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LG G4 review: old world charm, new world chic

It’s interesting to note the meteoric rise of some smartphone companies starting life at the very bottom of the market. OnePlus is probably the best example right now, considering that the OnePlus One is one of the best mid-range phones we’ve ever seen. But what about flagship devices? And more importantly, what about current established players?

Apple is yet to make its move this year, but the iPhone 6 continues to lay waste its competition in terms of sales. Samsung is slowly clawing its way back into the spotlight with the Galaxy S6 while HTC has launched the tepid One M9 earlier. And Sony? Well, it has yet to make an actual play in 2015 worth talking about.

So we move to LG.

LG has been in the electronics game for quite some time, but when it announced that it was to join the smartphone race proper back in 2009 (with the LG Eve), people lifted an eyebrow or two. Roll on to 2015, and the company’s now one of the biggest players in the smartphone game, and with the likes of the LG G3, LG has secured itself as one of the more interesting contenders to the flagship crown. So, where does this leave the LG G4?

Recently launched to less fanfare than the Samsung Galaxy S6, the G4 seems to focus on two distinct categories of the market: style, and imaging. But before we get into these key elements, let’s have a look at the device as a package.

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Unboxing

As one should expect from a R9500 smartphone, there’s a 1.8A fast charger and a nifty little microUSB cable with a “right way” marking on either end. Thank Jove someone has finally thought of this. Of course, there’s also the bundled earphones, which are on par with many R400 earphones I’ve used in the past. They have an in-ear design too, which cancels noise nicely and improves bass response. They’re great, but don’t always form an adequate seal in the ear canal.

Lastly, the most puzzling part of the unboxing experience, is the battery nestling below the phone itself. That’s right, LG has decided to go the removable battery route, something we haven’t seen on flagships in a while. Popping open the back of the LG G4 reveals a large chasm where the battery slots in snugly. Opening the device was drama free too but did take a fair bit of gentle coaxing.

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Aesthetics and design

In terms of overall design, the G4 is easily one of the most charming devices I’ve ever used, but in a completely different way to the cold polycarbonates of Sony or the metallic finishes of its rivals. Users get a choice between a rather bland plastic rear cover or the more appropriate choice — leather. I received the black leather unit, and while that might not be to everyone’s fancy there are others to choose from too. It’s gorgeous, but comes with its own quirks too.

You can’t use it if you hands are wet, and chances are you’ll spend time religiously seeking out dry spots to place the phone. It’s more stately, less obnoxious, and warmer than other smartphones in the market perhaps thanks to LG’s dip into the more natural materials cupboard. The leather back might be a tad thin, but its texture contrasts nicely with the cold body and glass face. More practical buyers will definitely go for the plastic finish, but that’s really settling for second best.

The phone itself is laden with curves, but is easier on the eyes when compared to the LG G Flex 2. It still boasts a curved screen, but it’s definitely more subtle.

In terms of practicality, the curve boosts the phone’s comfortable-factor in the pocket. It feels very much a part of you, so much so that I have the occasional mild panic attacks tapping my pockets to see if its still with me.

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It’s nice to see that LG has taken care to sink the rear camera sensor into the phone’s body as well. There’s an LED flash at the rear and a laser focus port which really does work wonders with snaps (we’ll get into this later). The designers have also put the buttons (volume up, down and power) below the camera. LG enjoys doing this on its devices, but coming from other handsets it takes some getting used to.

Apart from a cover-opening notch on its side, a headphone jack and microUSB port at its rear, the phone’s perimeter is almost entirely smooth.

Read more: LG G3 review: third time’s the charm

Telling the device’s top from its bottom is a bit hard in that respect too. There’s an LG logo located at the bottom of the screen, but that’s hardly noticeable. It shows just what a good job the designers have done here, in turn it makes finding the device’s top a bit of a chore.

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Specifications and features

The LG G4 isn’t as kitted as some of its competitors, most notably in the horsepower department. The Samsung Galaxy S6 is untouchable in terms of processing power, but the LG G4’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexacore isn’t a slouch either. It’s paired with 3GB of RAM though, and 32GB of internal storage (with an option to expand this by 128GB) so not all is lost.

It’s particularly important to note that the 808 is generally more power efficient than the higher-clocked, easy-to-throttle Snapdragon 810 that’s found in the HTC One M9 and LG G Flex 2, so the 808 was a good, safe decision by the designers.

Powering the chipset, there’s the removable 3000mAh battery which we hinted at earlier. It might sound large, but Huawei has managed to shove much larger reservoirs in even thinner phones in the past.

Key numbers:

Dimensions: 149mm x 76mm x 6.3-9.8mm
Weight: 155g
Display: 5.5-inch, 2560×1440, 538ppi
Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexa-core | quad-core Cortex A53 1.44GHz & dual-core Cortex A57 1.82GHz | Adreno 418 GPU | 3GB RAM
Storage: 32GB (Around 28GB usable)
Imaging: Rear: 16MP with OIS, laser focus | Front: 8MP
Battery: 3000mAh removable
Android: 5.1 Lollipop

There’s also a 5.5-inch with a 2560×1440 resolution which is on par with Samsung’s Galaxy S6. It’s a great unit though, readable in bright light or the dimmest of rooms. The auto adjust setting also worked better than most Android devices we’ve tested.

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What makes this screen even more special is the camera we spoke about earlier. It features a 16MP sensor with a f/1.8 aperture lens (which is fairly wide, and makes for brighter pictures) and a whole host of additional goodies. It borrows the LG G Flex 2’s laser focus system, and it also boasts optical image stabilisation, which helps in windy and shaky situations. There’s an 8MP camera too with all the usual software wizardry for improved, remote selfies. This worked a treat (when I didn’t use my left hand).

Included is the usual barrage of connectivity options, including NFC, WiFi 802.11 ac, WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0 and the GPS/GLONASS global positioning pairing.

All in all, the LG G4 gives users a solid set of base specifications for a flagship phone, but there’s nothing inherently special about any of it.

Camera and video

That is, perhaps until you actually use the camera. Without a doubt, it’s the best smartphone camera we’ve ever seen plastered to a mobile device. It’s fairly average on Automatic mode, but slap it on Manual mode and it absolutely shines, giving users the freedom to adjust pretty much all camera variables. These include the zoom level, focus, exposure, white balance and even ISO settings, to adjust the phone for particularly low light.

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The big question is: is it better than the Samsung Galaxy S6? Well, yes and no. These two devices are on par, but the Samsung shines if you’re into quick, effortless snaps. The LG G4 is for the tinkerer and the obsessive-compulsive photographer. Two different phones, two amazing cameras, two very distinct strengths.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S6 review: rightful leader of the Android army?

While it’s definitely fun snapping vistas at night (leaving the shutter open allows you to capture light trails from busy roads, for instance), its real strength is macro images. It’s easy to snap anything within 5cm and achieve brilliantly sharp focus, but it’s also great to capture bokeh effects without much hassle.

Have a look at the sample gallery here: 49 reasons why the LG G4 is one of the best smartphone cameras around

The front camera isn’t the best we’ve ever used, but it will do for selfie snapping and video calling. There’s no need to have a 16MP camera up front too and to be fair, 8MP are more than enough. There are also some software tricks too. To activate the selfie-timer, users can clasp one of their hands within camera view, and the G4 begins a countdown. Do this twice, and it’ll snap three images consecutively. It’s novel, and stems from the genius of the LG G3, but it didn’t always work.

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Speaking of video, the LG G4 is a pretty damn good pocket camcorder too. It does struggle a bit in low light (more than the Galaxy S6) and it always feels as though it works harder than the Samsung

Performance

Moving away from the camera for a moment, the phone’s an adequate multitasker too. It doesn’t suffer from any heating issues unless you’re running intensive tasks while charging, which I don’t find a design flaw.

It suffers from a slightly lower Antutu score though, butwhocares? In the real world, it’s able to run the common chat apps, utilities, social networks and high-definition videos all at the same time. A nifty little feature dubbed Dual-Screen can split the 5.5-inch monitor into two portions, allowing users to multitask. It works well, but didn’t find myself using it too often.

LG G4 antutu results

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the entire device is the UI.

While Samsung has cleaned up its act on the Galaxy S6, the new LG UX 4.0 does get a bit cluttered and takes a few days to fully master. It’s not as bad as TouchWiz, but it’ll definitely remind those who used early Samsungs of it.

Where things fall apart though, and rather annoyingly at that, is the battery performance.

Thanks to the ridiculous number of pixels, poor power optimisation and a battery probably made from left over apple cores, I can barely eke 18 hours from the unit on a single charge. It’s even worse when using the G4 outside, where the sunlight/screen visibility ratio forces the user to up the brightness.

LG G4 UI

It’s the most disappointing thing about the LG G4, and hopefully it’s just a simple software optimisation issue because it’s not an issue you’d expect to find in a R9000+ smartphone.

Value for money

It’s the most stylish, most mature and most balanced Android flagship we’ve seen this year. Its design is worth it out the gate if you’re choosing it on sheer aesthetics alone. Of course, more mature smartphone buyers will look at the long list of solid specifications and think “Hell, it’s a really great package that’s cheaper than the S6, and more stylish than the iPhone.” That’s without mentioning that camera too.

So, yes, based on its rivals, it’s a steal for R9500.

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The LG G3 (left) alongside the LG G4. Not much of a difference really, is there?

Closing thoughts

As LG’s best ever smartphone, the LG G4 takes what made the G3 great and builds on it with style, panache and that amazing camera. Essentially, the LG G4 is a camera in a smartphone’s body, and not like a Samsung K-Zoom way either.

It’s difficult to fault, but it isn’t exempt from criticism and most of the issues feel like oversights. Spending too much time developing that camera, LG? That awkward-at-times UI and that awful battery life in all circumstances are two of the larger issues at hand. Still, it’s definitely a contender for best Android handset we’ve used all year. The real question is, will the sales show it?

Verdict: With an amazing camera and a touch of class, the LG G4 is up there with the best Android smartphones money can buy, but give us a bigger battery or more efficient chipset on the G5, please LG.

Score: 8.5/10

Disclaimer: LG South Africa allowed me to keep the device before the review was published.

Author Bio

Andy Walker
Camper by day, run-and-gunner by night, Andy prefers his toast like his coffee -- dark and crunchy. Fuelled by his belief that PvZ: GW2 is 2016's game of the year, Andy also dabbles in the odd hard news story over on Memeburn. More