos, the Play store and its related apps, and YouTube. And, as with practically all smartphones these days, you'll get basic management apps like a calculator, a calendar, a native e-mail client, etc.

AT&T provided a number of apps for its users: a code scanner; a drive-mode app that silences notifications and sends autoreplies to messages when it senses the device is traveling at more than 25 mph; and an app to geolocate family members via their AT&T phones. The carrier also loaded its own navigator; apps to set up your handset, optimize your Wi-Fi, and set up mobile hot spotting; myAT&T, which lets users check their minutes and data plan; and a media portal called Mobile TV. Others goodies in this model include the Amazon Kindle app, Facebook, a video editor, the Yellow Pages app, and the mobile office suite, Polaris Office 5.

The standards from LG
Before we get into all the new software features LG included with the G2, it's important to cover the basic, but unique, functions that were already seen in previous LG handsets like the Optimus G and the G Pro.

Quick Remote, 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. With the G2, you can now access QuickMemo by sliding your finger up from the bottom edge of the screen.

QSlide, LG's multitasking function, allows you to overlay apps like the video, calculator, and browser while you browse through your device and access other apps. You can resize your QSlide window, too, and change its transparency.

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

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

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 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 feels more natural 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 grew 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.

LG G2 - new UI
The G2's new features include Guest Mode (left) and Slide Aside. Lynn La/CNET

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 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). KnockOn also works while a Quick Case is attached, so you can tap the small area of the screen to catch the date and time.

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.

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.

Lastly, LG's version of Samsung's S-Voice or Apple's Siri is Voice Mate, which is featured in this smartphone. Powered by Maluuba, you can launch this function by either tapping on the Voice Mate app, swiping from the bottom edge of the screen, or by saying "LG Mobile" or "Hello Genie" (yeah, I don't know who thought of that one).

LG G2 (Voice Mate)
Voice Mate had some trouble bringing up the contact, and even more trouble confirming that I wanted to call the number. Lynn La/CNET

I couldn't get voice activation to work for me, so I manually opened the feature itself. Voice Mate is slow, couldn't register my speech accurately (despite many trials), and I once received an error message saying the server was not responding. All in all, not only is it rough around the edges and needs more development, but also I can't imagine people using this regularly given that Google Now's speech function is also built-in.

Though all these software features sound nifty (especially Guest Mode), as I said before, some of these controls aren't initially intuitive to access or find, and took a few moments to get used to. LG includes little tutorials with 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 camera debuted with Sprint's Optimus G. Though that camera's photo quality didn't blow anyone away (in fact, its 8-megapixel, AT&T counterpart ended up being pretty comparable to it), the Optimus G's pictures ended up being large, sharp, and colorful.

The same can be said with this handset, which also proved itself as an extremely fast, respectable camera. In general, photo quality was good. Hues tended to run a bit colder, but on the whole, colors were accurate. Pictures taken both indoor and outdoor were sharp and crisp, and were full of focused detail when zoomed in.

One of my favorite new features 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.