LG G4 first impressions: Nice leather back, solid camera, and improved UI

Matthew picked up a LG G4 to evaluate before the retail units begin shipping to buyers and he has spent the last two days with it in Seattle and New York.

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We saw just about every detail of the LG G4 revealed last month on an early launch website.

Thanks to T-Mobile's energetic enthusiastic product evangelist, Des Smith, I've spent the two days testing out a leather backed T-Mobile LG G4 and encourage you to enter the contest running until 25 May.

The best new Android smartphone is clearly the Samsung Galaxy S6/S6 Edge, but the poor battery life, occasional lag, and extremely high price forced me to return it until T-Mobile and Samsung release updates to tweak things.

The HTC One M9 is a solid piece of hardware, but the camera is not as good as the new Galaxy. Thus, I hope to see the LG G4 impress me in camera performance, battery life, and design. The door remains open for a company to best HTC and Samsung in this round of early 2015 smartphone releases.

Unboxing and first impressions

The particular test unit I was provided is number 10 out of 500 units that are being seeded early to enthusiasts and others selected through T-Mobile's Exclusive Preview Tour. T-Mobile clearly stated that this unit is pre-production hardware running non-final software, but that it would attempt to provide a software update to match the full retail product when the the phone version launches on T-Mobile later in May.

I'm not sure what the retail launch package will look like, but these Preview Tour versions come in a very sturdy box with the leather back prominently displayed on the top and a description of features detailed on the back. The box was actually difficult for me to open and took a bit of shaking up and down for me to get a grip on the top and lift it off.

The LG G4 sat on top of a USB cable, 2900 mAh battery, and A/C charger. The typical T-Mobile warranty info, quick start guide, and other pamphlets were not included in this package.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the light tan leather back on the LG G4. It's hard to tell how this looks and feels in photos, especially with the center stitching. The center stitching has generated lots of discussions with many people hating it while others like the styling. Let me tell you that it looks great in person and I think most people are going to want the leather back.

The great thing about the LG G4 is that the back is removable so you can have multiple leather options or even a plastic one. The underside of the leather back is plastic and I think this will help with its ability to survive drops as plastic is pretty forgiving.

The other thing that immediately struck me was how light the G4 felt in my hand. It weighs in at 155 grams (5.47 ounces) with the 2900 mAh battery installed and leather back in position. I thought a 5.5 inch device would be a bit too big knowing that my 5.5 inch iPhone 6 Plus is quite large (172 grams) and not convenient to carry in a front jeans pocket or in shorts. The LG G4 is slightly wider and thicker than the iPhone 6 Plus, but it's about 10 mm shorter.

Hardware

The LG G4 is available in black, but that color is just found around the display and on the edges. The brown leather back looks great with the black front. You will also be able to buy leather backs in black and plastic covers in gray or white. Other LG photos show a number of back color options, but it's not clear if these will be available in the US.

LG has a 5.5 inch QHD 2560 x 1440 pixels resolution display at 538 ppi. I've said before that I am perfectly satisfied with 1080p, but the high end devices are going with this higher resolution and as long as battery life doesn't suffer I'll take it.

One thing I love about these newer LG devices is the clean sides. You will not find a button or port on either side or the top. There is a small round spot for the IR transmitter and one for a mic on the top. Another mic, the headset jack, and microUSB port are found on the bottom.

Like a mullet, the party happens on the back of the LG G4. Here you will find the power button centered between the two volume buttons positioned below the camera lens. Double pressing the volume down launches the camera.

The camera on the LG G4 has the best specifications of any modern smartphone today with a 16 megapixel camera, f/1.8 aperture, 1/2.6 inch sensor, OIS, RAW capture support, manual mode, and laser autofocus. Positioned to either side of the camera lens is a LED flash and a laser.

The front camera comes in at 8 megapixels with a f/2.0 aperture lens.

Near the bottom of the back, on the left side, is the mono speaker opening. While the sound is decent, I would like to see LG move the speaker to the front or maybe the bottom. If your phone is resting on a flat surface, the curvature of the back does tend to increase the volume a bit so maybe that is the thought process behind the current design.

A removable 2900 mAh battery, microSD card, and microSIM card are found under the back cover. The microSD card slot supports cards up to 2TB, but since these aren't even for sale yet we have no way to test that capability. The battery on some other carriers is 3000 mAh and from what I understand that version may even fit in this T-Mobile unit.

The LG G4 has no water resistance (seems to be a common trend in today's smartphones) and no integrated wireless charging capability (you can add it with a replacement back). The LG G4 also does not support quick charging, which is a pretty significant oversight given that most of these new Android smartphones have this capability.

Software

Like Samsung, LG continues to cut the fat on its software and custom user interface. I personally prefer LG over Samsung and in my experiences LG's phones don't exhibit lag over time such as most Samsung models I have previously used.

The LG G4 supports Knock Code so you can customize your tap pattern to unlock the device without pressing the rear power button.

Apps loaded by LG include an extremly capable scientific calculator, efficient calendar, image gallery that supports Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, LG Cloud, and Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage services, LG Backup, LG Health, Messaging, Music, File Manager, Quick Remote, QuickMemo+, Voice Command, and Voice Mate. You won't find duplicate video or music services and overall these utilities are useful and enhance the LG G4 experience.

Carriers always like to load up some apps and the experience is worst on Android since these apps cannot be uninstalled. T-Mobile is the best with the fewest pieces of bloatware. On the LG G4 you will find App Source, Device Unlock, Lookout, Mobile Hotspot, Mobile Money, T-Mobile My Account, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, and Visual Voicemail. Some of these can be disabled and they can all be hidden from the launcher if you have not interest in using them.

Looking ahead

I have to spend many more days testing before I can post a full review here on ZDNet so please let me know what you would like to see me touch upon in my review. At this time, here is what I plan on testing further:

  • Camera performance
  • Battery life
  • Themes, fonts, and other customization options
  • LG utilities such as QSlide, Smart settings, and dual window
  • Video playback and music experiences

The LG G4 is the only 2015 smartphone released so far with both a microSD card slot and removable battery. Samsung Galaxy fans who are angry at the new Samsung design philosophy may want to seriously consider the LG G4.

I took a couple preliminary photos in NY and show a comparison in my image gallery below of the G4 matched up with the iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note Edge, and Sony Xperia Z3. Images appear in the collage starting at the upper left and moving clockwise.

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