LG G3 battling to outdo Samsung S5

The air at the top of the mobile mountain is notoriously thin, with only Apple and Samsung currently able to breathe in genuine smartphone success. The potential rewards for ascending this rocky peak are immense, however, which is why LG is taking on Samsung directly with its newest flagship.

The LG G3 takes everything Samsung is best known for — bleeding-edge hardware and a bucketful of quirky, custom software — and cranks it up to 11. A ludicrously high-res screen and laser-guided photography are just some of the weapons in its ferocious arsenal.

LG says the G3 will go sale on 28 May in South Korea, with a worldwide release “on over 170 carriers” to follow. It’ll hit AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon in the US this summer, and the major UK networks in July. In Australia, the official LG website has the phone listed at AU$799 (around $740, £440) off-contract, but pre-orders are not yet open and the company says “final pricing and pre-sales offers will be announced in July”.

Design and display

The G3 has the same rounded corners and slim bezels as last year’s four-star G2, though with a 5.5-inch display, this expansive mobile will prove ample exercise for even the widest of palms, and the most lengthy of fingers. I have rather long thumbs, and still found the top edge of the G3’s display was an effort to reach.

That said, the G3’s curved back does make it comfy to hold. As with its forebear, the G3 features an unconventional set of buttons on its rump, which are used to lock and unlock the screen, and adjust volume. These took a little getting used to on the G2, and we’re still concerned that your wandering digits will end up smudging the nearby camera lens. The back plate is made of plastic, but has a metallic finish which, to its credit, does feel like metal when you run your fingers over it.

The G3’s display is extremely impressive, and appears to float almost impossibly close to the top of the glass, while photos I examined in my brief hands-on time were packed with colour and looked great. Its flagship feature though is that it packs a sense-defying 2,560×1,440 pixels into its 5.5-inch panel, for a pixels-per-inch count of 538. This compares very favourably to the panel on Samsung’s own flagship — the Galaxy S5 sports a 5.1-inch 1,920×1,080-pixel display, for a less dense 432ppi.

Those are the facts on paper. In practice, however, you may not appreciate that extra resolution. Discerning individual pixels on the Galaxy S5’s display is a matter for magnifying glass-wielding detectives or highly evolved birds of prey, and it’s tough to imagine how the G3’s screen will manage to be any crisper than that in real terms. We’ll be more interested to see how LG’s latest handles things like viewing angle and colour reproduction.

Laser-powered camera

The G3 boasts a 13-megapixel camera. That’s not as high a resolution as, say, the Sony Xperia Z2’s 20.7-megapixel snapper, but megapixels aren’t everything, and in any case the G3 has some intriguing laser technology that could give it an edge.

In what LG claims is a smartphone first, “Laser Auto Focus” uses a laser beam to measure the distance between the G3’s camera and the subject you’re shooting. The idea is that you’ll be able to focus on the right subject with more speed, even in extremely low light. I gave the camera a quick run-through in my hands-on time, and autofocus certainly seemed very speedy and relatively reliable, but we won’t know more until we give this phone the full review treatment. Stay tuned.

The 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera has been given some attention, too. A gesture control has been added to the G3’s selfie mode, that lets you begin a countdown timer by showing your fist to the camera. The power to secure the perfect selfie is a true test for any smartphone camera, so we’ll be interested to see how well this fist-shaking feature works. Finally, tapping the screen to focus when using the G3 will also trigger the shutter.

Power, microSD, and a big battery

Buried deep in the G3’s 8.9mm frame is its beating, electronic heart — a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with a clock speed of up to 2.5GHz. The G2 was no slouch in terms of raw power, blasting open new apps and firing through menus with machine-gun pace, and the G3 equally feels very fast indeed, with not a smidge of stutter in my hands-on time.

With all that power and a retina-searing screen, it’s just as well that LG has bundled a buxom battery into its new toy. The 3,000mAh power block inside the G3 is removable so you could carry a spare, or replace it when it gets worn out, while LG says it has replaced the metal in the battery’s cathode with graphite — another power-extending measure. We’re not expecting any miracles, but it would be good if the G3 could manage more than a full day away from its charger.

The LG G2 was missing a microSD card slot, forcing those who bought it to make do with built-in storage, denied the very basic ability to expand their smartphone’s capacity for music, apps and other data. The G3 is nowhere near so foolish — you’ll find space for a microSD card concealed beneath its plastic rear casing.

LG puts its stamp on proceedings

The G3 hits the ground running Android 4.4.2 KitKat — the latest, greatest version of Google’s operating system. LG needs ways of distinguishing its phone from the herds of rival Android mobiles out there, however.

Samsung has traditionally done this with an unending flow of bespoke apps and features — S Memo, S Planner, Smart Stay, S Health, and so on, most recently giving its TouchWiz Android skin a makeover, bringing it more in line with the flat, block-colour aesthetic espoused by the likes of Apple’s iOS 7 and Google’s stock version of Android.

With the G3, LG appears to be making a similar move, offering what it says is a simplified user experience. Nevertheless, there are of course some weird and wonderful new software tweaks onboard.

LG’s Smart Keyboard, for example, promises to track your typing and predict which words exactly you meant to rattle off. As a nod to the way that smartphone screens have become increasingly large while human hands remain stubbornly the same size as ever, you’ll also be able to adjust the height of the onscreen keyboard, to make reaching keys a little more comfy.

Those who get frustrated skipping through menus looking for a comma — or a specific kind of bracket with which to build the world’s most incredible emoticon — will be pleased to know you can customise individual keys with your frequently used symbols. They keyboard is an oft-overlooked but absolutely crucial part of any smartphone’s interface, and if LG’s additions make rattling off a WhatsApp message even a little easier, that could earn the G3 a lot of goodwill.

Smart Notice

LG also has its own version of Google’s helpful Google Now software. Dubbed “Smart Notice”, this app pipes up with suggestions based on your behaviour and history. As an example, LG says it could remind you of a call you missed, suggesting you might want to call that person back, or it’ll offer to tidy up unused files or apps.

LG reckons that what’ll set its own robot concierge apart is a grasp of natural language, so instead of just displaying weather info like a mindless robot, it’ll harangue you with full onscreen sentences such as, “You may want to take an umbrella today since it will rain this evening.”

If merely knowing what the weather will be like isn’t enough information to help you determine whether or not you need an umbrella, this could prove invaluable. These syntax-wrangling AI assistants aren’t especially new, however — Apple has been offering full-sentence advice to iPhone and iPad owners for some time, letting you know how long it would take to drive home from your current location, or how long until your next calendar appointment, and so on. LG’s effort will need to produce some seriously smart AI insights if it wants to impress.

Also on-board is a “kill switch” feature to wipe or disable your phone remotely, a “content lock” that hides personal files from friends who are borrowing your phone — even hiding previews of the files in question when the G3 is connected to a PC — and the power to unlock your phone with a personalised series of knocks on the screen.

Last year’s G2 delivered on hardware, but was let down by some of LG’s software, which was far from intuitive to use. Fingers crossed the company’s new tricks are easier to get to grips with this time around.

Outlook

The G3 is in safe territory when it comes to hardware, having delivered a molten-hot slab of power and pixels that seems more than capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Samsung’s glorious Galaxy S5.

LG’s software is more of a gamble, however. There are plenty of quirky features that sound intriguing, but with Samsung recently making an effort to mature and refine its own smartphone interface, LG’s take on Android needs to be mature and intuitive, or the G3 will feel behind the curve — despite its high-flying hardware.

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