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Tech Lab

A ‘flex’ phone, with flimsy features

It’s big, it’s beautiful and it’s bent. But is that reason enough to buy the G Flex, the latest smartphone from LG Electronics?

The Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month featured a number of TVs and phones with curved screens, made by LG, Samsung Corp., and other giant firms that think they have hit on the hottest new idea since HDTV. But having spent some time with the G Flex, I think curved screens are the next 3-D TV — technically clever but practically useless.

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To be sure, the G Flex is a good phone, and its vast 6-inch screen makes it good fun.

But it’s hampered by a disappointing digital camera, less-than-superb screen resolution, and a hefty upfront price: $299 with a two-year contract at AT&T Inc. or Sprint Nextel Corp. T-Mobile US Inc. sells a no-contract G Flex for $672 full price or $28 a month for 24 months. At least for now, the phone isn’t available for the Verizon Wireless network.

So what’s up with the subtly curved screen? LG insists that the unusual shape makes for more comfortable calling. They have a point. When pressed against the ear, the G Flex lies more naturally against the cheek than a standard flat phone. But what of it? The improvement is marginal.

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Besides, who talks on the phone anyway? A 2013 survey by Experian Marketing Services found that chatting takes up only about 25 percent of our phone time. We’re mostly texting and tweeting, sending e-mails or visiting websites. And for these purposes, a curved screen offers no help at all.

Even more pointless is the LG’s ability to flex. Yes, if you put pressure on it, the G Flex’s slight curve straightens out and the phone lies flat. Building a bendable video screen is a remarkable achievement by LG’s engineers. But LG’s marketing department hasn’t come up with a brilliant reason why we need it. When you devise a video screen that folds completely in half, call me back.

There isn’t a clear reason why we need a flex screen.

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The quality of the G Flex display bent me out of shape. It’s a relatively low-resolution screen, not nearly as sharp as the one on my HTC One phone, and video looked grainy and pixellated. I was equally disappointed in the G Flex camera. It boasts 13 megapixels, but images looked fuzzy, with poor color balance.

G Flex.

G Flex.

Even the G Flex’s push buttons got on my nerves. Nearly all phones put the power and volume push buttons on the edges. Here they’re on the back, just below the camera lens. Also, the on-off button is squeezed between the volume-up and volume-down controls. I kept putting the phone to sleep every time I tried to turn up the sound. And of course, I kept putting fingerprints on the lens.

Still, the G Flex has the power to impress. Its quad-core processor provides excellent performance, and battery life is outstanding. After all, a bigger phone means room for a bigger battery, and the G Flex takes full advantage. I ran my standard test, streaming four hours of movies over Netflix to give the video screen and wireless Internet chips a heavy workout. At the end, I still had 53 percent battery power. At that rate, a typical user will easily get a full day’s service on a single charge. A good thing too; like many other elite phones, the G Flex doesn’t let you swap batteries.

The phone also excels at multitasking. Want to look at a YouTube video and a Google map at the same time? Go right ahead. On that huge 6-inch screen, both apps run nicely one atop another. You can even tweak an onscreen “windowshade” to adjust the size of each window as needed. The G Flex also lets you snap through up to three favorite apps, just by stroking the screen with three fingers.

Put these features in a flat phone with a better screen and camera, and LG would have a first-rate product, though a very dull one.

Excellent smartphones are now commonplace and consumer electronics companies are desperate for innovations that will set them apart. The curved screen craze shows how desperate they are. But worthless gimmicks aren’t the answer. They will have to make their phones better, instead of just making them bend.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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