LG G3 deep-dive review: A phone with great specs, but real-world issues

The LG G3 Android phone has some impressive qualities -- but when you use it, you discover some interesting surprises.

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The device itself is also impressively designed: The G3 has a plastic back made to look like brushed metal -- it's a great example of plastic done right. The phone has a classy, attractive appearance and doesn't pick up any visible fingerprint smudges. To be sure, it's still plastic pretending to be metal -- something that's very apparent when you touch the surface -- and it doesn't match the premium feel of an actual metal phone like the aforementioned One (M8). But it doesn't come across as in any way cheap or gaudy, either, as Samsung's plastic cases tend to do.

LG is sticking with its unconventional rear button setup on this device -- a volume rocker and power key on the upper-third of the phone's back panel -- and while I've been critical of that configuration in the past, I've actually grown to enjoy it in its current implementation. It still takes a little getting used to, but LG has refined its approach and found a way to make the rear-facing buttons easy to locate and natural to use.

LG G3
The LG G3's unconventional rear button setup takes a little getting used to.

The button placement also provides the benefit of making the phone's body especially sleek -- with those elements on the back, the device's sides are completely smooth and free from interruptions.

The G3 has a single small speaker on the lower end of its back panel. Audio played from the phone is sufficiently loud, although quite tinny. It's not bad by typical smartphone standards but is nothing spectacular.

Depending on which carrier you go with, you'll be able to get the G3 in a choice of white, black or gold. The gold is the most elegant and distinctive of the three and would be my first choice, followed by the less bold but still striking black. The white looks somewhat pedestrian in comparison, if you ask me, but it's ultimately just a matter of personal taste.

Under the hood

On paper, the G3 ticks off every box a spec-head would want to see in a high-end phone -- things like a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor and a full 3GB of RAM.

But like many Samsung phones, LG's latest effort is a lesson in why specs only mean so much: Despite all those impressive-sounding numbers, the device's performance is surprisingly imperfect.

There's frequent jerkiness in animations and transitions, for instance, along with a lag in opening and switching between apps -- the types of flaws you absolutely shouldn't see on a phone of this caliber. The issues aren't unbearable, but they're definitely noticeable; the system just isn't as smooth and snappy as a high-end smartphone should be.

The only logical conclusion I can reach is that the G3's software is to blame -- and as we'll discuss in a moment, that makes an awful lot of sense.

With its 3,000mAh removable battery, the G3 does a reasonably decent job in the realm of stamina. With moderate to heavy use -- as much as three to four hours of screen-on time with a mix of Web browsing, video streaming, voice calls and miscellaneous app use -- I've generally been able to make it from morning to night on a single charge, though sometimes just barely. The phone's battery is by no means bulletproof, especially with all the power that the Quad HD display requires, but it should be able to get you through a full day most of the time.

The G3 comes with 32GB of internal storage, about 24GB of which is available after you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone also has a microSD card slot beneath its back cover that allows you to add up to 2TB of additional space (theoretically, at least -- 128GB is currently the largest microSD card you can buy).

The G3 doesn't support wireless charging out of the box; you'll need to purchase and use a special $60 case if you want to have that functionality. It's also worth noting that the AT&T model of the phone uses a different wireless charging protocol than the other models of the device: Rather than sticking with the Qi standard, which the vast majority of charging pads are designed for, AT&T opted to go with the far less common PMA protocol for its device. That means in addition to the case, you'll have to buy a specialized charging gadget in order for things to work with that model.

As far as connectivity goes, I've tested two different models of the G3 -- one on T-Mobile and one on Sprint -- and both have had call quality and data reception that are typical for those carriers in my area. No problems or anything unusual to report in that regard.

The G3 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. It also has an IR blaster for wireless control of your TV and other home entertainment components.

Cameras

LG is using the G3's camera as a major marketing point, emphasizing that the device is the world's "first phone with laser auto-focus." Yup, you read that correctly: There's an actual laser involved with the picture-taking process.

It certainly sounds cool. The laser system is supposed to allow the phone to focus faster than other cameras and to take sharper images, even when the subject is moving.

In real-world usage, however, you'd never know any such system was in place. The phone isn't noticeably faster at snapping photos than other recent flagships I've tested, like the HTC One (M8) or the Galaxy S5 -- and in fact, it feels slightly slower than the M8, which is practically instantaneous in its photo-snapping ability.

In terms of image quality, the G3's 13-megapixel shooter is adequate but inconsistent. Photos, especially those taken outdoors, often look washed out and under-saturated -- and despite the manufacturer's lofty laser-centric claims, the G3 struggles as much as any other smartphone to focus on a moving subject and capture it without motion blur. On the plus side, the camera does offer optical image stabilization, which can help make up for an unsteady hand.

LG has toned down its camera UI quite a bit, too, which is a welcome change. By default, the Camera app is just one giant viewfinder; you touch anywhere on the screen to focus and snap a pic. It's similar to the minimalist approach Motorola has taken lately and makes for a pleasingly simple user experience.

If you want more advanced settings, the G3's Camera app has an icon in its upper corner that you can tap to bring up options for adjusting things like the image size and shooting mode. The options are fairly limited -- you won't find any settings for tweaking stuff like ISO or white balance -- but they do give you a little more control.

The phone also provides a novel gesture for capturing selfies with its front-facing camera: When you have the lens pointed at you and the Camera app open, you can hold up an opened hand and then make a fist to start a three-second countdown. Why, you might ask? I'm no expert on excessive documentation of one's own face, but I suspect it'd hold appeal for teens who use tools like the "selfie stick" (yes, that's apparently a real thing) to take photos of themselves from afar.

The front-facing camera is capable of capturing video up to 1080p in quality. The rear camera, meanwhile, can go as high as 3840 x 2160 -- a level known as 4K or "Ultra HD" -- which can get you some great-looking video (though you won't find many displays that can actually take advantage of it).

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