Missing Puzzle Piece #2: Design
Yes, I know, this criticism will likely see some raised eyebrows from fans who love LG’s genuine leather back cover, or LG’s titanium-metal back cover, and so on. LG has created some leather covers that bear stitching down the back of them, and many individuals find these to be a nice touch in design. I, however, do not.
The stitching down the back of the leather back covers looks to be something tacky, as though LG had to stitch two sides of leather together instead of manufacturing one whole piece of leather to cover the back (without the stitching). Many have said that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, with its corner stitching, was a tacky move, but LG’s is no different. Just because LG uses a brown leather back cover (a genuine leather material) doesn’t make the middle back cover stitching any more palatable.
And the situation is even worse with LG’s other back covers. LG has produced red, yellow, green, and sky blue back covers that bear a striking resemblance to deflated basketballs or purses that are flattened, then slapped on the back of the LG G4. The colors of the back covers (aside from the genuine brown leather one) look like fashion accessories rather than the cover of a smartphone. I don’t have a problem with LG wanting to craft a smartphone that appeals to the fashion sense of the customer base as a whole, but smartphones are not fashion accessories. They’re not the same as a purse for a woman, or a wallet for a woman or man, or the material of some leather seats in some nice, luxury cars. If this were a smartwatch with genuine leather bands and so on, I wouldn’t have as much of a criticism; but smartphones and smartwatches are not the same: one is used to match one’s attire as a dress item, the other is meant to be a luxury device in a leisurely manner, with little regard for whether or not it matches your clothes, shoes, earrings, purse, wallet, or shirt and tie.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like LG’s plastic back covers, however: I do. I like the diamond-shaped pattern on the back of those covers, and it gives the LG G4 a way to stand out while doing so quietly. Unlike the leather stitching, the diamond-shaped trace pattern doesn’t seem so obnoxious to me.
There is another reason behind why I find the look of LG’s back covers to be problematic: the phone itself looks like it’s a half-breed of plastic and leather (in the case of the leather back covers). I’m all for LG making a smartphone out of leather, but I’d like to see it make the entire phone leather, not a portion of it. Leather is a gorgeous material to go on a smartphone, but no one makes a phone half-metal, right? Have you seen any half-metal smartphones win any build quality awards lately? How about half-plastic, half-metal smartphones? Yes, Samsung’s Galaxy Note5 is made out of metal and glass, but there’s only an aluminum metal frame while the rest of the phone is covered in Gorilla Glass 4. Aluminum frames are necessary to add some sturdiness to the phone, but Samsung didn’t make the display glass and the back cover aluminum, for example.
What is most fashionable in making a smartphone is when the entire smartphone is composed of a set build material. In other words, had LG taken the G4 and wrapped the phone first in plastic, then fully in leather all over (sans the display, that is), before bringing the G4 to market, then LG would have no complaints from me. In order to maintain the G4’s microSD card slot and removable battery, though, the company had to make the back cover removable and replaceable. I understand the need to maintain the functionality, and how LG did so in order to “one-up” Samsung with its sealed storage and battery devices this year, but you must admit: Samsung’s devices do look better-built, more fashionable, and more coherent than the LG G4.
When it comes to fashion, coherence is better than functionality. I think that LG should decide which it prizes more: fashion or functionality. Most devices today have some fashion appeal to them (no one wants a large, blocky phone that looks ugly), but you can’t make fashion “King” without sacrificing functionality. Both fashion and functionality can’t be king: one must bow to the other. I realize that this goes against the “we-can-manufacture-it-all-and-maintain-both” mindset from LG, but Samsung has discovered this year that the idea is utopian and practically impossible.
Samsung has found a way to maintain its emphasis on functionality by bringing new features with its new design. I would challenge LG to do the same. As for the G4, however, LG didn’t think it through, and the device appeals to those who only care what the back of their phone looks like, rather than how it looks as a whole. At least when Samsung made plastic smartphones, the entire phone was wrapped in plastic. I just disagree with LG’s design choice in the G4 – even if the genuine brown leather cover looks good on the back of the phone and feels good in hand, too.
LG relinquishes its choices as manufacturer with removable back cover materials
This entire discussion on hardware design and build materials brings me to my next point: LG’s decision to opt for customizable back cover materials shows the company’s refusal to make a stand for its own hardware design. The phone is called the LG G4 for a reason – because it’s LG’s flagship. Why then, couldn’t LG make a few G4’s with different build materials and leave it at that? Why provide a few genuine leather back covers while denying the entire phone bear leather as a build material?
This is why I feel as though LG’s G4 is a reaction to Motorola’s Moto X: because LG decided, like Motorola and OnePlus, to implement customizable back covers. Motorola made this customization famous with MotoMaker, and LG’s G4 takes a great deal of cues from Motorola (Motorola’s back cover look bears striking resemblance to LG). It seems as if both Motorola and LG took design cues from each other this year – and not in a good way, I’ll say. Motorola decided to add a microSD card this year, similar to what LG has done in recent years (following Samsung, of course).
Customers find the customizable back covers to be a blessing; they seem to like choosing what fashion statement their phone makes. While this may present one perspective, however, there is another: LG did this to prevent itself from “rocking the boat” with its customer base and offending customers who’d otherwise purchase a device. Customization and choice are the heart of Android, but they’re also the heart of sales: give customers more choice, and they’ll gladly pay for it.
But should they? The answer is up to you to decide, but I don’t think so. Samsung, for instance, decided to create a few new colors for its smartphone lineup: Gold Platinum, Titanium Silver, and Pink Gold. Those colors are enough for the lineup this year, in addition to Black Sapphire and White Pearl, for customers to be happy. I’ve never heard a customer say he or she didn’t buy a certain device because “I didn’t like the color selection.” Granted, I think that certain smartphone colors are atrocious and an affront on good, common sense, but most customers would never refrain from buying a smartphone because of it. I’ve seen Galaxy Note5 customers buy a Black Sapphire, all while wanting a Gold Platinum – but the color alone has never stopped them from getting Samsung’s latest and greatest.
And the same goes for LG: the G4 should have come in a few different models with build materials, and have been left at that. Creating something of a Motorola-like experience with the LG G4 left LG open to criticism, with the company seeming to relinquish its responsibility as manufacturer in order to win customers. I’m all for winning customers, but why does a manufacturer have to relinquish its sovereignty over its own name-branded devices to do so?
The leather back covers may be a nice touch for some, but it looks as though the LG G4 was rushed to market. Take a look at Samsung’s and Apple’s unibody designs for 2015, and you’ll see why the LG G4 design is a problem for Samsung’s rival.
Missing Puzzle Piece #3: No Fingerprint Sensor
This may be a surprise to you, but the LG G4 has yet another major drawback: it has no fingerprint sensor baked into the hardware. That’s right: whereas you’ll get fingerprint authentication with Samsung’s Galaxy lineup, or Apple’s iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, you will be sorely disappointed with the LG G4. If you’re debating about giving up your iPhone 6 to try the freedom of Android, make sure that you bypass the LG G4; it doesn’t have the fingerprint authentication you’ve grown accustomed to in iOS.
Fingerprint authentication has become native to Android thanks to Google’s addition of the feature with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but LG could have followed in Samsung’s footsteps and implemented its own fingerprint sensor prior to Marshmallow. The company did not, for reasons unknown, and bypassing biometric security in a time in which consumers have come to expect it is another major reason not to pick up the LG G4.
This is an issue, especially since the LG Nexus 5X, LG’s latest smartphone with Google, comes with a fingerprint sensor embedded within the back cover. Of course, a majority of Android smartphones do not have a fingerprint sensor even in 2015, but for a smartphone that aims to keep up with the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S6 edge Plus, among others, the LG G4’s lack of biometric authentication is disappointing.
Missing Puzzle Piece #4: Software
Apart from the fingerprint sensor being absent in the LG G4 is software. LG has touched up some of its software features and brought them back in the G4, but the Korean manufacturer hasn’t implemented much in the software arena – instead touching up its UX to reflect more of Google’s Material Design language while keeping software additions to a minimum.
LG G4 buyers will see all of the same software with which they’re familiar (KnockOn, KnockCode, GlanceView, Smart Notice, the QuickHelp Widget, Dual Window, along with LG Health and LG Music apps, QSlide apps, etc.), but LG has introduced something new into its UX. First on the list of new apps is LG Smart Bulletin, a feature that brings information across a number of apps and provides tips to get the most out of your handset. Next is Event Pocket, a feature that unifies all your calendars into one and allows you to merge your Facebook events with others that weren’t present at Facebook. Event Pocket also allows you to take notes and add them to your calendar along with photos if you need to remember to do something and want to include a visual reminder (not written one) on a specific day.
Both Smart Bulletin and Event Pocket are useful in their own right, but these features are neither groundbreaking nor adventurous. This is a major problem with LG’s smartphone lineup from one year to the next: the company doesn’t experiment with software features, nor does it invest in R&D to do so.
When LG announced the LG G2, the company introduced the volume rocker on the back of the G2 because it “learned from you” regarding the volume rocker placement. It would be nice to see LG devote R&D funds to new, innovative software features in its own UX so that users could see good reason to upgrade each year with each new device.
LG does have its own KnockON and KnockCode features that are indicative of what the company can do when it innovates, but there are features such as LG’s Dual Window Mode that have been pioneered within Android by LG’s Korean rival, Samsung. LG’s QSlide apps create something of a floating toolbox effect that Samsung inaugurated in its 2014 devices (Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 4). LG’s Health and Music apps aren’t that entertaining, as many have disabled these right out of the box, and the Event Pocket is an excellent idea – but Google has been pretty effective at handling this via Google Calendar. Smart Notice is supposed to increase the “smart” capabilities of notifications in real time, but this feature is a replica of Google’s own Google Now cards that provide traffic, weather, email, package shipping, and other confirmations in real time.
When examining the software in this light, then, one thing becomes obvious: LG hasn’t taken too much time to focus on its software offering. Sure, the company has dramatically improved its photography (always excelled at low-light), but the camera is not all of the experience. The look and feel of the genuine brown leather back cover on the device is not all of the experience. What about the software? What about the features and apps that are native only to the LG G4?
Some would respond to me and say, “It’s taking a minimalist approach,” but I would respond with the statement that minimalism is like shoes: one size does not fit all. LG’s few software features make its UX far more appealing than Samsung’s TouchWiz in the minds of some, but I think TouchWiz’s features and phone-specific software are what make Samsung’s 2015 devices more appealing and seasoned. The more minimalistic the software on a device, the more bland it becomes to me.
Manufacturers are to show some sovereignty over their devices, and I anticipate each year what manufacturers may or may not incorporate into their devices. Sadly, the LG G4 looks rather similar to the LG G3, and an Android Marshmallow update for the G3 will bring the new G4 tweaks to its predecessor. There is very little software-wise to distinguish the G4 and the G3, so G3 users need not feel guilty or jealous about LG’s 2015 buyers.
The LG G4 is a smartphone that looks to become part of a mid-range offering for LG. The company has already released its LG V10 that LG says will become the start of a new series for itself.
With that said, however, the LG G4 has been claimed and announced as LG’s 2015 flagship, a smartphone that gives you all you want, no compromises. And yet, the hexa-core processor is suitable for a mid-range smartphone, the device itself lacks biometric security in 2015, it underperforms in most benchmarks when stacked up against the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, battery life is okay but not stellar, the display is improved from the G3 but still doesn’t beat Samsung’s AMOLED screen accurate color reproduction, and LG’s camera is decent but is equally matched by cameras from Motorola and Google this year (not to mention Samsung, whose device cameras surpass LG’s).
As for the LG G4 software, it’s something of a middle road between the Moto X and the Google Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X: it’s not quite as anemic as Motorola’s own, where Motorola removes features once Google incorporates them into the Nexus and Android. Google and LG have always had a good relationship, with LG partnering with Google for the Nexus 4, Nexus 5 (2013), and Nexus 5X (2015), and the relationship between the Android owner and Android OEM has persisted for one reason: LG “bows” to Google when it comes to Android software. LG has very few modifications to Android as a whole, which is what makes Google prefer LG for manufacturing purposes.
LG’s closeness to Google and its software being as close to vanilla Android as you can get without declaration, however, works against LG in the G4. With Sony, HTC, Samsung, and Motorola, outside of LG and Google, producing Android devices, Android OEMs need to do everything they can to stand out. You can’t stand out from the crowd if, like Motorola and Google’s Nexus, your device(s) mimics vanilla Android devices.
How does the LG G4 stand out from the crowd? I can’t answer that, unless I point out the camera (which is good but has good competition) and the new customizable back covers (which are subjective in terms of design but has been done by Motorola before). The removable battery and microSD card slot, features that are praised by some Android power users, are nothing new or unique to Android, so the LG G4 can’t get credit for those, either. The Quad HD display was incorporated into the LG G3, but LG did it to give the G3 a reason to stand out from its Android rivals. Battery life in the G3 was abysmal to say the least, and, though the company has improved battery life this year, there’s still more work to be done.
Let’s say you’re a Verizon customer, and you walk into the local store to purchase your new smartphone (you’re getting an upgrade). If you walk to a set of phones and see the LG G4 alongside of the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge, Galaxy S6 edge Plus, and the Galaxy Note5, would you buy the LG G4 instead of the Galaxy Note5? If you saw an LG G4 on the same shelf as a Droid Turbo 2 from Motorola, a Droid Maxx, Google Nexus 6P, or even an HTC One M9, would you choose the G4 over these smartphones?
You can answer those questions confidently, but one question would remain: why? What about the LG G4 makes it the perfect phone to own? At least with Samsung’s new edge design and functionality with the Apps Edge, you could answer that. With the Galaxy Note5, you could answer that. The LG G4 has a major identity problem, because I couldn’t answer the question as to why I’d pick the G4 over the competition.
So, there it is. The LG G4 is a good phone, it’s a sufficient phone (as we point out in Part 1 of the LG G4 Review), a phone that is more of a plain Jim than anything else, but will it stand out? Will customers see it alongside of Samsung’s smartphone arsenal or Apple’s “juicy” collection? I doubt it. The G4’s identity problem is the key to a smartphone’s declining status: when your smartphone doesn’t stand out, doesn’t shout the loudest, isn’t even noticed, it quickly fades away and is soon forgotten. And a forgotten phone is a phone that no one wants.