The LG Optimus G is a tale of the most powerful Android smartphone, a re-invigoration of the South Korean tech giant that has phased in and out of smartphone manufacturing. Yet while the world gets its hands on the sleek yet remarkably large and wide handset, most US users will likely buy the fatter, wider, and thicker AT&T model that in every way seems a tad worse but is basically the same great phone.

In fact, the Optimus G is a really remarkable device that is two steps forward and one step back for the company. While models like the Marque, DoublePlay, and even the Nitro HD all had surprisingly good software but low-end or weak hardware, the Optimus G has best-in-class hardware, but its Kryptonite is software-based.

Hardware

This review was updated on 12/10/12

The Optimus G is a 4.8″ smartphone that feels strange in the hand considering the screen size. It’s wider than it should be, compared to phones like the Galaxy S III which has the same screen size but is both thinner and taller. That’s because the Optimus G has a 1280×768 screen resolution, compared to the typical 720p (which is 1280×720) resolution, meaning the display on the G has 48 more pixels across.

As I’ve used the Optimus G more and more, the additional pixels prove to be less and less charming. In theory it’s perfect; more pixels is better. But the phone would have been better if those 48 pixels weren’t there and the phone were slightly less wide, especially for the thicker AT&T model (we tested both AT&T and Sprint models for this review). There is no benefit to those extra pixels.

That said, the display is absolutely excellent. It’s one of the best smartphone screens I’ve ever seen. The IPS panel gets extremely bright, has excellent color and light contrast, and is an absolute pleasure to look at and use. That can only be said about a few smartphones, like the iPhone and HTC One X. Competing devices like the Galaxy S III lack brightness or aren’t as well rounded as the Optimus G.

Sprint’s model is nearly identical to that sold worldwide, a glossy shell that looks more like a sleek black brick. It’s easy to grip on the sides and back, fits well in the pocket, and it looks and feels great. AT&T’s model as protruding edges that are better for grip on the edges, but it also makes the phone thicker and harder to grip the back panel. The matte finish on the AT&T model removes any sense of refinement instilled in the Sprint/world model.

The main difference between the two phones aside from aesthetics is that Sprint’s model features a 13MP camera and 32GB of on-board storage with no expansion slot. AT&T offers an 8MP camera with 16GB of on-board storage and an expansion slot (both models sell for the same price at $200 plus a two-year contract). Aside from bloatware included on both devices from their respective carriers, the phones are otherwise identical. It’s a strange difference between the two; identical components but very different feeling and looking externals.

The Sprint/world model is by far a better looking and feeling device, as you can gather from the pictures above. Between the two it’s no contest, but among the larger choice of smartphones neither device is a standout. Both are fairly simple in design. The difference is that the Sprint/world model looks sleek while the AT&T model does not.

Internally is a whole different story. The Optimus G is one of the first phones to feature the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 quad-core processors, and it’s ridiculously fast. As you’ll see in the benchmarks and performance below, the processor is a standout feature. 2GB of RAM and either plenty of space or upgradeable memory is just frosting on that sweet cake.

The best part of the Optimus G is the screen. It may be too wide, but my goodness it is a brilliant display. It’s one of the best smartphone displays in the world; in fact, I can recommend the Optimus G for media lovers based on the large size and spectacular visuals from this display.

Software

Both Optimus G units have mostly identical software; the differences between the two are moot, like a different unlock screen, a different settings menu, etc. However, there are two very important things regarding the Optimus G: what is called “Quad core control” and the power saver settings. Both of these significantly increase or decrease the relative performance of the phone, but also greatly impact the battery life. Unlike competing models with identical components, this is another software bottleneck that can confuse less tech-savvy users from getting the most out of the Optimus G.

The Quad core control is a simple on/off switch, but enabling full power does two things to the phone that make you wonder why it isn’t an automatic feature: it decreases battery life and overheats the phone significantly. I firmly believe that phone just need to work properly; settings for performance are a hassle on users that shouldn’t exist. All too often regular people forget that the option is set and wonder why the phone is underperforming. In most cases that’s not a big deal, but with the Optimus G it is. If Eco mode — which enables/disables CPU throttling — is off, suddenly your phone will run hot and the battery will die much faster. That’s unacceptable.

Thankfully, LG’s extremely smart utilization of the drop-down bar — which is completely editable — is a quick way to enable or disable the throttling. But I want to reiterate the overheating issue: While benchmarking both models overheated so much that performance dropped as much as 20% on all tests. The last thing any of us needs is to be running a high-performance application only to see performance drop after 20 minutes of use…and then forget your phone in the fridge so you cool it down. I’ve seen phones overheat, but never to the point of performance drops. That means heat management is poor when Eco mode is inactive, which is a huge problem.

I highly recommend any potential Optimus G buyers to just leave Eco mode always on. That way you won’t run into any problems, and as new firmware releases perhaps the phone will better manage overheating and power consumption. But just like with the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T, the option to increase performance at the cost of battery life is a nice hardcore-user choice, not everybody. Interestingly enough, the Nexus 4, which is the same hardware but Google-only software, does not include this feature. We’ll have more on the Nexus 4 in the near future.

All other software performance is excellent. The OS is quick and snappy, better than any Android device before it and on-par with the slightly more powerful Galaxy Note 2. It’s fun to just play with the unlock screen, a water droplet that shows the home screen as you slide to unlock. And as you’ll see below, even with Eco mode active all applications run very well and there is almost no need for full-throttle performance.

Battery

Battery life on the Optimus G is very solid. It can last a full day easily, so long as Eco mode is enabled. With Eco mode disabled, you’ll barely complete a full day’s use, if that. What Eco mode does is effectively shuts the phone out from running at 100% capacity, which also keeps it from overheating, so I always recommend it unless you’re running high-end applications.

Unfortunately both models had trouble running our Basemark OS benchmark to test for battery life, which limited the test’s use. The one time it did work was with Eco mode enabled, which is fairly accurate considering the large display and generally decent battery life. It will last for a full day’s use, but the difficulty comes from extended use. As long as the display is on, power drain is going to be big. And if Eco mode is not active, then the CPU will draw more power than anything else.

Benchmarks

As expected with the Optimus G, benchmark performance was excellent. With Eco mode on, however, the Optimus G saw a regular performance drop of roughly 13% or more. As you’ll see in the charts below, the Sprint model was also faster in several benchmarks, though performance variance was slight in many cases. Sprint seems to have better streamlined it’s software functions over AT&T.

In web browsing the Optimus G performs well, but it doesn’t have the huge improvements than Apple has with the A6 chip. That’s surprising considering the improvements in other areas. Generally speaking the browser feels like a mobile browser; good, but nothing spectacular. Apple still has the upper hand in that area, for the time being.

Again, Sunspider Javascript performance is better than nearly all of the competition, but you can see two major gaps, one between the iPhone 5 and the next tier, and the next between the Optimus G, TF700T, and the following tier. The reason is likely the combination of hardware and software; the ASUS tablet has best in class hardware and some pretty great software, and the Optimus G has all new hardware and software. However, it isn’t enough to scratch the speeds that Apple is posting, and preliminary testing on other, newer devices shows that while Android seems to still be a step behind Apple, that gap is much smaller than what this chart illustrates.

The Optimus G outperforms all Android devices by a huge margin when it comes to general app performance, as you can see with the Quadrant Standard benchmark. What’s more interesting is the significant gap between the Sprint and AT&T models; Sprint is a full 800 points above the AT&T model, something I’ve never seen in identical phones on different carriers. The same didn’t happen between the two devices in Eco mode though, with only a 50 point variance.

Aside from carrier differences, the Optimus G does 900-1700 points better than the next best competitor, the HTC One X. Even including the latest batch of devices still undergoing testing, the Optimus G kills at app performance.

To illustrate the insane CPU performance seen on the Optimus G, I’ve included the Linpack scores. Linpack is a benchmark that specifically tests raw CPU performance, both for a single core and multi-core CPUs. Normally I don’t list it because there’s pretty regular growth; just look at every device below the Optimus G. But LG’s handset completely skews the test with 2.5X the multi-core performance and 2X the single-core performance. It’s remarkably fast. Turning Eco mode on effectively cuts the scores in half, which is still faster than any of the competition.

The only wild card here is the iPhone 5, which isn’t listed because the app isn’t the same and I haven’t configured it to properly match the Android test. From what I’ve seen the iPhone 5 is faster for single-core performance but slower on multi-core performance, but I couldn’t get a solid reading on it overall.

Finally, for graphics testing, the Optimus G is the first Android phone or tablet to really get near Apple’s performance levels. Apple recently announced that their devices have been twice as fast in graphical performance. No more. The Optimus G musters a solid 22 frames per second in the GLBench 2.5.1 test, compared to 29FPS for the iPhone 5 and 27FPS for the 3rd generation iPad.

To fully understand this, take the Nexus 7 into consideration. In this benchmark, it scores 9FPS. The ASUS TF700T manages 11, and the iPod Touch scrounges up 13. In the most strenuous graphics-based benchmark we have, 30FPS would be the top standard. And the Optimus G gets 22FPS. It’s by far the best Android smartphone for gaming and graphical performance in the world.

Camera

Both the 8MP and 13MP shooters on the Optimus G models are decent, but not great. They provide okay photos that tend to be blurry pixel for pixel, but downsized look sharp enough, especially on the Optimus G’s display. Night photos are blurry and very poor, but so are most cameraphones. Colors don’t wash out too much under heavy lighting, and under poor lighting or high contrast lighting the G tends to fare better than devices like the Motorola Droid M, but not by much. It will focus better, so the first shot will come out instead of taking multiple shots to get the one you’re looking for.

The only real difference I could pinpoint between the 8MP and 13MP cameras on the AT&T and Sprint/world models, respectively, is that the larger MP rating offers slightly more detail closer in, but that the blurriness level increases pixel for pixel. In effect they’re almost identical in photo processing prowess. The only question between them is if you want to see little Susie’s smile a little closer and uglier, or slightly clearer but further away.

Conclusion

The Optimus G is an impressive smartphone in many, many ways, but it has one critical flaw that is a major blunder: Eco mode. Best-in-class performance is a great thing to have, but the beauty of smart devices like smartphones and tablets is their ability to manage performance themselves, without user input or configuration. For the ASUS TF700T, that wasn’t as serious a problem because even on the highest-power mode the tablet still had decent battery life and didn’t overheat.

Yet the Optimus G is a phone. The wide design, average battery, and bad thermal management are huge issues. Users have to choose an option: the best performance of any Android phone with poor battery life and overheating, or really solid performance and battery life? That option shouldn’t even exist. LG did go the extra step to include a quick switch to enable/disable Eco mode from the drop-down menu, but as of this writing the Nexus 4, Google’s variant of the Optimus G, has no such restrictions or problems.

If you can put that one thing aside — which in reality is very easy; just never turn Eco mode off — then the Optimus G is a pretty swell smartphone. Even without full power it’s one of the fastest smartphones on the market. The Sprint/world model is especially sleek, and both models are a pleasure to use though they do have their little insecurities such as strange settings placement and occasional wireless hiccups. But overall both are very prominent, powerful devices.

The one quirk for me is the difference between the AT&T and Sprint/world model. AT&T’s version is a little slower, bigger, and it’s less comfortable. It doesn’t have the charming minimalist design that the Sprint model has. For Sprint, the Optimus G is one of the best handsets you can buy today. Arguing the same for AT&T is a bit more difficult; there are less powerful but equally good phones like the HTC One X, which shares the excellent display and combines it with better battery life. But when it comes to sheer performance, almost nothing stands up to the Optimus G. And with the possible exception of the Galaxy Note 2, that isn’t likely to change until next summer, so if you just want a device that’ll be powerful through the next year, the Optimus G reigns supreme.

Editor’s Rating:

Sprint: Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

AT&T: Rating: ★★★½☆

Very Good

 

Bottom Line: A powerful smartphone with a gorgeous display but power management problems

Pros:

  • Fastest Android smartphone on the market, by a longshot
  • Wonderful display
  • Sleek design on the Sprint/world model

Cons:

  • Eco mode is more than what users should have to handle; when off it reduces battery life significantly and the phone overheats quickly
  • Camera is mediocre
  • AT&T version has significantly worse aesthetics and feel










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.