When you talk about tablets, it's easy to think of the iPads, Galaxy tablets, and Kindle Fires of the world. But what about LG? Though the company's mobile devices may not be household names, we've seen some top-notch hardware from the South Korean electronics giant. Is the LG G Pad 8.3 part of that club? Read on, as we review LG's answer to the iPad mini.
The G Pad 8.3 has, as you might guess, an 8.3-in screen. It's right in that not-too-big, not-too-small sweet spot that many tablet-makers have been gunning for of late. Need a point of reference? Well, if you've used an iPad mini, then the G Pad 8.3 gives you five percent more screen area. Some of that is cancelled out by the G Pad's onscreen navigation buttons (which the iPad mini doesn't need), but the G Pad's usable area should still be a little bigger.
Physically, I think the G Pad 8.3 is one of the most well-designed tablets I've used. It sports an aluminum finish (with some plastic accents around the edges) and is contoured just right for the human hand. In terms of using it comfortably with one hand, I think the G Pad is right on the money.
You can chalk part of that up to the fact that it's also very light, weighing just 338 g (two percent heavier than the iPad mini with Retina Display). It's also pretty thin, at 8.3 mm (0.33-in), though I do think razor-thin builds may be a bit overrated in tablets. The G Pad's 11 percent thicker build is a big part of why I prefer holding it over the Retina iPad mini: it rests a bit more naturally in the gap between my thumb and index finger.
Wheeling back around to that display, it's not just a great size, but it's also very sharp. At 273 pixels per inch, text and images are all crisp and clear. There are sharper tablets out there, but I don't think the G Pad gives you any worries whatsoever in that department.
The G Pad's screen doesn't, however, have the best brightness or color accuracy. I usually have to set it to 90 percent or higher brightness for it to look light enough during the daytime. And if you place it next to an iPad Air or a Nexus 5 smartphone, you'll see a slight yellowish tone to the G Pad's screen. It probably isn't something that will be noticeable or bothersome in regular use, but it is a minor downside to what's otherwise a very good display.
The G Pad 8.3 gives you good – but not amazing – battery life. In our standard test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi, the G Pad lasted six hours and 40 minutes. The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini chugged along for over nine and ten hours, respectively, in the same test, so the G Pad is a ways behind their record-setting paces. Still, with standard use, you should usually get a full day out of it.
In other miscellaneous hardware areas, sound from the G Pad's speakers is serviceable, but pretty underwhelming. Its 5-megapixel rear camera is about all you need from a tablet camera (solid enough, but nothing more). One nice touch with the G Pad is that it has a vibration motor, which I'd like to see more of in tablets. I find that haptic feedback makes touch typing much easier, as it helps to simulate physical keys.
Stock LG vs. Google Play Edition
We handled the LG retail version of the G Pad 8.3, which runs Android 4.2 skinned with LG's custom UI. Despite having a very fast processor under the hood (Qualcomm's quad core Snapdragon 600), I ran into some occasional performance lag and hiccups. Things like pages not turning instantly in Flipboard, jittery scrolling, and a general feeling that something was bogging the UI down a little bit.
I chalk this up to LG's bloated software skin. It gives you some nifty features, like Knock-On (which lets you turn your display on or off by tapping twice on it). But, much like Samsung's TouchWiz, LG's UI looks like it's trying way too hard to differentiate itself from other Android devices. It puts a lot of unnecessary features in between you and your content.
LG's UI gives you not just one, but two extraneous takes on multitasking (Slide Aside and QSlide), in addition to Android's already rock-solid version. You have LG features for capturing screenshots of entire webpages, jotting memos, copying and pasting multiple items into a slide-up clipboard, and even an LG Siri knockoff. You may find some of these features handy (or not), but my problem is that they simply get in the way. They clutter and overcomplicate the UI, and bog down what should be buttery-smooth performance.
Fortunately there are a couple of alternatives. Google now sells a Google Play Edition of the G Pad 8.3, available exclusively from the Play Store. Ringing up for the same US$350 as the standard LG version, it basically turns the G Pad into a Nexus device, running the latest version of stock Android (4.4 KitKat). We didn't handle the Google Play Edition long enough to consider this an official review of it, but we can tell you that it's the one we recommend buying. Its software is leaner and more focused, and its performance is right where you'd expect a Snapdragon 600-running tablet to be: fast, smooth, and without hiccups.
Another alternative is to buy the standard LG version (currently on sale for $300 at Best Buy in the US), root it, and install stock Android-based firmware on it – more or less creating your own Google Play Edition on the cheap. Rooting and flashing ROMs isn't for the faint of heart, and unless you're already familiar with such tinkering, you're better off buying the official version from Google. But once I installed a nightly build of Cyanogenmod 11 on this puppy, a device that had been handicapped by a bloated and laggy UI transformed into one of the better tablets I've used.
I understand why Android hardware manufacturers are determined to skin Google's software with their own custom UIs. They want to differentiate their hardware through software, so they can market long lists of features that are "exclusive" to their line of devices. I also suspect that no-name white-box Android devices, which are very popular in Asia, are another big factor. Sold for dirt-cheap, they typically run stock Android – sometimes even with unlicensed Google apps and services thrown in. It makes perfect sense that huge companies like LG and Samsung would want to give their Asian customers perceived value that these generic phones and tablets can't match.
But in my experience, the resulting custom UIs rarely add anything but bloat. The G Pad 8.3 is a prime example. Once you put stock Android on it, it's faster, leaner, and much more of an all-around pleasure to use. I'd love to see Android OEMs cut the bloat and move in that direction – at least in the West, where those generic white-box devices don't pose much of a threat.
Worth the investment?
So should you buy the LG G Pad 8.3? Well, let's start by looking at your best alternatives. You have Apple's Retina iPad mini, which gives you a similar build and screen size. It has a bigger and better tablet app selection, but it also costs $50 extra. Your decision here may come down to whether you're already invested in either the iOS or Android ecosystem.
Until Samsung releases its slick Galaxy TabPRO 8.4, the G Pad's biggest rival on the Android side of the aisle might be the 2013 Nexus 7. It costs $120 less, but it also only gives you 71 percent as much screen real estate as the G Pad. For my money, 7-inch slates like the Nexus 7 are a bit too small, while 8-inchers like the G Pad and iPad mini are just about ideal.
So we'd say the Google Play Edition of the G Pad 8.3 is easily worth putting on your short list. It gives you an outstanding build with a sharp screen that hits a really sweet spot for size. It delivers smooth performance with Google's latest and greatest software. At $350, it might not be an amazing value, but that's still a very reasonable price for what might be the best Android tablet around.
As for the standard LG edition? Well, unless you're going to root it and replace its firmware, it's more likely to be a "pass." Even if you snag it for a discounted $300, it places too many unnecessary obstacles between you and a seamless experience. Sure, you get a few "exclusive features," but most of those can be approximated with third-party Play Store apps anyway.
Both versions of the LG G Pad 8.3 are available now, for a suggested $350. You can read more at either of the two product pages below.
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