LG might fly under the radar a bit more than its Korean rival, Samsung. But that doesn't mean the company hasn't churned out some good mobile devices through the years. How does LG's best smartphone to date, the LG G3, compare to Samsung's 2014 flagship, the Galaxy S5? Read on, for Gizmag's hands-on look.
We still have a Samsung Galaxy S5 in house, and I've been using the LG G3 as my primary smartphone since it launched last week in the US. Both are terrific phones, with big and sharp screens, the latest version of Android under the hood and some unique features to boot. You can't go wrong with either one of these beasts, but let's try to hone in on a few key differences to help you make your decision.
The G3 is the bigger phone, but not by a huge margin. It's 3 percent longer, 3 percent wider and 10 percent thicker than the Galaxy S5. The G3 is also only 3 percent heavier than Samsung's flagship. The GS5 feels a bit more natural in my hand, but we're really splitting hairs, as it isn't much of a difference.
That minor size and weight difference is a very good thing for the G3. That's because, despite having a face that's only a little bigger than the GS5's, the G3 gives you a 16 percent bigger screen (measuring 5.5 inches diagonally, compared to the Galaxy S5's 5.1-in display).
This balance – thanks to the slim bezels above and below its screen– is the LG G3's killer feature. It takes a screen that you'd typically find on a phablet, and squeezes it onto a body that's more like a "normal" Android smartphone. Or, to put it another way, the G3 gives you the perks of a phablet without all the baggage.
The Galaxy S5 has home, back and recent apps buttons below its screen. The G3, meanwhile, uses virtual (software-based) versions of those same buttons on its screen. That usually means you'll sacrifice some precious screen real estate, but LG was smart about this, as the G3 lets you choose apps to hide those navigation keys in. So you can enjoy the G3's full 5.5-in screen in any app you want, including Kindle, Flipboard, Chrome or any other app – whether it natively supports Android's Immersive Mode or not (and when you do need the keys, you can just swipe up from the edge of the screen to get them back)
Both phones have "faux" plastic finishes. The GS5's is a strange faux leather finish with dimples on it (it's been compared more than once to a Band-Aid). Needless to say, it looks a little ... odd. But, on the plus side, the slightly soft-touch finish feels comfortable in hand. The G3, meanwhile, has a faux metal finish, with its plastic backing having a metallic layer sprayed on top of it. The G3's finish doesn't feel as high-end as something like the iPhone 5s or HTC One, but plastic does have one bonus, as the G3 feels fairly light in hand.
The G3 also has a sharper screen, though both phones are going to be past the point of concern for most eyeballs. The G3 sports a Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) display, which comes out to an absolutely insane 538 pixels per inch (PPI). The Galaxy S5 sports "only" a 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) screen, which comes out to 432 PPI.
In terms of experience, what does that mean? Well, when I put the two side-by-side and look closely, my eyes can notice the denser pixels packed into the G3. It's the sharpest screen I've seen on any smartphone or phablet. But the Galaxy S5's display isn't as far behind as those pixel counts might suggest. In fact, I don't think most eyes will notice much of a difference between a 500+ PPI screen like the G3's and a 400+ PPI screen like the GS5's (the iPhone, for example, is 326 PPI and still looks pretty sharp). The G3's sharper screen is a nice bonus, but I wouldn't recommend basing your decision on that alone.
There are also some downsides to the G3's Quad HD display. First, we noticed some minor performance lag while navigating around the home screen, settings menus and apps. That's unusual for any modern high-end smartphone, much less one with a Snapdragon 801 processor. It could be related to LG's custom software that's pasted on top of Android, but I'm guessing it comes more from the G3's GPU working overtime to move those 3.6+ million pixels.
Fortunately there's a fairly easy fix for the G3's lag issue: switch from Dalvik runtime to Android runtime (ART). If that sounds like gibberish to you, have no fear: it's an easy change to make and you can enjoy the results without understanding the developer-level software changes that it makes. ART is still considered an experimental setting on the G3's Android 4.4 KitKat, but I noticed a big performance boost (and no stability problems) on the G3 once I made the change. For a quick summary of how to switch to ART, you can hit up our full LG G3 review (about 2/3 of the way down the page).
Another minor downside to the G3, that could be related to its Quad HD display, is that its battery life isn't quite in the same league as the Galaxy S5's. In our standard battery test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, the G3 lasted 67 percent as long as the Galaxy S5 did. Specifically, the Galaxy S5 chugged along for 9 hours and 27 minutes, while the G3 lasted 6 hours and 20 minutes.
I don't think the G3's uptimes are a huge concern (its uptimes are about the same as the iPhone 5s'), but there have been several times that my G3 came dangerously close to conking out at the end of the day. Granted, I streamed Netflix for an hour or more on those days, in addition to spending many more hours with the screen on. But if you want the phone with the longer battery life, then the GS5 is the winner.
I suspect that LG realized that battery life wasn't the G3's biggest strength, because the G3's auto-brightness setting is ridiculously low. Every time I've activated the setting on the G3, it's made the screen very dark – to the point where the screen was just a couple notches above "readable." I'm not sure why you'd want to invest in an expensive smartphone with a stunning display, only to suck all enjoyment out of looking at it. In other words, I wouldn't bother using auto-brightness on the G3.
When it comes to battery life, the Galaxy S5 also has an ace up its sleeve. Ultra Power Saving Mode is a setting that lets you stay on the grid when your phone is about to conk out, turning its screen black & white and severely limiting available apps. The downside is that it temporarily turns your expensive smartphone into a glorified feature phone. But the upside is that it can take just 10 percent of remaining battery life and stretch it out into 24 hours of extra uptime. It's an innovative feature that the G3 has no direct answer to.
Both phones have very good cameras, but I'd give the edge to the G3. First, it fires up quicker than the GS5's does. On the G3, I can go from a sleeping (screen-off) phone to having snapped a picture in as little as 3.5 seconds. Impressive, eh? On the GS5, that process takes 5-6 seconds. It might not sound like much of a difference, but that window could be the difference between capturing the moment and missing it.
The G3's big camera feature, though, is its laser-based autofocus. When you're shooting with the G3's camera, you simply tap the point on the screen where your subject is and the G3 will quickly capture a shot with that point in focus. When you do that, the G3 actually fires a laser beam (don't worry: no children, animals or starships will be harmed) that measures the distance between phone and subject, helping to quickly and automatically bring it into focus.
In my experience, this autofocus in the G3 makes its camera stand out from the crowd – and it's arguably the phone's second killer feature. The whole shooting process is fast, seamless and leads to some terrific shots (with a bare minimum of effort on your part). That's really all I can ask for from a smartphone camera.
In case you haven't heard, the Galaxy S5 has a fingerprint sensor in its home button. It's a swipe-based one, not touch-based like the one in the iPhone 5s. But it works well enough, letting you swipe a finger to login to your otherwise passcode-protected phone. It also integrates with some third-party apps, including PayPal and LastPass. The G3 doesn't have one.
Like other recent LG products, the G3 does, however, have a couple of nifty features called Knock-On and Knock-Code. Knock-On lets you tap twice on your sleeping G3's display to turn it on, jumping straight to your home screen. Tapping twice on an empty part of your home screen then turns it back off. Knock-Code does the same thing, only with an added security-based twist: it lets you create a unique pattern of taps that you'll need to log in to your phone. It isn't quite a fingerprint sensor, but it's still a fairly secure option that can spare you some button-mashing.
Speaking of buttons, the G3 has a minimalist design, without any buttons on its front or sides. Its power and volume buttons instead sit on its back, just below its camera. This layout takes some getting used to, but I don't have a big problem with it. And it does have one big advantage: when watching video or playing games, you can hold your phone in any orientation you like without accidentally pressing any buttons (not a huge issue, but I've actually run into that problem on other phones).
We can't forget about the Galaxy S5's killer feature: its IP67 water and dust resistance. That rating means it's certified to sit in 1 m (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes, and keep on ticking. This opens the door to all kinds of places you can use your GS5 that you couldn't use most other smartphones. It's also insurance against accidental drops in sinks, tubs or toilets.
The Galaxy S5 has a heart rate monitor as well. It sits on the phone's backside, just below its camera. It can be a handy feature for workout enthusiasts, but know that you can also measure (or at least approximate) your heart rate on other phones – including the G3 – with apps that use the camera and flash.
The G3 is an outstanding smartphone – and quite possibly the best you can buy today. Its huge screen and relatively small body make for a terrific combination, that Quad HD display delivers some nice eye candy and its laser-focusing camera is another big draw. Its slightly laggy performance is disappointing (and a little surprising), but at least you can get rid of it with one simple tweak.
The Galaxy S5, meanwhile, is still a great choice. Though there isn't a huge size difference, it is 9 percent thinner, making it a bit more manageable in hand. It has that fingerprint sensor, some nice water resistance and zippier performance out of the box. And, though its display isn't as big or sharp as the G3's, the Galaxy S5's screen is spacious and gorgeous nonetheless.
If you were looking for a one-size-fits-all answer, then, well, you don't know us very well. If I personally had to pick right now, though, I'd go with the G3 (in fact, as I'm now using it as my main phone, I have already picked it). But tastes are different, and there's also a lot to like about the Galaxy S5. What we do hope is that this hands-on look gives you a clearer idea of the phone that will work better for you.
... and if you're still stumped, you can get more on both of these phones from our full reviews of the Galaxy S5 and LG G3. And if you want to cast your net a bit wider, you can check out our latest Smartphone Comparison Guide and Phablet Comparison Guide.