Optimus G Pro deep-dive review: A supersized smartphone done right

LG's new Android smartphone brings a fresh dose of elegance to the large smartphone form.

In the world of smartphones, you've got the rock stars -- the phones with all the flash and hype -- and then you've got the less glitzy, less heavily marketed alternatives. Here's a little secret: The phones in the second group are frequently the better devices.

That's certainly the case with LG's Optimus G Pro. The Optimus G Pro -- available this Friday on AT&T for $200 with a two-year contract -- is the latest gadget to enter the supersized smartphone market (what some folks regrettably refer to as a "phablet"). And while it may not have the same name recognition as the current category leader, Samsung's Galaxy Note II, it outshines that product in almost every way -- and it's a hundred bucks cheaper to boot.

So is the Optimus G Pro the right phone for you? Don't let ads and store placement sway your decision. I spent several days living with the device to see what it's actually like to use in the real world. Read on and see what you think.

Body and buttons

If the form alone doesn't clue you into the fact that the Optimus G Pro is made to compete with the Note II, the design language absolutely will. Plain and simple, the Optimus G Pro looks like the Note II -- no two ways about it (although it doesn't come with a stylus).

LG Optimus G Pro

In fact, when you first pick up the Optimus G Pro, you might actually mistake it for a Samsung device. The phone shares Samsung's plastic-centric construction, all the way down to the candy-shell-like removable back panel. Like with Samsung's phones, the plasticky construction makes the device look and feel less premium than some of its more strikingly constructed contemporaries, but within the realm of supersized phones, that style of build is presently par for the course.

The Optimus G Pro is 3.0 x 5.9 x 0.37 in. (that's a fifth of an inch narrower than the Note II, for anyone keeping track). Factor in its 6.1 oz. weight and this baby definitely ain't svelte: The sheer size of the phone makes it somewhat uncomfortable to carry and even more awkward to hold up to your ear. That's more of an issue with this category of product than with this device in particular, though; a phone this big just isn't going to work for everyone. I'd suggest spending some time holding it in a store and seeing how it feels in your hand to figure out if the form suits you.

Size aside, LG has ditched the all-capacitive button styling it used on past devices for a distinctly Samsung-like setup: The Optimus G Pro has a physical Home button flanked by capacitive Back and Menu keys. This is unfortunate, as the odd and dated hybrid configuration presents the same disadvantages seen on Samsung's products. The Optimus G Pro's Home button is narrower and more recessed than Samsung's, too, which makes it especially awkward to press after you get used to gently tapping the capacitive keys at its sides.

LG's Optimus G Pro has a Home button that doubles as an LED indicator.

One nice touch: The Optimus G Pro's Home button doubles as an LED indicator. The button glows a rainbow of colors when the phone boots up and then flashes different colors to alert you of missed calls and other notifications during use. It's a clever and unusual implementation that serves as a distinctive visual element for the phone.

The Optimus G Pro has another useful button-related feature: An extra physical button on the device's top-left edge called the QuickButton. By default, pressing the QuickButton loads the phone's QuickMemo feature (more on that in a bit), but you can customize it to load any app you want. You could set it to open the Camera app, for instance -- in which case it would also serve as a shutter button -- or you could turn it into a one-touch shortcut to Google Now or Google Voice Search. That's a pretty powerful option to have.

By default, pressing the QuickButton loads the phone's QuickMemo feature, but you can customize it to load any app you want.

Beneath the QuickButton is a volume rocker, positioned about halfway down the device's left side. The phone's top edge, meanwhile, has a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the top-right edge holds the power button. A standard micro-USB port sits on the Optimus G Pro's bottom edge; like on the LG-made Google Nexus 4 phone, it can double as an HDMI out with the aid of a SlimPort adapter.

The Optimus G Pro has a single small speaker on the upper-left side of its back. The sound quality is decent enough but nothing to write home about -- and that's pretty normal. With the exception of the superb front-facing stereo speakers on the HTC One, most phones' external audio setups are mediocre at best.

Display

The Optimus G Pro has a giant 5.5-in. 1080p IPS LCD display. With 400 pixels per inch, the screen looks fantastic: Images are crisp and vivid with bright, true-to-life colors, and text is sharp and easy to read.

To my eye, the phone's display doesn't quite reach the level of the HTC One's in terms of color brilliance, but we're talking about a slight level of difference here -- an amount akin to the difference between first and second place in an Olympic swim race. For all intents and purposes, this phone has a stellar display; it's among the finest you'll find on a smartphone today.

LCD technology in general does tend to show less deep-looking blacks than AMOLED screens, which are used on most Samsung smartphones. On the flip side, LCD shows noticeably purer-looking whites -- and, perhaps most important, it remains easy to see outdoors, even in direct sunlight. That's a significant advantage over AMOLED screens, which are often difficult to view in glary conditions and impossible to see in direct sun.

Under the hood

The Optimus G Pro runs on a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor along with 2GB of RAM. That's the same setup used in the HTC One and this phone is no less impressive when it comes to real-world performance.

The Optimus G Pro hums along effortlessly with anything thrown its way: Swiping between home screens is fast and fluid, and even the most intricate system animations execute flawlessly. Apps load instantly, Web browsing is snappy and multitasking is smooth as butter. All around, the phone performs the way a high-end phone should today, with immaculate responsiveness and no signs of lag.

The phone is equally impressive in battery life, and it's no wonder: The Optimus G Pro packs a massive 3140mAh removable battery to keep it running from morning to night. In my experience, it did just that: Even with heavy usage, I consistently got through a full 14 hours before the device started giving me low battery warnings (and those only occurred when I neared five full hours of screen-on time -- including, in some cases, nearly an hour of LTE-based HD video streaming). That's commendable, to say the least.

The Optimus G Pro provides 32GB of onboard storage, about 23GB of which is actually usable after you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone also has an SD card slot that allows you to add up to 64GB of extra external space.

As for connectivity, the Optimus G Pro is an LTE device, meaning you'll get 4G-level speeds on AT&T's network in the U.S. The phone also supports HSPA+-level data connections for instances when LTE is not available.

I found voice quality on the Optimus G Pro to be fine; I could hear people loud and clear, and those with whom I spoke reported no static or distortion surrounding my voice.

The Optimus G Pro supports near-field communication (NFC) for wireless payments and phone-to-phone data transfers. And while the international model of the phone apparently requires a separate accessory in order to take advantage of wireless charging, the AT&T model boasts Qi-based wireless charging support right out of the box. I tested the phone on a wireless charger designed for the LG-made Nexus 4 and it worked without issue.

Cameras

LG's Optimus G Pro has a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera. I found its photo-capturing capabilities to be good -- the camera certainly holds its own and is more than sufficient for everyday use -- but compared to the superb imaging systems we've seen on other recent devices, the Optimus G Pro isn't quite as exceptional.

The phone's image quality varied, not surprisingly, based on what I was photographing. Indoors, it performed well. Outdoors, however, the phone's images had a tendency to look a little dull and washed out. Even so, they often looked more realistic than those captured with the Samsung Galaxy S4, which I used as a comparison; in the same conditions where the Optimus G Pro's photos looked lackluster, the GS4's images were sometimes oversaturated and filled with colors that weren't true to life.

(You don't have to take my word for it: Click over to my Optimus G Pro vs. Galaxy S4 camera gallery to see side-by-side samples and compare for yourself.)

I also noticed that the Optimus G Pro's images -- while perfectly suitable for online sharing or small-sized prints -- had a visible amount of noise when viewed at their full resolution. With the way most people use smartphone images, that won't make a difference, but camera enthusiasts may want to take note.

What about low-light performance? The Optimus G Pro did well in moderately dim conditions and was able to produce respectable shots (more so than the GS4). When conditions got very dim, though, the phone failed to pick up much of anything -- which is generally the case with most smartphones, save for the low-light-focused HTC One.

The Optimus G Pro's camera interface is simple and easy to use. It's a little light on show-off features compared to some other devices, but it has the important stuff -- controls for adjusting brightness, ISO and white balance; an option for manual focus; a variety of scene modes and even a live color-effect applicator. You can also opt to activate the camera shutter by voice if you want: The phone will take a picture in response to a handful of spoken commands, ranging from "cheese" and "smile" to the more puzzling "whisky" and "kimchi" (I swear I'm not making those up).

The phone has a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera; both the front and rear cameras are capable of capturing 1080p-quality HD video and offer an "anti-shaking" mode that does a solid job of hiding subtle hand movements. The phone can record in a dual-video mode, too, if you ever find yourself wanting to make a video of something with your face superimposed in a small box on top of it.

Software

The Optimus G Pro uses custom LG software based on the Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) platform. While many manufacturer-modified versions of Android end up making the operating system uglier and less intuitive than what Google's base software provides, LG has managed to put its own stamp on the OS while maintaining a usable and visually consistent user environment.

To be sure, LG has made its share of silly changes -- redesigning system icons for no apparent reason, for instance, and loading up the notification pulldown with far too many non-pertinent elements -- but for the most part, the end result actually works. Using the Optimus G Pro feels like using a custom Android launcher like Nova or Apex: The basic look and feel of Android is still in place, only with some subtle visual differences and a lot of added opportunities for customization.

The QSlide function lets you open certain apps in movable and resizable windows that sit on top of whatever else you're doing.

Some examples: The Optimus G Pro's Favorites tray -- the dock of icons at the bottom of the screen -- can hold four app shortcuts and a link to your app drawer, like in Google's stock Android setup, or can expand effortlessly to hold up to seven items total. You can choose from a variety of different home screen transition effects. And if you don't like an icon anywhere on your home screen -- whether for a system app or a third-party app you've installed -- you can easily swap it out for something else.

Beyond the basic user interface, the Optimus G Pro has some interesting software features added into the mix. The aforementioned QuickMemo lets you make notes on top of the screen, using your finger; you can then access the notes any time or save them as JPG screenshots.

The phone's QSlide function, meanwhile, lets you open certain apps in movable and resizable windows that sit on top of whatever else you're doing. It's an innovative take on multitasking that can come in quite handy; the only problem is that it's very limited in the ways it can be used. Currently, only four LG-made apps can be placed in a floating window: a notepad, calendar, calculator and video player (which works only with locally stored clips -- not YouTube videos or content from the Google Play Store).

The Optimus G Pro can also be configured to pause video, silence an incoming call or snooze an alarm when you flip the phone down on its face. That's a far more sensible approach than the gimmicky Samsung equivalent, which uses either unreliable eye detection or impractical hand waving movements to accomplish the same sorts of tasks.

The Optimus G Pro does have ample bloatware, largely courtesy of AT&T, but nearly all of it can be disabled and hidden from view.

At a Glance

Optimus G Pro

LGPrice: $200 with a two-year contract from AT&TPros: Fantastic 1080p display; top-notch performance; outstanding battery life; removable battery; SD card support; distinctive LED indicator; customizable QuickButton; subdued and visually cohesive UI; useful added software featuresCons: Bulky size can be awkward; plasticky construction; dated primary button configuration; camera not as good as others; dated version of Android with no specific timeframe for upgrade

Last but not least, I have to mention the always-touchy subject of Android upgrades: The level of software with which the Optimus G Pro ships, as you may have noticed, is a step behind the current 4.2 version of Android. An LG representative told Computerworld the phone should be receiving an upgrade soon, but the company has yet to provide any specific details on when that could occur.

I'd like to think a phone of this caliber would receive a reasonable level of ongoing software support, but the cold hard truth is that LG has a poor track record in that department -- even when specific promises have been made. That's something you'll have to take into account when considering this phone.

Bottom line

LG's Optimus G Pro is a plus-sized phone with plenty of positive qualities. The device has a fantastic 1080p display, impeccable performance and outstanding battery life. It also has a subdued and visually consistent user interface with some useful added features.

It isn't all roses, though: The Optimus G Pro has a plasticky construction that makes it look and feel less premium than other high-end devices. It also has an awkward and dated primary button configuration, and its camera -- while good for casual use -- isn't at the same level as other top-of-the-line devices.

Still, the Optimus G Pro delivers a cohesive and compelling all-around experience that's a pleasure to use. Unless you absolutely need a native stylus -- something only the Galaxy Note II provides -- the Optimus G Pro the best supersized smartphone you can buy today.

It's just a shame it's limited to AT&T.

This article, Optimus G Pro deep-dive review: A supersized smartphone done right, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

This story, "Optimus G Pro deep-dive review: A supersized smartphone done right" was originally published by Computerworld.

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