The LG G4 just changed the entire cell phone game

Finally someone got off the treadmill of numerical stupidity

LG logoYesterday LG launched their new G4 phone and it brought up an interesting question, did they just change the game? If you look at the specs of the G4 it isn’t all that impressive, and SemiAccurate thinks that is exactly the point.

The new LG G4 is their halo phone, or at least their volume halo phone, the GFlex 2 is the low volume halo. I expect the G4 to outsell the GFlex 2 by several orders of magnitude making it a real product, not a technological stunt. Where the GFlex 2 had a best of everything spec list, on paper the speeds and feeds of the G4 are a bit underwhelming. Take a look at them here and the launch coverage at Anandtech for numbers.

If you look at the table on Anandtech you will see something very interesting, between the G3 and G4 the specs don’t change much. The CPU goes from 4 cores to 6 but it also gets significantly slower, about a third lower peak clocks. The GPU goes up by a mere 22MHz or roughly 4% but the architecture changes radically. (Note: We _THINK_ they changed things but Qualcomm won’t actually talk about such details so who actually knows? If they are trying to make us not care about their GPU efforts, job well done.) On the RAM and flash side, things don’t change at all, they are pretty much exactly the same.

Same for the screen, same rez, same size, same IPS tech but supposedly much better color and contrast from a next gen product. That however won’t show on the summary label at the stores frequented by the moo-ing masses. It also gets a bit larger and heavier but only by very small fractions. Even the battery is exactly the same capacity between the two.

About the only thing that moved up significantly in the numbers race are the cameras. The rear camera went from 13MP to 16MP while the front went from 2.1MP to 8MP. Under the hood things are vastly different with better stabilization and everything else. If you are just looking at numbers, cameras are the one really bright spot.

On the numbers front the benchmarks are going to be radically slower for the G4, the 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 is going to chew up half as many 1.8GHz A57s. Similarly the benchmarks of the Adreno 330 are going to be roughly on par with those in the 418 although we don’t have a clue about the shader counts in each. You know who to blame on that front.

When the reviews come out, reviewers are going to be howling with indignation, proclaiming the G4 to be slow, yestertech, and pointless. They will be up in arms about the leading phone manufacturer out there launching a flagship device that they see as a step backwards, how could the product planners do this? Most will proclaim the device’s imminent doom and so on and so forth, most reviewers may not be all that bright but they are predictable.

The important thing is that they are all wrong. LG did something with the G4 that was both bold and brave, they got off the treadmill of numerical stupidity. For the overwhelming percentage of time your phone exists, the SoC will be at idle or in a sleep mode. When you are doing almost all of your tasks, the CPUs will be essentially asleep, other than running benchmarks it is rare that anything will push one core to the max much less two or four.

If you look at the bottlenecks in a modern mobile device, there are three. The first is the user, the phone is so much faster than you can tell it what to do that it is almost comedic, you can’t move your fingers fast enough to stress it. Next is the network, even a Cat9 LTE connection will have a hard time delivering data fast enough for a phone to process because it isn’t the slow point. This is not because of the radio but the network and servers behind it, they are usually slow. If you have a fast connection at home or work, you still have to wait for the slow bits at the other end to send data, same with a fast LTE connection. Last is the flash and memory speeds, while RAM isn’t bad in mobile device, flash still is and both will make a CPU wait for an eternity in clock cycles. In short your CPU is almost never the slow part of the process, speeding it up won’t help the user for anything in the real world other than a few corner cases and benchmarks.

Same with the GPU which Anandtech at least says is notably slower running GFXBench. If you look down the list of ‘top 100’ games you will see things that are designed for two to three generations old SoCs. When Angry Birds topped the charts it didn’t stress anything graphically, and the same is true for the rest of the best seller list. If you write a game for the highest end devices their TAM will be very small, too small to get a payback. Game devs realize this and write for their potential market, that would be older and not bleeding edge devices. Apple aside, mid range phones sell vastly more than high-end, and low-end sell vastly more than both combined. If you want software to have uptake, making a 64-bit only game with massive graphical requirements is not the way to go, period. Reviewers don’t get this because they live in a bubble of free devices and unrealistic expectations where shiny is more important than cost.

LG seems to have realized that pushing the numbers game on the G4 is just stupid. Eight cores at 2+GHz means much more leakage than six at 1.8GHz, less shaders leak less too. Both active and static leakage are what matter and less transistors leak less. Slower transistors leak far less than faster ones too, and since they will be off most of the time, this is what matters.

Instead of chasing the peak benchmark scores, LG is giving users more than enough horsepower to do everything they will need to do over the next 2-3 years, the Snapdragon 808 SoC is more than good enough. They are also giving users better battery life, a cheaper product, and a doing it in ways that no average user will ever realize or care about. Sure the self-proclaimed technorati will turn their noses up in indignation but the other 99.99% of potential buyers won’t actually know or care.

That is only half the brilliant part, the other half is where LG put the extra development effort. That would be things that users actually do use and care about. Cameras are hugely important and LG looks to have the best camera setup out there by far in a modern phone. The ISP and video encode/decode block in the Snapdragon 808 is probably best in class so 4K should be a breeze with the G4. Remember video and photos don’t really touch the CPU or GPU anymore, there is dedicated hardware for that. Sure some image manipulation can use the GPU and CPU but those are mostly corner cases and won’t really stress the G4’s SoC.

The screen is a next gen IPS part which is the same rez, size, and all the rest as the G3. It has a wider color gamut, higher contrast, probably more responsive, and undoubtedly better touch capabilities. Better yet it also restores screen self-refresh so battery draw should drop radically from the G3. In short the part that users interact with most has no higher numbers but is drastically better. Buyers and users will notice this and they will care, like the cameras, it matters.

Same with the modem side of the G4, it moves from a Cat 4 to a Cat9 modem although this is part of the 808 SoC. Before you wonder where in the world other than South Korea you can use more than Cat4, that part is irrelevant. The meaningful bit is that the steps from 801/Cat4 to 805/Cat6 to 808/Cat9 drop power per bit radically with each step. The modems are vastly more efficient doing the same work in the same mode, and will get more efficient yet again if you bump up the mode. In short it saves tons of power even if you never light up Cat6 or Cat9. Again users will care even if they don’t know why.

And that is what LG did that is so brilliant, they didn’t put expensive bits in that make no difference to the users. They didn’t put in bits that suck the battery dry just to meet benchmarks for reviewers. The got off the treadmill. Instead they put the time, development dollars, and energy use where users will see and care. Cameras, better screens, and longer battery life are things everyone wants and also happen to be what LG delivered. They made a better phone for users.

When the phones make it to reviewers, they will be disappointed. The numbers won’t feed the pattern they are used to talking about. They can’t show that the new LG G4 is faster or has better graphics than the G3 because it doesn’t. Reviewers aren’t set up for this and probably will end up something between confused and annoyed. LG got off that meaningless benchmark treadmill and looks to have delivered something that is definitely but not necessarily numerically quantifiably better for owners. It is probably a better phone than one that blindly chases the numbers, and this is a good thing. LG just changed the entire cell phone game for the better, and SemiAccurate for one thinks it is about time someone did.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate