Jan 15, 2014

LG G flex review

Real phones have curves. Or something like that. And with the LG G Flex, there is certainly no shortage of curves: around the edges, its packaging and especially the entire phone itself. If you're looking for something different, something that stands out against the rest, look no further.

Thanks to flexible display technology, we'll soon be seeing more curved devices and wearable gadgets and gizmos. In some cases, it makes perfect sense like wristwatches or any other wearable that wraps around you or parts of your body. On the other hand, we have to start questioning its use in devices that have always been flat, like smartphones and TVs. What benefit, if any, does a curved display have in these cases?

Our instincts tell us there really isn't much of an upside. We've become so used to living in a flat screen world that introducing curved displays would garner Christopher Columbus-like reactions. Curved?! Nonsense. Except that was a myth.

First, let's make one thing clear about the LG G Flex: It is a phablet more than just a smartphone, with a display six inches on the diagonal. It's huge, like the Nokia Lumia 1520, but its gentle curve makes it somewhat easier to hold.

However, with its size come some benefits, like better viewing for videos and photos. A bigger phone also means, presumably, a bigger battery, so you'll get through your day with a more peace of mind.

In fact, LG claims that the G Flex will get two to three days of mixed use, but more on that later. So, is there a reason for you to buy a large, curved smartphone? Let's find out.

Note: We are using a Korean version of this smartphone loaned to us by LG because the device is not yet available worldwide, and LG was unable to disclose whether it will hit U.S. and European markets.

The LG G Flex is large, there's no doubt about that. It's a six-inch display with a 700mm radius of curvature from top to bottom, which LG says is just the right amount of curvature for viewing, holding, manufacture and so forth.

The display is 720p, which isn't the sharpest on the market by any means, but LG says it's because it was the only way to get the RGB stripe on the curved display without resorting to PenTile for higher resolution.

At any rate, the display looks nice enough, but for a device this large, you can definitely tell that it isn't as sharp as the Nexus 5 or HTC One. It also has a strange, matte quality to it: it looks like it has some kind of grain or noise like you'd find on a photo shot with film or high ISO digital. Except it looks a lot more like color noise than luminance noise. In some cases, it's quite pleasing and somewhat cinematic, but other times you wish the images and video were cleaner and sharper.

It seems like that noise may also be a quality of the coating of the display, just underneath the glass. Either way, it's very noticeable.

Above the display is the earpiece and front-facing camera along with ambient light sensors, and at the bottom edge of the phone is the microphone, charging port and 3.5mm headset jack. The top edge has another small microphone, presumably for helping in noise reduction. On the back is a 13MP camera with flash, and the volume rocker and power button, placed just like it is on the LG G2. We're not too fond of this particular design, but we've learned to live with it.

At the bottom of the backside is the speaker, which works nicely with this phone's design. When the phone is resting on its back, the speaker is slightly elevated thanks to the device's curvature. This makes speakerphone calls and music much louder when the phone is on its back.

At the very base of the phone, there is also an antenna that you can pull out for watching TV, though we were unable to test this feature in the U.S. Inside, there is a 2.26 GHz Snapdragon 800, like the Nexus 5, with 2GB RAM and 32GB on-board storage. There is no memory card slot on the device.

LG added a 3,500 mAh battery for the G Flex, which is higher in capacity than the LG G2's stellar 3,200 mAh unit. We've had limited testing with the G Flex's battery life so far, but we expect it to outperform the LG G2 by a good margin.

The backside itself has what LG calls a self-healing coating. When you feel it, it feels like the thick, transparent plastic you'd find in some packaging materials. LG tells us that its molecular structure allows it to recover from scratches from springing back. But common sense makes it feel like it's just springing back from a dent, rather than a true scratch.

We scratched the back lightly with the corner of a USB jack, and in 24 hours it has yet to recover. The scratches are superficial and light, rather than the deep scratches you'd expect to be permanent.

The most noticeable feature of the LG G2 is its curved design, and that's really the whole schtick for this smartphone, too. Without that soft curve, this would likely be just another phablet on the market from LG. The curve happens from top to bottom, unlike the Samsung Galaxy Round prototype, which curves from left to right.

As far as we know, the phone only comes in a dark gray or silver color, but that could change in the future. Otherwise, you can picture the G Flex as an oversized G2 with a curve and you wouldn't be far off. The back buttons are also going to be a trend from LG moving forward, as we were told during our meeting that it has to stick with something to distinguish it from the rest of the smartphone makers out there.

Long pressing the volume down button activates the camera, just like it does on the G2. The power button glows as a notification light if your phone is facing downward on a table so you know when you have missed messages or notifications.

Beside the camera, opposite the flash, is an IR blaster, though we find very limited use for those when we do review new smartphones. However, if you like controlling your TV or music player from afar and it supports it, having the IR blaster is convenient.

One last word on the not-so-self-healing coating: it tends to attract dust and dirt, and it sticks to it as if it's statically charged. You can wipe all you like, but it seems difficult to get the stuff off, especially if it's been in your pocket or bag for a while. It'll eventually all come off if you wipe it well enough, but will attract dust and dirt once again as soon as you put it away.

Battery life
What can you expect from a smartphone that has a 3,500 mAh battery and an incredibly powerful processor? Near bliss. That is, if you can live with the gigantic, curved 720p display.

First, let's get battery performance out of the way. We loved the LG G2's battery life, and it had only a 3,200 mAh unit powering a much higher resolution display.

The LG G Flex easily went two to three days on a single charge, just as LG promised. I spent a lot of that time with push notifications enabled for nearly every app that would support it, watching videos, listening to music and playing graphically intensive games for longer than we'd like to admit. But for the sake of this review, I will admit that I spent about an hour and a half one night playing Asphalt 8.

I also ran our HD test video at full brightness and sound for 90 minutes. Starting at 100%, the G Flex went down to just 87% after 90 straight minutes of our Gareth Nyan Cat HD video, which is impressive.

However, I'll always recommend charging opportunistically, or charging whenever you can, simply because it's a good habit to have and it won't damage your battery.

But if you don't care for plugging in at every opportunity you get, you'll have few worries when it comes to the G Flex. Unplug it in the morning and you'll still have juice until about late afternoon or so the next day, unless you're really pushing it.

Raw performance on the G Flex is great. We're cautious about running benchmark tests these days because manufacturers are now gaming and cheating these benchmark tests so that they produce inflated results.

What matters is how your phone performs in day to day use, and after battering the phone with tasks and games and videos for over a week, we can confidently say that you won't be disappointed with its performance.

There was never a glitch, lag or blip anywhere in the phone's apps or services, and yet given its power, the battery held up like a champ.

We can all thank the 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 and its 2GB RAM, which is more than plenty for most of the things you'll need to do on this phone.