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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.
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.
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.
Verizon threw in a bunch of its own apps, too, for its G3. There's My Verizon Mobile, which lets you check your data use and minutes; as well as its cloud and caller ID services. The carrier also preloaded apps for visual voice mail, branded navigating and messaging apps, and VZ Protect. There are several Amazon apps, too, like the store itself, Kindle, its app and music stores, the IMDb movie database, and Audible.
Sprint's variant, meanwhile, has its fair share of bloatware, such as its digital payment system called Sprint Money; a ringtone portal called Sprint Music Plus; Sprint TV and Movies; and Sprint Zone, which users can use to check their account information and balance. As with most of its smartphones, the carrier tossed in Sprint ID -- an app that enables you to customize your phone with preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose -- and Framily Wall, a private social networking app for those in your carrier's Framily plan. A few other nonstandard preloaded goodies are Nascar Mobile 2014, the Bacon Reader Reddit app, and the navigational and traffic app, Scout.
Lastly, T-Mobile played it conservatively with its apps. Only a handful are included, like the Lookout security app; 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 voice mail and mobile hotspot. Lastly, the media streaming service T-Mobile TV offers a 30-day trial to channels like Fox News and ESPN.
A 13-megapixel camera with laser-guided autofocus, the G3's shooter is supposedly capable of quickly locking on the subject and taking a picture. The laser also helps in taking low-light pictures, though if your subject is moving, the shutter will likely be too slow to snap it without some motion blur.
Andrew Hoyle conducted an in-depth look at the G3's rear camera's capabilities versus the Galaxy S5. I suggest that you read it, but here's the abridged version. He found that the G3 takes very good low-light shots and has a better flash, but the S5 takes slightly richer-looking images. Even with the laser, the G3's focus was only marginally faster than the S5's, but he does say that the speed will help in getting a crisp shot. Be sure to click on each picture to see them at their full resolution.
On my end, I put the front-facing camera to the test. The 2.1-megapixel shooter has two modes to make it easy to take selfies. The first detects an open hand, which you clench into a fist to start the countdown timer. This is particularly useful if you're using a selfie stick, since you likely won't be able to reach the phone to hit the shutter. In the second mode, you simply tap the screen to start a countdown.
Powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at 2.5GHz, the G3 was blazing fast. I didn't have any issues with the performance of the phone, even when playing 3D games.
On the Quadrant benchmark test, the G3 scored 23,103, while the Linpack multithreaded test gave it a score of 606.715MFLOPs in 0.28 seconds. The Quadrant score is very similar to what the Galaxy S5 and OnePlus One earned, which isn't surprising, as all three phones use the same chipset.
According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has several SAR ratings depending on the carrier. On AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, it has a SAR level of 0.50, 0.56, 0.70, and 0.42W/kg, respectively.
Again, we tested all four carrier models in our San Francisco offices. Tests were conducted at the same time, throughout the same day. Each test was carried out five times to calculate a fair average. In addition to our regular charting of the load times of CNET's mobile and desktop websites, we also included the time it took each handset to load the mobile and full desktop versions of The New York Times and ESPN's sites as well.
One important thing of note is Sprint's data times -- which are obviously slower than its competitors. Although the Sprint G3 is compatible with the carrier's high-speed Spark 4G LTE network (which, to date, is currently available in 470 official markets), San Francisco isn't a Spark LTE market yet. As such, we were only able to measure the handset's 3G data speeds. If you do live in a Spark LTE market, however, you can expect your Sprint G3 to perform faster than the 3G times listed here.
Lastly, while we do know that what carrier you have plays no role on the processing speeds of a handset, we measured how long it took each device to reboot itself and launch the camera. As expected, there isn't much variation between the models, though, interestingly enough, Verizon's G3 takes seven seconds longer to reboot than T-Mobile's.
|AT&T (4G LTE)||Verizon (4G LTE)||Sprint (3G)||T-Mobile (4G LTE)|
|Average download speed (Mbps)||26.45||14.34||0.33||6.19|
|Average upload speed (Mbps)||13.12||14.23||0.75||8.15|
|Temple Run 2 app download (48.61MB)||26 seconds||36 seconds||16 minutes and 56 seconds||1 minute and 16 seconds|
|CNET mobile site load (in seconds)||7||6||32||7|
|CNET desktop site load (in seconds)||12||13||46||18|
|New York Times mobile site load (in seconds)||5||6||30||5|
|New York Times desktop site load (in seconds)||5||8||69||7|
|ESPN mobile site load (in seconds)||4||4||18||4|
|ESPN desktop site load (in seconds)||6||7||36||7|
|Restart time (in seconds)||28||30||27||24|
|Camera boot time (in seconds)||1.80||1.87||1.89||1.76|
Overall, data speeds among AT&T and Verizon were fast and reliable. Although T-Mobile clocked in slower download and upload speeds with Ookla's speed test, as well as longer download times for Temple Run 2, general Web browsing experience was on par with the former two carriers. T-Mobile also felt the most consistent, with a smaller delta of change between its fastest and slowest times. As noted before, Sprint's 3G network was understandably slower due to our testing location. However, it was also inconsistent as well. When we launched the Google Play store, connection would often time out, and we'd have to turn mobile data on and off to reconnect again. Progress would also stall when we wanted to download Temple Run 2, and we'd have to retry several times.
The one thing that held the phone back, however, has to be its battery life. With a 3,000mAh removable battery, there's just no escaping the fact that the high-resolution QHD display is a power hog; I wasn't able to get the phone to last a full day between charges. In our CNET video test, the phone lasted 11 hours 24 minutes, far behind the Samsung Galaxy S5's impressive 15 hours, 18 minutes in the same test.
Thankfully, you can swap out the battery for a spare, but that's something you'll have to live with if you're someone who needs to be constantly using your phone.
For call quality, we conducted tests in our San Francisco offices. As reported by CNET's Lynn La, call quality across all carriers was great across the board. Throughout our tests, none of our calls dropped, audio remained continuous throughout, and we didn't hear any extraneous buzzing. Though we could hear a bit of static here and there when our calling partner talked, it was very slight and not at all distracting to the conversation. The volume range was adequate, and our partner sounded clear and easy to understand.
When we moved outdoors, calls were just as solid, and our partner didn't even realize we moved outside at first. She also didn't pick up on background noises like loud construction and general street traffic. On maximum volume, the audio speaker can render conversations a little tinny and harsh. However, the conversation was still very easy to hear and we had no problem understanding audio when holding the G3 far from our faces.
In general, differences in call quality across carriers were barely discernible, as all three performed well. However, there were some small things we picked up from each network. For one thing, though our partner told us that she could always hear us well and voices sounded clear and constant, the call made on the Sprint handset sounded the most muffled and stifled. In addition, we could hear some slight background noises on our partner's end as well, but it was more prominent when we were on the T-Mobile unit. None of the issues, though, were particularly detrimental or distracting from the overall calling experience.
With so much going for it, the LG G3 is the best LG phone on the market and should hold its place as one of the top phones of the year. The battery life, though, does take a hit due to the higher-resolution display, which is a trade-off I don't quite like. Yet that's really the only downside of this otherwise superb handset.
Against the Samsung Galaxy S5, the G3's design shines and it has what I feel is a clearly better UI. The software features make the G3 more fun and convenient to use, while LG has added features to the G3, such as a microSD slot and a removable battery, that the G2 lacked and that Samsung had in its phones already.
In the G3, LG finally has something worthy to challenge its Korean rival with, and given a choice between the S5 and the G3, my bet would likely be on the latter right now.
Against the metal HTC One M8, the G3's faux-metal rear may not feel as impressive, but it is enough that the M8 doesn't feel like it's too far ahead. While both phones have UIs with a modern and flat look, the G3 still comes out ahead with a camera that has a higher megapixel count, which gives you a lot more detail.
Keep in mind, however, the many different price variations from carrier to carrier. For example, on prepaid carrier T-Mobile, the G3 is cheaper than both the GS5 and the One M8 by $61 and $37, respectively. However, on contract, the G3 is about $100 more expensive than the GS5 for Sprint, and the One M8 on AT&T. This is a significant amount of money to save for customers of these carriers, so take time to consider if the G3's slight edge over Samsung and HTC's flagships is worth it on contract.
Generally though, the G3 is the perfect new gadget for "early adopter" types who want the latest and greatest. Sure, those looking for a workhorse phone may want to get the S5 instead (especially if it's cheaper on-contract to do so, as mentioned before), which doesn't have the battery-sapping high-resolution display of the G3. But if you're looking for a powerful handset that's beautiful to boot, you won't be disappointed with LG's latest marquee venture.