Incumbent vs Challenger: LG G3 vs ZTE Grand X2 - Andrew Penner

I’m back with another head-to-head. Several months ago I wrote a piece on an LG G3 vs. a Samsung S4 (if you want to read it, find the link HERE). I’m back with another similar article, but instead of comparing 2 flagships from different years, this time I’m taking a different route. I’ll be comparing 2014’s flagship from LG (a well-known manufacturer in Canada) with a mid-range device from a manufacturer that’s definitely not as well known. I won’t be reviewing each device, but instead looking at how they compare to each other. If you want a review of each, you can find them here (LG G3 and ZTE Grand X 2)

How do they stack up? Go grab a beverage of choice, because there’s a lot more here. Get comfortable, follow along, and let’s find out how things shake out!


Hands On

The first thing I was surprised at was the actual size. Even before powering it up, just looking at the ZTE, and the feel in the hand it appeared to be much taller and narrower than the G3. Imagine my surprise when I lined them up, and they’re much more similar in overall size than meets the eye, or the hand for that matter.

The LG measures out at 146.3 x 74.6 x 8.9 mm, and weighs in at 149g.
The ZTE’s measurements are 145 x 72.8 x 9.3 mm, weighing in at  145G.

As you can see the dimensions, are very, very close, in all dimensions!

OK, so I powered it up, and the very first thing I noticed as it was loading was how vivid the colors on the display area. I’m not sure which screen is actually brighter as far as actual nits (a measurement of brightness), but a common complaint with the G3 is how washed out and “dull” the colors are. It was a nice surprise to go back to a nice vivid screen - I guess I’d really gotten used to the more muted colors of my G3!. Overall resolution however is not even a competition. ZTE’s 720p vs LG’s UHD? No contest, but surprisingly enough, it wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought. Mind you, for my use I generally don’t watch a lot of videos on my phone, nor am I much of a gamer. These are 2 areas where the screen resolution really comes to the forefront. I do notice it here and there, but it’s not a huge issue. Just something to be aware of if you’re stepping down from a flagship. I imagine stepping down from 1080p would be even less noticeable. Using in bright sunlight the ZTE does seem to be easier to see - it is probably slightly brighter overall, but the brighter more saturated colors certainly help!

I decided the best way to compare the 2  phones was to load up the apps and launcher I already had on my G3 onto the ZTE, and set both up as closely as possible. Along with my usual choice of apps, lately I’ve been running the latest “pro” version of Action Launcher. Again, here the ZTE really surprised me. Most of the time it is every bit as fast as the G3, and in some cases, it’s faster - especially when launching apps. Flipping back and forth between the 2 devices the difference is less noticeable when used side by side. However, using one phone for a day, and then using the other the next day it becomes more apparent. Also, when launching an app (Facebook for example) the ZTE consistently launched and loaded the app faster. To test this I cleared all apps out of recents, force stopped the app, and then launched both side by side. 4 of 5 times the ZTE was about a second faster. There are a few times where the ZTE would slow down for some reason - but I’ve experienced similar slowdowns on my LG, but less so on the ZTE. Again, the shocking part is that after using the ZTE for a few days as my daily driver, I think it is faster in my normal day-to-day use! Mind you I haven’t put identical apps on and run benchmarks - but I have set things up as similar as possible. I think LG’s skin is what’s getting in the way here, and possibly also the GPU has a LOT more pixels to push than on the ZTE. Speaking of screens, the ZTE is a 5” with capacitive buttons below, whereas the LG has a 5.5 using on-screen buttons. For me, it’s not a deal breaker either way… personally I find both easy to use, but having capacitive buttons with a physical “clicky” home button (like Samsung uses) is much more distracting.

In-hand feel, well they are 2 different animals. The LG sits in the hand nicer, due to the curved back and the slim bezels. It also feels shorter and wider in use compared to the ZTE, which does continue to feel “narrow and tall”. Again, chalk that up to the flat back, 5” screen, and larger bezels all around on a device that’s almost identically sized to the G3. Day-to-day use, here’s a couple random things I’ve noticed. The ZTE, uses a more traditional button layout (power button on the right side, volume rocker on the left) and lacks the “knock-on” abilities of the LG. The buttons are solid and click nicely with the power button having slightly more “click” and travel than the volume buttons. LG’s back-mounted volume/power setup feels slightly more mushy by comparison. The button travel is shorter, and has less of a positive feel compared to the ZTE. LG has both the USB charging port and headphone jack on the bottom, and ZTE has the charging port on the bottom with a headphone jack on the top. Personally, I prefer a bottom headphone jack, but it’s not a deal breaker. However, the LG’s port is in the normal orientation (widest part of the port toward the back, narrowest part toward the screen), whereas for some reason ZTE chose to mount their port “backwards” with the widest part of the port toward the screen. Again, nothing huge, just something I noticed. Also, the LG feels a bit cheaper. I think because even though it’s 4 grams heavier, the weight is spread out more - somehow it feels less dense and slightly more plastic. The battery door, despite having a faux-brushed-metal vibe going on, feels hollow and resonates when tapped - which certainly doesn’t feel flagship quality. By comparison, although the ZTE, uses a glossy plastic finish (with a very fake-looking leather pattern), it clips to the phone solidly and doesn’t resonate when tapped like the LG does. It’s also less creaky - but that may be partly because it’s a newer device and doesn’t have the wear and tear my LG has accumulated since I got it.

I haven’t played with a pure stock Lollipop device, but I much prefer how ZTE has done lockscreen notifications. I’m a bad boy and don’t have a secure lock screen (just swipe to unlock). However, here’s what I like. ZTE lets you expand all notifications with a swipe down. Double tap on a notification to open it. By comparison, LG doesn’t allow lockscreen notifications to expand, even with an insecure lockscreen. You have to tap on the notification and then swipe to unlock to the app. Of course, this change slightly with a secure lock screen, however ZTE still allows notifications to be expanded, after which you can tap the notification you want and unlock your screen like normal.

One thing that might be a deal-breaker for some (not for me, because I don’t use it) is the lack of NFC. I think this was a smart decision on ZTE’s part, as most people buying mid-range devices wouldn’t use it anyway, and many people don’t know what it can be used for. Including it would drive up the price, and if it’s a feature you must have, you’ll need to look at another device - one that likely will cost more.

The ZTE seems to hold a signal better, and maintain a faster connection than the LG. Again, this is by observation and not specific testing. If I had 2 sims for the same network this would be easier to check. Lastly, battery life seems to be better overall on the ZTE. I mentioned before that the G3 has more pixels to push, and when you combine that with a heavier skin and slightly poorer radio reception it’s not that surprising. It’s not a massive difference, but noticeable to me none the less.


Photography
First up, I’m going to have a look at the camera app itself - the features and interface. The G3 offers a limited selection of features or settings to adjust. There’s a toggle for HDR and flash (on/off/auto for each), a setting for resolution (camera and video can be set separately), and a voice-controlled shutter. As far as “modes” you get full auto, panoramic, and a unique feature called “magic focus”. I won’t get into it here, but it is a neat - although limited use - feature to have. Dual-mode wraps things up with the ability to take a selfie combined with whatever you want taken with the main camera. You also have the option of Geo-location, although this is an always on, or always off. If you turn it on, you have to scrub this data from the individual pictures later if you don’t want to give away your location when sharing them!

The ZTE gives the user more options. Under settings you’ll find toggles for a full screen or letter-boxed viewfinder, shutter tone, Geo-tagging, review of your last shot, and flash control (with the usual on/off/auto). However, things get broken down even further! Closer to the shutter button you have “Manual” “Auto” and “Fun”. Let’s go have a look!

Manual allows you to set a guide over the viewfinder, either the “rule of 3rds” or the “golden spiral” both of which help you compose a better shot. Also available are controls for white balance, ISO, and exposure, in addition to an on-screen level if you tend to take your shots slightly off level.

Auto is pretty much that. Tap to focus, and shoot. The camera will decide what’s best.

Fun is where the more advanced stuff is. Panoramic is here, although I haven’t played with it yet. Most of the time they all work fairly similarly across different apps. HDR is here, although disappointingly it appears to just boost the saturation without actually taking multiple photos to achieve a true HDR shot. However, that’s somewhat compensated by another feature found here under Multi Exposure. In this setting you can get pretty creative by taking 2 or 3 different shots and allowing the software to create something for you. This looks like fun, and I’ll have to explore it further. Interval shot allows you to set the camera down and it will take shots at specified intervals until you run out of storage space, at anywhere from 1 to 60 second intervals.

Pictures! Let’s see what the cameras can do! Well, I cheated here a bit. Obviously the LG is packing better hardware here, with a 13 MP sensor with OIS and laser autofocus sensor versus the ZTE’s 8 MP and traditional autofocus. I found that by using Camera FV-5 app (one I’d been using a lot on the LG) allowed me to shoot both phones in identical resolution. So I set the app on both to identical resolution, with auto focus/exposure/white balance. This way the app is using the hardware available and will hopefully balance out any post-processing happening in the stock camera app. Just a few random shots here, with the ZTE first, and the LG’s shot following.


ZTE (Owl)
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LG (Owl)
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ZTE (Barrel)
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LG (Barrel)
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ZTE (Canoe)
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LG (Canoe)
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ZTE (Glare)
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LG (Glare)
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I’ll be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time composing these shots. I just wanted something easy to repeat between both phones, in varying lighting. Surprisingly, in the last shot the ZTE seemed to handle shooting directly into the sun much better than the LG did, but in shot above it (the canoe) the LG was noticeably better! Certainly the availability of OIS will factor in when shooting in lower light. Of course - this is where paying for a flagship makes sense. Camera modules aren’t cheap, and typically the camera and display are the biggest areas where manufacturers cut costs for their midline and budget devices.


Wrap up
Much as the geek in me hates to admit it, for my day-to-day use, I think the ZTE takes the cake. Not by a huge margin, but I think my experience reflects the state of mobile technology. Things have advanced pretty fast, and overall there’s not a whole lot separating the current line of flagships. Cost of technology has dropped so manufacturers are able to provide more bang for the buck. Couple that with the trend toward a lighter (almost stock) skin, and day to day performance is far less of an issue than even 2 years ago. 2 years ago, even the high end of the midrange was still a pretty poor experience. Now, when a device is truly midrange (in the middle of that price class) can give a year-old flagship a run for its money, you know things are really getting competitive.

Going back to the cameras for a moment, if there’s interest I can follow up with a full-resolution shootout using each phone’s built-in camera app rather than using a 3rd party app to level the playing field as I did here. The LG G3 is a fantastic camera in its own right, so there really is no comparison - the ZTE overall won’t be able to keep up in hardware, and it does make a huge difference.

Honestly, here’s where I think the ZTE needs to learn from LG. Bump the storage up to 32GB, and the screen to 1080p (UHD is overkill most of the time). OIS camera module, and slimmer bezels. A slightly larger battery could be possible with a curved back, but certainly not needed. Certainly such changes would increase the cost, but certainly what you’re getting for the money is a bargain without any changes!

TL;DR comes down to this: I would certainly recommend getting one or at least taking a hard look at it. No matter if you need a replacement device, or just as a backup to keep “just in case”, it’s hard to go wrong with the ZTE Grand X 2!
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