It seems that every so often, smartphone design reaches a plateau. Bezels are smaller than ever, and monocular cameras have given way to dual- and triple-sensor modules. But handsets that truly move the needle are an increasing rarity, perhaps excepting foldable devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X.

The LG G8 ThinQ falls squarely into the iterative camp. It packs the requisite processor and display upgrades and retains its progenitors’ standout features, including a quad digital-to-analog converter and a far-field microphone that can pick up voice commands at a distance. Beyond a new time-of-flight (ToF) sensor dubbed Z Camera (more on that later) and a handful of other nips and tucks, though, most buyers would be hard-pressed to tell the G8 from last year’s G7. And that’s kind of a problem.

Design and sound

The G8 bears an uncanny resemblance to the G7. Both sport ultra-glossy glass exteriors that attract oily fingerprints like magnets, and ergonomically curved siding that lips toward the front panel. (LG says it used a four-side method to bend the G8’s edges into shape.)

It’s a bit shorter than the G7 by height at 151.9 millimeters (compared with 153.2 millimeters) and a tad thicker at 8.4 millimeters (versus 7.9 millimeters), but almost identical in width (71.8 millimeters versus 71.9 millimeters) and weight (167 grams versus 162 grams). Moreover, it’s equally durable — like the G7, its scratch-resistant body is IP68-certified to resist water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of five feet and rated MIL-STD-810G, meaning it’s been drop-tested from about shoulder height on rough surfaces.

LG G8

That’s all to say the G8 is exceptionally comfortable in the palm, but not flawless in this regard. Like the G7 and LG V40, the rear Gorilla Glass 5 cover has a cheap-feeling hollowness that’s characteristic of LG’s Boombox Speaker tech, which uses the inner space between the rear cover and loudspeaker as a resonance chamber.

To the right of said speaker is a sleep/wake button and SIM card slot, and to the left is a bifurcated volume button and Google Assistant key. Headphone owners stubbornly clinging to 3.5mm plugins will be pleased to learn that the G8 has an analog headphone jack — it’s on the bottom, next to the USB Type-C port.

Flip the G8 over, and you’ll come to the screen, the top sliver of which houses a notch. As with LG’s previous G series and V series phones, it’s optionally concealed through what LG calls New Second Screen, which changes the color of the notification shade to match the black bezel. It’s here you’ll also find Crystal Sound, tiny actuators that vibrate the surface of the Corning Gorilla Glass 6 shielding to produce sound. In tandem with a bottom-firing Boombox Speaker, LG claims they’re capable of delivering audio with “improved clarity” compared with traditional loudspeakers.

While “improved clarity” might be a stretch, the Boombox Speaker definitely delivers more (albeit sometimes muddy and washed-out) bass than my trusty Pixel 3 XL. What’s less appealing is the imbalance between the G8’s actuators and speaker; the earpiece’s dominant frequencies are a range above the Boombass Speaker, which becomes especially apparent in mixes that use both at once.

LG G8

Still, some stereo is better than no stereo at all, and to its credit, LG packed in a 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad digital-to-audio converter (DAC) that taps an amplifier and algorithms to enhance the sound quality of videos, songs, and podcasts. The G8 additionally supports DTS:X 3D Surround Sound technology, which emulates a 7.1-channel system with or without earphones; sound presets and left/right balance; Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) for high-quality, lossy audio compression from supported apps like Tidal and Deezer; and Qualcomm’s AptX and AptX HD tech for low-latency streaming over Bluetooth.

Display

When you’re not listening to the G8, you’ll be staring at its 6.1-inch, 19.5:9 aspect ratio screen. It’s OLED — a break from convention for G series phones, which in the past have featured LCD panels — and has a resolution of 3,120 x 1,440 pixels (564 pixels per inch) and a maximum brightness of around 600 nits (equal to 600 candelas, or the amount of light emitted by a common tallow candle per square meter).

That won’t smash records, and it’s a step down in some respects from the G7’s MLCD+ 3,120 x 1,440 screen, which could reach 700 nits at peak brightness or up to 1,000 nits for three minutes at a time. But on the plus side, the G8’s display has an AI engine that can automatically switch between color profiles depending on what’s being displayed on-screen. Alternatively, you’re afforded a choice of several modes — Eco (an energy-saving mode), Cinema, Sports, Game, Photos, Web, and Expert — and control over sliders (Settings > Display > Screen color) that tweak the color temperature and RGB levels.

LG G8

I would’ve expected the G8’s OLED to knock its LCD forebears out of the park, and indeed, color reproduction seems just as strong as that of LG’s last OLED-touting flagship, the V40. (One small niggle: White backgrounds tend to look a bit gray next to more saturated screens, and skin — particularly in selfies — comes off a bit flat.) The viewing angles are pretty darn good, too, and while the screen seems less vibrant to my eyes than competitors like the Pixel 3 XL (at least on Auto), it’s easily bright enough to make out in direct sunlight.

Worth noting is the G8’s support for high dynamic range (HDR) videos, TV shows, and movies, which boast improved brightness, wider color gamuts, and better contrast than their non-HDR counterparts. The flavor here is HDR10, which covers 100 percent of DCI-P3 and Rec 2020 color spaces — the standard for digital cinema projectors and most 4K Ultra HD televisions and computer monitors — for a total of 1.07 billion colors (1,024 shades of each primary color).

Cameras

Like its predecessor, the G8 has two rear cameras (they’re beneath glass this time for a slightly cleaner, seamless look), which seems an almost anachronistic choice when three-camera phones are becoming the rule rather than the exception. For better or worse, LG seems inclined to reserve triple sensors for its V series.

The G8’s primary 16-megapixel wide-angle sensor (with an f/1.9 aperture, 1-micrometer sensor size, and 107-degree field of view) complements a 12-megapixel sensor (f/1.5 aperture, 1.4-micrometer sensor size, and 78-degree field of view), both of which snap clear and relatively distortion-free shots indoors. On AI Cam mode (which automatically configures settings like white balance and ISO), I noticed a bit of color banding in low light. And as might be expected, the 12-megapixel sensor didn’t resolve nearly as much detail as the 16-megapixel sensor, and colors were on the warmer side in wide-angle photos. But the autofocus is wicked fast, and unlike the V40, which has a nasty oversharpening habit, the G8 strikes the right sharpness balance.

On the front of the G8, there’s an 8-megapixel camera (f/1.7 aperture, 1.22-micrometer sensor size, 80-degree field of view) that LG says boasts faster autofocus than the previous generation. Portrait shots won’t rival those from the Pixel 3 XL anytime soon — skin comes off a bit pasty and smudgy, thanks to LG’s heavy-handed postprocessing — but they’re far from unusable. And as a bonus, they tap the ToF sensor (more on that later) to fine-tune the intensity of background blur by up to 256 levels, if you’re into that sort of thing.

LG G8

When it comes to video, the G8 can record up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second (or up to 1,080p at 240 frames per second) stabilized with electronic image stabilization. Unfortunately, videos in my testing tended to come out noisy and jittery, which I’m chalking up to overzealous compression.

On the software side of things, the G8’s camera app ships with a nifty few features. One is Cine Shot, or still images with segments of looped motion. Another is Graphy 2.0, which lets you select reference photos that automatically adjust Manual Mode settings. There’s also Cine Video, which lets you add professionally created Look Up Tables (or LUTs) to shots captured in RAW or Log format, plus shooting modes like Food, Panorama, and Flash Jump-Cut and Snapchat Lens-like Stickers that map the motion of animated characters and accessories to your head, face, and upper body.

As ever, LG has packed the G8’s camera app full of “intelligent” features like AI Composition, which recognizes up to three people and adjusts the focus accordingly, and Night View, which combines up to 10 pictures into one image to reduce noise. Also on tap is Spotlight, which allows you to add lighting from different angles; Auto Shot, which leverages face detection to automatically take selfies; and Video Portrait, which uses depth- and distance-analyzing “Dual FOV” technology to fine-tune bokeh (the effect that blurs the background while keeping the foreground in focus).

Time-of-flight sensor

Gesture commands are ripe for a comeback — if you ask LG, that is. One of the G8’s distinguishing features is the Z Camera, which like other ToF sensors is a ranged-based imaging system that resolves distance based on the speed of light. Basically, it measures the time it takes for photons to pass between the sensor and a subject, like Microsoft’s Project Kinect for Azure.

In the G8, LG leverages it for Air Motion, a suite of gestures you can use to answer and end calls, snap screenshots, and switch between apps. When audio is playing, sticking your palm in front of the Z Camera while making a pinching motion with your fingers brings up an on-screen volume adjustment knob. Rotating your wrist to the right increases the volume, and rotating it to the left decreases it.

It sounds great in theory — after all, who hasn’t found themselves in the middle of dinner prep, hands covered in flour or oil, wishing desperately for a touchscreen alternative? — but this iteration is something of a disappointment. It’s tough to find, first of all — Air Motion is buried deep within the Settings menu — and tougher to master. No matter how closely I mimicked the tutorial videos, I couldn’t get the G8 to reliably recognize my wild gesticulations. Only about five out of every 10 attempts brought up the status bar indicating the ToF sensor had locked onto my fingers, and my success rate in summoning the aforementioned controls was even lower. Might software be to blame? Perhaps. User error? Maybe — to be fair, I had worse luck in dim lighting. But either way, be forewarned: You’re in for a good deal of frustration with Air Motion.

LG G8 ThinQ

The ToF sensor handles more than gesture recognition. Also in tow is Hand ID, which is like Apple’s Face ID, but for palms rather than foreheads. It reflects the IR lasers off the hemoglobin in the veins in your hand, and uses that info to build a vein map that’s unique to you. During the hand-scanning process, the ToF sensor records the shape, thickness, and other characteristics of a hand for biometric authentication. Simply holding your hand relatively close to the sensor — but not too close — kick-starts authentication, which LG says takes less than a second on average.

It’s not as foolish as it sounds. Unlike a typical camera sensor, the ToF sensor can render objects in three dimensions and isn’t affected by changes in ambient light. And in the brief time I’ve spent testing Hand ID, it’s worked fairly consistently. It took several attempts before the G8 managed to analyze my hand, but only because I moved it too quickly initially. Subsequent scans were much more painless.

That said, I found Hand ID a bit impractical compared with the G8’s facial recognition feature, which might be less secure (though that point’s debatable) but which worked more reliably in my testing. (LG says it implements 3D authentication with a “much higher level” of security than previous methods.) When facial recognition failed, the speedy capacitive fingerprint sensor (positioned beneath the rear cameras) — not Hand ID — was my go-to.

Performance

Powering the G8’s components is the same system-on-chip (SoC) inside the Samsung Galaxy S10 series: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855. That’s a substantial upgrade from the G7’s Snapdragon 845, and LG’s new flagship makes the most of it.

The 7-nanometer eight-core chip is up to 45% faster overall thanks to a 64-bit Arm Cortex design based on Qualcomm’s in-house Kryo 485 processor. (LG paired the SoC with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, the latter of which is expandable up to 2TB via microSD.) Four cores handle the heavy lifting — one prime core clocked in at 2.84GHz and three efficiency cores at 2.42GHz — while four efficiency cores running at 1.8GHz juggle less demanding tasks. Meanwhile, the Snapdragon 855’s GPU — the Adreno 640 — delivers up to 20% faster graphics performance than the Snapdragon 845’s Adreno 630 and supports APIs like Vulkan 1.1 and custom algorithms designed to reduce dropped frames by over 90%.

In Geekbench, our benchmarking app of choice, the G8 scored 3,458 and 11,101 single-core and multi-core score, respectively. That’s heads and shoulders above the V40, which achieved a multi-core score of 8,841 in our testing, and beats the Vivo Nex S, Samsung Galaxy S9, G7, and Galaxy Note9 as well.

LG G8

Anecdotally, the G8 feels as zippy as any top-end smartphone I’ve tried recently. Apps launch quickly, even when I’m juggling several at once, and LG worked some behind-the-scenes magic to keep touch latency and scroll lag to a minimum. (Presumably, the built-in heat pipe that absorbs and moves heat away from the processor is partially to thank.)

The battery life is no less disappointing. The 3,500mAh power pack — up from the G7’s 3,000mAh — lasts a full day on a charge with light usage, and about five hours when I truly tax it with Slack, Facebook, Gmail, and dozens of Chrome tabs. When the battery meter does tick to zero, the G8 charges quickly thanks to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, which delivers up to 50% in 15 minutes, or wirelessly via Qi.

Software

If you’ve laid hands on the G7 or V40, it won’t take long for you to realize that the G8’s software is nearly a carbon copy.

LG’s skin atop Android isn’t as overbearing as it used to be, but it’s still got a ways to go. Boombox Show is sort of neat — it shows strobes and screen visuals that match the rhythm of playing music — as are LG’s Game Tools, an overlay with shortcuts for snapping screenshots, scaling apps, disabling alerts during games, hiding home touch buttons, and adjusting the resolution and frame rate. But other apps, like LG’s music app, video player, music player, QTag gallery, and QuickMemo+ scheduler, seem needlessly duplicative.

Google Lens, Google’s object-detecting AI, is always a tap away from the top-level menu in the G8’s camera app, and it recognizes a long and growing list of things. In addition to phone numbers, dates, addresses, furniture, celebrities, clothing, books, movies, music albums, video games, landmarks, points of interest, and notable buildings, Lens can scan barcodes and QR codes, add events to calendars, import contact information from business cards, extract network names and passwords from Wi-Fi labels, and recognize beverages such as wine and coffee. And recent updates have enabled it to do even more, like copy and paste text from printouts, business cards, and brochures and match clothes and “home decor items” with results from around the web.

For queries of a less visual nature, there’s the Google Assistant. Like the V40 and G7, the G8 has a dedicated key that launches the assistant from anywhere, including the lock screen (a double tap launches Google Lens). LG worked closely with Google on more than 20 custom commands for ThinQ devices including the V40, like “OK Google, take a picture on a wide angle” and “OK Google, open camera on Cine Video.”

Personally, I’m not convinced of the day-to-day usefulness of those voice commands, especially esoteric ones like “OK Google, take a romantic Cine Video.” But they certainly make the phone easier to use one-handed.

Conclusion

So, conclusion time: Is the G8 worth $819.99 — a price point higher than that of the Galaxy S10e ($749) and last year’s G7 ($750), albeit lower than the V40 ($900)? Possibly.

If you just picked up a V40 or if you’re still holding onto a G7, you’re golden. Keep what you have. True, the G8’s SoC is a good deal faster, and the ToF sensor is a fun novelty that might grow more useful over time, but those are hardly reasons to plunk down close to a grand for a handset.

I’d even think twice if you’re overdue for an upgrade. The S10e offers better bang for your buck, in some respects — it’s got triple rear cameras, a gorgeous screen, and largely comparable internals. And if you’re willing to spring for the Huawei P30 Pro (which starts at about $900), you’ll net a host of features that the G8 simply can’t match, like best-in-class low-light shooting and seriously impressive zoom modes.

That’s not to suggest the G8’s a bad choice — it isn’t. It’s just no-frills. If you’re fine paying $820 for a phone without bells and whistles, you’ll be pleased with what LG has on offer. Just don’t expect anything more than that.