Review: The LG Optimus G

At a Glance
  • LG Electronics Optimus G (AT&T)

    PCWorld Rating
  • LG Electronics Optimus G (Sprint)

The LG Optimus G is a revelation, which is surprising considering LG hasn't had a flagship phone like this in quite some time. With its crystal-clear high-resolution display, quad-core processor, and useful software tweaks, the Optimus G is one of the better Android phones released this year. That holds true for both the AT&T and Sprint versions of the phone, each of which has its own set of pros and cons. LG sent us both versions to review, and I've found that the two share many of the same characteristics. Despite their quirks, both are worthy contenders.

Design

Poor physical design is all it takes to ruin an otherwise good smartphone. One of the biggest problems with the design of the LG Intuition, for example, was its boxy shape and rounded edges—characteristics that made the already difficult-to-hold phone even more tiring to hang onto.

The same can be said of the AT&T version of the Optimus G, which also sports rounded edges and has a wider footprint than the Sprint model. At 2.82 by 5.15 by 0.33 inches, the AT&T version is 0.02 inch shorter than the Sprint Optimus G. But that extra width makes all the difference when you're using the phone one-handed. I have medium-size hands, and using the phone for long periods of time was painful.

The LG Optimus G on Sprint is easier to hold.

The Sprint version of the Optimus G is more comfortable to use and hold, but make no mistake: It's still a large phone. After using both versions of the Optimus G and comparing them with the Samsung Galaxy S III (another big-screen behemoth), I'd say that the Galaxy S III is even more comfortable to hold, since its narrower design and more-curved edges allow it to rest better in the hand.

Though their shapes vary, both Optimus G phones have a 4.7-inch (diagonal) 1280-by-768-pixel IPS Plus display that uses LG's new "Zerogap Touch" technology—which is LG's fancy way of saying that it minimized the air gap between the screen and the glass surface to improve contrast and reduce glare. The screen has a pixel density of 320 pixels per inch, which is comparable to the pixel density of Apple's Retina display on the iPhone 5. You'll be able to read text and view images and video just fine on both Optimus phones, though text still looks crisper on the iPhone 5. Colors on the Optimus G appeared warm yet appealing, and weren't overly saturated as they are on the Samsung Galaxy S III's Super AMOLED plus display.

The AT&T and Sprint versions are both well built, and feel as if they could take a tumble or three. The piano-black finish on both phones makes them nice to look at, but attracts fingerprints. Overall, I have to give the nod to the Sprint Optimus G over the AT&T version when it comes to design, if only because it is easier to use one-handed and I didn't feel like I was straining my hand every time I held it.

One thing that bugs me about both phones, however, is that LG opted to provide hardware navigation buttons as opposed to the native virtual navigation buttons introduced in Android Honeycomb (and later on phones in Ice Cream Sandwich). Some people prefer physical buttons, but I've always been a fan of the buttonless design on the Galaxy Nexus.

Performance and specs

NFL Pro 2013 runs great on the Optimus G's quad-core processor.

The Optimus G is LG's first quad-core phone released in the United States, running on a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM. The AT&T and Sprint versions ship with the same chipset, and you'll be glad to know that they perform equally well. Graphics-intensive 3D games such as Dead Trigger and NFL Pro 2013 run flawlessly on both devices, and neither phone felt hot after prolonged gaming sessions. I noticed a slight lag when flipping through home screens or scrolling in the Web browser, but that doesn't take much away from the rest of the phone; the issue also seems like something that Jelly Bean's "Project Butter" may address (although LG hasn't committed to when the Optimus G will get an Android 4.1 Jelly Bean upgrade).

Using the FCC-approved Ookla Speed Test app on the AT&T Optimus G here in San Francisco, I recorded average download speeds of around 15 megabits per second and upload speeds of around 16 mbps. These results were disappointing, considering that we've seen other phones on AT&T's LTE network scoring in the low to mid-20s for download speeds (albeit tested at different times). You'll still be able to load Web pages in seconds and download apps in a flash, but it's strange that AT&T's Optimus G doesn't perform as well as other smartphones on AT&T's LTE network.

The Sprint version is also LTE compatible, but regrettably Sprint's LTE network isn't available in San Francisco. Over 3G, the Sprint Optimus G managed download speeds of about 0.72 mbps and upload speeds around 0.71 mbps. In respect to performance, the biggest drawback of the Sprint Optimus G is the fact that Sprint's LTE network isn't as widespread as AT&T's or Verizon's. This situation may change in the coming year, but if you live in an area without Sprint LTE coverage, you might want to consider picking up the AT&T version if only to take advantage of that carrier's superior network speeds.

Call quality on both models, though, left a lot to be desired. The calls I made using the AT&T and Sprint versions sounded muffled and had a large amount of static. This happened in an area where both phones showed full bars for service, and it's really disappointing that these two flagship phones have such poor call quality. Something I noticed in my time with the AT&T Optimus G is that it would sometimes claim to have full bars, but then be unable to connect online to browse the Web or download apps.

Both Optimus G models ship with a 2100mAh battery, which should last for an entire day of normal use—tasks such as making a few phone calls, texting, downloading apps, and doing some light to medium Web browsing. Even if you're constantly glued to your phone, I estimate that (based on my experiences) you'll be able to get about 5 to 6 hours of use out of either Optimus G before having to scramble for a wall outlet.

Software

Both models of the Optimus G ship with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. LG says it currently isn't discussing upgrade plans for either device, which I find alarming considering that Android 4.1 Jelly Bean was released close to five months ago. It's unacceptable to ship a flagship Android phone with an older version of the OS without commenting on whether it will see an upgrade in the future.

Both phones run LG's custom Optimus 3.0 overlay, which improves on many of the features of Ice Cream Sandwich but muddles up other aspects with unnecessary extra menus. One of the many improvements the Optimus 3.0 interface introduces is the amount of customization options it offers: You can customize your home-screen animations, your lock-screen shortcuts, and even the look of individual app icons. This level of personalization is something that many Android users have been craving, but until now have had to download a third-party launcher or root their device in order to achieve.

The QSlide Function seems more gimmicky than useful.

Another interesting feature of LG's overlay is its QSlide Function, which allows you to multitask while watching videos. The feature works much as the pop-out player on the Samsung Galaxy S III does, only instead of producing a floating window, it overlays the video atop the screen like a transparency. You can't control the location of the video, but you can adjust how transparent it is if it gets in the way. The QSlide Function currently works only with the stock media player, though I didn't see much use for it. LG is framing the feature as a way to quickly reply to a text message without having to pause what you're watching, but I think it would be faster to just pause the video, respond to the text message, and jump back into the player.

Both phones also have access to LG's Quick Memo software, which allows you to jot down a note on the screen with your finger (or a stylus if you have one handy), as well LG's Smart Share, which lets you share your media with DLNA-compatible devices wirelessly. Unlike the QSlide Function, this feature works with apps such as Polaris Office and YouTube, making it infinitely more useful—especially if you want to enjoy your media on a larger screen or need to share a presentation.

LG's overlays vary between the AT&T and Sprint Optimus G versions, however, and the two phones have a few aesthetic differences. For instance, pressing the Menu button while you're on the home screen of the AT&T Optimus G will bring up a short menu with 'Home screen settings', 'Lock screen settings', and 'All settings' options. Doing the same action on the Sprint version gives you those options as well, but also produces options for setting a home-screen theme, editing your home screen (tasks such as changing your wallpaper), and viewing your apps settings. Both handsets allow you to do the same things, though the Sprint version doesn't require you to dig through as many menus.

Neither mobile carrier bogs down the LG Optimus with bloatware. The Sprint Optimus G comes with Sprint Zone and Sprint ID, but other than that it's largely free from carrier additions. The AT&T Optimus G has the usual gang of AT&T-branded apps that you can't uninstall; they are easy enough to ignore, however, and you can sort your app drawer in a way so that you don't have to see them every day.

Entertainment

The AT&T Optimus G has a flap on its left spine, under which you can access the SIM-card and MicroSD slots. The phone comes with a 16GB MicroSD card to supplement its 16GB of internal storage, which is useful considering that the phone's larger size and lovely display make it good for watching videos on the go.

The Sprint Optimus G, on the other hand, lacks expandable storage, so you're stuck with the fixed 32GB of internal memory. The Sprint version does come with 50GB of free storage courtesy of Box, but expandable storage would have been ideal, particularly for those times when you're in areas with poor data coverage.

The music player on both phones supports Dolby Mobile, though I noticed a considerable hiss when playing back audio with it turned on. It boosted instrumentals, which was nice when I listened to rock and country songs, but it also drowned out vocals—you don't want to use this player if you listen to a lot of hip-hop or pop.

The rear external speaker on each phone was too quiet for my tastes. I recommend sticking to headphones if you plan on using the Optimus G as your primary media device.

Camera

A sample photo taken with the AT&T Optimus G.

The AT&T Optimus G has an 8-megapixel camera, while the Sprint version carries a 13-megapixel camera. Both phones are capable of taking above-average photos and videos, although I found the AT&T Optimus G to be the superior of the two. The Sprint Optimus G, despite having a higher-megapixel camera, took photos that were slightly noisier than the images the AT&T version captured. Photos snapped with the AT&T model had more vibrant colors than those from the Sprint version, and the AT&T version's videos didn't seem as dark. The camera on both the AT&T and Sprint versions isn't as good as the one on the Samsung Galaxy S III or iPhone 5, but it is good enough to use for everyday shots.

A sample photo taken with the Sprint Optimus G.

If you're one to tweak and tune your camera to your liking, you'll have a field day with LG's Camera app. The app offers the features you'd expect from the stock Android Ice Cream Sandwich camera app (filters, the ability to take panoramic photos, and so on), and adds functions such as a voice-activated shutter and a "time catch" mode that rapidly takes five photos and then lets you choose the best shot. Even though a lot of these features are things we saw back on the Galaxy S III (and other Samsung devices), it's nice to see that LG is paying attention to its competition and adding features to the otherwise sparse stock camera app.

Bottom line

I'm impressed with how much LG has improved its handsets. The Optimus G represents LG's comeback in the mobile phone market. LG always seemed to lurk in Samsung's shadow, but the Optimus G is a solid phone that can stand on its own. Both versions of the phone are very good, though the Sprint version has a slight edge in that it offers better design and provides a more organized way of navigating the device's screens and menus.

This story, "Review: The LG Optimus G" was originally published by TechHive.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating
  • LG Electronics Optimus G (Sprint)

Related:
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.