Review: LG Optimus G (Sprint)

In the Android-powered smartphone world, the amount of competitors has been thinning out in recent years. Samsung has been leading a significant marketing campaign for its Galaxy phones while Google itself has bought Motorola and partnered with other vendors – including LG – for its Nexus line. Beyond Samsung and Google, however, it’s essentially No Man’s Land, with Android phone manufacturers fighting tooth and nail for valuable market share.

The fierce competition might cause some Android competitors to scale back operations, as HTC appears to be doing with a revitalization of its Windows Phone business, but LG isn’t going down that path. With the Optimus G, it’s clear LG is going all-in on Android in an attempt to steal some thunder from the big-name players.

The Optimus G packs a powerful set of hardware along with an appealing design that can go toe-to-toe with almost any phone on the market, though not everything is perfect.

Design, Hardware and Specifications


The Optimus G doesn't feature a very unique design, but it does look nice and is well made.

LG likely won’t win any design awards for the Optimus G – the phone features a traditional slab-with-rounded-edges design that doesn’t stand out from the majority of the market – but its build quality is second to none.

The Korean company’s new top-of-the-line phone includes a fantastic 4.7-inch display that features a resolution of 1280x768 (about 318 PPI). That display provides vibrant colors that are neither overwhelming nor subdued in any aspect – the colors are strong, the visuals are sharp and the contrast is perfect. Using the phone outdoors isn’t a problem, either, as the display is easy to view even in bright daylight.

At 5.11 ounces, the phone has a nice heft to it; that’s not to say it’s heavy by any means, but it is heavier than many of its competitors, such as the iPhone 5 (3.95 ounces) and Samsung Galaxy S III (4.69 ounces).

The back of the phone features a reflective pattern which is apparent in well-lit areas but somewhat hard to spot in low-light conditions. Also on the back is a speaker slit in the lower right corner of the device. That speaker doesn't provide much sound and is easily covered up – leaving the phone on its back when calls are on speakerphone isn’t a good idea and music playback features very little range. Given the speaker likely won’t be used much by most people; however, it’s not too big an issue.

There’s a volume rocker on the left side of the phone, while the right side of the phone has a power button (there’s no dedicated camera button). A microUSB port for charging and file transfer is located at the bottom of the phone, while the headphone jack is at the top.


While my camera couldn't capture it, the back of the Optimus G features a pattern.

A row of capacitive touch buttons – back, home and menu – is located below the screen. When touched, they give a slight but noticeable vibration. Holding down the home button will open multitasking, while holding down the menu button opens Android’s search feature.

At about 0.33-inches thick, the Optimus G is slightly thinner than the Samsung Galaxy S III (0.34 inches) and is equal to the iPhone 5.

One drawback to the phone’s sleek design, however, is that it is entirely enclosed. There’s no removable storage option in this Sprint version, and the battery is also unavailable for access. The AT&T version of the phone (which was not provided for review) differs from this route, as it offers a panel that can be opened to reveal microSD and Micro SIM ports. To make up for the lack of expandable storage, Sprint is providing 50 GB of cloud storage through Box, although I doubt online storage will appease most users.

Under the hood, the Optimus G is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 2 GB of RAM, making it one of the most powerful Android phones on the market. It also comes with 32 GB of storage and runs on Sprint’s CDMA 4G LTE network.

The full specifications for the Sprint variant of the LG Optimus G are as follows:

  LG Optimus G (Sprint)
Product Code LG-LS970
Networks 3G/4G CDMA 
LTE
Display 4.7-inch True HD IPS Plus Display (1280x768)
318 PPI pixel density
Corning Gorilla Glass 2
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064
1.5 GHz quad-core Krait CPU
Graphics Adreno 320
RAM 2 GB
Storage 32 GB internal storage
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n (dual-band)
Bluetooth 4.0
A-GPS and GLONASS
NFC
Camera 13 MP rear-facing camera and LED flash
1.3 MP front-facing camera
1080p video recording (front and rear)
Ports 3.5mm audio jack
Micro USB
Battery Li-ion 2,100 mAh non-removable
Launch OS Android 4.0.4 "Ice Cream Sandwich"
Launch Date November 2012
Size & Weight 5.19 x 2.71 x 0.33 inches
5.11 ounces
Price $199.99 on a two-year contract with Sprint

Software

Powered by Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), the Optimus G is slightly behind on Android versions, although LG has previously stated it will be updated to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) sometime in December.

Like devices from most leading third-party Android smartphone manufacturers, LG’s opted to include its own special theme for its Optimus line of phones, the Optimus 3.0 UI. This theme isn’t a drastic departure from the default Android Holo theme, but there are some obvious similarities to Samsung’s TouchWiz theme. In terms of features, there’s not anything too major that’s been modified from the stock Holo theme, but there are some nice additions. Most of the differences come down to custom icons, fonts and buttons, however.

There are few additional options, such as being able to change an application’s icon on home screens, and plenty of widgets are available for users. Some of the menus added in the home screens and app launcher are found in multiple places throughout the theme; while somewhat unnecessary, it may help those who are unfamiliar with Android.


The Optimus 3.0 UI isn't a drastic departure from Android'default Holo theme.

I didn’t care one way or another for the theme, to be honest. Holo suits me just fine, but the Optimus theme doesn’t do anything excessive, and it’s certainly not an eyesore. It’s mostly just some minor tweaks to differentiate its phones from the competition.

Besides the cosmetic differences, LG has also packed the Optimus G with a few pre-installed apps and features that are fairly useful.

The QuickMemo feature (located under notification bar at the top of the Android interface, along with other quick-access features), for instance, is a great way to take notes on the screen, similar to Samsung’s S Memo app. The key difference, however, is that there’s an option to keep the note on the screen while navigating around Android. An example LG’s given of the feature is quickly writing down a number, leaving it on the screen, and navigating to messaging or the contacts list to input it.


QuickMemo is one of the better features exclusive to LG's Android phones.

Polaris Office, one of the better Android productivity apps, is also included for editing Microsoft Office files. There aren’t many other pre-loaded apps besides those that come from Google, such as Google+ and Google Play Music. Sprint chose to include just two apps of its own, so there’s no carrier-related bloatware to worry about.

LG’s also opted to include its own custom lock screen in the Optimus G, a similar version of the lock screen that’s appeared on its recent Android handsets.


The LG lock screen is similar to the default Android version, although its quick launch area is on the bottom.

There are five lock screen options (besides not having a lock screen): swipe, facial recognition, pattern, PIN and password. Swipe is the lock screen most users will likely use, and it’s a bit different in appearance than the default Android lock screen.

The swipe lock screen has multiple animations, but all are handled the same way – swipe your finger in any direction to unlock the device, or select one of four customizable quick-launch options for specific apps. Those options are located across the bottom of the locks screen, much like the lock screen on Samsung devices such as the Galaxy S III, and are launched in the same manner, albeit with your finger starting on the app’s icon.

It’s not too different from the stock Android lock screen in terms of functionality, but it provides a bit more room to show one of LG’s five calendar options.

Performance

Simply put, the Optimus G is blazing fast. In both real-world application and synthetic testing, the Optimus G is a powerhouse. The quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor makes short work of whatever’s thrown at it, and combined with the device’s Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM there really wasn’t a single app available on the Google Play Store that could slow it down.

Navigating around Android interface is buttery smooth; just flipping between home screens can be mesmerizing because of how fluid the processor makes things. Similarly, media apps ran at breakneck speeds and graphically intensive games such as Shadowgun and N.O.V.A. 3 ran without any noticeable lag. There’s not going to be many phones that beat the Optimus G’s all-around performance, and it will be even harder to find a phone that beats it on apps that require much use of the GPU - Adreno 320 is as fast as anything currently on the market.

One downside to the phone’s performance is it can get noticeably hot on the back casing. It won’t emanate an extreme amount of heat, but it is obvious when holding the phone while using applications that tax the processor and/or GPU.

When compared to other Android phones in benchmark testing, the Optimus G was at or near the top in every test, as seen below.

In the Vellamo HTML5 test, the Optimus G bested the Galaxy S III in a race of current top-of-the-line Android phones, although the HTC One XL just eked out a victory. Conversely, in the Futuremark Peacekeeper test, the Optimus G was easily surpassed by the Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5 (the Vellamo test is only available for Android devices, which is why the iPhone 5 was not included in that test).

The Vellamo test only uses two cores, which is why the dual-core One XL scored essentially the same as the quad-core Optimus G. Futuremark’s Peacekeeper test was a disappointment for the Optimus G, as its stock browser was incapable of running many of the benchmark’s HTML5 tests. This loss may have more to do with the fact that the Optimus G is only running Ice Cream Sandwich, whereas the Galaxy S III runs on the more recent Jelly Bean version of Android.

In the GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt HD test, the Optimus G is once again leading the pack for Android devices. This test showed the full power of the phone’s Adreno 320 GPU, a current industry leader. In the on-screen test, the Optimus G averaged 38 frames per second, while the off-screen version of the test saw it hit 26 frames per second. This places the phone well ahead of the likes of the Galaxy S III, RAZR HD, One X and Xperia S, which all feature older GPUs.

Of note is the fact that the RAZR HD and Xperia S both use previous versions of the Adreno – the Adreno 225 and Adreno 220, respectively – which is an indication of how fast mobile hardware is advancing.

As with the performance of Android and its apps on the Optimus G, call quality was similarly good. In the Dallas area, where this review was conducted, calls featured crisp audio, although the performance of Sprint’s network left much to be desired.

Dallas and its immediate surrounding areas had good 4G reception – typically at or near full coverage. Major cities less than 30 miles from Dallas had trouble finding reception just for Sprint’s 3G network, however, and in many buildings coverage was non-existent, while multiple AT&T smartphones used in the same buildings had great reception.

Though the phone is LTE capable, I couldn’t get a single LTE connection in the areas the phone was tested, including major cities that border Dallas, making it impossible to provide a speed test of Sprint’s LTE network.

Camera

LG’s included several welcome options in its camera app, including a high dynamic range mode, panoramic mode and scene mode (normal, portrait, landscape, sports, sunset and night). ISO, white balance, brightness, contrast and other typical settings can also be adjusted.

Another neat feature is the inclusion of a “cheese shutter.” When using this option, the device will take a picture when you say one of the five available words – “cheese,” “smile,” “whisky,” “kimchi” or “LG.” I’d prefer just pressing a button myself, but it may come in handy for group photos.

Sprint’s Optimus G – again, the version of the phone provided for this review – comes outfitted with a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera (the AT&T version of the Optimus G features an 8-megapixel rear camera) that’s also capable of 1080p video recording. Despite being a fairly high-resolution camera, the actual image quality of pictures left a bit to be desired.

Color reproduction was great in well-lit indoor areas, but the flash often drowned out the color of pictures in areas where lighting was a problem. Outdoor images typically featured good color reproduction, although occasionally colors appeared dull and faded. Blues would sometime appear pale, and reds would turn pinkish.

The good news is the HDR option can alleviate many of these issues. When using HDR, colors were reproduced more accurately, as one would expect, and there was a better color balance. The bad news is HDR takes about five seconds to implement after a picture is taken.


Without HDR, the Optimus G's camera sometimes washes out colors, such as a blue sky.


Luckily HDR does a good job of toning down excessive light and balancing color.


Sometimes the camera will also change the tint of reds and pinks slightly when HDR isn't used.


Again, HDR fixes the colors and light overexposure (notice the concrete in the top left appearing more natural).

Indoors, images taken in low-light situations can again be overwhelmed by the flash. The color range again won’t be accurately represented, and the flash will often change the tint of images.

Image quality on the camera also left a little to be desired. As with LG’s Optimus 4X HD, there’s fair amount of blurring around edges, although not quite to the extent of the camera on that phone. Focusing was again a problem as well, as the camera would often take shots that were out of focus even when the phone’s camera software said otherwise.


A 100 percent crop of one of the flowers from the non-HDR shot above.

Those looking for a phone with an impressive rear camera aren’t going to find it here, but at the same time the camera isn’t terrible. The included software is capable of alleviating some of the issues I found, but that’s probably not much help to most.

In addition to the rear camera, the Optimus G also has a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera primarily for use in video calling applications. This camera is serviceable for video chatting, but not very useful for actual picture taking – not that it was intended to be, obviously.

Battery Life

Like the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Optimus G has a 2,100mAh battery; unlike the Galaxy S III, however, the battery life is nowhere near comparable to leading competitors. For the average user, the handset will likely last about 8 to 10 hours or so – that’s including a mix of messaging, light web browsing (on both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G networks), the occasional phone call and a small amount of data streaming.

Power users may find themselves needing to recharge the battery before the end of a typical work day, as anything beyond messaging and phone calls tends to make quick work of the phone’s battery. Using the Internet on a 3G or 4G connection just for web browsing tends to drain the battery rather quickly, as does any form of data streaming. 

While heavy usage of data-streaming apps quickly draining a phone's battery is to be expected, the Optimus G’s battery seemed to drain at alarming rates while using these apps. When streaming files from Google Play Music, for instance, the phone went from 50 percent to about 15 percent in less than a two-hour span. Similarly, navigation would knock the battery life down 30 percent in about an hour (when the phone wasn’t plugged in, obviously).

To help alleviate the quick battery drain, LG has also included an “eco mode” that will “dynamically optimize CPU control policy.” Basically, when the full effort of the quad-core processor isn’t needed, it isn’t used, and the phone will use two cores instead of all four.

In theory, it’s a great feature; in practice, it’s really not going to help you all that much. Using the phone in identical conditions with eco mode turned off didn’t reveal any substantial difference in battery life. It adds maybe 30 minutes or so – nothing that will keep you using your phone much longer if it’s nearly dead.

Despite the poor battery life, LG says the phone is rated for 800 charge cycles, compared to the typical 500 or so for most smartphones. That means the phone will be able to keep its full charge capacity for a much longer lifetime. It’s certainly good to know, but at the rate people replace their smartphones it may not be much of an upside for a lot of users.

Compared to other leading Android phones, the LG Optimus G’s battery life lags behind a fair amount. A baseline video playback test – in which the phone was set to 75 percent screen brightness and put in airplane mode while a 720p video is streamed on a loop – showed a noticeable difference in battery life against leading phones.

Device Movie Playback Life
Samsung Galaxy Note II 12:47
Motorola RAZR HD 11:49
Motorola RAZR 9:31
HTC One XL 9:03
Samsung Galaxy S III 8:41
Motorola RAZR V 8:32
HTC Windows Phone 8X 7:15
LG Optimus G 7:14
Sony Xperia S 6:50
LG Optimus 4X HD 5:16

Conclusion

With the Optimus G, LG has crafted a phone that’s more than capable of competing with the market leaders. While the phone falls slightly short in some aspects, such as battery life and not allowing expandable memory, its sheer performance capabilities are nothing to sneer at.

Even though Sprint’s network has issues, the Optimus G is a great LTE-capable smartphone. For those who already have a contract with Sprint and are looking for a new Android smartphone, the Optimus G deserves consideration next to Samsung’s Galaxy S III and Google’s Nexus 4 (which can’t run on LTE networks). Its build quality, performance and gorgeous screen make it an appealing option for Sprint customers.

At $199.99 with a two-year contract, the phone has more memory (32GB) than the similarly priced iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III (16GB each). The battery life may keep some away, but the additional memory and strong performance make it worthy of consideration.

A near-identical version of the phone is also available on AT&T; the primary differences between the two versions are that the AT&T variant features an 8-megapixel camera as well as a side panel containing microSD and Micro SIM ports. AT&T has a wider range of smartphones available, but the Optimus G is again a phone to keep in mind.

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