Wednesday, June 13, 2018

LG G7 ThinQ Mini Review: A Great Camera and Beautiful Design Still Can’t Help LG Stand Out

The LG G7 ThinQ is the company's first big flagship phone for 2018. In theory, the G series is supposed to compete with the Samsung Galaxy S9, but LG hasn't had much luck in recent years. The company even talked about slowing down their phone release cycle. Despite the doom and gloom, the LG G7 ThinQ is here. The device is more of the same from LG: a solid phone that takes some chances, but ultimately will suffer the same fate as previous LG phones.

In this "mini" review I'll be talking specifically about the design, camera, and software. We will have separate reviews for performance, battery life, and the display.

Specs LG G7 ThinQ
Dimensions 153.2 x 71.9 x 7.9 mm
Software LG UX 6.0 on top of Android 8.0 Oreo
CPU Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (4x 2.8GHz Kryo 385 Performance cores + 4x 1.8GHz Kryo 385 Efficiency cores)
GPU Adreno 630
RAM and storage 4GB LPDDR4X of RAM with 64GB of UFS 2.1 storage / 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage; microSD card slot
Battery 3000mAh
Display 6.1-inch QHD+ (3120×1440) (6.09-inch – full rectangle, 5.94-inch – excluding notch region) notched FullVision "Super Bright" LCD with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio, 1000 nits brightness
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth Bluetooth
Ports USB Type-C, Nano SIM, 3.5mm headphone jack
Audio Boombox Speaker
DTS:X 3D 7.1 Surround Sound
Hi-Fi Quad DAC
Rear cameras 16MP camera with f/1.6 aperture, 71-degree field-of-view16MP wide-angle camera with f/1.9 aperture, 107-degree field-of-view
Front-facing camera 8MP front-facing camera with f/1.9 aperture.

Design

G6 – G7 – V30

The design of LG phones are often an amalgamation of several previous devices. LG took the same approach with the LG G7 by melding the LG G6 with the LG V30. It's almost the same size as the G6, but it feels more like the V30 in the hand. The glass back is very slippery. Somehow more slippery than the V30. I'm almost afraid to use the phone without a case.

The sides of the G7 are partly to blame for the slippery feel. They're highly polished and rounded over, which makes for a comfortable hold, but not a solid grip. This is where the V30 influence comes in. The G6 had flat sides with chamfered edges, but the V30 introduced the more comfortable round sides.

Staying on the sides of the device, the G7 has more buttons that you would typically find on an LG phone. It has two volume buttons, a power button, and a Google Assistant button. LG has been using the rear fingerprint scanner as the power button for a long time, so it's a little strange to see it on the side again. The Google Assistant button is not programmable (just like Samsung's Bixby button), but I'm willing to bet most people won't mind as much. You can disable it completely if you'd like, but I haven't found a way to reprogram it.

Speaking of the fingerprint scanner, it's still front and center on the back. LG consistently makes one of the fastest and most reliable fingerprint scanners. This is one area where I'm continually impressed with every LG phone I use. The dual cameras are set up in a vertical orientation this time. I was always a fan of the horizontal "robot eyes" design, but this looks fine.

One thing I can't forget to mention is the headphone jack. Not only does the G7 have one, but LG finally fixed the placement. The headphone jack is now on the bottom edge, exactly where it should be. This was one of my few hardware complaints (admittedly a small one) with the V30, so I'm glad to see it has been fixed.

The elephant in the room is the front of the device. LG opted to go with an extra-tall 6.1-inch display with 19.5:9 aspect ratio. The 3120×1440 display is flanked by very thin bezels on the sides. The chin on the bottom is the same size as what you'd find on the V30 or a Samsung Galaxy S9. Up top, the bezel is thinner than the bottom, but not quite as thin as the sides. And right square in the center is the controversial notch.

Notches are all the rage these days. People will argue about whether or not the notch is necessary. The truth is if you want thin bezels on the top you're stuck with a notch or a crazy slider contraption. Otherwise, there's no place for the front camera and ear speaker. The G7's notch is about the thickness of the Android status bar. The clock, status icons, and notifications icons appear on either side of the notch. Content from apps never overflows into the notch area.

I lean more towards the "anti-notch" camp, but the LG G7 has shown me that it's really not a big deal. Yes, it does look a little weird at first. I'm not here to claim you will never notice it. I just don't think you will care about it after a few days of use. My only real gripe is about how it's harder to reach the notification shade since the display goes all the way up to the top.

You may have heard that LG has an option to "hide" the notch. This is technically true. As an homage to the LG V series, the feature is called "New Second Screen." Users can choose to mask the notch with a black background or custom colors. They can also choose the shape of the corners. When you switch to a black status bar it really does look like a phone with a traditional top bezel. The G7 has an LCD display, so it's not as invisible as the pure blacks on an OLED. Unfortunately, this only works when you're in LG apps, which completely defeats the purpose. Phones like the OnePlus 6 allow you to hide the notch system-wide. You can also use the Nacho Notch app.


Camera

LG has been doing dual rear cameras longer than a lot of OEMs. They kicked off the trend with the LG G5 back in 2016. While most dual camera phones use the secondary shooter for zooming or depth, LG is firmly in the wide-angle camp. People have different preferences when it comes to the secondary cameras. You don't realize how useful a wide-angle camera is until you have one: it's really great for taking photos of scenery and groups of people. The main camera is a f/1.6 lens and the wide camera is f/1.9. The wide-angle lens has a 107-degree field of view, but it does not have optical image stabilization like the main camera. The front camera has finally been bumped up to 8MP.

The most interesting thing about the camera is where the "ThinQ" name comes from. A new camera feature called "AI Cam" detects the objects in view and automatically switches the mode. If you're pointing the camera at a friend, it will switch to "Person" mode. Other modes include Animal, Food, City, Text, etc. Most of the modes look basically the same, but Sunset mode will make the image more orange, while Food mode cranks up the saturation.

AI Cam works surprisingly well at switching the modes. The other feature is not as impressive, though it is entertaining. AI Cam will put words on the screen as it identifies objects. The results are pretty random and amusing. Sometimes it will accurately see a "Dog" or a "Beverage," but other times it will see "Ham" or "Flip flop" when you are clearly not looking at those objects. The feature is supposed to get better with time.

The LG Camera app also has Google Lens built-in. You can easily access it from the "Google Lens" button on the left side. Google Lens can be used to identify objects, find products online, or just get more information about things from the real world. I haven't found it to be that useful in my day-to-day life, but the camera app is definitely the best place for it.

Since the LG G7 is a smartphone in 2018 it, of course, has a Portrait Mode. LG's Portrait Mode uses the dual cameras and applies the background blur in real-time so you can see if before snapping the photo. I found the feature to be pretty picky when using the rear camera. You must be at least "1.3 feet" away from the subject. Portrait Mode on the G7 has the same problems as other dual-camera phones, too. It will sometimes incorrectly blur things that should be in the foreground, whereas phones that use software algorithms (Pixel 2) can actually be smarter despite featuring single cameras.

LG G7

Photos from the rear cameras are generally very good. Colors are not unrealistically saturated and there's no heavy noise reduction smoothing out details. The wide-angle camera doesn't have quite the same quality as the main camera, but it's still very good. Since the wide-angle photos are essentially "zoomed out," you don't notice the lower quality as much. Low-light photos are improved by a "Super Bright Mode," which uses pixel binning to combine four pixels into one. This results in a lower resolution photo (8MP), but it will be considerably brighter. Low-light photos often come with a compromise and the G7 is no different.

In general, the G7's camera is right up there with the best smartphone cameras on the market. I still give the Pixel 2 the edge. LG's camera is on par with Samsung and actually better in some areas. The camera is definitely a strength of this device.


Software

LG G6 – LG G7 – LG V30

LG has a reputation for being one of the worst OEMs for Android updates, as they've done a pretty poor job of keeping phones up to date. Even phones that are less than a year old lag way behind flagship devices from other OEMs. My AT&T LG V30 is still on Android 8.0 and the March security patch, for instance. LG promises that they will be better at rolling out updates in the future. So far, that promise seems to be holding up.

My unlocked review unit has already received several updates. I got the June security patch just one day after Google published the bulletin. It is still on Android 8.0, though. The real test will be a few months from now when the LG G7 isn't fresh and new. LG is typically pretty good at updates when a phone is brand new, but how will they do when the G7 is 6-months to a year old?

LG G7 – LG V30

In terms of the actual look and feel, this is mostly the same LG UX we've seen for a while. If you're unfamiliar with LG's flavor of Android, it's not as bad as you might think, at least on the surface. In terms of OEM "skins," I find the look of LG UX to be relatively unassuming. LG's latest iteration actually has a few things in common with the look of Android P. The UI is primarily white with bright accent colors sprinkled throughout. The G7 has theme support built-in, but they seem to have changed the way themes work. Themes for the LG V30 and LG G6 are not compatible with the LG G7.

Most of LG's software tools can be found in the "Extensions" section of the Settings. Smart Cleaning is a utility for clearing storage and memory (which we never recommend). The Floating Bar is a widget with shortcuts that can float on top of whatever you're doing. Game Tools includes settings to enhance your gaming experience. Smart Settings, which allow you to control settings based on context, has been renamed to "Context Awareness." Lastly, LG has a few features that have stuck around for a long time. You can double-tap the display to wake the phone (or use a Knock Code to unlock it). The volume buttons can be used as shortcuts to quickly launch the camera and notes.

There are a few minor software changes compared to LG's previous flagship phone. The biggest change in appearance that I've noticed is the navigation bar color options. For some reason, LG does not allow you to make the nav bar black. I assume this has something to do with screen burn-in. The darkest color option is a very light gray. I find this to be highly annoying, especially when using dark themed apps. It ruins the illusion of having a "full screen" smartphone. The good news is you can fix this with some simple ADB commands. The Settings app has been slightly altered as well. The icons for the different sections have had the colors swapped around, but everything is organized the same way.

By default, the LG G7 comes with the launcher that doesn't have an app drawer. Most people will immediately switch to LG's "Home & app drawer" or a 3rd-party launcher. New on the LG G7 is the ability to remove the app drawer icon from the Home & app drawer launcher. This enables a swipe-up gesture to open the drawer, like the Pixel Launcher. LG's stock weather app has also been slightly redesigned.

Personally, I don't mind LG's take on Android. The OS basically works how I expect it to work. Little things like how double-tapping a notification on the lock screen unlocks the phone is in line with stock Android. Samsung requires a tap and swipe, which I find cumbersome. LG's UX may not be the prettiest, but it doesn't get in the way or feel like something foreign.


As I mentioned in the introduction, I'm afraid the LG G7 ThinQ will follow the same path as previous LG flagship phones. There's nothing wrong with this phone. No fatal flaw or big feature omission. It has everything most people would want in a phone. The problem is people don't get excited about LG devices. They have trouble keeping phones up to date and the boot loop issues of the past are still in the minds of potential buyers.

I'm someone who has used a lot of LG phones in the past. I used the LG V30 for 8 months as my daily driver. Before that, I used the LG G6 for a long time. I've used every G phone and V phone since the LG G4. The G7 ThinQ is absolutely their best phone yet. But are you ready to give LG another chance? If you are, the G7 ThinQ is a great place to start.



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