Review of the LG Optimus G


LG hasnít had a lot of luck with their phones over the last year, but the Optimus G might change all that. Not only is it a kick-ass high-end phone, but it is also the basis for the new Google Nexus 4. The only real differences between the Optimus G and the Nexus 4 are that the LG has LTE and it included customizations provided by LG.

Last Updated: 05-Nov-2012

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

Most of the observations I make here can be equally applied to the new Google Nexus 4, with exception of remarks that concern LTE, as the Nexus 4 does not support it. Another big difference between the two models (which doesnít impact upon this review) is that the Nexus 4 is a pure Google phone and comes with an unlocked bootloader. According reports that have surfaced over the last few weeks, the Optimus G has a locked bootloader. That means you canít install custom versions of Android onto it (though you will probably still be able to root it).

Also see Howard Chui's review of the LG Optimus G at HowardForums.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

I couldnít make any meaningful test of RF while using the Telus test SIM that it came with because I didnít have another LTE phone that was unlocked, but fortunately for me the model I had been given to test was SIM-unlocked, which allowed me to put my Rogers SIM into it. Throughout my tests the Optimus G seemed to have very comparable RF performance to my Samsung Galaxy S II LTE on both HSPA and LTE. However, that is only faint praise, because Samsung phones are not known for their RF sensitivity. Subsequently I can only rate the Optimus G as average when it comes to RF performance.

However, one RF-related item I noticed while testing the phone was that it lost LTE quite frequently, and then had trouble finding it again. This happened most frequently on the road, but I also observed it happen indoors at my house, where the LTE signal on Telus is reasonably strong. While driving around Mississauga (where the Bell Mobility/Telus LTE service is reasonably solid, according to their posted site locations on Industry Canada) the phone dropped to HSPA for more than 70% of the time. In one instance Iíd dropped to HSPA to make a short phone call, but when Iíd finished the call the LTE didnít come back for almost an hour. Even rebooting the phone didnít help.

My first thought was that the phone was at fault, and so I put my Rogers SIM in it. I then drove around Mississauga, and I also left the SIM in the phone for hours on end at the house. At no time did it ever drop out of LTE on its own. I made numerous phone calls to force the phone into HSPA (both on the move and at home), but LTE returned in no more than 5 to 15 seconds after the call was terminated. This is exactly the sort of smooth predictable behavior Iím used to seeing all the time on my S II LTE, and so it appears that the Optimus G works just fine with Rogers.

I donít have any day-to-day experience with Bell Mobility or Telus LTE, and so I donít know if this behavior is normal on their other phones. I talked about this with Howard Chui when I returned to the phone to him and it was his opinion (from having tested a lot more phones than I have) that this behavior is normal for Bell and Telus. I still have my doubts, but Howardís experience with this issue far exceeds mine.

So, if this is normal behavior on Bell and Telus, then thereís nothing out of the ordinary with the Optimus G, but if this is not the normal sort of behavior, then thereís an issue with the way the Optimus G interacts with the Bell/Telus network.

For future reference, the phone I tested had baseband APQ8064/MDM9x15M, kernel version 3.0.21, and build number IMM76L. This may not be exactly the version that will come out on Bell Mobility or Telus, and so the official models may not suffer from the issue.

Audio

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

Sound quality on the built-in earpiece is very good, with plenty of clean volume. However, the overall sound reproduction is a little scratchy. There is no detectable background hiss or other annoying distractions, and my only gripe with the phone is that itís not particularly comfortable for long calls. The sharp upper edge of the front faÁade digs into my ear.

Outgoing audio is very similar to that I hear from the S II LTE, but the Optimus G seems to have a markedly better noise cancellation circuit. It manages to reduce background noise without severely damaging the intended audio. Overall the voice quality is above average, but hardly stellar.

Loudspeaker: In-call performance of the speaker is fairly decent, but I couldnít detect much difference between it and the loudspeaker on my Galaxy S II LTE. That means at higher volumes the speaker suffers from sympathetic vibrations that slightly distort the sound and make it unpleasant to listen to. This makes you turn down the volume to compensate. By comparison the Huawei Ascend P1, which I recently tested, has superior speakerphone functionality.

For multimedia playback however, the speaker is not quite as loud as my S II LTE, and that phone is hardly loud. Overall tonal quality is very shrill compared to the S II LTE, and itís a little annoying at times. Iíve certainly heard worse loudspeaker performance on other phones Iíve tested in the past, but the Optimus G is still down near the bottom of the heap.

Headset Audio: I compared headset audio to my S II LTE by listening to identical songs on a set of good-quality earbuds and with no equalizer modifications applied. As far as sound quality goes, I can only provide observations on the relative differences between the two phones, rather than quantitative numbers. Output level was approximately equal for any given volume settings and tonal balance was only slightly different. The Optimus G had a little more midrange, while very low-frequency bass response and high frequency response was very similar. There seemed to be a tiny bit more background noise during quiet passages on the LG, but not enough to be truly noticeable. Output to an amplifier worked equally well.

Display

Unlike most phones with 720p resolution, the LG Optimus G uses 1280 x 768, rather than 1280 x 720. The extra resolution results in a slightly wider screen a tiny bit more screen real estate. Iím not sure the size difference really matters one way or another.

While many other reviewers have expressed general delight with the display on the Optimus G, I found myself a little disappointed with it. Not because the screen is bad (because it most certainly is not), but because it isnít as good as screens Iíve previously reviewed, such as the one on the North American version of the HTC One X. LG made a big deal out the LCD screen technology they used on this model, but overall it just doesnít touch the excellence HTC pulled off quite some time ago.

The screen is bright, but only slightly brighter than the Super AMOLED screen on my S II LTE, which means itís probably got the same maximum brightness as the Samsung Galaxy S3. Compare that with the One X however, which I described as having a screen that was noticeably brighter than my S II LTE.

As far as viewing angles are concerned, the LG display doesnít cause any color shifts as the screen is tilted away from straight-on, but contrast and brightness are noticeably affected. Compare that again with the North American version of the HTC One X, which seems to suffer from virtually no degradation as the screen angle is increased.

Where the screen does excel however is in its overall clarity. I didnít have a One X or a Samsung Galaxy S3 to compare directly, but based on what I remembered from testing those models, I was reasonably impressed with just how sharp everything looked, especially the text. Comparing it to my S II LTE would be pointless, as the S II has only 800 x 480 resolution.

Processor and Chipset

The LG Optimus G is the first phone to utilize the new Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, which is a quad-core processor with a clock speed of 1.5 GHz and mated to the new Adreno 320 GPU. Plenty of other reviewers have provided benchmark results for this phone, and so I wonít bother to repeat them here. Suffice to say that it blows away just about every other Android phone on the market and it rivals the iPhone 5. If youíre serious about gaming on an Android device, this is the phone for you.

But how does this extra performance affect the overall feel of the phone in day-to-day stuff? You can definitely feel that the phone has terrific graphics performance, but I donít see any great advantage in most apps, other than detectably smoother scrolling and screen transitions. Much depends upon how well-written the app is in the first place. If the app doesnít take advantage of the multiple cores, and attempts to do everything on a single core, then you are unlikely to see very much improvement over previous phones. I was recently given an example of a rather complex PDF file that I displayed using the provided PDF viewer. When scrolled it was so sluggish that it was almost a joke.

Performance comes at a cost however, and in this case itís very noticeable heat. The back of the phone (up near the camera) gets quite hot when the phone is running flat out for a few minutes. A case might reduce the feel of the heat against you hand, but without one it can get a little uncomfortable holding it for long periods of time.

Memory

The LG Optimus G comes with a generous 32 GB of onboard Flash memory, but there is no MicroSD card slot, and thus you canít expand this memory even if you wanted to. For many however, 32 GB will be more than enough, but the inability to swap out memory might a problem for some.

Like the North American version of the Galaxy S3, the Optimus G comes with 2 GB of RAM. I addressed this issue in my review of the S3 and Iíll reiterate my main point here. Apps are increasingly becoming memory-hungry and 1 GB just isnít a guarantee of future performance. Thereís just no excuse for a high end phone not to come with more than 1 GB of RAM these days. Few do, and so the Optimus G is in a rare minority.

I donít believe that having 2 GB of RAM is absolutely necessary at this time, but it depends on what you expect from a phone. If you routinely have lots of RAM-hungry apps running or waiting in the background, itís really quite surprisingly how quickly a phone with just 1 GB of RAM is forced to shutdown those background apps to free up memory.

GPS

Iíd hoped to test the GPS by taking it on a bike ride with me (as I usually do), but the weather didnít cooperate during the period of time I had the LG Optimus G, and so I tried something different. With my wife driving, I used SportsTracker Pro to track a drive of approximately 10 km with lots of turns. I held the LG in one hand and my S II LTE in the other. I made sure they both had a good view of the sky through the cavernous front windshield of my car throughout the entire journey. I also switched hands occasionally to equal out any bias that being in one hand or the other might have created.

The end results seemed to mirror what Iíve found with every other phone Iíve tested this year. None of them seem to hold a candle my old S II LTE for overall GPS accuracy. Whereas the track made by the S II LTE was virtually 100% accurate with just a few minor drifts, the track from the LG bounced around from lane to lane and there were a couple of spots where the track veered off the road by 5 to 10 meters.

For most people this is inconsequential and wonít have a bearing on their likely uses for GPS, which is getting their general location, or for turn-by-turn directions. However, if youíre like me and you use your phone to track your activities, you probably demand reasonable accuracy (as much as one can expect from a consumer GPS device). The Optimus G is no better or worse than the other phones Iíve tested this year, which include the Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X.

Battery

The LG Optimus G comes with a non-removable battery with a capacity of 2100 mAh. Not surprisingly the quad-core processor draws a fair amount of battery power. Hey, it takes quite a bit of current to generate all that heat this phone produces. Standby time seems fairly good, but once the screen is turned on and you do things that rev-up the processor and the GPU the battery drains quite quickly. It was a little difficult to get a real feel for the battery drain because there seemed to be a problem with the battery meter circuitry in this model. It often stuck at a particular level for ages, and then suddenly dropped by as much as 8 to 10% in just seconds. At other times is worked correctly and clicked off single percentages as youíd expect.

In the end, my general feel was that the 2100 mAh battery provides approximately 12 to 18 hours of sporadic use and about 4 to 6 hours of heavy use. This isnít all that great if youíre one of those people who donít get an opportunity to charge their phones much. However, itís fairly average and shouldnít come as much of a surprise given the power-hungry processor and GPU.

Data Speeds

The version of the phone that I tested was the E973, which is the one youíll be able to buy from Telus and Bell Mobility. It differs from the E971 (which will be sold by Rogers) in only one respect: the E973 supports LTE on AWS, while the E971 supports it on 2600 MHz. The Big 3 have all deployed LTE on the AWS spectrum, where the channel width is 10 MHz. This yields a theoretical maximum speed of 75 Mbps on a category 3 device (meaning all current smartphones, including the Optimus G). However, 2600 MHz (which is also utilized by the Big 3) has channels that are 20 MHz wide. This yields a theoretical maximum of 100 Mbps on category 3 devices and 150 Mbps on category 4 devices (which for now are restricted a few of the USB data sticks).

Rogers has recent stated publicly that 2600 MHz LTE is available in all the same markets as AWS LTE, however the wording of this statement is vague on whether or not the quality of coverage is the same. It is impossible to know for certain, because the 2600 MHz LTE channels do not have to be listed on the Industry Canada public database. When 2600 MHz service is available however, it should be markedly faster than equal service on AWS LTE and will likely be far less crowded in the short term. And please note that the higher speeds on 2600 MHz are not a result of which frequency the service operates at, but is solely due to the use of a much wider channel in the 2600 MHz band.

If you donít have LTE in your area, then the Optimus G supports HSPA+. As far as Iím aware however, it does not support dual-channel HSPA as you get on the Nexus 4. I sometimes saw HSPA downlink speeds in excess of 10 Mbps, but the norm was usually in the 2 to 6 Mbps range on the downlink and from 0.5 to 3 Mbps on uplink (on Telus).

Camera

The rear camera on the LG Optimus G is an 8 megapixel unit on the models sold by the Canadian providers. Some models sold elsewhere come with a 13 megapixel shooter, but I canít comment on the latter since the phone I tested had only the former.

The pictures are quite good as a rule, with consistent focus across the entire image (unlike the Huawei Ascend P1 that I tested last week, which suffers from inconsistent focus). Low-light shots are okay, but they seem to be rather noisy. Clearly LG is applying quite a bit of sharpening to them, because they have lots of odd speckles all over them.

I compared photographs taken with the 8 megapixel camera on my S II LTE with those from the Optimus G and for the most part the LG pictures werenít as good. They suffered from color over saturation in some sample shots of brightly-colored leaves for example, and more noise overall.

Video performance is also rather pedestrian and not up to the standards you would expect from a high-end phone such as this.

Conclusions

As expected, the Optimus G is a blazingly-fast phone, but most of that speed will be hidden from most owners unless they are avid gamers. Day-to-day performance, while very smooth, hardly makes the phone feel markedly faster than, letís say, the Huawei Ascend P1 that I just finished reviewing last week. That device has only a dual-core processor and a much more humble GPU, but running under Ice Cream Sandwich, it too felt very smooth and refined, just perhaps not to the same extreme as the Optimus G.

The screen is nice, but it doesnít quite match the quality of the screen in the North American (dual-core) version of the HTC One X. I didnít see any issues with the odd screen aspect ratio (15:9 instead of the more common 16:9), but there may be instances where an app looks odd because of this.

So overall the Optimus G does live up to some of its hype, but at the end of the day itís just a slightly faster version of other high-end phones such as the Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X (which will soon be replaced by the One X+). If you are in the market for a high-end phone, the Optimus G certainly deserves your attention, but make sure you check out the competition first (including the Nexus 4, if lack of LTE isnít an issue for you).

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