LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

The LG G2 was the worst kind of disappointment, a powerful device held back by lame software. The G3 keeps the strength, and actually manages to get out of its own way. For the most part, that is.

What Is It?

LG's follow-up to the painfully flawed LG G2. It's an LG phone fit for normal folks, usable right out of the box instead screaming for an aftermarket install of a pure Android. It has a bigger screen, a blazing Snapdragon 801 processor, and a super sharp four times HD display. Most importantly, it's more polished than its predecessor, in a way that might have actually given LG the quality flagship phone it failed to nail with the G2.

Why Does It Matter?

LG's hardware has been incredible, but in the past its software missed the mark. That's what made the LG Nexus 5 great, but the LG G2 a disaster, despite being largely the same hardware. The G3 is LG's chance to atone for its past skins. It's a step up from both the LG G2 and the G Flex, the former of which had all the brawn without the brains, and the latter of which was more or less just a curvy gimmick. Finally, with the G3, LG's software and the hardware are on almost equal footing.

Design

LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

It's a 5.5-inch, virtually bezel-less phone with a slim build in a way that keeps a large screen from feeling unwieldy. It has a polished metal-like (but not actually metal) back that looks premium but feels kind of cheap. Like a Frankenstein of its competitors, the G3 looks a little like an HTC One M8 from the back, and a Galaxy S5 from the front. Its look is more or less generic, in a way that feels like LG just took design cues from other popular devices and ended up with something generally inoffensive. The one way it is unique is that LG staple of a volume rocker and power button mounted in the center of the back. And it's just as baffling here as it is on every other LG phone.

But in an environment where everybody and their brother has put an emphasis on design—and my god, how many times do we have to hear about "premium feel"—it doesn't exactly stand out. While this phone has taken cues from the prevailing Android device trend of sizing up, the G3's legacy is less about design and more about raw horsepower.

Using It

Let's get one thing straight before we dive in here: the LG G3 is a good phone. We really, really, really did not like the G2. But the G3 proves that LG is ready and willing to learn from its mistakes and make serious improvements. And for that, the G3 is a much better phone than the G2 was.

On first glance, the most impressive thing about the G3 is its display. It's stunningly sharp, its colors are vibrant and accurate, and it fairs well in the full brightness of day. I could easily play games, send texts, etc. on the roof of our office in the middle of a June afternoon. No problem. Other basic stuff? Calls are clear, the connection is just fine, there's almost no lag, and hey, this phone works like a pretty good phone.

The G3 lives up to its promise of scratch resistance. I have a bad habit of throwing a smorgasbord of horrible things in the same bag; a phone, a tablet, my kindle, in addition to my keys, wallet, headphones, and sunglasses, as well as random stuff like pens and bottles of nail polish. I have been known to destroy phones in short order, but the G3 held up well in my ham-handed care.

One area where we've seen a lot of Android phones start to improve in the past year or so is battery. The G3 got necessary upgrades as far as other specs are concerned, but it has the same 3,000 mAh battery as its predecessor, a battery that kicked ass. With a new 5.5-inch 2560x1440, Quad HD (538ppi) screen to power, it loses a bit of its superpower. Still, I could generally get about a day and a half of basic use on a single charge. That means making calls, sending texts, streaming video here and there, screwing around on Twitter, and so on. All told, it's still a touch better than the 2,600 mAh HTC One M8 or the 2,800 Samsung Galaxy S5, and with the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip.

LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

LG's software has a whole lot less bloat than the G2 featured, but there are still a lot of crap apps you're never ever going to use. To be clear, we were given an international version of the G3 to review, so it had a weird antenna as well as a bunch of random Korean apps that I couldn't decipher. With a prevalence of Nexus and Google Play handsets out there, and phones with very minimalist additions to the operating system—like the Moto X—bloat is easier to be annoyed by than ever. Especially when it does little to add any value. The main exception is the LG "knock" feature, that lets you tap in a cool pattern to unlock the phone. Dig that, as well as the ability to "knock" twice (or rather, tap) to wake up the phone.

LG's new skin is by default much closer to stock Android. It is clean and simple, and more KitKat 4.4 than uniquely LG. It's a big step in the right direction.

LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

The camera is pretty good too. The 13MP shooter has a lot of the extras and customizability of the S5, for example, but it seems less gimmicky. Pew pew alert: the camera uses lasers to measure the distance between the camera and the subject, which is supposed to cut down the time it takes to focus, and it actually works in less than a split second. The camera UI is simpler overall. There's not a lot of extras. Modes are listed at the top, tap to change to something different. Easy! Everything you need and nothing you don't. Image quality is also good, though not wildly better than say, the photos the iPhone is taking, in spite of its 13 megapixels.

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The interface is a huge improvement. The G3 lost a lot of the bloat that plagued the G2, and gained a few useful features. One big one is the smart keyboard that learns how you type the more you type, which is a given for those kinds of things. But it also gives you the option of changing the size or orienting it vertically. It's a way to do add-on software right.

The speaker was also a pleasant surprise. One of the selling points of the HTC One M8 is its surround-sound speaker, and it may be very good and loud, but the LG counterpart definitely holds up with a full sound. I like to listen to music on my phone while I get ready in the morning, and I found that I didn't really even need to connect this guy to the Bluetooth speaker.

I also really liked the experience of using the G3's camera. Sure, a term like "laser focus" sounds like a huge gimmick and maybe it is, but it seemed to actually work quickly, and the G3 takes good photos that show rich detail. Although sometimes in low light you get a little bit of a weird glare, but for the most part it's pretty good.

LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

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LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

Annoying that you have to take the back off to remove the SIM. And I have said the same thing for the G Flex—I really hate the placement of the volume rocker and power button on the back of the G3. It's annoying, and I feel like I'm always fumbling around to remember it's there.

Which brings us around to a large sticking point: the phone's design. The metal-looking-but-really-actually-plastic-back is problematic. Ok, sure, it looks fine and is scratch resistant, but it doesn't strike me as something that's going to be terribly durable over time. In that same vein, this phone does not stand out whatsoever. Look at the HTC M8. Look at the Galaxy S5. Look at the Nexus 5. It's all about materials and aesthetics and details that make a phone really feel like it's more of a luxury than just a utility, something especially important when you're forking over hundreds of dollars to own one. In this regard, the G3 falls a bit short. It looks like metal but it's not. It looks like another Android phone but it's not. While it's a vast improvement from the G2, it's still lacking in personality or any really killer draw.

Should You Buy It?

LG G3 Review: Brains That Finally Keep Up With the Brawn

The G3 is a solid daily rider. LG made some big and impressive self-edits. They took out a lot of the bad and superfluous. Much of the bloat is gone.

If, for some reason, you have your heart set on an LG phone or you were holding out for LG to fix some of the struggles that so bogged down the G2, then sure, buy the G3. The G3 is an improvement over the G2 for its superior software and fairly solid specs. But there's little reason to go for one if you weren't already considering it.

Its battery is better than average, but not much better than that of the HTC One M8 or Galaxy S5. The G3's Snapdragon 801 processor is a screamer, but the M8 and the S5 have that chip too.

It's not that LG has taken one step forward and one step back; it's like it's taken one step forward (with software) and stayed in the same place (with hardware), while other devices have pushed into new territories with design and style. It's not a hard no, but if you're looking for the best Android phone, it's not the G3 you want.

LG G3 Specs

• Network: All major U.S. carriers
• OS: Android 4.4.2 KitKat
• CPU: 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801
• Screen: 5.5-inch 2560x1440, Quad HD (538ppi)
• RAM: 3GB
• Storage: 32GB + micro SD up to 128GB
• Camera: 13MP rear / 2MP front
• Battery: 3000 mAh Li-Ion
• Dimensions: 5.75 X 2.93 X 0.35 inches

• Weight: 5.29 ounces
• Price: TBA later this summer