LG G8 ThinQ full review
LG's phone division has had a rough few years, and some of its recent flagship devices haven't even released in the UK at all. That trend continues with the G8 ThinQ, which won't be coming to British shores at all. Unfortunately, in this case it's easy to see why: this is a piece of solid hardware let down by gimmicky features and an excessive US price.
We had high hopes for the G8 when we saw it at MWC in February - even naming it one of the best devices at the show - but at full price its hard to recommend, especially after spending more time with its choppy headline features: Hand ID unlocking and Air Motion 'touchless' controls.
Let's hope LG has more luck with its other flagship: the 5G-capable LG V50 ThinQ, which is on the way soon.
Price and availability
Just to reiterate, the G8 ThinQ isn't getting an official launch in the UK at all, so it's import-only we're afraid.
It is out in the US, though it officially costs $819 - a stark jump up from the £599/$599 G7, in a clear attempt to position this as a rival to the Samsung Galaxy S10. Unfortunately that's a comparison that does the G8 few favours, lagging behind Samsung on both design and specs.
Fortunately, the phone has launched to discounts from multiple retailers, and you can already grab it for as little as $619. At that sort of price the G8 becomes more of a contender - so keep an eye out for offers and good contracts. If you do want to pick one up, you can grab it from T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T, or just buy it outright from Best Buy or B&H.
Can't touch this
Let’s get straight to what’s inarguably the most interesting element of the G8: the new camera tech that enables ‘touchless’ controls and handprint unlocking.
Driven by the ‘Z Camera’ - silly LG marketing speak for a time-of-flight (ToF) camera on the front of the phone used for depth sensing - the G8 can detect your hand in front of the camera, letting you control the device just by waving your hand about through Air Motion controls.
Pinch your fingers together to take a screenshot, twist your hand around to raise or lower volume, or just swipe to the side to decline an unwanted phone call like the Jedi you were born to be. The controls are limited to specific apps and features - phone calls, alarms, and media playback for now - but LG says it’s working to develop more uses.
In practice it works fairly well, but it takes time to get the hang of it. There's a very specific knack to activating the features: hold your palm above the phone until you see a blue bar, then pull it back into a claw shape, and then perform the pinch, swipe, or twist action you want to.
The extra steps are presumably to help stop you accidentally trigger the controls every time you reach for a drink, but they make it a) surprisingly difficult to learn how to use the feature in the first place, and b) slow and inconvenient enough that you're just never going to bother anyway. After making a point of using the Air Motion gestures for testing, I promptly forgot they were even there - in a week of using the phone I never once naturally opted for a gesture over a simple swipe or button press.
No doubt for certain use cases they're great. If you're a mechanic or painter who doesn't want to get their phone dirty while working, or even if you just want to answer the phone while you're in the middle of cooking, there are times this could be handy. But even then you're more likely to opt for voice controls unless you're repairing a motorbike in a library and need to keep your voice down.
The bottom line is this: Air Motion works, and it works well, but you'll still never use it.
Hand ID is almost the inverse: it's a great idea that just doesn't work well enough. This biometric security tech uses the Z Camera to measure the unique pattern of veins in your palm, letting you unlock the device by simply hovering your hand a few inches from the phone. It's not intended to replace face unlock or fingerprints (both present here too), but is an extra security feature to supplement them for spies, the paranoid, and anyone who just wants to make their phone a little more Mission: Impossible.
The problem is, it just doesn't work well enough. Registering a hand is fine - it takes somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute, and involves slowly lowering your palm towards the screen while it scans, which you'll probably have to do a couple of times.
If only it worked so well when actually trying to unlock the damn thing. My experience with Hand ID has been dominated by a rotating series of on-screen messages: 'Move farther away from the screen'. 'Move closer to the top of the screen'. 'Move a little to the left'. 'Please swipe and try again.'
Every now and then it just works. And when it does, it feels like magic, the same way Face ID did the first time you used an iPhone X. But every now and then just isn't good enough, even for tech that's only meant to supplement your other biometrics. Like Air Motion, you will probably never, ever use Hand ID: not because the concept is bad, but because it just doesn't work well enough.
Sound and vision
So far it's not looking great for the G8 ThinQ. Fortunately, LG is on stronger ground when it comes to video and audio tech, and it's here that the G8 begins to make a serious case for itself.
First up, the display. This is the first G-series phone to pack an OLED panel - 6.1in of 564ppi loveliness - with a now-familiar notch sitting at the top. Displays are LG's bread and butter, so it's no real surprise to find that this one's great. At 3120x1440 it's technically packing a few more pixels than the S10 and S10+ (they're 3040x1440), though you'll have to manually set the phone to use the full resolution - by default it caps out at 2340x1080.
Colours are bright, vivid, and crisp, with blacks as inky and deep as you'd expect from LG's OLED tech. If you're a display nerd, this is one of the best, comfortably standing toe-to-toe with Apple and Samsung's flagship phones. The only real downside to speak of is the wide notch - with this year's other flagships opting for teardrops or pinholes, the G8's fat notch already feels dated, and the Z Camera's dodgy gesture controls aren't really enough to make up for it.
The screen has one more trick up its sleeve though: the speaker. Or rather, the lack of. Or rather, the fact that the screen is a speaker. Just like the Huawei P30 Pro, has remove the speaker grille from the notch, and instead uses new tech that vibrates the display itself to produce sound. Note that it’s the display itself that vibrates, not the glass, so it should still work even if you smash your screen.
The sound quality is as clear as you could ask for on calls, and you're really unlikely to notice the difference. It's more apparent when playing music out loud - there is still a main speaker on the bottom of the phone, but LG uses both speakers at once while playing media, so that you still get stereo sound. It mostly works, though the screen speaker is inevitably a bit weedier than the main one. Laying the phone down on a flat surface helps, thanks to the return of the Boombox tech that takes advantage of surface vibrations to deliver extra bass.
The G8 also retains a headphone jack using LG's always great 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC for for the best wired audio you're going to get from any phone out there, and there's DTS:X 3D surround support too. Ultimately, sound quality is phenomenal across the board, and this is the one area where LG still stands head-and-shoulders above the competition.
The camera never lies
If only the cameras could match the screen they're taken on. The shooters in the G8 ThinQ aren't bad by any means, but they're merely fine, and at $819 fine just isn't enough.
Let's tackle the front first: the aforementioned Z camera can also be used to take portrait mode selfies together with the 8Mp main front camera. You’ll be able to adjust depth of field as you take photos - and after they’ve been taken - though the bokeh effect struggled to make out the edges of my hairline, clipping plenty of it into the background, despite the Z Camera's help. You can see a regular selfie and a few different levels of blur in the Flickr gallery here:
The rear cameras are a similarly mixed bag. Our review unit is a dual-lens model, with a 12Mp standard lens and a 16Mp 107-degree wide-angle, though some regions will get a 3-lens model that throws in a 2x optical zoom telephoto lens too.
Photos broadly come out well. Colours are bright (though watch out for the optional AI mode, which tends to over-saturate things - I preferred it off) and the wide-angle lens has minimal fisheye effect. Portrait mode struggled with my hairline just as much with the rear lenses as it did from the front though, suggesting that LG's software just isn't up to scratch. Low-light performance was also decent, but unremarkable.
And that's really how the G8's cameras feel across the board: good enough, but not great. If you're fussy about photos, you'd be better off looking at Samsung or Huawei, but if all you need is a phone that'll take reliably decent shots, the G8 will comfortably do the job.
Probably the best camera mode on here isn't for photos at all: it's the support for portrait mode in video. It only works with the rear lenses, but it lets you shoot video of someone with the same artificially blurred background effect you're used to in photos. As with photos you can adjust the depth of field on the fly, from slight blurring to a full-on haze.
I was a touch sceptical, I'll admit, but this works better than I’d expected. If either the camera or the subject moves around too much then the focus begins to shift around a little, but for fairly static talking head videos the effect is surprisingly good - and I can forgive a choppy hairline a little more from a video.
Flagship all over
As for the rest of the phone, it’s about as slick as you’d expect from a top-end LG device, though the design is unlikely to turn too many heads. It's essentially an amalgamation of every other flagship phone from the last few years: it looks good, but there's nothing new.
The slightly curved body is coated in Gorilla Glass - front and back - on top of a rather plain choice of a grey or black finish (though there are more exciting red and blue versions outside the US). You've got the usual choice of buttons, plus one extra - a dedicated Google Assistant button just below the volume controls on the left side.
The most welcome design tough is that there's no camera bump at all, with the two lenses sitting absolutely flush with the rest of the body. This does come with two small drawbacks though: firstly, at 8.4mm the whole thing feels a little thicc; secondly, with no camera bump to create friction the G8 will slip off absolutely anything. I've never seen a phone move so much of its own accord, and you will definitely want to slap a case on it if you want to avoid an early disaster.
Inside things are just as premium. This is one of the first phones to market powered by the Snapdragon 855, backed up here by 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. Performance is smooth in just about any day-to-day application, and the 855 breezed through Geekbench's CPU benchmark. The phone struggled a bit more in our graphics benchmarks though - this is unlikely to matter much to most people, but if you intend to play demanding games you might do better elsewhere.
At 167g the phone is fairly light, despite the thick build and the decent 3500mAh battery. That battery carried me through a day comfortably, making it to about 36 hours before I began to seriously worry about finding a charger, and the USB-C fast charging topped it up to 50 percent in half an hour using the supplied charger.
Finally, Android 9 Pie comes as standard, which is pretty much a given for Android flagships right now. There's a fair bit of custom LG software and bloatware pre-installed, but you can remove most of it, and LG's Android skin is mostly inoffensive.
The G8 ThinQ has plenty going for it, but unfortunately not in the areas that count for most consumers.
The display and audio support are both among the best in the industry, while the Snapdragon 855 and 6GB of RAM will keep up with just about anything you can throw at them.
Bland design and a so-so camera let it all down though, and for most people these are likely to be two of the biggest factors when picking a phone - especially when they're being asked to throw down $800 for a premium product.
LG seems to hope that gimmicks like Hand ID and Air Motion will set the G8 apart from its rivals, but if they do, it won't be in the way the company wants. Neither will change the way you use your phone, and before long you're likely to forget they're even there.
What you're left with is a phone that'll appeal to audiovisual nerds (myself included) but doesn't offer much for anyone else. At a couple of hundred dollars less it'd be an easier sell, but at full price this isn't the phone for you unless you already knew what 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC meant before you started reading this review.
LG G8 ThinQ: Specs
- Android 9.0 Pie
- 6.1in 19.5:9 QHD+ 3120x1440 OLED (564ppi)
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 octa-core processor
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB internal storage
- microSD up to 2TB
- 12MP f/1.5 rear camera with 16MP f/1.9 super wide-angle lens (some models include 12MP f/2.4 2x telephoto lens)
- 8MP f/1.7 selfie camera with ToF Z Camera
- Rear fingerprint scanner
- Face unlock
- Hand ID
- Bluetooth 5.0
- 4G LTE
- Crystal Sound OLED speaker
- IP68 water and dust-resistance
- 3500mAh non-removable battery
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