Who's it for: Android fans seeking an attractive phone with an excellent display and removable storage; photo nuts who love to fiddle with camera settings.
Evolving a smartphone is tricky. The Galaxy S6 polarized some users with its metallic but less-versatile design, while the HTC One M9 largely offered more of the same, and, in some ways, took a step backward.
Fortunately, the LG G4 finds a happy medium that pushes LG's flagship forward while retaining many of the features that make it a favorite.
The G4 stands out from the pack with a lavish, optional leather coating, a vibrant quad-HD Quantum display and a 16-MP camera stuffed with pro-minded features normally found on a pricey DSLR. It also stays true to its roots, offering handy LG apps alongside a swappable battery and microSD card slot. This combination of fresh and familiar makes for an exciting package, but with less-than-ideal battery life. Can the G4 dethrone the Galaxy S6 as the Android handset to beat?
Editor's Note: We tested an unlocked, non-final version of the G4 with an AT&T SIM card.
Design: Leather is better
With an optional, handcrafted leather coating, the G4 manages to evolve LG's signature design without aping the metal constructions of the company's biggest rivals. Available in black or brown, the leather G4 looks more like a fashion accessory than any other major flagship, with an attractive seam that runs down the middle of the rear panel to complement the cozy grip. The G4's Slim Arc design gives its 5.5-inch display a subtle vertical curve, though it's not as rounded as the LG G Flex 2.
While we spent some time with the leather model, our review unit came in a more traditional plastic charcoal finish (there's also a white option), complete with a subtle checkerboard texture on the back. The plastic G4's sturdy construction feels far from cheap, but I found myself yearning for the leather variant, especially with the elegant metal-and-glass Galaxy S6 in my other hand.
Unlike Samsung's new flagship, the G4 has a removable back panel that allows you to swap out the battery and pop in a microSD card. I personally think the trade-off makes the S6 a more attractive phone overall, but it's an important distinction to note for power users.
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Whether you opt for leather or plastic, the G4 rocks the same rounded back panel and unique, rear-facing lock and volume buttons as its predecessors. The phone's smooth edges and lightweight, 5.47-ounce construction make it comfortable to hold, and its 0.39-inch-thick body tapers off to a slim 0.24 inches on the sides.
At its thickest, the G4 is a bit chunkier than the Galaxy S6 (0.27-inches), HTC One M9 (0.39 inches) and iPhone 6 Plus (0.28 inches), though it's thinner than all three competitors on its far edges. The 5.47-ounce G4 is just barely heavier than the S6 (4.9 ounces), virtually even with the One M9 (5.5 ounces) and a little bit lighter than the 6-ounce iPhone 6 Plus.
Display: A quantum leap
I was lured in immediately by the G4's luscious 5.5-inch, quad-HD (2,560 x 1,440) display, which is the first IPS Quantum smartphone screen on the market. While it offers the same size and resolution as the G3's display, its new Quantum technology promises super-lifelike colors, as well as improved brightness and contrast.
The G4's vibrancy is evident the moment you unlock the device, with a stack of bright blues and pinks waiting to greet you on the phone's default background. Games such as Modern Combat 5 and Spider-Man Unlimited looked appropriately vivid, and the colorful fruits featured in an included sample video looked real enough to eat (I didn't try, though).
The Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer looked lucid on the G4, which did an excellent job preserving the film's multi-colored costumes and myriad explosions.
The same video exhibited slightly weaker-looking colors on the 6 Plus' 5.5-inch 1080p display, while the Galaxy S6's 5.1-inch quad-HD screen made the clip look sharper but a bit oversaturated. When watching the video side by side on all three devices, the G4 looked just right.
Still, I couldn't help but notice that the G4 didn't look quite as bright as the other two phones, which was reflected in our brightness testing. Registering 396 on our light meter, the G4 just barely outshines our 378-nit category average, and is notably dimmer than the Galaxy S6 (521 nits), iPhone 6 Plus (537 nits) and One M9 (472 nits).
The G4 is capable of displaying an impressive 109.8 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is higher than the HTC One M9 (94 percent) and iPhone 6 Plus (95 percent), though not quite as colorful as the Galaxy S6's 159 percent. The G4's color accuracy rating of 3.46 isn't very close to a perfect 0, but it's more accurate than the Galaxy S6 (4.7) and One M9 (4.3).
The G4's sharp display is complemented by a satisfyingly crisp rear speaker, which was loud enough to fill my small living room with the sounds of Hulk grunts and exploding Ultron robots. When guiltily jamming along to Taylor Swift's "Style" in seclusion, both backing instruments and the singer's silky voice sounded impressively clear.
Camera: Stellar shots
The Galaxy S6's camera has some serious competition. The G4's 16-MP camera starts up in half a second, touts an S6-beating aperture of f/1.8 (versus 1.9), and, most importantly, takes stellar shots both indoors and outdoors.
The G4's camera packs a new color-spectrum sensor for extra-accurate hues, and it certainly did its job. The photos I shot on a sunny Manhattan day looked gorgeously detailed, from the rich yellows and purples of a bed of flowers to the fine etchings of a stone statue in the distance. However, when I was viewing photos from the G4 and S6 side by side on a monitor, the S6 did produce slightly deeper colors in many of the outdoor scenes I captured.
Offering what LG calls "Optical Image Stabilization 2.0," the G4 truly shines under low light. When I photographed a co-worker in an unlit room, her skin tone and facial details looked nearly as natural as they did in my outdoor photos of her. The same shot looked blurry by comparison on the Galaxy S6, and the subject looked considerably paler on the 6 Plus.
When I activated flash in the same scenario, the G4 shots were once again crisp, but had a strange yellow overtone. The Galaxy S6's low-light shots looked more true to life with flash on, while the flash shots I took on the 6 Plus looked slightly blown out.
I don't take a ton of selfies, but I now wish all of mine looked as good as the ones I captured with the G4's 8-MP front shooter.
It captured both my skin tone and every last strand of my beard with accuracy, and looked sharper and richer than those I took on the S6 and 6 Plus. It even rendered my distant, photobombing co-workers in crisp detail.
The G4's autofocus proved impressive in the 1080p videos I shot. I saw plenty of detail in the small army of dogs I recorded at a park, and didn't notice very much blur when a few of them darted after a ball.
The phone also shoots beautiful 4K videos; when recording passing cars on a nearby street at ultra-HD resolution, I found that both vehicles and distant store signs looked significantly more detailed and vibrant than they did when I shot in 1080p.
LG's new flagship can take slo-mo video at up to 1/8th speed, but it can't hold a candle to the 6 Plus' 240 fps slo-mo recordings.
Camera Features: For pros and noobs alike
LG wants to win over experienced photographers with the G4's manual mode, which offers a wealth of fine-tuning options that are more common on high-end DSLRs. Tapping into manual mode adds the ability to tweak settings such as white balance, auto-exposure and focus, which are all laid out neatly along the bottom of the camera app.
While the various controls found in manual mode might look like a new language to photography neophytes (such as myself), fiddling with them is remarkably easy once you learn what they do. Each camera function is toggled with a simple on-screen slider, which allows you to quickly adjust parameters like focus, shutter speed and ISO levels by moving your finger up and down.
The best part about Manual mode is that it previews your chosen settings in real time, making it easy to get a specific level of focus or let just enough light into your shot. All manual-mode pics can be saved as RAW files, which is an ideal format for pro-level photo editing.
Even if you're not looking to go hardcore with manual mode, the G4 has plenty of nifty camera features worth playing with. I was able to easily take timed selfies by making a fist in front of the camera, and, with Voice Shutter on, I took a few snaps by saying "Cheese" or "Kimchi" to the phone.
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Switching between the front and back cameras is as simple as swiping the screen left or right, and you can take photos right from the lock screen by double-tapping the phone's lowest rear button. There's also a fun Dual Mode for using the front and back cameras at once, which allowed me to superimpose a selfie over a shot of my sleepy, unamused dog.
Software and Features: Now with less bloat
The G4's Android 5.1-based UX 4.0 interface is clean and easy to navigate, providing some useful LG-specific features without overwhelming you with extraneous apps. Swiping left from the home screen reveals the G4's Smart Bulletin (pictured below), which serves as a single convenient location for checking your calendar, playing music, viewing your daily step count via LG Health and even controlling your TV if you have QRemote set up.
Signature LG apps such as QMemo and QSlide make a return here; the former lets you annotate whatever's on your screen with doodles and text notes, while the latter lets you run apps such as Calendar and Video Player in small, floating windows. You can take your multitasking even further with Dual Window mode, which allowed me to watch a YouTube video on the top half of the screen while surfing the Web at the bottom. New to Dual Window on the G4 is support for Docs, Sheets and Slides, which allowed me to copy text from a Google Doc and paste it in a Hangouts chat without leaving either app.
KnockOn is back from the G3, allowing you to wake the phone from sleep by double-tapping the display. With the new Glance View feature, you can slide down from the top of the screen to check the time without even waking the phone.
The new Event Pocket feature does an admirable job keeping your Calendar organized, as it funnels in events and reminders from Facebook and your Tasks lists, so that you're not hopping among apps to stay on top of your day. When you make a new event on your Calendar, Event Pocket lets you quickly add in photos, memos and nearby locations.
To keep things clean, the G4 relies almost exclusively on Google services, meaning Chrome is the only browser you'll start with, Gmail is the only preloaded email app and so on. The phone packs dedicated apps for Google Docs, Sheets and Slides, which are complemented by an extra 100GB of Drive storage for two years. I was pleased to see that the G4's entire app selection barely spilled into the second page, though we'll have to see what the carriers add.
Performance: Fast, but not the fastest
Armed with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of RAM, the G4 breezed through any task I demanded of it. I never experienced any noticeable lag, even as I watched an Avengers trailer on one half of the screen while flipping through photos on the other. The console-quality action of Modern Combat 5 played so smoothly on the G4, I almost got mowed down while admiring its lighting effects.
The G4 scored a 3,493 on the Geekbench 3 performance test, beating the A8-powered iPhone 6 Plus (2,903) and our 2,250 average, while falling behind the Snapdragon 810-powered One M9 (3,818) and the colossal 5,120 scored by the Exynos-powered Galaxy S6.
LG's new phone took 4 minutes and 13 seconds to transcode an HD video to 480p, which is faster than the One M9 (4:47) and our 7:11 average, but not nearly as blazing as the Galaxy S6's 2:35.
The G4 exhibited some solid graphics muscle, scoring 18,510 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test. That's better than the 6 Plus' 16,965 and our 14,207 average, but not quite as beefy as the M9's 22,084 or the Galaxy S6's 21,193.
Battery Life: Below average
The G4's 3,000-mAh removable battery is built to last you all day, but it falls short of that promise. Enduring 7 hours and 38 minutes on our battery test (Web surfing over AT&T LTE), the G4 just barely outlasted the HTC One M9 (7:14), and fell short of the Galaxy S6 (8:32), our 8:21 average and the iPhone 6 Plus' epic 10 hours. Even last year's G3 lasted longer than the G4, registering 7:56.
LG's new phone does have a Battery Saver mode that lowers brightness and disables certain features when you reach a pre-set threshold, and there's a setting for optimizing game performance so that graphically intense titles don't suck up all of your juice.
The LG G4 is a beautiful phone, from the ergonomic feel of its leather-backed body to the gorgeous quad-HD images that pop out of its Quantum IPS display. Its 16-MP camera is one of the best in its class, with tons of nifty modes for both photo enthusiasts and selfie savants. Plus, unlike the Galaxy S6, the G4 didn't have to drop its swappable battery and expandable microSD storage in order to evolve.
The irony is you will want to swap that battery. The G4's disappointing battery life is the only thing holding it back, as it fails to endure as long as the S6 and iPhone 6. Overall, we prefer the Galaxy S6 because of its faster performance and overall look and feel, but the G4's pleasing aesthetics and feature-packed camera make it one of the better Android phones you can buy.