LG G2: Great features in a flawed smartphone

We're reaching an interesting point in the evolution of Android phones. The race for more -- more power, more performance, more pixels -- is starting to settle down. Mobile technology is nearing a point of maturity; the improvements from one generation to the next are looking less like game-changing leaps and more like nod-worthy hops.

That's the atmosphere in which the LG G2 -- LG's follow-up to last year's Optimus G phone -- finds itself trying to make a splash. The G2 packs some seriously impressive specs, but at a time when gigahertz and pixel counts alone are losing their luster, does the device offer enough to stand out from the pack?

I've been carrying the G2 in place of my own personal device for several days to find out. What follows is a detailed look at what the phone is like to use in the real world and where it fits in the increasingly crowded Android spectrum.

The LG G2 is available now on AT&T and Verizon for $200 with a new two-year contract and on T-Mobile for $100 down and a two-year payment plan. (I've used both the AT&T and Verizon models of the phone and have also referenced an international model for comparison.) The phone will launch on Sprint later this fall for $200 on contract; the carrier will start taking pre-orders on October 11 but has yet to say exactly when the device will ship.

Size and display

When it comes to form, "petite" is not a word you'd use to describe the G2. At 5.5 x 2.8 x 0.35 in., the phone is decidedly big -- not so big to be completely unwieldy but definitely pushing the limit of a regular-sized (i.e. non-Note-esque) device.

Next to phones like the Nexus 4, which is 5.3 x 2.7 x 0.36 in., and the Moto X, which measures 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.22 in. (with a curved back), the G2 feels a bit bulky in both the pocket and the hand. Carrying a larger phone is a tradeoff, of course; the advantage is getting a larger screen -- and that's one area where the G2 really shines.

The G2 boasts a 5.2-in. 1080p IPS LCD display. For perspective, the original Galaxy Note -- a phone whose supersized form helped usher in the unfortunate "phablet" buzzword -- had a 5.3 in. display. The Nexus 4 and Moto X, meanwhile, both have 4.7-in. screens.

At 423 pixels per inch, the G2's screen is outstanding -- easily among the best you'll see on a smartphone today. It provides impressive brightness, brilliant colors and crisp detail. And being an LCD panel, it remains easy to view even in bright sunlight -- an advantage the G2's AMOLED-packing competitors can't claim.

Body and design

LG made some interesting choices when it comes to the G2's design. First, the company traded the patterned glass back of last year's Optimus G flagship for a glossy plastic (though still non-removable) material.

Unfortunately, while glass has its share of downsides -- fragility, most notably -- glossy plastic seems like a step in the wrong direction. The material looks and feels cheaper than other smartphone surfaces (even other plastic ones such as the Moto X) and also serves as a magnet for messy-looking fingerprints. Compared to many current flagship phones -- even the Optimus G -- the G2 has a less distinctive and premium feel as a result.

One area where the G2 does stand out is in its button configuration: In an unusual twist, the phone has no physical buttons anywhere on its face or sides. Instead, the power button and volume rocker live on the device's back panel -- a placement LG believes will prove to be more natural for users.

One thing's for sure: The setup requires some serious adjustment. I spent the first few days struggling to get used to finding buttons on the back and had more than a few instances of fumbling around with the phone while trying to power on or off in a hurry.

At this point, I'm generally okay with the configuration but still find it more awkward to use than a standard button setup. Maybe it's just years of using phones with side-sitting buttons, but when I pick up a device, my fingers naturally wrap around its outer edge; it actually feels a little unnatural to me to have to shift to the back and slide my fingers around to search for buttons there. I suspect it's going to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it sorts of things; despite my best efforts to adapt, I find myself falling into the latter camp.

The Verizon model, it's worth noting, has smaller and flatter buttons than the AT&T version of the device. I found those to be particularly difficult to find by touch -- much more than the AT&T arrangement. This quirk appears to be limited to Verizon; the Sprint and T-Mobile models are both expected to use the same setup as the AT&T model, which follows the blueprint of LG's international design.

To help make up for the sometimes out-of-the-way placement, LG allows you to turn the G2's display on or off by tapping twice on the display. While nice in concept, I found the action to be inconsistent in practice; sometimes I'd get the display to turn on with a single double-tap as advertised, but just as often, it'd take two or three tries for it to work. At that point, it's more of a frustration than a convenience; combined with the added second it takes for the screen to turn on even when the double-tap does work, I found myself reaching for the power button more often than not.

Another frustration related to the phone's on-off functionality: If you wake the device while your thumb is sitting on the top-left or top-center border of its face -- which is evidently something I do frequently when gripping a phone and reaching around its back -- the display will turn on for a second and then turn itself right back off. I'm assuming that's the result of some sort of sensor-related glitch, but it's a consistent one, and it happens with the AT&T and Verizon models as well as with the international version of the device.

The G2 has a micro-SIM card drawer -- accessible via a special pin tool -- on its upper-left edge. The bottom edge of the phone, meanwhile, holds a 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port that doubles as an HDMI-out port with the use of a Slimport adapter. Miracast-based HDMI streaming is supported as well.

In addition to the headphone jack and charging port, the phone's bottom edge is home to a pair of speaker grilles that deliver respectably decent audio quality for a phone (except for the Verizon version, which mysteriously has only one speaker grille and sounds slightly worse as a result). Their placement allows sound to remain clear and unmuffled even when the phone is sitting flat on a surface.

Much ado about buttons

The G2's main Android navigation buttons are virtual and appear on the display itself when needed. While this setup generally provides a better user experience than the dated physical-button alternative some manufacturers continue to use, LG has made the vexing decision to alter the standard Android button arrangement and replace the app-switching key (introduced with Android 4.x) with the long-deprecated Menu key.

This causes functions that would typically appear in plain sight to be hidden within the Menu key, with no visual cues; it also forces you to long-press the Home key and wait an extra second to get to Android's app-switching tool.

LG does provide a way for you to customize the virtual button setup but, oddly enough, there's no option to remove the Menu button and replace it with an app-switching key. Instead, you can rearrange or re-theme the buttons and add in quick-keys to open the notification panel or the phone's QuickMemo function. (More on that in a bit.)

The buttons also exhibit a strange behavior in which they use a transparent background until you open an app, at which point they randomly switch to a bright white background. I found this sudden contrast to be distracting and visually unpleasant, particularly when using an app that's darker by nature.

Under the hood

The G2 has plenty of horsepower under its hood: a 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. It's no surprise, then, that the phone is fast -- really fast.

Swiping between home screens on the G2 is smooth as can be, app loading and multitasking are snappy and instantaneous and Web browsing is satisfactorily swift. The G2 performs like a champ; no matter what I've thrown its way, I've yet to see a single sign of stuttering or lag.

What about storage? The phone comes with 32GB of internal storage, which means you get about 24GB of actual usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. There is no microSD card slot for external expansion.

The G2 has a 3,000mAh non-removable battery that's more than capable of keeping the phone running for a full day and then some. Even on days when I had moderate to heavy real-world use -- 20 to 30 minutes of 4G video-streaming, an hour of audio streaming, 15 minutes of voice calls and a few hours of scattered Web browsing, social media activity and camera use -- the phone made it from morning to night with at least a solid 30% of its charge remaining.

The G2 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free data exchanges and payments. Both AT&T and Verizon, however, prevent you from using Google's own Google Wallet payment service, so don't expect to have that as an option.

Speaking of carriers, I found voice quality to be perfectly fine on both the AT&T and Verizon models of the device. I could hear people loud and clear, and those with whom I spoke reported being able to hear my voice distortion-free as well. The G2 is an LTE-capable device; 4G data speeds were in line with what I've come to expect from both networks in my area.

The Verizon model, by the way, is the only G2 model that offers wireless charging. It works with Qi-compatible chargers; I tested the phone with the Nexus 4 Wireless Charger and had no trouble making a connection.

And finally, the audio: LG says the G2 is the first smartphone with 24-bit, 192kHz Hi-Fi sound playback. For most people, this won't mean much -- in listening to regular MP3s and streaming music, it's impossible to detect any difference between audio played from the G2 and audio played from another comparable phone. (I did several side-by-side tests using Bose noise-cancelling headphones.) But if you're a hard-core audiophile who keeps lossless music files on hand, it's something to keep in mind.

Cameras

Like its bigger brother, the plus-sized Optimus G Pro, the G2 has a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera with optic image stabilization. And as with the Optimus G Pro, I found the phone's image quality to be good -- more than sufficient for everyday use -- but not exceptional, particularly compared to some of the excellent cameras on other high-end phones.

The G2's imaging performance is really a mixed bag: My outdoors shots had realistic colors and good detail but also occasionally looked a little dull and washed out. Indoors, I often had trouble getting the camera to focus on close objects, even with multiple tries, but managed to get some solid-looking results in the end.

I noticed a visible amount of noise in images when viewing them at their full resolution as well. With the way most people use smartphone images -- for casual online sharing or small-sized prints -- that won't be an issue. Imaging enthusiasts, however, may want to take note.

In low-light conditions, the G2 did better than average: The camera was able to pick out more detail than a device like the Galaxy S4 could, but wasn't anywhere near the superb low-light performance of the HTC One. Then again, few phones are.

At a Glance

LG G2

LG

Price: $200 with a new two-year contract from AT&T, Verizon Wireless and (later this year) Sprint; $100 and a two-year payment plan from T-Mobile

Pros: Excellent display; great performance; commendable battery life

Cons: Uninspired design; awkward rear button setup; deprecated Menu button; bloated and messy user interface

On the software side, the G2's camera interface is easy enough to use: You tap anywhere on the screen to focus and then, to snap the photo, tap a shutter button at the bottom or side, depending on how you're holding the phone. You can also press either of the phone's physical volume buttons as a shutter if you prefer.

The G2 Camera app has a number of special shooting modes, some of which inspire an eerie sense of dA(c)jA vu -- like the highly gimmicky "dual camera" mode, which lets you add a small floating photo of your face from the phone's 2.1-megapixel front camera onto an image you capture simultaneously with the rear camera.

Silly stuff aside, the phone does have several useful modes, including a "burst shot" option that lets you take up to 20 rapid-fire shots by holding down the shutter. It works well enough, but it'd be far more useful if that functionality were enabled by default instead of only when you go out of your way to activate it. There's also an HDR mode, a panorama mode and a version of Google's 360-degree Photo Sphere feature, rebranded here as "VR Panorama."

The G2 can capture 1080p-quality HD video at either 30 or 60 frames per second. The phone's video mode has an interesting feature called "Audio Zoom" that claims to let you "focus on what you want to hear" -- in short, when you zoom into an area while recording video, the phone is supposed to amplify the sound coming from that area and lessen any surrounding noise.

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