LG G Flex 2 Smartphone Review
LG's latest flagship phone is red-hot—and not quite in the good way
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Smartphones are a fast category, and last year's hardware gets outdated so quickly you wonder if you'll ever keep up. For many, the logical solution would be to quickly snatch up the latest cutting edge model to jump ahead of the game a little bit, but that's a risky proposition. It's tough to know whether the flashy new hardware you're about to buy truly improves your experience, or if the headline-grabbing components make the cell phone of your dreams more camel than Cadillac.
In the case of the LG G Flex 2 (MSRP $599.99 off-contract, $249.99 from Sprint), it's a bit tough to tell. While the curved device is one of the brawniest mobiles currently, it's unclear if it will be able to stand the test of time. Not all of its components play nicely together, and it shows when you stress the G Flex 2.
Curved phones aren't exactly new, but the G Flex 2 is only LG's second crack at such a mobile. LG claims that this design feature carries numerous benefits—such as lower direct reflectivity, greater durability, and a much easier contour for your hands. It might not as mind-blowingly awesome as some might claim, but it's definitely an interesting concept.
There's a lot to like about this phone; but it might not be the one for you. The smaller, lighter, faster G Flex 2 is a marked improvement on its bulkier older brother, but it seems like the idea needs a little more time to mature. LG's G Flex line is a market testbed for lots of unique features like re-enforced Gorilla Glass (which they call Dura-Guard Glass), self-healing backs, and a flexible chassis—but all the gimmicks and party tricks in the world won't make a good phone: you need the performance to make it sing.
What comes next
LG took a good long look at what the original G Flex's shortcomings were, and gave its baby an overhaul. Instead of a 6-inch 720p display, the G Flex 2 boasts a 5.5-inch 1080p OLED screen—which is far easier to cram into your hands, and much easier on the eyes, too.
LG's G Flex experiment is an odd one, but it definitely gives you a taste of what's to come with OLED screens becoming more and more ubiquitous. From stem to stern, this is a phone that offers quite the list of innovations, but they might have little appeal to you. Things like self-healing backs sound great, but how often do barely visible scratches bug you?
In any case, the G Flex 2 in undoubtedly the best-designed phone in LG's stable. Not only does it offer top-of-the-line guts, but it also pays attention to many of the little things a bit more than your average mobile. For example, the headphone jack resides on the bottom, the IR blaster is on the top of the phone, and the semi-flexible phone body means you won't wind up with a broken screen should you accidentally sit on it wrong.
For all the bluster and bickering over what a curved screen does for a television, for a smartphone the advantages are clear. Not only does it place the earpiece and mouthpiece in more appropriate spots in relation to your head—but it also means less annoying reflections, and less pocket presence for some. Several phones like the Samsung Nexus S, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and LG's older G Flex have all used varying degrees of a curved screen, and the results were generally positive. You may not like the curved surface if you're a mobile gamer, but it's not so bad if you're going to be powering through videos on a flight or bus ride.
The button layout of the G Flex 2 is the same mystifyingly frustrating setup as the LG G3 and the original G Flex—a power button is flanked by volume up and down buttons on the back of the phone near the top. Using your index finger to operate these keys is the best way to go, but those of you with smaller digits may find it tough to hit reliably. It's definitely an adjustment from an iPhone or Nexus 5.
First to the market with the brand-new Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, the G Flex 2 boasts some serious processing power. The new 64-bit chip is capable of carrying a heavy load, especially as it's backed up by 2 gigabytes of RAM. Additionally, the jump to Android 5.0.1 grants the ability to really flex that extra processing muscle—something that pays dividends in day-to-day use.
Not quite Lollipop, but won't make you a sucker
To say the least, using the G Flex 2 is interesting. Though it's definitely much easier to handle than its predecessor, it's still quite an ample headset—you're looking at slightly less screen real estate than the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, with less weight. Despite this, the all-plastic G Flex 2 is lightweight and easily slips in and out of your pocket.
Though the G Flex 2 doesn't have any heart-monitors, fingerprint scanners, or other health features baked into the phone itself, it's actually quite refreshing to see this stuff tossed out. Not everyone needs it, and to be honest it's super boom-or-bust. On top of that, who needs yet another thing dragging your battery down?
However it's not the form of the phone that causes its headaches, it's the function. This is a phone where short periods of use are ideal, because prolonged use causes some serious issues with screen visibility and overall performance.
For example, the G Flex 2's screen dims from a peak brightness of 336.63 cd/m2 after just a few minutes of usage. It saves the phone from overheating, but it also means the screen isn't bright enough to overpower reflections—especially once your screen builds up a healthy coat of fingerprints.
In our labs, it took about 8 minutes of screen-on time for the brightness to start to go down, at a temperature of 108˚F. Despite claims that a curved screen alleviates reflectivity issues, we haven't seen the lab data to support it, and it definitely doesn't help enough to save the G Flex 2. The long and short of it is, you're going to have a tough time reading your screen in direct sunlight.
LG's skin of Android is a bit hit-or-miss, with both utterly useless bloatware (think "antivirus" dreck), and useful additions like dual-window and the power menu in the notification shade. A voice recorder app is present—a small addition to be sure, but it's a welcome one even if you're not Norm MacDonald. While the theme is tastefully minimalistic with muted colors, your home screen is very cluttered right out of the box.. Nothing you find there couldn't be accomplished in a few minutes of widget-hunting in the Play Store, at least.
However, the LG G3 does have some useful built-in features. It's not the best media player, but with LG's QRemote app you can use the built-in IR blaster to control most home theater setups with (relative) ease. I had a tough time getting the Vizio P-Series television to work with it, but eventually I got it cooking.
I will point out that Android's latest version has a lot of stellar features baked into the core of the software, but to be honest there have been numerous reports of frustrating issues cropping up. Google is quite good at sanding off rough edges, so a software update could make this entire point moot: Lollipop is easily the most ambitious redesign of Android ever, so there were bound to be some shortcomings.
If you're willing to put up with the rare homescreen redraw, the benefits to using the latest Google operating system are plentiful. For example, the built-in battery saver feature trims performance and motion animations to greatly improve battery life, and the always-listening Google Now is great for accessing the near-Orwellian service at a moment's notice.
Feelin' hot hot hot
If you're wondering whether this phone is worth the money or not, that's a very good question. On paper, it has everything, with enough power under the hood to keep up with best smartphones on the market. However, it's not a perfect device, and there are definitely some rough edges even the self-repairing material can't heal.
First up is the screen. That 1080p OLED display is beautiful—it's got stunning contrast, reflects only about 9% of light that hits it, and the sheer size of the phone makes it great for video content. However, things like a strange white point, oversaturated colors, and a mediocre peak brightness of 336.63 cd/m2 are common to OLED displays—it's just the nature of the beast. Oh well. Minor nits to pick, but we'd be remiss if we didn't lay all the cards on the table. Compared to smartphone screens of even a year ago, this display is more than good enough.
In our processor tests, the LG G Flex went far beyond "good enough," trouncing everything we've tested in the past year save for Apple's new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. But there's a serious catch: The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 heats up quick. In our tests, the G Flex 2's temperature rose to over 113˚F in under 15 minutes of just browsing the web. While that's not dangerous by any means, to keep it there the phone begins heavily throttling back its performance, giving up any advantage it had over older Qualcomm chips.
For example, we ran our performance benchmarks on a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 side-by-side with the G Flex 2. We measured a starting temperature of 80.4˚F for each phone before repeating the test six times in a row, simulating a moderate workload over about 10 minutes. The Samsung and its slightly older Snapdragon 805 churned along at a steady clip, topping out at 91.3˚F with negligible difference in score (3163 on the first run, 3190 on the last). The LG, with the newer Snapdragon 810, shot up to a hair over 110˚F before leveling off.
From the first run to the last, the LG's Geekbench score dropped from 4335 to 2901—about a 33.1% reduction in performance. So while the G Flex 2 handily outpaces Samsung's top device out of the box, after 10-15 minutes of use they're going to be functionally the same from a performance standpoint. LG can fix some of these issues over time, as the unit we have may not be exactly the same as the one that reaches the US once it begins shipping, but right now it's not the leap we were expecting.
It gets worse for the G Flex 2 when you look at other performance areas, such as battery life. In our web browser rundown test, the G Flex 2 was only able to survive for 4 hours and 35 minutes—better than the iPhone 6, but nearly two hours less than the Galaxy Note 4 and Sony's Z3. It's a bit mystifying given the G Flex 2's huge 3,000mAh battery, but I suppose a more powerful chipset should suck down more power. If you want to squeeze out some more battery life, the battery saver option that automatically kicks on at 15% battery definitely helps your phone last a bit longer.
The bottom line is, if you're paying for a generational leap in performance and not getting it, there's something seriously wrong from a value standpoint. While it may get better in time with software updates, right now the G Flex 2 buckles under minor loads, and that's not something you want to see from a flagship phone—especially if you intend to play games or keep that screen on for longer than 10 minutes.
I feel like we've seen this before
LG is very forthcoming with the fact that they use the same camera module in the G Flex 2 that they used in the LG G3. Cool, so we know that the same Sony 13-megapixel sensor makes its return, and so too does LG's occasionally iffy image processing. It doesn't quite keep up with the lower-res iPhone camera module. The G Flex 2's laser autofocus is quicker for those fast-moving subjects, but the camera module is outclassed by many other top phones.
Color performance is great for a smartphone. While the G Flex 2 struggles a bit with a couple points in the sRGB gamut, on the whole the camera module is capable of delivering shots with a ∆C 00 saturation error of 2.62 (95.6% overall saturation). Yellows will be oversaturated, blues will be a tad muted, but overall this is one of the better results from a smartphone camera unit we've seen in a while.
Sharpness is a little on the low side given minor coma issues, but given that this camera can resolve an average of 1511 line widths per picture height at MTF50 (1294 lw/ph adjusted for overshoot). That's about on par with your garden-variety budget point-and-shoot. This module narrowly edges out the one found in the iPhone 6 on the back of some tasteful software oversharpening (roughly 14% overshoot). If you go pixel-peeping, you may notice some haloing around really sharp edges, but it's not going to make much of a difference unless you're making close crops.
Noise reduction is hit or miss, so definitely make sure to seek out light where you can. While no smartphone is going to give you really good shots in low light, there are definitely some that are better than others. In this regard, the G Flex 2 definitely leaves a lot to be desired, as you can see in the full-size sample. Though it works great in bright light, low light snaps suffer from false coloration, loss of edge fidelity, and a bit of blotchiness.
To be completely fair to the phone, very few camera units are better, and going with the same Sony sensor every other manufacturer uses isn't a bad idea. It's just that it's decidedly average all-around.
For video, the G Flex 2 is quite good. The ability to shoot 4K video is a great tool to have in your pocket—quite literally. In our labs, we discovered the camera is capable of resolving well over 1200 line pairs per picture height—about average for the 4K mobile phone cameras we've seen. As far as other points go with video, you're really not looking at a camera that sets itself apart one way or the other. The ability to record in 4K masks a lot of issues, but can't hide everything. Motion is a little choppier than some of the other high-end smartphone cameras, and recording in 1080p often doesn't perform the way you'd expect. Metering is off, focus can hunt sometimes in low light, but overall this is an inoffensive tool for videography.
Jumping the gun
You've gotta hand it to LG—it's not afraid to take a risk, and the G Flex line of smartphones embodies that willingness to throw caution to the wind. The G Flex 2 is definitely an improvement over its predecessor, and it's encouraging to see the return of exotic features like the slightly bendable chassis and the self-healing backing. If the G Flex 2 is LG's prototyping platform, it's certainly grabbing our attention. However, these gimmicks aren't enough to cover other issues like battery life and aggressive throttling; falling short on basic performance points like these can't be overcome by extreme durability.
On paper, it's a great smartphone; it has better battery life than the Apple iPhone 6 Plus, has a passable camera, and has the guts to stay relevant for a long while. However, it's definitely a phone aimed at those who crave the "latest and greatest," and the hardware is simply not capable of keeping that crowd happy.
Despite the heat issue, I'm inclined to agree with LG when they say it's not a huge deal right now. However, I don't know how this is going to affect the phone's operation long-term. It's tough to recommend this phone in the presence of the Snapdragon 805 found on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Google's Nexus 6, which only needs five minutes to perform at roughly the same level as the 810.
To it's credit, the G Flex 2 does hang tough with other current phones. Even with its throttling issues, its performance floor is still competitive when you consider that its worst benchmarks still match the best of last generation's devices. Though the screen isn't all that great comparatively speaking, OLED displays blow every LCD screen out of the water when it comes to contrast performance, and this one's no different. The only inexcusable sore spots are the lackluster battery life and the mediocre-at-best peak brightness; if you're searching for a dealbreaker, those are tough to hand-wave away.
My earnest instinct is to leave this one on the shelf. There are too many phones that perform well enough, and won't buckle under the load of being your daily driver. Even phones like the Motorola Moto X (2014) and the Samsung Galaxy S5 with their Qualcomm Snapdragon 801s are better all-around performers, with much better battery life—and they don't saddle you with the issues of the G Flex 2. And that's just the phones from 2014. With a slew of new devices ready to roll out for 2015, LG's latest might just gotten ahead of itself.