LG seems to be cutting back on some of its big smartphone investments in 2020, skipping out on a new G-series flagship and instead, releasing the LG Velvet. That makes use of mostly mid-range specs, so the company clearly isn't trying to compete at the same level as some other manufacturers.
However, LG is still investing in the lower end of the smartphone market, with the refreshed K series being announced back in February and launching last month in Europe, comprised of the LG K61, K51S, and K41S. Out of those, the K61 is the higher-end model, and that's what LG sent me to try out.
I haven't really used an LG phone for a significant amount of time before, so this was a somewhat new experience for me, and I'd say it was alright. I compare it directly to the TCL 10L I reviewed earlier in the year, because it launched at the exact same price in Portugal, €279.99, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of them.
|CPU||MediaTek Helio P35|
|GPU||IMG PowerVR GE8320|
|Display||6.53-inch LCD, 2340x1080, 395ppi|
|Body||164.5 x 77.5 x 8.49mm, 191g|
|Camera||48MP main + 8MP ultra-wide + 5MP macro, 2MP depth sensor, Front - 16MP|
|Aperture||f/1.79 + f/2.2 + f/2.2 + f/2.4, Front - f/2.0|
|Video capture||1080p 30fps|
The LG K61's design doesn't really do much to stand out, but I liked it more than I thought I would. The overall design language reminds me of some older smartphone designs, like the LG G5 from 2016, but it doesn't feel outdated when I look at it. There's something about its curves that makes it look nice and it's also super comfortable to hold, so while it's somewhat bland, it definitely has some design points going for it in my view.
On the back of the phone, you'll find the quad-camera setup in a horizontal layout and, again, the curvature of the camera module really feels like it adds to the design here. Likewise, the fingerprint sensor below it is also round and it works about as well as you'd want it to.
Going around the edges of the phone, the right side only has a power button and a SIM card slot, all pretty standard.
The left side has the volume rocker with separate keys, and below that, an extra button to engage with the Google Assistant. I'm not a huge fan of buttons that only work with digital assistants, and the TCL 10L would have had an advantage here - but at some point since my review, the "Smart Key" on it also got turned into a Google Assistant button, so it's neck and neck between the two.
The top edge has nothing aside from a single microphone. Meanwhile, at the bottom, there's another microphone, a speaker grill, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a USB Type-C port for charging.
Display and sound
The display on the LG K61 is also pretty standard for its price point, being a 6.53-inch Full HD+ LCD. It looks pretty good, I would say, but it's not something that will blow your mind. Colors look good without being overly saturated, and I think it does a slightly better job with pure blacks than some other LCD panels. It doesn't get incredibly bright outdoors, so some users might have trouble viewing it comfortably, but I didn't have any problems with it.
More important to me is the ability to change the display scaling, which lets me make UI elements smaller on the screen. This may seem trivial, but a surprising amount of phones don't let me do that, and it's annoying to have large screens being wasted by displaying huge icons for everything. Thankfully, LG isn't one of them, so that gives it an advantage over the TCL 10L in this department.
In the sound department, though, the LG K61 definitely falls apart a bit. The sound coming from the bottom-firing speaker sounds flat and it's just too quiet compared to even the aforementioned TCL, which already wasn't great. It's usable, but it's definitely not an experience I like that much.
LG does tout exclusive support for DTS:X surround sound if you connect a headset, though, and it does add some volume to the sound in some videos. It works with both Bluetooth and wired headphones, too.
The camera setup on the LG K61 is also fairly standard in its price range, at least on paper. It has a 48MP primary sensor, an 8MP ultra-wide camera, a 5MP macro camera, and a 2MP depth sensor. As usual with a lot of cheaper phones, a couple of these cameras seem to have been thrown in here just have four cameras as a marketing point.
That doesn't mean the camera setup is bad, though, especially that primary sensor. Not every 48MP camera is the same, and the K61 surprised me a lot with how balanced and accurate its colors were. It rarely felt like it was oversaturating any colors, and whenever HDR came into play, it helped quite a bit. Sometimes, the dynamic range can be bad, and I did notice that it loses sharpness and detail in the smaller details of a picture, but 90% of the time I preferred these pictures over the TCL 10L's.
I did, however, have some issues with autofocus, with the K61 often trying to focus on something that wasn't the main object of the picture. This can be addressed by tapping to focus, but it can make it less of a point-and-shoot experience. The macro camera is also affected by these problems, sometimes even more so.
The ultra-wide camera is less of a win for LG, though. Not only does it have a noticeable fish-eye effect towards the edges of pictures, but it can also sometimes blow colors out immensely for no reason, creating very unrealistic images. As for the selfie camera, it's about as good as the one on the TCL 10 L.
There's no night mode to speak of here, so at night, the phone just doesn't do well as a camera. It also just doesn't handle low-light scenarios that well, with pictures being somewhat more grainy than the competition.
Finally, in video recording, the LG K61 can sometimes be sharper, but it doesn't handle different lighting very well and dynamic range can be poor, as seen above, plus there's no image stabilization. Like with pictures, it also tends to get a lot more grainy in low light.
Performance and battery life
This is where the LG K61 truly starts to fall apart in my opinion. The MediaTek Helio P35 just isn't that fast of a processor, and it struggles with even some of the more basic tasks. Pokémon GO, which I like to use as a benchmark for performance, is playable, but it stutters more than on most other phones, including the TCL 10L. Most problematic, though, is simple day-to-day performance.
Everything takes a little longer to open and a little longer to load, and multitasking is just not ideal here. Doing anything while watching a YouTube video in picture-in-picture mode immediately feels a lot slower, and that's a complaint that I don't remember having with any other phone. Wi-Fi performance is also some of the worst I've seen on a phone, making it really hard to use my home internet in areas where other phones work fine. On top of that, while it never really ruined the experience, I experience more Bluetooth audio cutouts with this phone than I've become used to.
Of course, that's easily verified by benchmarks, and results are actually even lower than I would have expected across the board. AnTuTu, a general-purpose benchmark, gives the LG K61 just 95626 points, thanks in good part to the fact that two of the GPU tests can't even run. For reference, the TCL 10L has nearly double that score.
GeekBench, which focuses on testing the CPU, shows something similar. The biggest difference here is in single-core performance, where the TCL 10L scores almost double of the LG K61.
Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU, and you can see that not a single one of the tests hits 30 frames per second. In fact, at most, you're looking at 21 frames per second.
In terms of battery life, though, the LG K61 actually does pretty well. The 4,000mAh unit can often get me through two days of usage, and when it can't (usually because I have YouTube videos playing for hours), it still easily gets me through a day. And it does that without making me miss notifications, which I've recently learned some phones tend to do. As slow as the phone may be, I always got notifications in a timely manner and never missed any.
I think it's impossible to talk about this phone without mentioning that we're halfway through 2020 and this is still running Android 9 Pie. The phone launched last month in Europe, three months away from the expected release of Android 11, and it's still running a version of Android from two years ago. There's no getting around that, and considering LG doesn't have a terrific reputation for timely software updates, it seems unlikely that this phone will ever get past Android 10, if it even gets there in the first place.
With that being said, though, I have to admit I liked LG's software experience more than I expected to. Despite not being based on Android 10, it does have a dark mode of its own, though it won't always apply to apps that would usually support Android's native dark mode. I was also surprised that the phone didn't overcomplicate things - for the most part, if Google offers a certain service with Android, LG doesn't try to duplicate it, and I appreciate that. Plus, you can disable almost all of Google's apps easily - barring Chrome and Google News, which keep re-enabling themselves for some reason.
Of course, there are still a few downsides. No Android 10 means no gesture navigation, and while LG doesn't include many of its own services, that doesn't mean there's no bloatware. A handful of games come pre-installed, as do Facebook and Instagram, and even if you delete them, there's a section in the Settings that constantly reminds you you can reinstall them, so it doesn't really feel like they're gone.
I like the LG K61 more than I probably should. There's something so charming about the design of the phone, and it feels really comfortable in the hand compared to many others. I was also really impressed by the camera and how accurate the colors in the pictures were, specifically in the main camera. Everything looks really balanced and natural, and if you want good pictures at this price point, I think it's worth a look.
But there are so many sacrifices to be made in other aspects. The camera quality doesn't hold up in low-light environments, and video recording also has its issues. The software experience is alright and nails the basics better than some others, but it's running an outdated version of Android out of the box, which is ridiculous for a phone launched in the summer of 2020.
On top of that, performance is much worse than something like the TCL 10L, with basic tasks showing significant slowdowns and incredibly lower benchmark scores. It's rare that I get to complain about performance in a phone, which says a lot about the K61.
While I have a bit of a soft spot for this phone's design and camera, it's hard to recommend it. As I said with the TCL 10L, you may be better off getting something like the TCL Plex from last year, which is often discounted to be cheaper than this one.