LG’s latest smartphone is available for pre-order starting today (and hits store shelves on Friday), just a few weeks after it was announced. The G3 has flagship credentials, with 4G LTE connectivity, to go with a beautiful screen and massive battery. Add to that 4K video shooting, optical image stabilization, and autofocus backed up by lasers—yes, lasers— and you’ve also got a powerful photographer’s tool as well.
On the outside, the LG G3 doesn’t look too different from previous flagship LG phones. It has a smooth, curved back and a beautiful, 5.5-inch screen that is pleasing to use once you adapt to how massive it is. Around back you’ll find a cluster of controls, the camera itself, as well as both flash and infrared laser emitters.
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Like other smartphone cameras, you have a wide selection of camera apps to choose from, but we like LG’s default camera app the best. It has helpful focusing guides and it’s very responsive, taking photos the moment you tap the screen. The screen is described as “Quad HD” by LG, resulting in a display that’s bright and very sharp—perfect for judging focus, especially in low light. It makes for a large phone, however, and those with small hands or used to iPhones will find it unwieldy at first.
Of course, the real star of the show is the laser-assisted focus system. And if there’s one technology that will make even the most cynical tech journalist salivate, it’s lasers. In the G3’s case they’re used to map out the distance of subjects that are being photographed. The technology is evidently borrowed from LG’s robot vacuum division, which wanted to use the tech to help the robo critters move around your apartment without bumping into things.
Why lasers? Because cameras are dumb, and can’t easily distinguish where your subject is relative to the camera. Most cameras detect how much contrast is in a scene and hunt around until things look in focus. The G3 still uses this same contrast-detect method, but the laser autofocus system gives it a head start, especially in low light. Unfortunately, as far as our testing can tell, the laser-guided focus only works with LG’s default camera app and nothing else. If you already have a preferred camera app, the G3 may not be any faster than the phone you’ve already got.
Once you get around to capturing an image, the G3 isn’t much different from other flagship phones, either. The camera can produce some very sharp images in bright light, with nice color reproduction and white balance. The 4K video was also bright and sharp, though any time you move the camera you get a horrible wobbly rolling shutter effect.
The G3’s laser focus does pay dividends in the one place where smartphone photos usually go to die: a dimly lit restaurant. In this typically treacherous setting, the G3 locked onto and focused on subjects easily in limited light. The shots even looked good—on the G3’s screen, that is. Unfortunately, shots that looked great on a tiny screen have little actual detail left in them when expanded.
Smartphones have quickly established themselves as the go-to camera for everyday snapshots. But just because everyone uses them doesn’t mean they are actually all that good. Whether it’s blurry photos, bad focus, poor image quality in low light settings, or a lack of control, many of us have gripes with the smartphone camera in our lives. We live with them because they’re convenient, but we pine for something better.
The LG G3 doesn’t fix all of these problems, but it still puts together a compelling package that matches or exceeds other flagship ones on the market. That said, the G3’s images still don’t hold up to even a mid-range dedicated cameras upon close inspection. And while the new features are legitimately innovative, they leave some lingering doubts. It’s not perfect, but if you’re a photographer who is already in the market for a new smartphone, the G3 is absolutely worth checking out.