LG G4 review: A fine, but not exceptional, phone

The U.S. model of LG's latest Android flagship smartphone has plenty of good qualities, but it misses being the exciting phone it could have been.

lg g4
Credit: LG

What does it take to make a smartphone exceptional?

It's a question I've been considering as I contemplate the G4, LG's latest effort at creating a buzz-worthy flagship phone. My problem is that after using the G4 on and off for six weeks -- first with the international version of the phone and more recently with a U.S.-specific AT&T-connected model -- I'm still struggling to wrap my head around what makes the device special.

The weird thing is that on paper, the G4 checks off all the right boxes. The phone has all the specs you'd expect to see in a modern high-end smartphone. It has no shortage of compelling individual elements. And its price is right where it ought to be -- $200 to $240 on-contract from the major U.S. carriers, or $550 to $670 if you buy it outright or spread over a month-to-month payment plan.

But is that enough to make the G4 worth buying?

Body and design

Let's start by examining the exterior. At 5.9 x 3.0 in., the G4 is definitely large compared to its contemporaries in the standard-sized smartphone realm.

For perspective, LG's latest effort is about a third of an inch taller and also a touch wider than Samsung's Galaxy S6. It's taller and wider than most other phones in its class, too, including the HTC One M9 and the 2014 Moto X (see the graphic below for a true-to-life visual comparison). Only plus-sized devices like the Galaxy Note 4 outsize it -- and even there, just barely -- but LG insists the G4 isn't a "phablet" and doesn't belong in that categorization.

lg g4 size comparison Mobile Device Size

A size comparison between (from left to right) the Galaxy Note 4, the LG G4, the HTC One M9, the Galaxy S6 and the Moto X (2014).

Despite its considerable footprint, the G4's thin profile and subtly curved back -- with a depth of 0.25 to 0.39 in., depending on where you measure -- keep the phone from feeling too unwieldy in the hand. I do find the device a touch too large to carry comfortably in my pocket, however; it tends to protrude precariously and seem like it's perpetually on the brink of falling out (and no, I don't wear particularly tight pants).

One interesting design element is the fact that LG, continuing its trend from the past couple of years, has placed the power and volume buttons on the G4's back. That setup takes some getting used to, and it's very much a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing; you'll really just have to give it a whirl to figure out how you feel.

Practical considerations aside, having the buttons on the back makes the G4 look quite sleek, as its sides are smooth and free from interruptions. Still, I can't help but think the phone comes across as less premium than other current flagships. Part of that is due to the use of plastic posing as metal around the device's perimeter (which seems somewhat chintzy). In addition, the phone's back panel peels off from the rest of the body -- an attribute that provides some functional value, as we'll discuss in a moment, but that also makes the device seem cheaper and less sophisticated than its seam-free unibody brethren.

Speaking of the back panel, the G4 comes in a choice of two different styles. The first is a matte plastic material with a patterned brushed-metal finish. The faux-metal doesn't stand up to the premium feel of a real metal phone like the One M9, but it does look attractive.

In a new twist for LG, you can also opt to get the G4 with actual leather on its back. The leather is heavily treated and quite thin, however, to the point where it almost looks fake. It also has a prominent seam down its center -- something that strikes me as a slightly strange and not entirely appealing flourish but that definitely makes for a distinctive design.

Display and speakers

The G4's Quad-HD LCD display is right up there with the best of them -- bright and crisp, with brilliant colors, dark blacks and pure-looking whites. Manufacturers love to rattle off numbers and terms about their display technology, but even resolution is arguably more about bragging rights than anything else on high-end phones these days. All you really need to know is that the G4's screen looks fantastic and won't disappoint.

It's also where the phone's size pays off: At 5.5 in., the G4's display is meaningfully larger than the screens on most standard-sized phones, which tend to range from 5 in. to 5.2 in. The extra surface area makes the device feel especially spacious, though you don't actually end up seeing more content in most cases; rather, elements on the screen generally appear a little bit larger.

The G4 has a single small speaker grille on the lower-left of its back. Its audio quality is surprisingly decent -- loud, clear and relatively full-sounding. It's a noticeable step up from the lackluster single speaker on the Galaxy S6 but still a letdown compared to the dual front-facing speaker configurations other manufacturers are now putting on their flagship phones.

Performance, storage and photography

There's not a heck of a lot to say about the G4's performance -- and trust me, that's a good thing. LG finally seems to have worked out the kinks that caused its previous flagship phones to be laden with lag. At last, we have an LG device that's smooth, snappy and responsive -- just like a modern flagship should be.

The G4 does respectably well with stamina, too: Even with moderate to heavy use, I've had no problem making it from morning to night on a single charge (with as much as three to four hours of mixed-use screen-on time -- though I have sometimes cut it close on the higher end of that spectrum).

Since it has a removable back cover, the G4 allows you to access its battery and swap it out for a spare -- an increasingly uncommon trait in high-end phones, though one a certain subset of users still values. If you're among those who prefer carrying an extra battery over using a more typical portable charging unit, this may be a feature worth noting.

The G4 supports Qualcomm's Quick Charge standard, too, which means you can power up the phone very quickly -- going from near-empty to about 60% in as little as 30 minutes. The charger LG ships with the phone isn't Quick Charge-enabled, though, so you'll have to buy your own Quick Charge adapter if you want to take advantage of that capability.

If you want support for wireless charging, meanwhile, you'll have to pony up 60 bucks for one of LG's Wireless Charging Folio Cases. That case snaps onto the phone's back in place of its regular back panel and is only available in plastic -- so if you were hoping for the leather look, you're out of luck.

The G4 gives you 32GB of local storage, just under 22GB of which is actually available for use. The phone also has a micro SD card slot under its back panel, and LG is bundling in 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years -- a value of almost $50.

Last but not least on the hardware front, camera quality is a strong point for the G4. The phone isn't as consistent as the Galaxy S6 -- the device I'd crown the current Android photography leader -- but if you're willing to put in a little effort, the G4's 16-megapixel shooter can produce some incredible images. And its camera app provides an impressive balance of simplicity and flexibility, with the option to access a wide range of advanced manual controls.

For a detailed look at the G4 camera experience, including an extensive array of real-world photo samples, see my separate LG G4 camera analysis.

The software

LG's software has been subtly improving over the years, but the same basic problems that have held the company back in the past continue to be present on the G4. In short, LG just tries to do way too much, both visually and in terms of feature bloat. Less is often more, and that's a lesson many Android manufacturers still have a tough time grasping.

On the visual side of things, LG falls into the all-too-common trap of making arbitrary changes to the Android interface -- things like re-skinning system icons, overcomplicating the phone's notification panel and turning the system settings menu into a baffling design disaster. The Android Lollipop (5.1) operating system on which LG's software is based has been praised almost universally for its polished and cohesive UI design; LG's misguided efforts at altering it merely for the sake of "differentiation" provide no user-facing benefit and serve only to introduce inconsistency and confusion.

Similarly, LG has baked in several apps and services that duplicate superior Google offerings already available on the device. These include a weird LG app store, two different superfluous voice command systems and a "virtual assistant" that has done little more than tell me the weather and give me basic "getting started"-style tips.

lg g4 software

At left, the LG's notification panel; at right, LG's app store.

If you're moderately tech-savvy and willing to take the time to dig through the phone's labyrinth of options, you can disable enough of the redundant elements and bad design decisions to make the G4 reasonably pleasant to use. But the vast majority of consumers aren't going to do that -- and out of the box, LG's software just doesn't provide a great user experience.

To its credit, LG has added in some genuinely useful features amidst all the silliness. There's a Dual Window mode for viewing two apps on screen side-by-side simultaneously, for instance; it's somewhat limited in the breadth of apps it supports, but enough basics are included that it could potentially be useful on occasion.

The G4 also has a Smart Settings feature that makes it easy to automate certain tasks -- like turning on your phone's Wi-Fi when you're home and then turning it back off when you're out. More advanced users may turn to complex apps like Tasker to perform those same sorts of functions, but the simplicity and accessibility of LG's approach could be beneficial to the more casual smartphone owner.

Bottom line

The problem is that for most of us these days, smartphones are becoming more about the sum of their parts than the individual pieces. In order for a phone to move from being "fine" to "exceptional," it needs to offer something that goes beyond what everyone else is doing -- something that creates an overall user experience that stands out in some meaningful way.

And that's ultimately why it's hard to get excited about the G4: Despite its progress from year to year, LG hasn't figured out how to pull together individual pieces into something that feels cohesive and special. With the level of choice available on Android today, that extra "X factor" is critical for a phone to succeed. Without it, any given device is just another slab on the shelf.

I wouldn't talk anyone out of buying the G4, because it really is a fine phone with some impressive elements -- like a gorgeous display, solid performance and a commendable camera. But other phones, like the Galaxy S6 and Sony's Xperia flagships, offer those same elements along with the addition of something special -- be it more inspired hardware design, more restrained software design or that ever-elusive outstanding overall user experience.

If you're focused on having niche features like a removable battery and micro SD card slot -- or you just like the G4's size and style -- LG's latest effort might be the device for you. Otherwise, you won't have to look far to find something that's comparably good on paper -- and more exceptional in reality.

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