Smartphones these days have to do more than just run apps and make phone calls. They have to be able to bundle the power of a bunch of different devices into one stylish, good looking little package.
LG’s hoping you see it's new G4 flagship phone that way, so it put a leather covering on it to make it appear more premium than its plastic-coated body would make it seem. But it’s not faking it: the G4 may seem lackluster compared to Samsung’s major revival with the Galaxy S6, but it has so much to offer for the Android-loving fans looking for something different.
A leather smartphone for who exactly?
I’m seriously concerned about how LG will market its phone to the tech-loving vegans and vegetarians out there—of which there are many! There are six different models of the G4 that come wrapped in premium leather, all supposedly skinned and sourced from the same cowhides used in high-end leather goods. That seems a bit much for a smartphone you’re going to replace in a couple years. Smartphones don’t age like handbags.
That said, the G4’s leather back does feel high-end. It’s smooth and grippy, like the steering wheel of a Mercedes-Benz, and that seems to be the point. You might not be able to afford a fully loaded luxury car, but you can fake it with this luxurious little smartphone. I’m not too sold on the leather back as the G4’s main selling point, however—it all seems a bit gratuitous, like the pricey Prada phones LG’s put out in the past.
There are two “regular” G4s, too, outfitted in plastic. One is called metallic craft, which features the same metallic skin from the G3, and the other is called ceramic craft, which features ceramic paint on top of a plastic body. The metallic craft model was the one I got to handle the most. I liked it, and it definitely felt sturdy and durable, but I’m seriously tired of plastic phones. After seeing what Apple, Samsung, and HTC can make out of a bunch of metal and glass, I expect a bit more from LG by now.
I still think LG made a bold move outfitting its fourth generation flagship device in leather, though I’m scratching my head about the G4’s target demographic. The color and styles of leather offered seem too butch for a woman, and a bit too formal for a casual smartphone user. It’s exactly like a luxury handbag; not everyone is going to see the point of investing into the trend. I’m curious to see who brings home the leather-clad G4, if only because it seems like such a niche subset.
The answer to a mobile photographer’s prayers
LG’s always bundled relatively capable camera sensors with its high-end smartphones (except for the first-generation G Flex—that was really bad). The G4’s 16-megapixel camera sensor may not seem like an upgrade over the G3’s, but what makes it so powerful is the addition of manual controls in the camera application.
I was bummed when I learned the Galaxy S6 had such limited manual controls. What’s the point of a “pro” mode if you’re not really tweaking settings like the professionals, right? The G4’s manual mode is legitimate. It’s incredibly overwhelming at first, but frankly that’s what using a DSLR is like all the time. If you’re used to those deep menus, you’ll feel at home.
The G4’s manual mode offers 51 levels of white balance, a range of shutter speeds from 1/6000” to 30”, and 17 levels of ISO. There’s a RAW shooting mode and a Histogram, too, so you can see where the levels are at any given time. And as you toy with the settings, you can see all the adjustments in real time right there in the viewfinder.
I really like what I initially saw with the G4’s rear-facing camera. The camera app launched quickly and snapped photos without a beat. Its laser focus was quick to lock on target, too, and in manual mode I was impressed with how precise the focus was. However, the real test will be pitting it against the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6 Plus. After all, LG is claiming that its f/1.8 aperture is better at low-light shooting that the competition. I have to test that for myself.
A slow goodbye to bloatware
Like Samsung, LG said it would pare down on the bloatware. And like Samsung, LG still bundled in a few extra apps and services it’ll attempt to convince us that it’s offering something other manufacturers don’t.
Well, it sort of does. The G4 will come with 100GB of extra free space on Google Drive, which seems like a nice way for LG to pay homage to Google. It also eliminated its own browser and made Google Chrome the default, except on phones sold through certain carriers. I don’t know who those carriers are yet, but they all pack new phones with their own crappy bloatware, anyway, so it’s still a lose-lose situation for the American Android user no matter which way you look at it.
I will give LG some credit here: its Lollipop interface looks way more refined than it did on the G Flex 2. The icons actually match and the color scheme is veritably Material Design. I liked the Smart Bulletin that lives on far left Home screen, too, though I didn’t have as much time to play with it. I’m curious to test out its usefulness on a day-to-day basis.
Impressive, but not outstanding
I’m a bit lukewarm on the leather backing, but I don’t deny that LG’s made some bold moves with the G4. It’s sporting a physical design no other Android manufacturer has tried before and it offers professional-grade manual controls for smartphone photographers. It also gives the diehard user the option for a device with both a removable battery and MicroSD slot, because these are apparently still coveted things in the Android realm.
But those specialized feature set seems more marketed to a niche Android user base rather than the mass consumer, and the mass consumer is the one you want to attract to sell a lot of units. Despite my misgivings, I’m actually pretty impressed with the features LG packed into the G4—the camera features and user experience are so much better than anything the company’s offered before. I’m just not sure how that leather back is going to be received, and whether that is enough to make LG stand out from the rest of the crowd.
Editor's note: We updated this story at 4:30 p.m. PT on April 28 with correct information about the G4's camera sensor.