Case in point? The new LG G4 (MSRP $599.99), the company's latest flagship smartphone that takes a well-worn design—smooth plastic back, rear-mounted volume buttons, a large (slightly curved) 5.5-inch QHD display—and updates it with a new processor, a significantly better camera, and the latest version of Android.
It's not the kind of radical redesign that will turn heads and win awards, but LG's "steady as you go" approach has yielded a fantastic phone with no real weaknesses. By improving the hardware, refining the software, and retaining all of our favorite features from last year, the G4 is easily LG's best phone to date.
And if you're an avid photographer, the G4 will really give you something to smile about.
From a design perspective, the LG G4 isn't that remarkable. Compared to the ultra-thin iPhone 6, the mammoth Google Nexus 6, and the wrap-around display on Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge, the G4 feels like old hat. Sure, it features a 5.5-inch QHD display with a slight curve to it, but since last year's G3 had the same size and resolution screen, it's not much of an update.
Around back, things aren't much different. LG's love affair with placing the volume buttons in the center of the back of the phone continues unabated, though we still have yet to meet the person who finds that enjoyable. It keeps them off the sides, which prevents some accidental presses, but actually using them requires some uncomfortable hand gymnastics.
The back does at least come in a fancy new leather, though it's an optional extra. We got a chance to check it out earlier this year and it indeed feels like a premium material, far better than the chintzy leatherette that you'll find on some other phones. Our review unit (purchased at retail) is the plastic-backed one. It has an attractive diamond pattern on it, but it lacks the self-healing coating from the G Flex 2.
Pop the back off and you'll see two familiar faces: a microSDHC storage slot and a removable battery. Although this would've barely merited a mention in the past, these days it's an increasing rarity. The majority of today's flagship smartphones, from Samsung's Galaxy S6 to the Sony Xperia Z3, to Apple's iPhone 6, don't offer expandable storage or a removable battery due to their use of aluminum or glass backs. Even HTC's One M9, which offers expandable storage, doesn't let you swap the battery.
While we can sympathize with phone designers who want to push the envelope with ever-thinner, glass-backed phones, the loss of what many people consider to be key features is a real letdown. As good (and cheap) as cloud storage has become, there's no replacing physical media. Those phone makers clearly agree, otherwise they wouldn't bother charging upwards of $100 extra to go from 32GB of built-in memory to 64GB. With the G4 you can just pop in a 32GB microSDHC card. The cost? About $10 online.
If you plan to use the G4 as your daily driver, one word of warning: It's a huge, wide phone. While not as uncomfortable to use as the Nexus 6, if you don't like large phones it's unlikely you'll enjoy using the G4. If you liked last year's G3, though, then you'll likely find this to be more of the same.
Most of the major improvements to the G4's design are actually due to updated software. While Android has continued to get faster and more streamlined behind the scenes, LG's done its part by eliminating a lot of the redundancy and bloatware that plagued older phones. You won't confuse it for a stock Android device, but it's streamlined, and features one of the best camera apps we've ever used (more on that in a bit).
The G4 gives you just what you need, and not much else.
Under the hood of the G4 you'll find a 1.8GHz Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of RAM. Even powering a QHD display and the latest version of Android, the combination yields a buttery smooth experience. While processors in some other top-tier flagship smartphones do better in our benchmark tests, the G4 is no slouch. And truth be told, you'd be hard-pressed to see the difference even if you were using this alongside a phone like the Galaxy S6 Edge.
One thing you'll notice with any phone, however, is the battery life. The 3,000mAh battery on the G4 is hardly groundbreaking, though Android 5 offers a few nifty power-saving features that ensure you eke out every last bit of juice. In real-world use you can easily expect over a day of minor-to-moderate usage out of the gate. If you need more you can just keep a spare (imagine that!) and pop it in when necessary.
In our video battery life test the phone held out for just under eight hours straight, which will surely get you through your next cross-country flight. If you do need to top up, you can almost completely charge the battery in about an hour, making it easy to recharge even if you've only got a short layover.
That's impressive, especially given the large, high-resolution display on the phone. It's bright, very saturated, razor sharp, and the curve is much subtler than it is on the G Flex 2. It also uses a "Quantum" LCD, which is designed to be more power efficient, letting the screen be brighter and more saturated without destroying the battery.
In our screen tests we found that LG's claims in that regard mostly held water. The black levels were impressive for a non-OLED display and it is indeed brighter than the G3. It's dimmer than phones like the iPhone 6 and the Sony Xperia Z3, but should be visible even in sunlight.
The color gamut is also expanded well beyond most phones that shoot for the international standard (sRGB/rec. 709), but to get there LG's thrown off the color accuracy by quite a bit. The result is much more vivid reds and greens, though blues are puzzlingly a little undersaturated. You'll likely find the display looks better to your eyes, but movies and websites will have a color shift that isn't how the content creators intended.
LG's clearly made photography a priority with the G4, and it shows. Not only is the G4 one of the few smartphones to take advantage of Android 5.1's inclusion of true raw image format support, the company has built one of the best default camera apps we've used yet.
The G4 also includes the laser-assisted autofocus that we enjoyed on last year's G3 as well as a new RGB sensor to improve white balance. The rear camera itself employs an f/1.8 lens, which will allow more light in than the f/2 and f/2.2 lenses found on other smartphones, while recording higher-resolution images with the new 16-megapixel, 1/2.6-inch image sensor.
In real-world shooting, the G4's rear camera is on par with the best regular (non-CM1) smartphones in the category. It does a good job in bright light, with accurate (if pleasantly oversaturated) colors, sharp details, and good dynamic range. In low light the image quality suffers a predictable drop, but LG's managed to follow Apple's lead in allowing some noise to remain in the final image. Most smartphone makers get aggressive in these situations and go with a heavy-handed noise reduction system that wipes away fine detail.
In low light the only issue you should be aware of is the phone's propensity to use slower shutter speeds. This allows the phone to use lower ISO speeds (resulting in less noise) but it does mean that you're more likely to have blurrier shots. It seems to reserve the slowest shutter speeds for when it's nice and steady, though, so there's some logic built into the app.
On the G3 we lamented that, while the laser-assisted autofocus was cool, it only worked in LG's iffy stock camera app. While that's still the case, LG's responded by designing simply the best default camera app we've used yet. It's easily the best that we've used in a flagship smartphone, with a very straightforward user interface that gives you easy access to all the major controls including ISO, shutter speed, and even RAW shooting.
The result is an app that's easy to use and has enough features to scale up or down to your level. If you are a novice you can just frame and shoot, with the usual options for swapping between still photography and 4K video. Though there's a criminal lack of video controls, when shooting stills you can change almost anything you want and the app will instantly respond.
The G4's ace in the hole is definitely its ability to capture truly RAW photos, though. This is only available on a few phones currently (The Nexus 6, HTC One M9, etc.) and it allows you to save all of the data straight from the image sensor with no processing or compression. This preserves all the camera's dynamic range while letting you more freely tweak white balance and exposure later.
RAW does have a few downsides, though. The files are bigger, and Android still doesn't quite recognize the .DNG format as an image. For example, if you go to upload a photo to Dropbox, the .DNG files won't actually show up in the camera folder when you choose to upload an image—even though they're in there. Android hides them. To get them you have to go through the "File Manager" option and find the "Camera" folder manually (Hint: it's in the DCIM folder).
Without a doubt, this is LG's best phone yet.
While processor speed and spec wars are fun, for most people they're not the most important aspects of a smartphone. For most people, the list is short: They want a phone that's fast, looks good, takes high-quality photos, and offers a long-lasting battery.
While it's not aesthetically the most pleasing phone in the world, and the battery isn't much to write home about, we can safely say that the LG G4 has nailed the camera. Though we're not ready to crown it as the best just yet, it's easily among our favorite smartphone cameras. It's fast, good in low light, and offers the kind of control rarely seen in smartphones.
If the camera isn't your primary concern, things aren't quite as rosy. The battery is merely average, though we're hard-pressed to give the phone too much flak for that. Though the plastic rear cover isn't as nice as the glass and aluminum you see on other phones, it's removable, giving you easy access to swap out the battery if you want to keep a spare. We're also pleased to see expandable storage, which is a consumer-friendly feature that will save you time and money if you take a lot of photos.
The only part of the G4 that truly gives us pause is the display. It's big and tack sharp, but LG's used a new LCD technology to push color saturation far beyond normal. That will look great most of the time, but greens and reds are pushed so far that other colors—including neutral tones like gray and white—are thrown off. It's not a dealbreaker, but we'd prefer something more true-to-life.
All in all, if you care about the camera in your smartphone, LG's latest flagship earns solid marks. There are prettier, longer-lasting phones out there, but the camera more than makes up the gap. If that sounds good to you, then we think you'll find a lot to love about the G4.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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