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Exclusive: Australia’s first LG G Flex review

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:28 pm 22/01/2014

Australia’s first curved smartphone is here, hugging your face better than any phone before it. But is LG’s G Flex a game changer and worth your dime and time?

Features

Announced last year and shown to Australian journalists for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas only recently, LG is earlier than we expected bringing the G Flex to market, the world’s first readily available curved smartphone in places like America and Australia.

Aussies are lucky to see it faster than most countries, with the handset reaching Harvey Norman stores in February.

That's not your eyes playing tricks: it really is a curved phone.

Design-wise, it’s a world first because of what it includes, and that’s a curved plastic OLED screen, sized to 6 inches, and supporting the High Definition resolution of 1280×720. With a resolution of 720p in this sized screen, LG has provided a pixel clarity of roughly 245 pixels per inch.

That curved screen also means the electronics have to be moved around to accommodate the slightly unusual and unorthodox screen, and results in an equally curved body with a curved battery inside.

The electronics inside, though, are all very familiar, with a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.26GHz, paired with 2GB RAM, the Adreno 330 graphics chip, and 32GB of storage, with no way to upgrade it thanks to the omission of a microSD slot.

Android 4.2 “Jelly Bean” is the operating system of choice here, running with LG’s overlay, while the connections match the LG G2 also, with Category 4 4G LTE, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0 with support for LE, Near-Field Communication, infrared, GPS, DLNA, and a microUSB port for charging and moving data to and from the handset.

Even the cameras are spot on close, with a 13 megapixel camera on the back and a 5 megapixel up front. Both cameras will shoot Full HD 1080p video, but only the rear camera will record at Ultra HD, if needed.

The back is cased in plastic with a special elastic-based paint on the back, and like the G2, the controls are located on the back, with the volume up, power button, and volume down button just sitting below the rear camera, which itself is flanked on each side an infrared port and the LED flash.

All the regular soft buttons aren’t on the hardware itself, and are based in software, able to be switched around in location by the user inside the operating system.

Ports are also limited (just like the buttons) with a microUSB at the bottom next to a 3.5mm headset jack.

The battery is rated for 3500mAh and isn’t removable, and the support SIM card style is microSIM with a tray on one side.

Why a curve?

With smartphones being flat for so long, you might be wondering why LG is doing a curved phone.

The first reason is one of marketing, and with the company preparing more curved TVs for this year, not to mention cutting the price of last year’s curved OLED TV, it makes sense for LG to align its values with curved screen technology and introduce this on a phone.

From an entertainment point of view, a curved screen will draw you in more, creating an immersive experience as the display wraps around your view, which is one of the reasons why its exists on new TVs, and helps to make this handset an interesting premise.

But there’s more to it than that, and much of the message you need to know about curved screens comes from their durability.

For example, you can already guess that a curved phone probably sits more nicely in the pocket as the body conforms with your leg, and is useful if you hold it up to your head when it fits the shape of your face better than your traditional flat handset, but did you know that the curved display is also likely to be more resistant to a drop?

When phones hit the ground, if they land on a corner, the glass tries to bend, and when it has no wriggle room, it generally breaks, shattering and creating so many of those broken smartphone screens we see around the place. And people still continue to use these, despite the fact that they’re running their fingers over what is essentially broken glass.

But in the G Flex, LG is using a plastic screen, curved in the handset and able to take a degree of pressure, flexing as it does so, hence the name. If dropped, this screen will likely have more wriggle room, and rather than completely shattering in the moment, will quickly warp and do less damage overall, if any at all.

It can even take some sitting on, and if you push hard from the top of the phone, the screen will flex and not shatter. Try doing that with your regular flat glass phone.

Yes, the G Flex will flatten if you apply pressure. No, the screen doesn't snap. Pretty neat trick, LG.

Performance

The first of its kind, the G Flex is a product unlike any other, at least for the moment, bringing the idea of a curved phone to the masses well ahead of when we expected. To make this happen, much of the design has come from another handset LG is known for, the G2, and LG has basically enlarged it and thrown in a bigger screen.

In the hands, the curved handset doesn’t feel dramatically different from the G2, and seeing as they’re based on the same design, we’re not at all surprised.

Rather than have traditional buttons on the sides or top, LG has relocated these to the back, placing them just under the camera lens, with the power button sitting in the middle of a volume up and volume down button.

Just like on the G2, it’s an interesting idea, though it can take some getting used to, as your forefinger is pushed against power and volume buttons, while the rest of your hand cradles the sides of the handset. It’s not uncomfortable, though if you have bigger hands, you’ll likely find the 6 inch size easier to deal with.

That 6 inch size is there to accommodate the 6 inch screen, which looks great from all angles, and even though it curves, is still easy to see. It’s also curved to provide some flex when pressure is applied, and means breakages will be less of an issue, but that’s only one part of the equation, as LG has equipped the G Flex with something we’ve never seen on a phone: elastic polymer paint.

In previous G-class smartphones from LG, we’ve seen printed holographic paint jobs, which sparkle in light, and generally look a little more interesting than the standard black or white most other devices sport.

But in this handset, the sparkling paint job also serves a purpose, and that is to repair the minor nicks and scratches your keys and other things might leave in the back.

The left image shows the scratch under a microscope as it has just been applied, while the right image shows the scratch around 30 seconds later.

The environment you’re in needs to be fairly warm for this to work, and it needs to be acknowledged that it won’t fix every scratch you give the handset. In fact, in the testing we did, only the minor parts of a heavy scratch would be repaired, with the deeper section sticking around for a while.

Still, though, the inclusion of this technology is a cool one, and even though we wish LG would move to a more robust material than plastic for the chassis, this makes up for what we’re seeing, and paired with the plastic screen, makes perfect sense.

To see the full-size image from our microscope, click this link (1MB download).

Using Android on this handset is a mostly pleasant experience, and we’re delighted to see LG is refining its Android overlay nicely. The experience is still relatively stock, with multiple homescreens, widgets, app menus, and a shortcut dock you can change, which is something the Samsung phones in Australia seem to struggle with. 

LG has left in things we’ve seen before such as the gallery zoom which can change thumbnail sizes quickly, the drop-down menu system with multiple control shortcuts for different hardware settings, and the ability to quickly change the app menu icon sizes and even the wallpaper for this section.

There’s also a new “Easy Home” homescreen for new Android users that does away with the multiple homescreens and makes the entire phone look easy, with a weather clock up top, shortcuts you can quickly change (hold the icon down), and a big dial pad for making phone calls. You can run all the apps you normally would, and even install more of them, but it just makes everything easier for novice Android users.

LG’s “VoiceMate” also fills a nice gap with voice-activated functionality, but it doesn’t do enough yet. Still, if you want to make calls just by speaking it, simply switch it on and say either “LG Mobile” or even “Hello Genie” (we don’t get this one) at the lock screen. It won’t work on the homescreen when it’s unlocked, but that could be something LG will patch later.

Even the keyboard has been refined slightly, though it still needs work. In the G Flex, the on-screen virtual keyboard is big and clear, but the gesture keyboard still obviously needs work, picking suggestions that don’t remotely seem to make sense much of the time, and making it a chore to delete the suggestion rather than just flat out replacing it.

Symbols and punctuation also seem to appear in the wrong place, and if you expect them to appear after a spacebar, LG’s software will push them back next to the word.

Thankfully, there are loads of software keyboard replacements out there, so if you do end up with the G Flex, it’s not an issue at all to replace this section.

Over in the performance area, it’s practically identically matched with the phones we saw at the end of 2013, including the Sony Xperia Z1, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, the Google Nexus 5, and even LG’s G2, and that’s because it matches most of them on specs, with the only major difference being that all of these miss out on a gigabyte of extra memory Samsung loads on the Note 3.

Still, with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 processor on-board, the G Flex flies, producing impressive benchmarks, no slowdowns, and the ability to run multiple applications with ease. If you can find a way to make this phone slow down, you’re doing better than us.

Also excellent in performance is the mobile broadband speed, which tested on the Telstra network, scores between 20 and 70Mbps. Optus is the preferred telco for this handset, and with the 850MHz frequency not supported for phone calls or data, it would be worth seeing if you can use Telstra or Vodafone in your area.

We had no problems with Telstra for either voice, text or data in Sydney, though you may end up having a different result.

Battery life is also decent, and with a massive 3500mAh battery, we found that day of life was easy, though if you use it — and we mean really use it — you can expect to charge it daily.

Most people, though, should be able to manage a day and a half of battery life, with two days possible if the screen time is lessened and you don’t hammer the handset.

Outside of the basic performance measurement, there are some cool extras that definitely grabbed our attention, and will likely get yours, including the simultaneous multitasking that brings the G Flex in line with Samsung’s Galaxy phones for running two apps at the same time in split screen.

Also included is the playback for 192kHz 24-bit audio through FLAC files, just like it was on the G2, though beware because these music files aren’t small and will eat into the storage quickly.

And things like the knock to wake up are still here, which is easy to activate but still requires a good solid knock, as well as an LED around the power button at the back to indicate when you have messages or when a camera timer is going off, and even the TV remote control.

Tap the screen twice to "knock" it on. Like you're knocking on a door. Except it's a screen. You get the picture.

But the LG G Flex is a first-generation idea, not just for LG, but also the world, since smartphones that are properly curved are a new thing, so it’s not surprising that some things don’t feel as high end as the idea and the price associated with it.

And one of these is the screen itself, which unfortunately isn’t as high end as the one that appears on the nearly identically spec’d G2 smartphone, which LG released a few months ago.

There’s nothing wrong with the screen, mind you. The colours are great, the contrast is excellent, and there are solid angles across the board. It will be clear for everyone, and with a 6 inch 720p display, the pixels clarity of 245ppi doesn’t make it a totally Retina bust for the iPhone, but is still excellent altogether.

That said, it’s not Full HD 1080p, which is something flagship Android devices have had all of last year, and even a Windows Phone, too.

With a thousand dollar price tag attached to this phone, the lack of a Full HD panel might surprise some, though given the screen is the first curved one on the market, we’re not totally bothered by it, and you shouldn’t be either.

One thing that may bug you, though, is the lack of expandable storage. We criticised the same issue on the LG G2, and it’s repeated here, bringing only 32GB of storage for your music, apps, games, photos, and videos, with no way of upgrading.

The bigger size of the G Flex may also not be to everyone’s liking.

Sure, it’s curved, but it’s also massive, and caters specifically to people who want the phablet style of handset, which LG in this country has never really had much of a hand in.

Now it does, and what a hand it is, with small hands likely to feel less at ease gripping the handset, while the bigger hands in our office loved it.

Really, it’s going to come down to picking it up in store and seeing if it’s for you, and combined with the controls on the back which can take some getting used to, really it’ll be that first few minutes with the phone that tells you if it’s ideal for you.

Conclusion

The first curved handset is indeed an interesting beast, bringing a creative solution to a problem that is beginning to plague handsets.

While every other manufacturer is leaning hard on protective glass coatings such as what Corning provides and mineral strengthened glass, the plastic OLED panel is a creative use of an idea that could seriously make everyone think twice. Combine that with a screen with solid colours and a phone with great performance, and you can see that LG has produced one of the most intriguing phones we’ve ever seen.

It won’t be for everyone, and part of that reason is the size — it’s just so big — but if you’re in the market for a big phone, and you want something that should survive even your hectic life, this is one phone worth checking out. Recommended.

Price (RRP)

$999

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Neat concept; LG overlay is easier to adapt to, especially if you're a new user; High performance from the CPU and memory; Excellent 4G performance; Camera shoots 4K Ultra HD; Decent battery life; Comfier than you might expect;

Product Cons

Screen may be curved, but it's also 720p, and not the 1080p we expect out of high-end phones; No expandable memory; Elastic polymer paint won't fix all scratches, so don't expect it to; LG keyboard still isn't great; Big size may not work for everyone;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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