LG G Flex Android phone (preview)

We had a rare hands-on session with LG’s curved-screen smartphone.

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LG G Flex
  • LG G Flex
  • LG G Flex
  • LG G Flex

Pros

  • Design is comfortable to hold and carry
  • Curved screen is amazing for video playback
  • Powerful 2.26GHz quad-core CPU (Qualcomm Snapdragon 800)
  • 32GB onboard storage

Cons

  • Low resolution for screen size (1280x720 at 6in, 245ppi)
  • No microSD card slot for expansion
  • Very ‘plastic’ look and feel

Bottom Line

The LG G Flex may end up being somewhat of a gimmick, but does feel comfortable in the hand, and provides a better-than-average video playback experience thanks to its curved display. We hope it makes its way down to Australia and New Zealand.

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Though it’s presently only slated for release in South Korea, we had a hands-on with LG’s curved-screen ‘G Flex’ smartphone in Auckland ahead of its appearance at New Zealand’s annual Big Boys Toys expo.

The G Flex’s point of difference is a noticeable curve toward the user at the top and bottom of the screen, reminiscent of a traditional corded-phone phone handset. To accomplish this, LG has created an OLED display bonded to a flexible plastic substrate, rather than glass. It has also developed what it calls ‘the world’s first curved battery technology’, which is used in the G Flex’s 3,500mAh Silicon Oxide (SiO) battery.

Whilst the screen is built on a flexible substrate, the final product has a permanent curve: the G Flex is not, as its name or construction might suggest, freely flexible.

Hands-on: curved design

I’d previously seen the LG G Flex in photographs and videos, but it was hard to get an impression of just how curved the screen would be, or what it might feel like in the hand. Would it be as comfortable or as natural as LG claimed, or a clumsy and awkward affair?

Picking up the phone for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that – for the most part, it’s the former. The G Flex fits comfortably in the hand, when held in either landscape or portrait orientation.

I have fairly average-sized hands, and I didn’t find the 6-inch smartphone* oversized or awkward at all. I couldn’t be certain without a lot more hands-on time, but the curve seems to help there. I’ve found other, similarly sized, phones to be a bit oversized in the past; with the curve bringing the top and bottom edges of the G Flex a little closer to you, and helping the phone settle nicely into your palm, it feels a bit more accessible than I suspect it would as a flat rectangle.

* LG blessedly do not seem to be calling the G Flex a ‘phablet’

Given its novel construction, the G Flex is surprisingly thin at a maximum of 8.7mm. It weighs 177g, reasonable for its size.

Like the LG G2 Android smartphone just released in New Zealand, the G Flex places the volume and power buttons – normally found on the side or top edge of a smartphone – on the back panel just below the phone’s 13MP rear-facing camera.

There are no buttons on the sides or top of the LG G Flex - volume and power buttons are on the rear of the device, directly below the 13MP rear-facing camera.
There are no buttons on the sides or top of the LG G Flex - volume and power buttons are on the rear of the device, directly below the 13MP rear-facing camera.

In reviewing the G2, our mobility editor Ross Catanzariti concluded that “LG's decision to move all physical buttons to the back of the handset doesn't quite hit the mark”. Though I’ve spent very little time with the G2 myself, thus far I tend to agree. However, the G2 was smaller than the G Flex, with a 5.2-inch screen. Though the difference may seem minor numerically, take a look at the comparison shot below: the G Flex makes the G2 look almost tiny in comparison. With the G Flex’s curvature and larger size, it could make a lot more sense to have the buttons on the rear, as they are, rather than out-of-reach at the edges.

6-inch LG G Flex compared to the 5.2-inch LG G2
6-inch LG G Flex compared to the 5.2-inch LG G2

The G Flex doesn’t completely solve the problems Ross encountered with the G2 – difficulty hitting the correct buttons, or accidentally smudging the nearby camera lens instead – but the curvature might make it marginally easier to work out where your fingers are in relation to the buttons.

In its latest press release regarding the device, LG claims the G Flex “employs a curvature arc that is optimized for the average face, to deliver improved voice and sound quality” and that “The curved form increases the sound level by 3dB compared to typical flat smartphones.”

I was unable to make a test call with the G Flex, but it does comfortably fit to the face. It may take some getting used to, though. When trying out the ‘call position’ myself, I held the phone away from my face as I would with a flat phone (as pictured below), rather than against my cheek and near my mouth as I would have with a traditional telephone handset.

The LG G Flex confirms nicely to the curve of your face like a traditional telephone handset, though you have to remember to hold it that way.
The LG G Flex confirms nicely to the curve of your face like a traditional telephone handset, though you have to remember to hold it that way.

The casing is plastic, with an elastic coating on the rear that LG claims is “self healing” and will recover from everyday nicks and scratches.

I certainly didn’t see any scratches on the casing, but LG NZ’s national marketing manager did extract the phone from a very soft fabric bag when I arrived for my preview session, and apparently the device has not left the possession of someone from LG the entire time it’s been in the country. So, it’s fair to say that nobody has taken a set of car keys to the thing yet, or dropped it into a satchel with a half-dozen other gadgets to see how it fares.

What surprised me was how resistant the rear casing – which looks like regular plastic – proved to fingerprints. I noticed that by accident, then set out trying to leave a smudge on the device, in which I was ultimately unsuccessful. It seems a side-effect of the coating, whether intentional or not, leaves it looking new-and-shiny in more ways than one.

On the downside, I really mean that ‘looks like regular plastic’ thing. Apart from its size and curvature, the G Flex looks like a regular, cheap-plastic midrange smartphone. Given how awesome its unique qualities are, that’s somewhat disappointing. I’ll also hazard a guess that should the device make it beyond South Korea, we would expect to pay quite the premium for it in Australia or New Zealand.

Personally I thought the Samsung Galaxy S4 exhibited the same problem – if you think the S4 doesn’t look overly plastic, then you’ll have no issues with the LG G Flex.

Viewing experience

The curved display is the G Flex’s central feature. Based on P-OLED (polymer organic light-emitting diode) technology, the 6-inch display has a conservative resolution of 1280x720.

This equates to 245 pixels-per-inch, low compared to Apple’s ‘Retina display’ on the iPhone (326ppi) and many similarly-sized Android-based devices with full-HD (1920x1080) displays. For comparison, a 6-inch, 1920x1080-pixel display would be 367ppi.

I wouldn’t go as far as to call the G Flex ‘low-res’, or to condemn the display as ‘pixelated’, but I was just able to make out individual pixels on the large, clear screen when holding it at a ‘normal’ smartphone viewing distance.

The LG G Flex's curved OLED display has a 1280x720-pixel resolution, somewhat low for the 6-inch screen size.
The LG G Flex's curved OLED display has a 1280x720-pixel resolution, somewhat low for the 6-inch screen size.

On the upside, colours are bright, contrast is great, and the viewing angle is extraordinarily wide. These are all standard features of an OLED display (think of the AMOLED displays Samsung uses on its flagship devices), in which each individual pixel emits its own light. A black pixel switches its LEDs off, emitting no light at all, whilst a bright-white pixel runs its individual red, green and blue LEDs together at maximum brightness. This allows for great contrast between bright and dark areas on screen, in a way that LCD technology is incapable of.

Watching video on the G Flex proved a delightful experience. The way the screen wraps around creates a wonderfully ‘natural’ viewpoint, which LG has described as an ‘IMAX-like experience’. I was quick to dismiss that as marketing-speak, and was taken aback to find that it’s quite an accurate descriptor. I can only imagine what a 1080p version would look like, combining the natural viewpoint with a sharper, higher-resolution picture.

In portrait mode that natural, peripheral-vision effect is lost. However, as I mentioned earlier, bringing the top and bottom of the 6-inch screen slightly closer to the user does help make the large form-factor feel more manageable. That might be a psychological thing more than anything, but if it works, it works.

Technology

Inside the LG G Flex is the quad-core, 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800, Qualcomm’s top-end mobile processor at the time of writing. The phone has 2GB of RAM.

We were unable to test performance in our preview session today. There appeared to be some minor lag in LG’s 3D flip-through homescreen interface, but we’re unsure how many apps were running in the background or whether the demo model was running LG’s final firmware/software. Opening and closing apps was perfectly smooth, as we’d expect of any premium smartphone.

Internal storage is 32GB, which is great, but there’s no microSD slot for external storage. So, if you’re one of those users who needs more than 32GB for music, movies or to use your phone as a glorified flash drive, you’re out of luck.

Wireless connectivity is strong, with the latest 802.11ac high-speed Wi-Fi, NFC, and 4G/LTE. The only wired connection is USB 3.0 (via a standard microUSB port), which should allow for significantly faster transfer of music or videos onto the phone than the common USB 2.0 would allow (when connected to a USB 3.0 port via an appropriate cable).

6-inch LG G Flex compared to the 7.9-inch Apple iPad Mini
6-inch LG G Flex compared to the 7.9-inch Apple iPad Mini

Conclusion

The LG G Flex may end up being somewhat of a gimmick, but does feel comfortable in the hand, and provides a better-than-average video playback experience thanks to its curved display. It’s novel enough that we hope it makes its way down to Australia and New Zealand, where it could potentially find popularity among big consumers of mobile video.

It’s a shame that the phone doesn’t include a microSD card slot, which could prove a very useful feature to that consumer base. 32GB of onboard storage is ample for applications and small-to-moderate music collections, but would be quickly consumed by HD video.

Though many users now stream video from YouTube, online TV services, a local NAS device, or other remote sources, on-smartphone video storage is useful on flights, and when roaming on overseas networks with expensive data plans.

In Australia and – to an even greater extent – New Zealand, high mobile data costs mean you don’t even have to be roaming overseas to think twice about watching an hour-long show on YouTube.

We’re interested to see how the G Flex sells in its launch market, South Korea, and where else LG decides to release it (if anywhere) based on that performance.

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Read more on these topics: lg, smartphones, g flex, curved smartphone, curved screen

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