Tech Files First Look: LG's new G3 smartphone sports laser, high-resolution screen

SAN FRANCISCO — LG is a major player in the consumer electronics industry as a whole, but is a minor player when it comes to smartphones. The company is hoping to change that.

Taking a page from arch-rival Samsung, the Korean company used a global press event on Monday to unveil its latest flagship phone, the G3. The phone, which will go on sale this summer in the United States, aims to one-up the competition, with a larger and higher-resolution display than many of its rivals and the first-ever laser-based auto-focus system in a smartphone.

At the event, which was simulcast on closed-circuit television here, in New York and elsewhere, LG spokespeople repeatedly touted the phone’s supposed simplicity. But the company is betting that what will really attract customers are some sophisticated new specs.

The phone features 5.5-inch, 538 pixels-per-inch display. That size is almost as large as that on so-called “phablet” devices that blur the lines between smartphones and tablets, and considerably larger than the 5-inch screens found on most other top-of-the-line Android smartphones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S 5 and HTC’s One.

The resolution of the screen also far outstrips that of those two devices and basically every other smartphone on the market. By contrast, the resolution of Apple’s iPhone 5s — with its so-called Retina display — is 326 ppi.

In the presentation, LG officials took aim at the notion advanced by Apple that the human eye can’t distinguish the difference between a Retina display and anything with higher resolution.

“That’s a misconception,” said James Marshall, head of mobile product marketing for LG Electronics Europe. With higher resolution displays, “consumers can expect ever clearer and more vivid images.”

To get the ultra-high resolution, the display in the G3 has smaller-than normal pixels, which will allow for sharper images and better color accuracy, Marshall said.

But it remains to be seen whether consumers really will be able to tell a difference. Apple’s argument about Retina displays was not that people can’t distinguish higher resolutions than 300 pixels-per-inch, but that they can’t distinguish them when the screens are at typical viewing distances.

The other big difference with the G3 is its new laser-based auto-focus system. The device has a laser emitter in its back, near its camera system. The system, which has shown up in the past in high-end cameras, is supposed to be able to focus on an object in less than three-tenths of a second, or faster than it takes to blink. The advantage of such a fast system is that it should allow users to better be able to capture fast-moving or changing scenes.

When I did a quick test of the G3′s camera at the event here, I found its speed disappointing. Yes, it does focus quickly. But there’s still a noticeable lag between tapping the screen to shoot a picture and the device actually taking it. In fact, when you tap the screen, the G3 refocuses, even if what you want to shoot is already in focus. I’m eager to test it more when I have a review unit.

The G3 has other new features, including an innovative new keyboard, a personal assistant feature that’s supposed to complement, not replace Android’s built-in Google Now feature, and a huge 3000 mAh battery that’s likely included to make up for the power-sucking screen. I’m planning on giving the device a more thorough review in a few weeks.

LG officials didn’t say exactly when the G3 will be available or how much it will cost. But all four major U.S. carriers will offer the phone.

The G3′s unveiling comes with LG trailing far behind Samsung and Apple in the smartphone market. In the first quarter, LG shipped 12.3 million smartphones globally, making it the fifth largest manufacturer with 4.4 percent of the market, according to market research firm IDC. Although its shipments increased from 10.3 million in the same period of 2013, its market share fell from 4.7 percent as the broader market grew faster than its shipments.
By contrast, Samsung shipped 85 million smartphones in the first quarter of this year and Apple, the no. 2 player, shipped 43.7 million.

Only time will tell if the G3 will help LG establish itself as a bigger player in smartphones. But the device appears to be a worthy competitor to other recently released Android flagship phones, including the Galaxy S 5 and the HTC One.

Photo by Troy Wolverton.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (274 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.