Self-healing rear; 13-megapixel camera
What is the LG G Flex?
The LG G Flex is not a normal phone. It’s not here to square up to mobiles like the Samsung Galaxy S5. It is here to prove a point, to prove that certain things can be done. It is a curved phone with a self-healing back. It’s a mutant, a weirdo – a proof of concept, if not quite a statement of intent for the rest of LG's 2014 phones.
As a demo of new technologies it’s interesting. However, as a phone you’ll have to pay more than £500 for, it’s a no-go
LG G Flex: Design and the Curve
The LG G Flex’s curved screen is its spotlight-stealing feature. However, its sheer size is also worth noticing. This is a 6-inch phone, sitting in the awkward middle ground between a phone and a tablet.
It’s 81mm wide, making it feel gigantic even when compared with big 5-inch phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4. Despite having a skinny bezel, reaching from one end of the screen to the other will be either tricky or impossible – depending on how big your digits are.
This is a plastic phone, pretty predictable given its bendy design, and the faux-metal glossy plastic finish doesn’t give you the surest grip either. The LG G Flex demands a degree of caution.
Its initial appearance even takes some getting used to. This is the first curved phone to get a general release, and that it doesn’t sit flat seems deeply odd at first. Some will say it looks broken, others that it looks weird or ridiculous. But there’s no chance of a measured, neutral reaction when it comes to the LG G Flex. It’s an attention-grabber.
There are two main questions the curve raises – how, and why? We’re going to try and answer both.
How did LG make a curved phone?
There are several elements that allow the LG G Flex to have a curvy screen. The most talked-about is the relatively new sort of screen it uses.
The LG G Flex has a P-OLED screen. The core OLED display tech is comparable to the OLED you see in phones like the Galaxy S4. It uses pixels that emit their own light, meaning there’s no need for side-firing backlight LEDs – which probably wouldn’t work too well on a curvy screen.
However, the core difference is that while most OLEDs have a glass backing or substrate - as is the more technical term - the G Flex’s is plastic. And plastic is bendy.
A few other bits have to be curved and flexible too – the battery and the top layer of the screen. The G Flex has what LG claims to be the world’s first curved battery. You can’t pop off the back of the phone to have a look, but the battery curves around the frame to fill any empty space. LG’s battery bods have worked on a new internal structure for the battery that makes all this possible. Clever stuff.
The last bit of curvy cleverness is down to Corning, not LG. It makes the curved plate of Gorilla Glass that covers the phone’s top layer. Yes, this is bendy, flexible glass.
It works more as a showcase of quite how great Corning’s work into toughened glass is. Standard Gorilla Glass can withstand being bent out of shape without shattering, but with a ‘straight’ phone this is never shown off. Gorilla Glass is used in a great many phones, often without Corning getting much credit or recognition.
The combination of a plastic OLED screen, the curvy battery and curved Gorilla Glass let the G Flex keep its curve. And the phone can be pressed flat without any damage. You can do it with your hands - no clamps needed here.
Repeated flexing of the display reportedly causes two dots to appear on the display – the result of internal components press against the panel. However, LG has recognised the issue and says it should fade without lasting damage.
We’ve flexed the phone liberally a half-dozen times or so and had no such issues, though.
Why is the G Flex cuved?
A curvy screen has won the LG G Flex a bunch of attention. But the most common question it raises is – why? LG offers a bunch of different reasons.
Its curved display has a slight IMAX-like effect – where the screen’s bend matches the curvature of your field of view to an extent. Held about 30cm from your face, the screen does offer pretty great coverage of your vision compared with a (relatively) tiny iPhone 5S, or even the Galaxy S4.
However, it’s predominantly the screen size that makes the G Flex a phone we can imagine watching a film on, not its curvy style.
Argument number two is about your bum. LG says the G Flex can be sat on without damage, and it’s no lie. Put in in your back pocket and you won’t have to worry about shattering the display. However, this is for peace of mind purposes only. It is not comfortable to sit on.
Argument three is about screen reflections, and this one does hold up better. The G Flex’s display is as reflective as any top-end phone (i.e. quite reflective), however the curve means that a good portion of the screen is reflecting nothing more than a slightly distorted version of your face. Unless there’s a light source directly behind you, it shouldn’t pose a serious problem. It doesn’t solve the screen reflection issue, but does make it easier to deal with.
The real reason why the curve of the G Flex is important, though, is that it acts as a declaration that LG is a leader in innovative mobile technologies. It doesn’t want to be seen as a small player anymore.
Its release is also a response to the Samsung Galaxy Round, to some extent. This rival is a curved but non-flexible AMOLED phone, but you won’t find it on shelves in the UK. The LG G Flex is a curved and flexible phone that you can actually buy. LG has gone a few steps further.
LG G Flex: Design
There’s so much to cover on the tech and reasons behind the curved screen of the LG G Flex that it’s easy to forget about everything else. It’s far from the phone’s only notable design asset, though.
Like the LG G2, this is a phone with no physical soft keys on the front and zero controls on its edges. All the buttons are placed on the back, just below the camera lens.
When we first used the G2, we found the rear controls hard to get on with. However, they’re fairly well implemented here and do make ergonomic sense given the huge size of the 6-inch G Flex.
Here’s the rub – your index finger has greater reach than your thumb. We found the three volume and power buttons easy to reach without stretching, where side-mounted controls would have to be placed half-way down the phone’s body to be remotely accessible.
The design of the buttons has had some thought put into them too. There’s clear, well-defined contouring to make blind use easy, and they all have a clear, clicky action so there’s no mistaking whether you’ve pressed one or not.
In a smaller phone like the LG G2, we find side-mounted controls a lot easier than the rear ones used here. However, in a giant mobile like this, they mean LG hasn’t had to radically change where they sit (compared to the G2). It works, surprisingly enough.
There is still a learning curve to crawl over, but that’s only to be expected of something as muscle memory-related as a button you press up to dozens of times a day. You can also turn the phone on from standby by tapping the screen twice if you don't get on with the rear control.
Other parts of the G Flex’s hardware are placed in much more conventional locations. The microUSB socket sits on the bottom next to the headphone jack. The call and noise cancellation mics are on the bottom/top and the SIM tray is on the left edge. It’s a microSIM slot, not the tiny nanoSIM used by phones like the iPhone 5S and Motorola Moto X.
There is no memory card slot, and you have no access to the phone’s insides. However, the 32GB of internal storage (22.83GB accessible) is pretty generous and we’re not surprised LG doesn’t want people fiddling about with the curved battery inside the phone.
LG G Flex: Self-Healing Back
The G Flex’s other big talking point is a self-healing back panel. Instead of a normal plastic top layer, there is a thin layer of resin covered by a protective film that can make scratches invisible – or at least less visible - after a short period.
It is pretty effective at reducing the appearance of light scratches caused by coins and keys in your pocket. After a few minutes’ rest after being lightly abused with a few coins, there was no sign of any damage – despite the scratches being initially quite clear.
However, any serious scratches will cut through the protective layer entirely – there's no chance of healing such damage. And, by LG's own admission, the protection will start to lessen after a while.
Like the curved screen, it’s a neat tech demo but hardly something we think is a killer unique selling point. And we’d argue that colour-saturated polycarbonate, as used in Nokia’s top Lumia phones like the Lumia 1020, may age better anyway.
LG G Flex: Screen Quality
The LG G Flex may have a giant screen that is one of the most notable we’ve seen in a while, but that doesn’t mean it is any good in terms of pure image quality. It has significant issues.
It is unable to properly display block colours, and is riddled with what looks like moire noise throughout the entire display. It’s weirdly mottled unless it’s displaying pure black. You can trick yourself it’s a deliberate effect of the G Flex’s background and icons until you head somewhere like the web browser, where the unsightly texture of the phone’s screen is undeniable.
The only way to minimise the effect is to turn brightness up to maximum. Of course, that will also minimise battery life so isn’t much of a solution.
The G Flex also has serious issues with image retention. High-contrast objects like the clock or any particularly bold app icons are visible for 20 seconds or so after they should have left, in the form of ghostly afterimages. And, once again the effect is much worse when brightness is set to the lower levels most of us use, rather than max.
It’s been so long that we’ve seen such basic screen issues in a mobile device that we at first thought they were some sort of ill-advised software feature. But they are not.
These problems are the sorts of gremlins you get when working with a fairly young screen technology. P-OLED’s problems will be ironed out in time, but it's already too late for the LG G Flex.
Colour reproduction is reasonable at top brightness, but colour fidelity is decimated as soon as you turn the brightness down a bit thanks to the screen texturing issue.
As you’d hope from an OLED screen, contrast and black level are both very strong. You don’t get the residual luminance of an LCD screen’s backlight here, so in a darkened room blacks remain super-black. The G Flex’s screen bezel is slightly silvery too, making the display actually look blacker than the surround.
There is yet another issue with the screen, though – resolution. The G Flex has a 720p resolution display, which is not much to work with across a 6-inch screen. Pixel density is 245ppi. And it’s not enough to make text look super-sharp.
Turn up the brightness to get rid of the screen texturing issue and sharpness is reasonable, but not for a £500 phone. Clarity is much worse than many cheaper rivals, including LG’s own LG G2, which has an excellent display in comparison. We can once again blame that P-OLED is still in its early stages, but that isn’t something the phone buyer should have to put up with.
LG G Flex: Software
The LG G Flex runs a customised version of Android 4.4 KitKat. The interface doesn’t feel dramatically different to standard Android, but every element has been given the LG visual treatment. They include, app icons, wallpapers, the lock screen and even the virtual soft keys.
LG has made a new 'Flex' theme for the phone, which includes all these elements, but you can switch to the default LG style if you like too. The Flex look is better, but there’s still a little visual inconsistency, which has made LG’s previous Android interfaces look a little wonky in part.
For example, the LG-designed app icons have translucent black backgrounds, but these don’t sit under all apps, just the ones LG has had a hand in. It makes you app drawer look a little messy. Things like this are where third-party interfaces fall behind the generic Android UI.
The notifications bar is also a lot worse than the standard one. It’s home to features and apps shortcuts, and brightness/volume sliders – as well as your notifications. While notifications are up top to start with, in use they soon get sidelined under a these controls, which take up half the screen. Alterations like this see LG take a proverbial pee on something that has been carefully tweaked bit-by-bit since 2008.
A fully-loaded custom interface also eats into the available storage. With a 32GB Nexus 5 you’ll have around 28GB storage to play with. An LG G Flex gives you 23.8GB.
This space isn’t taken up simply by app icons, though. There are several custom apps you won’t see on the phones of other manufacturers. Here are the main ones –
This is a universal remote control app that uses the IR transmitter on the back of the phone to control your home entertainment gear. It works much like the alternatives found on the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.
You pick the sort of gadget you’re trying to control, the manufacturer and then have to attempt a bunch of different configurations to see which is the right one. It’s not as good as the Logitech Harmony system, but it does work.
A quick media player and photo gallery, QuickTheatre is an app that you can launch from the lock screen when holding the phone in landscape orientation. It’s really little more than a pretty shortcut to the Gallery, video player and YouTube apps. But it is quite convenient for mobile video watchers out there.
Far removed from the glitz of the curvy screen, Safety Care notifies selected contacts when you make an emergency call, when you haven’t used the phone for a certain time or when the phone ends out of – or in – a certain area.
Essential to some, utterly redundant to others, it’s an FM radio. This is an interesting inclusion as FM radios are often left out of top-end phones, but are still quite common in cheap ones.
Like Samsung's large-screen phones, the LG G Flex also offers some ways to make use of - and help with - the large screen. You can split the keyboard for two-thumb typing, and run two apps on-screen at the same time.
LG G Flex: Performance
The LG G Flex uses the same processor as the fastest Android phones of 2013 – the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800. It’s a quad-core 2.26GHz processor and the phone has 2GB of RAM.
In 2014 we’ll see phones with faster processors and more RAM, but performance is nevertheless great. In the Geekbench 3 test, it comes out with 2,245 points. It's a decent score that beats older phones like the HTC One and Galaxy S4. It's a way off the 2800-plus score of the Snapdragon 800-using Sony Xperia Z1 Compact, but after hearing so much about manufacturer's turbo-boosting their phones for benchmarks, we've learned to take such disparities with a degree of scepticism.
It's a powerful phone that can handle any game - albeit one that will soon be beaten by the phones of early-to-mid 2014. Snapdragon 800 is at the end of its reign as king of Android CPUs, but it's more than powerful enough for the forseeable future.
LG G Flex as a Video and Music player
As something that has a cinema-like screen and claims to offer high quality 192kHz audio output, we decided to see how the LG G Flex fares as a media player.
Video is a mixed bag. The QuickTheatre video launcher is handy and the video player itself is pretty great. It can handle most file types including MKV and DivX. At the right distance from your face the screen’s curve starts to make some sense, too. At around 30cm it’s a pretty immersive, face-filling surface.
However, the screen issues do take the shine off of what would otherwise be a cracking mobile video player. It’s not the resolution that matters here but the weird screen texturing problem. If you manage to delude yourself it is film grain you might be happy, but to our eyes it spoils the effect of any good-quality video.
The G Flex fares a bit better with music. The internal speaker isn’t hugely beefy, but does offer reasonable treble tone. And when the phone is laid ‘flat’, the area between the surface and the Flex’s curve amplifies the sound making it significantly louder.
You wouldn’t want to use the Flex as a regular mini speaker, but for listening to music or internet radio while you’re cooking or doing the ironing, this reverberation effect is a big plus.
Plug in headphones things get a bit more serious. Audio output is extremely clean, and top volume is good. The G Flex comes with a reasonable entry-level pair of IEM earphones too – the LG QuadBeat 2.
The LG music player app also supports FLAC – a must for any device that wants audio cred. We tested a few 24-bit 192kHz files and, as LG claims, they work fine. Plenty of third-party audio player apps can provide this for just about any Android phone, though, so selling it as a key feature of the phone is perhaps a bit much. The Snapdragon 800 processor has its own DAC so hardware-wise the G Flex doesn’t have any bespoke hardware to shout about. Audio quality should be much the same as any Snapdragon 800 rivals.
LG G Flex: Camera
The LG G Flex does not have a brand new or dramatically interesting camera. However, most of its specs are in-line with the fairly high-end LG G2, even if its real priorities are elsewhere.
It has a 13-megapixel 1/3.2-inch main sensor and an f/2.4 lens. However, the G Flex does not have the optical image stabilisation that set the LG G2 apart from its rivals last year. Its single-LED flash looks more-or-less identical to the G2’s, aside from having a square housing rather than a round one.
Finally, its lens has a focal length equivalent to 35mm, a smidge less wide than the 33mm of the iPhone 5S.
Camera App and Shooting Performance
The LG G Flex doesn’t try to do anything too clever with its camera app. There are controls on the left side of the screen, controls on the right and nothing essential in the middle, letting you handle everything with a pair of thumbs.
In Samsung Galaxy S4 fashion, there are quite a few extra modes as well as the basics, including dual-camera (back and front) shooting and one that merges multiple exposures in a single shot for dramatic-looking action photos. However, the phone doesn’t inundate you with the things. It’s mostly pretty easy to use, and there’s the standard touch focusing on offer as well as 9-point autofocus should you press the virtual shutter without ‘manually’ focusing.
Shooting speed in daylight is great. Once the G Flex has focused, shot-to-shot speeds are very fast, even without using the burst mode. It slows down a little at night time – distinctly slower than the iPhone 5S – however, it’s still pretty snappy. It’s nothing like as slow as the Nexus 5 was at release.
However, we did encounter some problems with focusing. When shooting people, or reasonably close-up subjects, the G Flex would often seemingly mis-report being locked on when the results would often show at best a very soft focus – and that’s being charitable. If it’s not a pure focusing issue, we’re not convinced the camera system has been altered enough in terms of its shutter speed management to compensate for the loss of optical image stabilisation.
With OIS, slightly longer exposure times can be used without resulting in blur from hand judder. The sort of image softening we saw in indoors shots could easily be a result of using longer exposure times without having stabilisation.
Detail, Exposure and Colour
General photo performance is quite good. In the right conditions image sharpness is excellent – around the same level as the Samsung Galaxy S4. Colour saturation is sound and good levels of contrast lead to punchy-looking, vibrant photos.
The G Flex has its own night mode designed to let you take low-light photos without having to use the flash. It does a pretty good job, too.
Although it uses some pretty serious noise reduction processing, the results stop short of looking truly plasticky. They do get close, though. Zoom into them and you can easily see where definition has been sacrificed in order to make the shots look vaguely clean, but for sharing over social networks rather than printing out at A4 size, the results aren’t too bad at all.
However, it’s here that you feel the loss of optical image stabilisation. We’d expect better sharpness and separation between objects if the phone had kept hold of OIS.
HDR is becoming a standard tool in the arsenal of any mobile phone photographer. And the LG G Flex has its own HDR mode. It merges a couple of shots taken with different exposure settings to give you better detail – especially when there’s a strong light source in the shot.
The G Flex’s HDR mode works, but is not the best we’ve seen in recent times. Its focus seems to be solely on increasing shadow detail. However, this often decreases contrast significantly too, lowering contrast.
The best HDR modes make photos punchier, but this one doesn’t. Or at least doesn’t always. We also found our HDR shots were often a good deal softer than the 'normal' shots. As with our other focus complaints, this could be put down to the loss of optical image stabilisation, and the G Flex not fully taking this into account.
Its camera has issues, but we’re pretty impressed by the macro skills of the LG G Flex. The combination of a sharp lens, 35mm focal length and an unusually close focusing range mean it’s great for close-ups. You can get as close as about 7cm and maintain focus.
However, you do need a steady hand, and need to be a little suspicious of the G Flex’s green ‘I’m in focus’ reticule.
The G Flex’s video capture offers reams of features. Most impressive of the lot of 4K video shooting – that’s at 3,840 x 2,160 resolution rather than 1,920 x 1,080 pixels of Full HD.
There’s also live face distortion effects, dual recording (both cameras) and a rather unusual mode called ‘tracking zoom’. This uses a box-out that shows a zoomed-in portion of the screen, and you can pick which bit. You can have a lot of fun with the LG G Flex camera.
The only bit we miss is a true high-speed shooting mode. The G Flex has a 60fps 1080p video shooting mode, but 120fps is what provides a real ultra-slow-down effect.
LG G Flex: Battery Life
The LG G Flex has a giant 3,500mAh battery. It’s in the same ballpark as other 6-inch phones, but does beat most of them. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra has a 3,050mAh battery, the Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 a 3,200mAh battery and the HTC One Max a 3,300mAh battery.
As you would hope, battery life is strong. The LG G Flex will last for a full two days with moderate use. Battery retention when in standby is excellent, too. Left for a couple of days on its own, it’ll only lose a few per cent of its power.
We also tested the G Flex’s multimedia abilities as it’s an obvious phone to use as a portable video player. The phone stormed it with over 16.5 hours of video playback of an SD-quality DivX file at 50 per cent screen brightness. Its screen may not be perfect, but as a video player the G Flex’s stamina is hard to beat.
Giving life back to a fully-flat G Flex is also quick. It uses a fast charging to inject the initial 25 per cent of battery, for a quick and handy juice-up.
LG G Flex: Call Quality
One final claim LG makes about the G Flex’s curve is that it can improve your calls as it bends the microphone and speaker closer to your mouth and ear. While it’s true, it’ll only be of use in noisy conditions where you’d normally need to squish your flat phone against your face to hear the person on the other end.
Otherwise, call quality is of the solid standard we expect from a top-end phone. There’s a secondary microphone up top that provides noise cancellation for calls, and sound quality is respectable.
Other things to consider
The LG G Flex is, as you’d hope given the price, a 4G phone. Although it is at risk of being categorised as a gimmicky phone, it hardly loses out on any mainstream tech doodads as a result.
Should I buy the LG G Flex?
So many of the phones we review are exercises in dull, rote iteration that it feels a shame not to be able to give the LG G Flex a commendation. However, its screen issues, high price and interface issues mean we can’t.
It isn’t harder to use than any other 6-inch phone, but such a large body is problematic too. The LG G2 costs half the price, and is in several respects the superior phone.
LG deserves a pat on the back for having the stones to bring as unusual phone as this to market. But seriously consider the HTC One or the LG G2 unless having a huge, curvy screen is really what your heart wants most.
As an experiment with new technologies, the LG G Flex is a bold success. However, as a phone that LG wants us to spend £500-650 on, it has too many issues to be considered a contender for most buyers.