Or, how I tried to love phablets — and the word "phablet"
LG and Samsung are in the midst of a battle. An epic back-and-forth. A billions-of-dollars tit-for-tat. The two Korean conglomerates, part of the chaebol system that dominates commerce and politics in their home country, are immensely and constantly competitive. Samsung releases a flagship phone; LG always answers with one of its own. Both companies announced "the world's first curved OLED TV" at CES, within only minutes of each other. From cellphones to washing machines and everything in between, these two companies are constantly at odds.
So it really comes as no surprise that soon after Samsung launched the Galaxy Note II, the even-larger successor to the company's wildly successful Galaxy Note, that LG introduced the Optimus G Pro. The Pro's close resemblance to the Note II is certainly not an accident: last time LG tried to tweak the phablet formula, it came up with the blocky Intuition. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em — that bred the Optimus G, and the Optimus G Pro follows in kind.
That's not to say it's an unimpressive phone. Its 5.5-inch, 1080p screen easily outstrips the Note II's 720p display, and when coupled with internals befitting a flagship phone and software customizations galore, the Optimus G Pro appears at first glance to be a worthy competitor in a market Samsung has previously had sewn up. Plus, the Optimus G is a seriously impressive phone, and the Pro seems to just be more of the same.
Now that the G Pro is coming to North America after all, I decided to take the device for a spin. I’ve had a phablet (and often two, with the Note II) in my pocket for a couple of weeks now, as I attempted to eschew my comparatively puny iPhone 5 in favor of the bigger world of the Optimus G Pro. I’ve learned seven things, about myself and about this phone, that together left me with a distinct impression about this device — and how evolution seems to have failed me.1. Dear Darwin
Try as I might, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to comfortably use a phone as big as the Optimus G Pro. In only one of my (not small) hands, half the 3-inch-wide device becomes effectively inaccessible — even dialing a phone number involves some crazy contortions — and in two I have to smush my palms together to get my two thumbs aligned. The most comfortable method for me was to hold the phone in my left hand and manipulate it with my right index finger, but that’s a difficult pose to strike given how often I’m holding subway poles, fiddling with my keys or some other gadget, or trying to surrepititously send messages underneath the table without seeming rude.
LG does what it can, offering easily-accessible power and volume buttons on the sides of the phone instead of the top, and rounded the sides so the 9.4mm-thick device fits a little more comfortably into your hand. The G Pro is also a bit narrower than the Galaxy Note II — about 4mm, mostly in the bezels — which makes a big difference in how you hold the device. The wide, short home button (which cleverly doubles as a notification LED) is easy to reach, though the Back and Menu buttons that flank it can be hard to hit. And to reach the corners of the dialer, or star an email in Gmail, or to pull down the notification shade, you’ll either need two hands or a lot of practice shifting the phone around in your hand to reach all its nooks and crannies.2. The fall
I clearly need a lot more practice shifting the phone around, because I can’t stop dropping the Optimus G Pro. Luckily the white plastic body is more resilient than it feels, because it’s still chugging along with only a couple of scuffs after several stints on my floor and in the street. I'm not just worried about breaking the phone, either — the slick, almost slimy back of the phone doesn’t do a flagship device justice. I do like the checkered "Disco City" vibe on the back, but without any texture anywhere on the device it doesn’t feel as good as it looks. LG can definitely do better than this — the glassy Nexus 4 is slippery too, but it exudes a level of class the G Pro can’t match.
On the plus side, the back is removable, so you can just peel the plastic off the body and easily replace the battery, the SIM card, or access the microSD slot. But (and I never thought I'd say this) I'd personally rather have a well-constructed device like the HTC One even if it means no access to the battery.
LG can build a better phone than this — it has before
Small game windows became vast expanses
This is unquestionably the most immersive phone I’ve ever used. I missed subway stops playing Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run 2, I walked into walls and people while reading with Pocket. Not only is the Optimus G Pro’s screen big — 5.5 inches — and high resolution — 1920 x 1080 — but it’s bright, vibrant, and exceptionally accurate even when you’re looking at it from awkward angles. I typically hunt down my iPad or laptop when I’m watching anything longer than a GIF, but with the Optimus G Pro I didn't mind the compromise. I watched the latest Star Trek Into Darkness trailer over and over, and hardly noticed the difference between watching on my phone and on my iPad mini.
Unlike the HTC One, though, whose display seems to be leaping out of the phone at you, the G Pro’s screen feels a bit recessed. It’s far superior to the Galaxy Note II, or the Optimus G, or almost any phone I’ve used, but my eyes don’t love the Pro like they love the One.
I'm probably spoiled by the One at this point, honestly. The G Pro's single mono speaker really isn't any worse than other cellphone speakers, but it grates my ears, which are now used to the booming stereo sound from the One. Sound is quiet and tinny on the G Pro, and you'll definitely want headphones – but again, that's par for the course outside of HTC's offering.4. Inbox Triage
A few days into my time with the G Pro, I had one of those days where I forget Gmail exists, and at 9PM there are 196 emails unread in my inbox and my blood pressure is skyrocketing. So I sat down, pulled out my phablet, and dove in.
I’ve never worked through an inbox so fast. That’s partly thanks to the great Gmail experience of every Android phone, but the G Pro is special. The big screen offers plenty of room to see full threads, and affords such a roomy typing experience that going back to the iPhone’s keyboard felt massively claustrophobic. LG also uses the display real estate by offering "QSlide apps," which are essentially widgets that display above your current app and let you take notes, see your calendar, or watch a video — you can totally text and watch a video at the same time, so take that, Samsung. But you can also add an event to your calendar without ever having to leave your email, or quickly take a note and later send it to Evernote. Even adding things straight to Evernote is particularly fast — there’s a button on the left side of the G Pro called the "QButton," which you can set to open any app with a single press.
The pop-over widgets work impressively well, as does everything about the Optimus G Pro. The Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 processor inside was more than up to any task I threw at it, even my Nitrous-aided races down the streets of Asphalt 7 or my gloriously anarchic Grand Theft Auto rampages. There are a few spots where Android isn’t perfectly smooth or fast, from browser scrolling to panning and zooming in Maps, but this phone performed as well as I could possibly expect.
There’s only one thing about the Optimus G Pro that I genuinely hated: the notification windowshade, in which LG has stacked four rows of icons and options that push your actual notifications, the whole purpose for the notification windowshade’s existence, more than halfway down the screen. It conjured visions of my grandparents’ IE6 browsers, their twelve toolbars leaving only a sliver of space for actually browsing the internet. It’s busy, ugly, and confusing, making an otherwise simple and useful feature feel cluttered and complicated.
As LG (and every other manufacturer) is prone to do, it has tweaked the software here at every turn. Most are inoffensive aesthetic changes, like the blue-ing of the general color scheme and the lock screen that essentially has you peel open your phone. Some are genuinely useful, like the tabbed app drawer that gives you easy access to apps you’ve downloaded minus all the pre-installed bloatware or the setting that lets you mute your ringtone or alarm just by flipping over your phone. But by segmenting the settings menu, LG has only made certain things harder to find; by adding a wacky 3D flipping effect to the homescreen it has only made the OS slower and clumsier; and by changing the color scheme it has done away with much of the cohesive, attractive design narrative Google has developed. LG’s not the worst offender when it comes to software skins, but it’s close.
I refuse to take pictures with a tablet, period. It took me a while to even warm up to the idea of shooting with the G Pro, but once I did I was relatively happy with the 13-megapixel shooter. It tends to wash colors out a bit, but photos are sharp and clean, and having a huge viewfinder is pretty great. It does seem like LG picked the 13-megapixel camera from the Sprint Optimus G when it should have opted for the AT&T model’s 8-megapixel sensor, which Dieter found had better dynamic range and more vibrant results. But I’ll take sharp pictures from a smartphone any way I can get ‘em.
The G Pro also shoots 1080p video, which looks pretty good. It's similarly sharp, but also similarly washed-out. The camera does a nice job of smoothly changing exposures as you move from bright to dark areas, but autofocus can be a little jumpy, and tends to hunt. Actually it tends to hunt for focus in still shots too, but it's much more noticeable in the middle of a video, as the image ripples in front of your face.
There are plenty of shooting modes and filters, plus a couple of really cool features. I liked "Time machine camera" mode a lot: it takes shots before and after you press the shutter to make sure you get the shot you wanted. It’s not as powerful as HTC’s Zoe feature, but it does everything I need it to – you miss a lot of shots because of a smartphone’s slow autofocus or shutter lag, and having some buffer helps alleviate that. Though I didn't use it much, I also loved the Dual Recording feature, which lets you shoot video simultaneously with the front and rear cameras. Sound familiar? It should — Samsung made a huge deal about almost the exact same feature while announcing the Galaxy S4.
The Optimus G Pro LG sent me was not a US variant, a fact the company really didn’t need to tell me — the antenna retracted into the phone’s upper right corner was itself a pretty solid tipoff. In Korea, that antenna lets you watch live over-the-air TV on the Optimus G Pro, but for my purposes it served only as an awesome way to confuse a number of people on the streets of New York by yelling "HELLO!" as I yanked out the antenna. That upper-right-corner slot will likely be filled with a stylus when the device comes to the US, if the Optimus Vu is any indication, but frankly I’d rather have an antenna. It won't help reception, but it doesn't need to — I had consistently solid reception and clear calls with the G Pro, even though it doesn't officially support T-Mobile yet.
The tv-watching QTV app didn’t work in the US, but LG’s QRemote app, which uses the IR blaster on top the the device to control your TV and home theater setup, worked nicely. It’s odd to see IR blasters making such a comeback in cellphones from the One to the Galaxy S4, but I love it — I’m never more than three feet from my phone when I’m watching TV, while my remote is often left on counters or absent-mindedly stored in the fridge.
By the time the Optimus G Pro makes its way to the United States, much about it could change, which makes battery life hard to report with great certainty. I was using it on T-Mobile, and never had any trouble getting it to last a full day and well beyond, even with relatively heavy use — but I wasn't using LTE, or even really testing the limits of 3G. Still, streaming HD video drains the battery pretty quickly, but with more normal use this 3,140mAh battery should treat you quite well. It also lasted more than eight hours on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent — that’s a very good score. Again, LTE and various North American tweaks could change that, but I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t.
I don't want this phone, or any phone this big, but there are good reasons to consider it
I like a lot of things about the Optimus G Pro, but personally I’d never buy one. That’s not a knock on this particular device — I just don’t want a 5.5-inch cellphone. I like having a big, immersive screen for playing games or watching movies, but most of the time I need a phone that I can whip out of my pocket with one hand, quickly read or respond to something, and be done. When I want to sit down and spend time with a device? Well, that’s what my iPad is for. I don’t like having two devices, but I still choose that over the clumsy compromises a phablet forces.
If you do want a phablet, the LG Optimus G Pro is a very good one, every ounce a worthy competitor to the Galaxy Note II. There are plenty of good reasons to buy this device instead of the Note II, even, from the better screen to the surprisingly useful IR blaster. But after spending a couple of weeks with both phones, I'm not convinced LG's model worth waiting for, especially given the vagueness with which LG has addressed this phone's arrival in the US. The Note II's display is still very good, and its camera and overall performance leave little to be desired either. And while LG waits, Samsung has already announced the Galaxy S4, a phone that doesn't want for size or display prowess, and comes with specs and features a level beyond the Note II – or the Optimus G Pro.
“It’s big!” isn’t a selling point anymore. Every phone is big. The Optimus G Pro needs a selling point, something worth waiting for — great hardware, a world-beating camera, stellar software tweaks, something. It has plenty going for it, and is definitely worth looking at, but ultimately when it does come to the US I worry it may disappear into the ever-growing sea of gigantic Android phones.
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