September 20, 2014
The Best Phone Money Can Buy—For Now
Posted on Aug 6, 2014
It’s unofficial: The iPhone 6 will be announced in September. The rumors say it will come in two sizes, including a hotly anticipated 5.5 inch model. Analysts claim Apple has ordered as many as 80 million units in anticipation of the biggest phone launch in history. The iPhone, by all accounts, will rule the fall.
But the summer belongs to LG and its brand new G3 phone. It’s probably the best mobile device you can buy right now, it’s selling well, and both of those things are a surprise.
As I’ve lamented before, consumers have a strange habit of buying Apple or Samsung phones almost exclusively. But the new Galaxy S 5 debuted to mixed reviews. In fact, in the all-important home market of South Korea, LG is holding its own, and the company expects to ship 60 million phones globally this year—a record for the manufacturer.
It’s not hard to understand why shoppers like the G3. It’s not a perfect phone—in fact it has some real faults—but for the money, you get the best of most worlds.
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Speaking of the screen, 5.5 inches is bigger than the original Galaxy Note, which at 5.3 inches was considered as much tablet as phone. It’s really, really big, but LG has done a brilliant job of thinning out the bezels around the screen to keep the overall dimensions at roughly 146 X 75 millimeters. The phone is also slim, under 9 millimeters, and curved in such a way that it fits surprisingly well in the hand. The plastic casing, although not premium in feel, means the G3 is also delightfully light.
This year HTC came out with the One M8, and received universal praise for making 90 percent of the device’s casing out of aluminum. It is a stunner, and in many ways the best alternative to the G3. I own one, and there’s a lot about it I prefer, but for the life of me I can’t hold on to the damn thing. That all-metal body, combined with a slick, brushed back, makes holding the M8 extremely frustrating. It’s as if it is alive and desperate to slither out of my grasp. I’ve dropped it only twice, and that feels like a genuine accomplishment. The G3, by contrast, is light and sits well in the palm. The G3’s plastic back is styled to look like metal, and that’s just tacky, but at least I can make a phone call without feeling my heart sink.
My favorite aspect of LG’s new phone is the camera. Android phones have notoriously terrible shooters, and LG appears to have struck the right balance, at last. It’s a 13 megapixel sensor, meaning you can zoom in without losing too much quality, and it has a “laser” based autofocus, which ultimately means you can take pictures really quickly. Add to that optical image stabilization, which helps especially in low-light shots, and you have a very good camera for most scenarios. The M8 takes better photos in the dark, but only then and only if nothing is moving. For an Android device, the G3 excels in an area in which its peers normally stumble.
Battery life on LG’s new phone is surprisingly good, considering how thirsty its high-resolution screen must be. I had some trouble when I upped the brightness, but under normal use it performed very well. As a bonus, the battery is removable, meaning you can carry a backup (although it shouldn’t be necessary), and the phone does wireless charging. Ahh wireless charging. It’s like having air conditioning or a dishwasher. Yes, I can live without it, but why must I?
The G3 has good volume and a decent speakerphone, although overall sound quality does not compete with the HTC One M8. Still, good enough.
There are multiple versions of the G3 floating around. My T-Mobile unit has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with four cores and 2.5 GHz of zip. Also, a welcome 3GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage and a slot for a MicroSD card, for another 2TB if you’re completely insane and need to have every cat photo on the Internet backed up in one place.
Here’s what I don’t like about the G3, and it’s a familiar complaint: the software. Despite paring back its skinning of Android 4.4 KitKat, LG has still managed to take the best mobile OS around (I will reserve judgment of iOS 8 and Android L until they are released), and kind of ruin it. The color scheme is icky, with a palette that reminds me of my school nurse’s office, the menus are endless and endlessly confusing, the animations are slow and stutter and there is little design cohesion between the lock screen and the rest of the OS. Manufacturers have long sought to differentiate their Android devices with custom software, but making something worse is a bad way to make it different. And you know what stands out more than the taupe menu? The first-of-its-kind Quad HD display. Or the laser autofocus. Or the wireless charging.
Another nagging issue is the placement of the phone’s power and volume buttons. They’re on the back, just under the camera lens. Yes, it’s as weird and bad and uncomfortable as it sounds. I never felt at ease groping around back there, even after a few days, and too often I accidentally pressed the camera lens, which, it turns out, neither raises the volume nor turns the phone on.
Complaints and compromises aside, I can’t think of a better phone. The iPhone 5S has a superior camera, but iOS 7 is worse at almost everything than Android, and the screen is, for now, too small. The HTC One M8 has better industrial design, looks and sound, but also a deficient camera, and a heft that constantly reminds its owner of the laws of gravity.
The LG G3 is not a perfect phone, but from almost every angle it’s either amazing or good enough. And that makes it the best phone, overall.
Until the fall?
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