Is LG a brilliant components maker that happens to also make phones?
That's what I'm wondering while holding the new LG G Flex. It's so obviously a showcase for LG's manufacturing prowess, making it clear that the company doesn't want to live in Samsung's shadow. I'm not convinced that this smartphone would be a smash hit in the UK or US, but some of the technologies in it? Yes, please.
I've been lucky enough to spend an afternoon with a Korean version of the G Flex. The first thing you notice about it is that this handset is huge. With a 6in screen, it's even larger than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (see the picture below showing the two phones side by side). It's less intimidating than the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, which is all knees, elbows and angles, though, and that's because of the G Flex's gentle curves.
Ah yes, the curve. When you first hear about it, the G Flex's curve seems like a flat-out gimmick, and I thought of it that way. But then I found out two things: First of all, a curved screen genuinely improves screen visibility, as display expert Ray Soneira explained. Secondly, it really does flex.
However, the flexible nature of the G Flex is pointless on a device this large because there's no way to actually fit it in your back pocket. But it's pocket-proof, and wonderfully springy.
I put it face-down on a table, leaned on it, watched it flatten out, and watched it spring back. Then I sat on it. Then I bounced it on the floor a few times.
I wouldn't try to snap it in half, but it's the most flexible phone I've seen in a long time. With a smaller pocketable device, this would be a very attractive feature.
The curved, flexible screen also hides another major innovation – the curved, flexible 3,500mAh battery. You can't open the G Flex’s back to see the battery, but most batteries are flat and rigid. With its own battery chemistry department, LG is also able to pack about 6 per cent more power into each cubic inch of battery than competitors.
I'm less impressed with the G Flex’s supposed "self-healing" back, which absolutely did not self-heal when I tried it. The back is at least somewhat scratch-repellent: Jiggling it around with my keys didn't scratch it at all, for starters. So to make it heal, I scratched the back with my keys at three different depths. Half an hour later, the scratches were still visible (see the picture below). It's a great concept, though, and I hope to see it work better in future models.
That's just what's new. There's a lot in here that was fresh on LG's successful G2, as well: Putting the volume buttons on the back to make the phone as narrow as possible with a big screen, for instance; letting you tap twice on the phone to wake it up; and multitasking by dropping little windows on the screen, just like on a desktop computer.
Great parts, perplexing whole
But why is this phone so large? How am I supposed to hold it? The back-keys aspect suggests one-handed use, but you need to have some Brobdingnagian fingers to hold the G Flex in one hand. This is especially perplexing considering the fact that at the G2 launch event, LG made such a big deal about how 2.8in should be the maximum width for one-handed devices. The Flex is 3.2in, breaking LG's own rule.
I have a suspicion, and it's tied to the G Flex's oddly low density 1,280 x 720 6in screen. Maybe LG can't make higher density flexible screens yet. The G Flex's 244 ppi is exactly the same density as a 4.5in 960 x 540 screen, though. Want to bet there's a G Flex Mini coming in that size at Mobile World Congress?
Since this is a Korean phone, there's also a ton of bloatware on the G Flex I used, not to mention a ton of unnecessary re-skinning of Android. LG has changed all the app icons. LG changed many of the default apps, too, including SMS, the phone book app, and the video player. Some of this is useful, but it can be disconcerting and feel like unnecessary work. Finally, the phone seemed to be venting heat through the power button on the back. While the G Flex didn't overheat, that made me worry a little about my experience with LG's Optimus G, which did tend to overheat.
There's no confirmed UK or US launch date for the G Flex yet, by the way (though it’s supposed to arrive in France in February of next year). It costs more than $900 (£550) in Korea. Have I called it a technology demo yet?
LG needs more respect
LG's been innovating for a while now, but like HTC, it has trouble breaking through into the public consciousness. I think LG's "Q Slide" multitasking is better than Samsung's dual-pane approach. The company's focus on narrow phones for one-handed use, with the large G2 and Optimus G Pro, was very welcome. And at a time when everyone wants their phones to last longer, LG is the only company that's sat me down to talk about battery chemistry.
So never mind the unwieldiness of the G Flex. Bring on the flexible phones that don't crack in your pocket, the curved batteries and self-healing polymers. I see the G Flex as setting the stage, not taking a starring role. It promises an exciting cast of characters come February.