I remember years ago reading an article about how, one day, we'll be able to commute and read our news from a digital piece of paper that can be rolled up and stored in our bags. To me, that appeared to be the future: a time when we could carry our entire lives on this futuristic digital scroll. We would be able to use it to read, watch videos, interact with friends and more, ditching bulky computers and tablets forever. Well, we're one step closer to that day with the LG G Flex, which indeed features a flexible display. Of course, the phone can't be rolled up and stored in our pockets, but there's some flex, and it's our closest look at how that sort of technology is being implemented into the consumer market. Does a flexible display really add any value? Is the LG G Flex the future? Jon Rettinger and I have both been using the LG G Flex for the past week or so, and we have plenty of thoughts to share on the phone and our experience using the latest in display technology.
LG G Flex Video Review
Why LG Chose a Flexible Display
Before we dive too far into the topic of flexible screens, let's get one thing out of the way really quick. There's a difference between curved glass that sits over a flat display (the Galaxy Nexus), and the curved display that's employed on the LG G Flex. The former's screen is still flat, while the latter itself is actually bent into the curve we see on the phone. So what's the benefit of flexible displays? LG says the material it used, plastic substrate, is more resistant to cracks and damage than glass – obviously, it's also more flexible than the glass we've seen in smartphones before. Also, the angle of the screen (700R, or a 700mm radius curvature) is supposed to be more inviting while viewing media – such as photos and videos – than flat displays that aren't as encompassing. Digging deeper, LG says it applied a real RGB stripe pixel structure instead of the Pentile layout used on other OLED screens. It's supposed to offer more accurate colors and alleviate distortion while viewing photos, though I didn't notice a huge difference comparing the phone side-by-side with a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and looking at the same picture. Deep down, I think LG had the display technology ready to go and just wanted to put it on a smartphone to see how the industry reacted. In other words, I feel like it's just testing the waters with the G Flex. That said, it makes a convincing argument as to why you would want to use a curved display instead of a flat one. First, the company says it contours to your body better. That means your mouth is closer to the speaker, theoretically, when it cups along your face. It also curves around your buttox if you choose to keep the phone in your back pocket (LG honestly suggests this, I'm not making it up). And, thanks to its strength, you can sit on the phone and you won't need to worry about the screen breaking underneath your weight. I tried this – I don't find it comfortable sitting on my phone, but the device also didn't break. It felt fine in my pocket, though, despite its large dimensions.
Hardware – Flexible Screen in Real World Use
The LG G Flex offers high-end flagship specs, including a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.26GHz, 2GB of RAM, a 13-megapixel camera (though it lacks OIS, more on that later) and a curved 3,500mAh battery. The 6-inch display has a 1280 x 720-pixel resolution, however, which means it isn't as sharp as what you'd find on a 1080p handset such as the LG G2, HTC One or Samsung Galaxy Note 3. In our use, Jon and I found that the screen was a bit frustrating to look at. First, the low resolution meant that icons and text weren't as crisp as they are on 1080p screens. Also, the plastic substrate that LG used has some weird artifacts. If you have the display on a low brightness (and even on high, sometimes), you can see small particles that almost look like the hairs on a piece of a paper. It detracts from the overall sharpness drastically. The curvature is great while watching a movie or for viewing photos, but it doesn't work in some situations. For one, I spent time reading a book on Amazon's Kindle app and the curves made me nauseous – I prefer reading text on a flat surface. Also, some apps don't adjust to the screen appropriately, even though there's a setting that should fix the aspect ratio. Rayman Jungle Run wouldn't adjust properly in landscape mode, for example. These aren't deal breakers, but keep in mind that there are situations where the screen doesn't work as well as a flat one. That said, after a few days of use the flexible screen started to grow on me. I really liked the popping colors that an OLED display offers, and the screen does get nice and bright. The curvature is supposed to help block glare from sunlight, though actually the screen seemed just as reflective as a flat one in my use. So what about the flex? The phone can be pressed down completely flat, which is pretty crazy in practice. I did worry that the plastic body was going to break during my use, but that was never a problem. The back of the device is also plastic, and it definitely attracts fingerprints more than most phones. The "elastic" material, however, is self healing. I never purposely scratched the phone, but I can say that after spending a week in a pocket with my keys there isn't any noticeable damage. Finally, the layout. I like that LG kept the same configuration as I found on the G2. The volume controls and power button are on the back, and the power now doubles as a notification light if you put the phone face down. It takes some getting used to, but the buttons are easy to use and find eventually, and I like that it leaves the rest of the phone looking simple and bare, save for a 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB charging port on the bottom. Also, LG moved the IR blaster from the top of the phone on the G2 to the back of the device, just next to the 13-megapixel camera and across from a single LED flash. You can use it to easily control an IR-enabled device, such as TV, by pointing the phone's backside at it and launching the Quick Remote app. Overall, I think the curved display is best fit for folks who spend a lot of time on their phone watching video, but certainly isn't the best option for anyone who spends a lot of time reading. Just keep that in mind while you're considering your next device.
The LG G Flex runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean and there's no word on when Android 4.4 KitKat will arrive. Like Samsung, LG adds a ton of software to its phones. Some examples include QuickTheater for viewing movies, QuickRemote for the IR blaster, QuickTranslator, a video editor, VuTalk for sharing notes across LG devices, a Life Square photo journal, QuickMemo, Q Slide applications and the ability to run two apps side-by-side (similar to Samsung's Galaxy devices) using Dual Window capabilities. On our AT&T review unit, we also saw a bevy of AT&T bloatware. We won't dig too far into those apps, but the Dual Window capability worked well if you're into it, and I like that Q Slide makes it easy to pull up the calculator and other small apps without having to stop what I was doing. My biggest frustration with LG's software is that it hides amazing features like Google Now. You can add it, of course, but it's not a default search option from the get-go, and I wish LG made that a priority. Instead, its own apps like Voice Command are front and center, and I didn't find that they worked nearly as well as Google's own service. That said, there are some bonus features, like KnockOn, which I loved on the G2. Simply tap the phone's display twice to turn it on, and twice again to turn it off. I found myself using this feature a ton, and it works really well. I really do enjoy some of LG's added features like QuickMemo, the quick settings in the notification bar and Q Slide, but I wish it had more of a barebones Android experience. Thankfully, the quad-core processor kept everything moving fluidly, and even after filling up the phone with apps, movies and pictures, I didn't notice a slowdown in performance. Overall, the software really weighs down on the LG G Flex. Take the "Swing Lockscreen" for example: it's supposed to use the accelerometer on the phone to allow you to tilt up and down viewing a landscape that reflects the time of day. It's laggy and doesn't work at all, though, and we're not sure why it was even added. I plan on using this device for a bit after my review, and if it's any hint to how I feel about the software, I plan on installing a custom launcher and adding the stock Android Google Now experience. That's the great thing about Android, of course: if you don't like it, you can change it.
At first I was really excited to use the G Flex camera because I think LG did a fantastic job on that front with the G2. Then I learned that, while the G Flex has a 13-megapixel shooter, it lacks the optical image stabilization found on the G2 and other phones such as the Lumia 1020. Shots in daylight of snow falling look crisp, as do others that I took inside of a train station. However, another shot at dusk while walking came out super blurry. Of course it did, since I was moving, but that's the benefit of OIS – it helps stabilize shots while you're moving around and can't hold the phone still. The single LED flash did alright in low-light situations, too, but it wasn't noteworthy in any way. The phone is capable of recognizing if you're taking a selfie and your face is in the shot, and it works really well. Simply dig into the camera's settings, turn on face detection, and then aim for a selfie. The LED light on the back panel turns green when your face is in focus. There are plenty of other modes that work well, too, including burst mode, HDR, panorama, VR panorama, dual camera and more. As I mentioned earlier, photos looked grainier on the phone than they do in real life, largely because of the plastic used for the screen. Once I uploaded a few to Google+, they actually looked clearer than they did on the phone. Of note: the camera defaults to a wide 10-megapixel shot out of the box, so you'll need to switch to the 13-megapixel 4160 x 3120 4:3 aspect ratio to take the full-resolution shots. That's the case with most widescreen phones, I just wanted to point that out. The video camera defaults to a 1920 x 1080p resolution, though you can also shoot in UHD at a 3840 x 2160-pixel resolution. Of course, with a 720p display you can't actually view the benefits of that on the phone itself. As we move toward UHD screens on our TVs, though, it's a future proof nicety.
Call Quality / Data
As I noted earlier, theoretically my mouth is supposed to sit closer to the microphone on the LG G Flex because of its curved design. I'm pretty sure it only does because the phone is so large, however, and in use I never noticed a quality difference using it as opposed to my iPhone or Galaxy Note 3. Call quality was solid on AT&T's network in New York City, and Jon didn't report any issues during his experience in Orange County, either. The speakerphone gets nice and loud, though was distorted at higher volumes during a tech call with my cable company. Data speeds were also on a par with what I usually see on AT&T's 4G LTE network in New York City, and I quickly downloaded a few albums for offline listening on Google Play All Access before jumping on the train.
The 3,500mAh battery was superb during my tests. There are only a few phones that can last me more than a day, including the LG G2, the Nokia Lumia 1520 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Now the LG G Flex joins that bunch. As I write this, for example, I've had the phone off of the charger for 26 hours and one minute and it still has 35 percent left. At 20 percent, the battery saver will kick in. Better yet, I've been using it as my primary device this whole time, including keeping up with Twitter during the Super Bowl. Right now the phone says I can expect another 9 hours of use and that I only consumed 11 percent of the battery's life during the last three hours. Here's where it gets interesting: the display isn't draining most of the battery, which is usually the case. Instead, Android has consumed 24 percent of the juice while the display has consumed just 16 percent. Now we're starting to see another benefit to the display choice.
Flexible plastic OLED displays do provide benefits, particularly on battery life and strength.
I won't shy away from it: when I first opened up the LG G Flex box and started using the phone I was super skeptical. A lot of reviewers had complained about the screen's low quality and the size of the phone, and I really never saw a use for the curved screen.
I've really warmed up to the G Flex, though. It doesn't feel too bulky, despite its size, and the battery life has me (quite literally) coming back for more. I've adjusted to the lower-resolution screen, and I'm really not complaining too much about the plastic artifacts I see when I look close. While I do still feel a bit nauseous using it to read news and while browsing Twitter, my eyes aren't as sensitive as they were on the first day of use. I'm definitely going to tweak some of the software so that Google Now is front and center, and I do wish the camera had OIS, but it otherwise meets all of my needs.
The LG G Flex isn't for everyone, and I think only techies who want a super unique-looking phone are going to adopt it. For everyone else, most needs are met by the LG G2 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I have learned something, though: that flexible plastic OLED displays do provide benefits, particularly on battery life and strength. Hopefully LG is using the G Flex to learn mass production techniques for its flexible screens, and to build on future iterations that will hopefully bring my dreams of that foldable scroll-computer even closer to reality.
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