In the latter part of 2013, two companies decided to try and take innovation to a different level by debuting devices with curved displays. While Samsung has yet to introduce its device to the majority of the world, LG has successfully launched its curved device, the G Flex to a global market. What is perhaps most unique about the G Flex is not only its curved design, but also its ability to actually lay flat under unintended stress.
LG, a long-term player in the smartphone market, for the most part has created forgettable devices for the mid to low-end market. Even LG’s previous flagships like the Optimus 2X/4X, have failed to gain traction. Slowly re-building its efforts over the past couple of years, LG has slowly blossomed into creating recognizable flagship devices. It has been a long and arduous journey, but LG is finally getting close to success. LG’s springboard into the flagship market came by creating Google’s Nexus 4 and 5. Utilizing the momentum, LG has created some of its own flagship devices like the G2, G2 Pro and G Pad devices.
Relying on a winning formula and design, LG has released a bold new semi-flagship into the market. The G Flex is a monstrous handset that teeters on the cusp of being called a tablet. With the screen measuring six inches, the phone easily lands into the phablet (phone / tablet) device category. But, what makes this massive device approachable is its unique use of a curved display and body that almost naturally allows your hands to cradle the device. The LG G Flex is an exciting new handset that is embracing new technologies in an effort to move a mundane genre forward. But, will this unique deviation succeed or will it plummet into obscurity only being remembered for its gimmicky presentation?
The LG G Flex shares characteristics from its sibling flagship handset, the G2. The front is simple and dominated by a massive six-inch display that is devoid of any buttons, its only defining characteristics being a 2MP front-facing camera, proximity sensor, earpiece speaker, and a small LG logo on the chin. A highly reflective gunmetal chrome border with relatively thin side bezels surrounds the display.
LG, for the most part has thought out the design of the device fairly well, moving the traditional volume rocker and power button to the rear of the device. Theoretically, repositioning the buttons means giving users better access to buttons that would otherwise be cumbersome to reach. But, in reality, this button repositioning becomes a bit of a nuisance.
Although there are minor distinguishing differences in the feel of the volume and power buttons, during the heat of the moment, there isn't enough of a contrast to make a difference. While you won’t be punished for accidently pressing the power button during a call, you will experience an irritating moment if you make the same mistake while watching a movie, listening to music, or any other activity that requires you to reach for the volume buttons. Even after using the device for over a month I was still experiencing the same issue. I wasn't purposely being careless, but things like this shouldn't have a thought process, they should just work.
Unfortunately, I never became accustomed to the button layout on the back. Instead, I would find myself second-guessing what button I was pressing. Luckily, I didn’t have to rely on the back buttons for a majority of the time. Instead I opted to use the tap to wake function of the device. Perhaps, when LG releases its next iteration of the G Flex or another flagship device, we will see an improvement in the implementation of the volume rocker / power button design.
Above the volume and power buttons lies the 13-megapixel camera surround by a tiny flash and IR sensor. While I’ll go into more detail about the camera later, the IR port works flawlessly. I was easily able to program the built-in remote software and control my TV within a couple of minutes. The only gripe I have about the IR blaster is how it's positioned. Since the IR blaster is located on the bottom of the phone, and requires line-of-sight to function, you're left holding the G Flex in an odd manner when trying to change channels. This is in stark contrast to devices like the HTC One, that have their IR blaster located at the top. It's a minor quibble, but I thought I would point it out.
The lower back portion has a single slit speaker that is reasonably loud but can get naturally covered by your hand if you are holding the phone. The bottom of the device houses a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB charging port, and a small hole for the microphone. Since the back of the device is not removable, the SIM tray is located on the left side. The device measures 8.7mm thickness.
Despite being a fairly large device, the G Flex is able to rest comfortably in hand thanks to its rounded curved body. There is one physical caveat to the device and that's LG's use of glossy plastic. The oversized device coupled with the glossy plastic can cause the it to slip out of your hand if you're not careful. As a person with average sized hands, I experienced this a couple times making me a bit more cautious when handling the device.
If you intend to carry the G Flex in your pant pockets, be forewarned, due to the size and shape: the device doesn't fit that well in there. Instead of contouring to the natural curve of your leg, the G Flex goes against the curve and creates an odd bulge when storing it in a front pant pocket. Those following the trend and wearing skinnier jeans will find it especially difficult and you most likely have to holster the unit in a back pocket or waist pack.
Lastly, the G Flex has the capability to actually flex and lay flat. That's right, by pressing on the backside of the device, you can make the device flatten itself and change its shape. Although LG does not recommend this kind of stress be applied to the device, it's amazing to think about the engineering and design aspect behind this feature. While I never had such an incident occur, I did demonstrate its flexing ability to those who wanted to see it. Despite its creaking and crunching when being pressed flat, the device always returned to its original shape without being harmed.
The LG G Flex features a six-inch 720p phosphorescent OLED (P-OLED) display with Corning Gorilla Glass 2. Both the screen and surrounding glossy gunmetal bezel are prone to oils and fingerprints. Although not the latest edition of Corning's Gorilla Glass, the 2nd generation has provided excellent scratch resistance and durability. During my month of use I have yet to see a scratch or nick on the device.
Naturally, when working with a display as large as the G Flex, resolution and quality are key aspects when trying to create the best possible experience. Unfortunately, LG has neglected both of these aspects. The six-inch 720p display looks good, even when browsing the web or reading texts. But, there definitely is a noticeable haze that comes from the lower resolution panel being partnered with a larger screen size. The colors are accurate though it does have a slightly bluish tint, which is common with OLED panels. The viewing angles are excellent with the display maintaining its vividness from all angles.
The black levels are also impressive. The panel was able to generate deep black tones without oversaturating the image with light bleed. However, there were instances when the black levels were so deep that it didn’t allow me to see the detail in images as clearly as other devices. Since not everyone will be a fan of the punchy whites and the deep blacks, LG does offer a couple of customization options for its display. The screen mode adjustment allows users to adjust the screen settings between three preset modes: standard, vivid, and natural.Personally, I always used standard, which provided the best balance for text, pictures, and movies.
The G Flex also has an option that will auto-adjust screen tone depending on what is shown on the screen. This feature tends to adjust color temperatures and settings in order to conserve battery life. While I tried this setting for the first week, I felt that it did not allow the screen to perform at its best. I opted to take a minor hit on battery life for a more pleasant viewing experience.
Example of the chrome tint that would appear under sunlight, handset is set to 100% brightness
Although not the brightest screen, the G Flex is still fairly readable under direct sunlight. Perhaps what became more of an issue was its inability to gauge incoming light to automatically adjust the brightness of the display. When moving from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa, the reaction of the display was often too slow, resulting in a screen that was either too dim or too bright for the situation.
The second issue with the display is the way it physically reacts in sunlight. Most, if not all displays are susceptible to some kind of negative effect when exposed to direct sunlight. However, the LG G Flex has a strange silver / chrome tint that appears when exposed to sunlight at the right angle. This tint makes the screen unreadable. I think this has to do with the way the curved display is manufactured, but this is only speculation. It’s something that can obviously be corrected by tilting the device to counteract the glare, but I have never experienced something so severe, and when it occurs it does heavily detract from the usability in day-to-day use.
All in all, I think LG was brave in trying something different. But, to sacrifice the viewing experience in exchange for a curved display is slightly infuriating. In reality, the curved display doesn't add any real benefits to make the sacrifice worthwhile. Sure, LG will tell you that it fits better in your pocket, the sound from the speakers is louder thanks to its design, or that it will somehow enhance the tactile experience. But, all these things aren’t entirely accurate. It’s one thing to put a lower resolution display on a six-inch device, but it's another to create an inferior six-inch display as a marketing gimmick that purposely diminishes the user experience.
In the end, it boils down to what LG is trying to accomplish. They released the first curved display device that was available to a broader audience. Although not the best in terms of quality or resolution, the color representation and accuracy are fairly good. The whites pop and the blacks are deep, as expected from an OLED display. But, the strange silver film / tint that appears under sunlight is inexcusable.
The LG G Flex features a heavily customized version of Android 4.2.2. (Recently, AT&T released an update to Android version 4.4.2. I will update this portion when I have spent more time with the update.) LG's approach to Android is to throw in everything that any user could possibly want. The menu systems are expansive and sometimes confusing. The sheer volume of options and customizations is mind-boggling. While I appreciate this to some degree, I can only imagine what a first timer would feel when they are faced with this kind of device.
The settings menu is broken down into four groups: networks, sound, display, and general. Each area has its own respective settings in regards to the category. The general tab is a mixed bag of different options. The menu system is fairly streamlined with icons for every setting. Each setting option also has a small description directly underneath that allows users to make an informed decision on what they might be changing. Although a majority of the UI is similar with subtle icons and check marks, there are odd moments in the menu system when it deviates to using on and off toggle switches. While I didn’t find them particularly distracting, they did feel a little out of place with the rest of the interface.
LG's strategy of trying to include everything possible that a customer could ask for ends up working fairly well. Rather than trying to specialize in a few things like HTC, LG is taking the Samsung approach and making sure that the G Flex caters to everyone. Some of the more gimmicky features include: the ability to detect facial and optical recognition for keeping the screen and movies on when facing the phone, gesture controls, and audio controls that make the experience more pleasant. Generally, the optical tracking worked fairly well even in low light conditions. The screen would easily track my eyes and keep the display on as long as I was looking at the screen. The Smart Video option was a little less cooperative, having inconsistencies during multiple uses.
Another appreciated customization is the ability to choose your Android menu button layout. While Android might have a default button layout, LG gives you the option of choosing up to six different types of configurations. One of the more interesting menu button layouts gives users the ability to add a button that can pull down the system tray. I will admit that this is convenient, considering the size of the device and the distance it would take to reach the top of the display. It is LG's smaller touches to the Android experience that go a long way in making a first time or seasoned user comfortable.
Despite the vast amount of quirky options and customizations, there is a glaring omission in utilizing LG's curved screen. There are no intuitive controls, features, or functions that utilize the screen in a creative manner. While I don't fault LG, it would have been nice for them to incorporate some kind of software that would take advantage of the most unique aspect of the G Flex.
And while I can appreciate the sheer amount of options, customizations, and features available on the G Flex I wish that LG would make things a bit more streamlined. Don’t get me wrong I would rather have options for everything, than not have the options at all. But, in the grand scope of the experience, I think that the average consumer would be overwhelmed with the amount of things that can be changed. LG does do a good job of including a pop-up explanation of every newly accessed area of the device, which makes learning the LG’s custom UI, a pleasure. However, the company could do a better job of creating a tighter, more refined experience.
It’s evident that the G Flex wasn’t positioned to be an all-new flagship for 2014. Although it packs quite a punch when it comes to processing power it isn’t ready to compete with newer flagships like the HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy S5, and other upcoming devices.
The combination of a Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor running at 2.26GHz with 2GB’s of memory provides more than enough power for the average consumer. This combination makes daily tasks like messaging, browsing, and multi-tasking work flawlessly. During extended use and purposefully overworking the device I never encountered a moment when it stuttered or slowed down. This is particularly important considering that the G Flex allows for multiple screen options and custom pop out windows to be active at the same time. The power came in handy when I was watching a movie, browsing the web, and responding to texts messages at the same time.
In the Futuremark test, it faired well against the competition testing in the upper half. Some of the better performing devices were newer generation or better equipped devices like the Z2, Note 3, and Galaxy S5. AnTuTu benchmarks confirmed the device's robust power by ranking it in between the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. The results reflect that the device can hold its own and is definitely a performer. Lastly, GFXBench also had a similar results showing that the G Flex is in the higher end of the spectrum.
When it comes to the camera, the LG G Flex performs beautifully in the right situations. The 13MP camera is fast and accurate, with lots of options. The camera takes about a second to launch and can snap photos instantly. It's so quick in fact, that the first couple times I used it, I thought it wasn't capturing the pictures I was taking. As a comparison I was coming from a Nexus 5, which takes pictures at an abysmal rate and lacks the quality of the G Flex. All of the photos I took were using the fully automatic mode. I did not utilize any of the advanced options during my photo and video tests.
Click photo above for full size image
The camera has a huge array of options with a photo mode and general settings option. The photo modes encompass a number of preset options, while the settings options allows for fine tweaking of white balance, brightness, image size, etc. Where the camera really shines is taking daytime shots. The focus is immediate and accurate. The colors are vivid, but not oversaturated. With the exception of a couple of rare misses with the autofocus, the camera performed flawlessly capturing everything as it should. But, it does have its limitations, which become more evident when shooting images and video at night.
In less optimal lighting conditions, image quality tends to suffer with only a small number of images being excellent and accurate. Although the autofocus was reasonably quick, the image often times looked muddy. Even in well lit scenarios, the sensor couldn't quite get the scene captured accurately letting in a bit too much light and relying on its optical image stabilization capabilities.
But, occasionally there were some excellent night shots that captured the moment perfectly. Above are a couple of the prime examples where the images are a pretty accurate representation of what the objects looked like that night. The detail is clear, the colors are dead on, and there is minimal distortion. Unfortunately, taking videos at night was a complete miss. I tried shooting in a couple different lighting scenarios but each time I would end up with video that was disappointing. Although I don't expect the best results at night, it would be nice to get results similar to some of the leading in those categories like the Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of the G Flex is its ability to record 4K video. While the quality is pretty good with minimal artifacts, it does come at a cost. When shooting 4K video, you lose the optical image stabilization feature. Also while filming in 4K I found that the autofocus wasn't as accurate, with the camera struggling to focus objects, which would otherwise not be a problem when recording in 1080p.
The optical image stabilization can only be activated when recording in 1080p at 30 FPS. While OIS is a fairly recent feature, it is a requirement when trying to create a competing flagship device in 2013/14. But, this is a feature that is also absent from other devices that can shoot 4K video. Overall, I think the camera does as excellent job taking beautiful day time photos and videos. Although the night time images and videos aren't great, they are on par with what you would fine on other devices classed similarly. With a few exceptions, night time shots are still a tough category for most if not all smartphones.
Much like countless other devices, the G Flex does not have a removable battery or back cover. Luckily, the 3500mAh battery provides more than enough power to get the average user through a full day of use. This device is possibly one of the longest running devices I have tested to date. Although I'm not a heavy user, in a normal day of usage, I use messaging, Google Voice, and Twitter. Typically, I browse the web for about an hour, stream a couple of videos via YouTube, have mail syncing at 15 minute increments for three accounts, and take about 10 to 20 minutes of phone calls. For my use I was easily able to get through a day, and was confident leaving it off the charger at night. Generally, I would use about 40% on the first day, and come home with around 10% left on the second. I would regularly do this and would consistently be able to get through a second day of use. While this might not be typical, as a control or reference point, I would rarely be able to get through one day of use with my Nexus 5, which has a 2300mAh battery.
So, after a month, what do I think about the LG G Flex? I think it’s a unique device that commands the attention of the mobile world. While it might not be the perfect device, it is an innovative concept that shows a glimpse of where mobile devices are possibly headed in the near future.
The G Flex is a flagship device paired with a decent display. If anything, the G Flex shows that a 720p resolution display can only be pressed so far. The performance of the device is on par with other flagship devices and the battery life is unmatched. The 13MP camera works quickly and accurately, with night shots being its only weak point. The 4K video recording capability is a nice added bonus to an already robust camera feature set.
Despite my critical observations of the G Flex, I think that it can only get better from this point. If LG does decide to release a G Flex 2 I would encourage them to focus on the importance of making good use of the curve. While the gimmick is interesting at first, the novelty of it wears quickly. A second go-around with the same design and better specification won’t work. They will need to put emphasis on the importance of this unique feature and how it can really change the experience. Otherwise, they’ll be producing much of the same; an oversized device that doesn’t perform any better than its competition.