LG G8 hands-on: Could the future of smartphones be in the palm of my hand?

Whip your hands back and forth.

g g8 airmotion2
Michael Simon/IDG

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The LG G8 can’t fold, doesn’t take 4K selfies, and won’t wirelessly charge another phone. It pretty much uses the same design as the G7 from last year, which means it doesn’t have a triple-camera setup like the V40. But it just might be one of the most intriguing phones of the year.

Whether that translates into sales is the big question, but my usually jaded hands couldn’t wait to pick up the G8 following LG’s briefing. I wanted to try it out almost as much as Samsung’s $2,000 Galaxy Fold. And I walked away feeling like LG might be onto something, after a string of one-and-done gimmicks going all the way back to the G5’s modular Friends accessories and the V20’s second screen.

lg g8 front Michael Simon/IDG

It’s easy to mistake the LG G8 for the LG G7.

In person, the G8 is essentially a G7 with a vertical camera array. On paper, the G8 is a typical LG flagship phone, filled with high-end specs that put it in good company with the rest of 2019’s premium phones:

  • Display: 6.1-inch OLED Quad HD, 3120x1440, 564ppi
  • Processor: Snapdragon 855
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Storage: 128GB
  • Rear camera: 16MP wide, f/1.9 + 12MP standard, f/1.5
  • Front camera: 8MP, f/1.7
  • Battery: 3,500mAh

But the G8 is LG’s first ‘G’ phone in a while that doesn’t feel a least a little hobbled. For one, it finally uses an OLED display, a feature that was previously reserved for its ‘V’ phones. But more importantly, it doesn’t have to wait to use the newest Snapdragon 855 processor. Qualcomm’s exclusive collaboration with Samsung on the 835 and 845 forced the G7 to arrive months late, and the G6 to use an older chip. It's also got the other features LG has been adding to its 'G' phones over the years: Quad DAC, Boombox sound, IP68, HDR10, AI Cam, and the dedicated Google Assistant button.

Design-wise, the G8 is still very much an LG phone, with a notch and a chin, and noticeable bezels all around. It’s not terrible, but it’s not going to win any awards either, and like the G7 it emulates, it looks a little stale next to the latest handsets from Samsung and Apple. The back camera is entirely under glass, however, which gives the phone a sleeker touch.

Inside the notch you’ll find the biggest changes to the G8. First off, you won’t find a receiver, because LG has turned the whole display into a speaker by combining its Boombox amplifier with its new Crystal Sound OLED tech. LG says you’ll be able to listen clearly underwater—something I wasn’t able to test—but you’ll need to be more mindful of the volume of your calls lest anyone listen to what the other person is saying.

lg g8 hand id Michael Simon/IDG

Hand ID prompts you to move your hand just like the fingerprint scanner does.

Also new to the notch is a time-of-flight camera, and it’s here where LG gets wild. LG previously announced the use of the Infineon sensor, but now we know it’s for more than facial recognition and enhanced selfies (though the G8 brings both of those things). LG is using its 'Z' camera to let you control your phone in truly unique ways, called Hand ID and AirMotion.

If those aren’t the most LG names ever, I don’t know what are. When the new features were announced, there were audible snickers in the room. But while they may seem like the kind of eye-rolling gimmicks typical of a 2015 phone rather than a 2019 one, they’re not as silly as they sound. Even after just an hour of playing around with them, I could see how they could be useful. If LG takes the time to develop them, the G8’s touchless gestures might one day become as commonplace as the fingerprint sensor or navigation bar.

Unlock options

Speaking of the fingerprint sensor, the G8 still has a standard one on the back, but that’s the least convenient way to unlock it. Like the iPhone, you can also register a 3D scan of your face for secure facial unlocking, and LG says it works in all kinds of light thanks to the ToF sensor. I didn’t get to check it in low light, but it worked well in a normal shadowy setting.

lg g8 back Michael Simon/IDG

The G8 has a fingerprint sensor on the back, but you won’t want to use it.

Far more unique and revolutionary is Hand ID, the other new secure biometric on the G8. Hand ID takes advantage of the camera’s infrared sensor to read the absorption characterization of hemoglobin in the veins of your hand. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is. What’s even crazier is that it works.

At least it does when you get it right. It took me a few minutes to figure out where to position my hand and how high to hold it about the camera—about six inches above the phone and close to the notch. That’s pretty specific placement. But when I nailed it, waving my hand over the G8 really did unlock the phone instantaneously.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why would I ever need a hand sensor when the G8 has a fingerprint sensor and 3D facial recognition? I thought the same thing until I unlocked a phone lying on a table, without contorting my head so an iris scanner could read my eyes, or reaching around for a fingerprint scanner. As gimmicks go, it’s a pretty good one.

lg g8 airmotion Michael Simon/IDG

A small indicator at the top of the screen lets you know AirMotion is active.

Unlocking isn’t all your hands can do on the G8. There’s also AirMotion, which is a brand new navigational system that let’s you control basic commands without touching the screen. Like Hand ID, it’s equal parts finicky and pretty amazing. Once the sensor locks on your hand—again, my best results were when my hand was roughly six or so inches from the sensor—you can open apps, control music, and answer calls with a flick of your wrist when your hands are wet or your phone is in a holder. You’ll see an infrared scan of your hand in a tiny window at the top of the screen

In its current state, AirMotion is pretty basic—more of a party trick than a game-changing feature. But I can see the potential, assuming LG continues to develop the technology. I can see AirMotion actually becoming a trademark feature of LG’s phones that gives people a reason to choose them again. I had a blast using it and can’t wait to try it in a less controlled setting. Even more, I want to see the future—what the LG G10 is going to do with it, two generations out.

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