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LG G5 Review: A Flagship Smartphone with an Experimental Twist

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LG G5 Review: A Flagship Smartphone with an Experimental Twist

Super-fast processors and imperceptibly high resolution screens became standard in flagship phones years ago. Since then, smartphone manufacturers have been struggling to find something that makes their phones unique. The newly released LG G5 continues to raise the bar on performance while making some risky changes to the standard smartphone. They’ve also added exclusive accessories to the LG ecosystem named “LG Friends”. While they continue to make increasingly powerful phones, can they make an impact in a market dominated by Apple and Samsung?

For Apple, it’s a unique and closed architecture that seamlessly ties all your iDevices together in one harmonious ecosystem. With the premium Galaxy S line, Samsung was the first to make an Android phone everyone coveted.

LG continued to build on their flagship. The G2 was a well made smartphone but the camera was inferior. The G3 and G4 incrementally improved the camera until it could take photos in low-light situations, and have advanced manual controls that surpassed even what Samsung offered. Having taken the smartphone as far as they could, LG decided to start messing with the formula.

The Camera

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Nestled on the back of the LG G5 is the same 16-megapixel camera that was the crown jewel of the G4. A f/1.8 lens partnered with laser focus and a fast processor fixed the low-light issues on previous models. The same hardware is there on the LG G5, but the processor is faster. The G4 ran a Qualcomm SnapDragon 808 with 2 GB of RAM, while the G5 uses the boosted SnapDragon 820 and 4 GB of RAM. The G4 could record 4K video, but became uncomfortably hot after a few minutes. The more sophisticated CPU in the LG G5 keeps it running cooler.

There are a lot of technical specs to digest, but all you need to know is that the modest upgrades in the LG G5 turn an excellent camera into an even better one.

The best camera feature is still here on the G5. With Manual Mode you can enable RAW photo capture (eliminating compression artifacts), control white balance, ISO, shutter speed, and even set the focus with real-time feedback. Most DSLR cameras need two or three snaps to get the picture just right but the LG G5 shows you approximately what the photo will look like before you even snap it.

With nothing changed on the G5’s main shooter (or the 8 megapixel front-facing camera) it’s obvious that LG put their efforts elsewhere. What makes the rear camera unique is the secondary, wide-angle camera.

It seems like only a few years ago when it was special for a phone to have two cameras; one in the front and one on the back. Now we’re getting a third angle with the LG G5’s new lens. Though it boasts 135 degrees field of view, there’s some severe distortion on the sides. Though it’s only 8 megapixels, the feature is promoted as a first for smartphones as it lets you effectively “zoom out” to get the whole picture. When you just can’t get everyone in the photo, or you can’t get the full landscape, it’s nice to have that option.

That’s still not where the LG G5’s suite of lenses shows off. Promoting this as “The world’s first smartphone created for fun and getting friends out to play”, it includes one-of-a-kind customized camera modes. With a few taps on the Mode menus, you can popout the high-quality camera’s photo on a stylized background shot by the wide-angle lens.

Other options include a mosaic function that lets you compose and shoot with all three cameras at once. The LG G5 embraces the label of “Party Camera”.

What Else Is New?

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When Android smartphone screens started getting bigger, LG moved the volume rocker and power button to the back of the device. Placing it where the user rests their index finger allows for more natural use. With the LG G5, the volume rocker has been returned to the side. While I preferred keeping it on the back, the simple power button has now been replaced with a fingerprint scanner adding additional security to the device.

Fingerprint security setup is quick and easy. LG’s knock-to-wake feature is still there making it quick to wake up your device, but I could see the fingerprint unlock becoming the default method of waking my phone. Since Android 6.0 Marshmallow has fingerprint security baked into the OS, any third-party payment apps that use the feature should work seamlessly on the LG G5.

The screen is brighter and sharper, improving daylight visibility. What’s truly interesting about the LG G5’s screen is the always-on feature. Powered by a dedicated chip and memory (so the sleeping SnapDragon 820 processor can stay sleeping) the feature saps less than 1% of the battery per hour. In a typical workday you can keep an eye on your time and notifications without the screen draining more than 5-7% of your battery.

For years, LG has only slightly modified the stock Android OS for its flagship smartphones to give it a unique look and feel. This generation ads tweaks like icons with rounded edges that mimic the LG G5’s corners. While many changes are minimal, the default launcher eliminates the app drawer which has historically been a key part of the Android user interface. Upon first boot, the LG G5 presents a home screen featuring widgets and all available apps on the main screen, very similar to Apple devices like the iPhone.

Apps can still be reorganized and grouped into folders (also similar to the iPhone). The design leads to the idea that LG may be targeting iPhone or other first-time Android users. However, I can’t see Android newcomers gravitating to an expensive flagship phone. The appeal to such a small niche market seems unusual when the interface change is so alienating to long-time Android users. The App Drawer can be restored by entering Settings, going into Display, Home Screen, and selecting “Easy Home”.

Case Design

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When Samsung decided to close up their Galaxy S6 case and prevent owners from swapping batteries or expanding memory, LG’s G4 let users upgrade their storage with hundreds of gigabytes and optional leather coated removable covers. For this generation, Samsung ramped back up by allowing external storage again. LG scaled back by eliminating the removable cover and building the phone into an aluminum case.

The removable storage is still there through an access port on the side and the battery is still removable through the bottom. That’s where this phone starts to get really unique.

A squeeze on the sides near the bottom of the phone and the bottom slides out. The battery is replaceable at this point, but so is the whole bottom of the phone by one of the new “Friends” accessories.

LG Friends

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Not content to throw a couple cases and battery chargers on the list of accessories and call it a day, LG partnered some unique toys with their new flagship smartphone. The LG Cam Plus slaps in the bottom of the LG G5 to provide analog buttons and a dial for a more comfortable single-handed shoot. The target here is to make a smartphone feel more like a point-and-shoot camera. The extra grip is complemented by an extra battery inside that extends the LG G5’s battery life by a further 40%. The off-center weight is noticeable, but not disorienting.

Instead of plugging into the USB Type-C port on the bottom, you must remove the standard bottom and replace it with the LG Cam Plus. This means you need to shut off and restart the phone. You can’t quickly swap it out to catch a precious moment before it’s gone. That limits this accessory’s use to situations where you plan to use it a lot. One LG representative I spoke with suggests leaving the LG Cam Plus connected all the time. That makes sense if you take lots of photos like I do. However, right now all the first-party and third-party cases only cover the standard LG G5. I’d feel better if I could get one that also wraps around the LG Cam Plus.

Another LG Friend that bears mention is the LG 360 Cam. Smaller than a TV remote control, it packs in two cameras that combine to give a full 360 degree view. It can snap 16 megapixel spherical images, and shoots 2K video. There’s only 4GB of storage onboard, but that can be expanded by a microSD card. The battery lasts more than an hour of shooting video and can be controlled remotely by the LG G5. There’s very little practical need for this accessory, but it’s by far the most fun of the collection. If I were only to buy only one of the LG Friends, it would probably be the LG 360 Cam.

LG’s made their mark on the biggest trend in 2015 with the LG 360 VR headset. It’s different from the other Android-based VR headsets in that it has an HD screen built in and attaches to the LG G5 by a USB Type-C cable. The result is that the headset is much lighter than the Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR which contain the smartphone as the screen.

Even though the number of pixels on the LG 360 VR are fewer than Samsung Galaxy S7’s screen, I found the image to be less pixelated. That could have been because the lenses are very difficult to focus. I needed some finger kung-fu to adjust the lens, check the focus, adjust it more, check the focus, and repeat.

The headset doesn’t fit as snugly to the face as other VR headsets so there’s environmental light leaking in. My stomach still churned when I was watching the roller coaster demo, so I didn’t feel kicked out of the action. However, in the VR field where there’s a lot of competition the LG 360 VR has good ideas but falls short.

What’s missing from this line-up is the Bang & Olufsen DAC audio module. Originally announced along with the LG G5 (and intended to slap on to the bottom like the LG Cam Plus does) the B&O audio module promised to deliver clean 32-bit audio through a dedicated amp. While there’s no official word if and when it will make it to North America, an LG representative has said that there is currently “no interest” in bringing it into this market.

This is a real problem, as the modular design of the G5 was to be accented by a variety of accessories. Instead, there’s only the LG Cam Plus. Does it still count as “modular” when there’s only one LG Friend to use with the LG G5?

Verdict

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Sometimes achieving your goals makes it difficult to find where to go next. The LG G4 is a strong flagship smartphone that competes with the best from Samsung and Apple. Instead of simply tweaking the features that weren’t quite 100%, it appears that LG decided to use the G5 as an opportunity to experiment.

Some ideas like the always-on notifications and modular design are innovative solutions to existing problems. Other experiments like removing the app drawer and requiring a reboot to add on the LG Cam Plus make me question if they put it through full usability testing before sending it out to production.

While the upgrades are notable, the experimentation makes an otherwise top-tier phone come across as imperfect. Yet still, if you’re in the market for a current-generation smartphone, I’d recommend the LG G5. The competition is stiff in Android with options like the Galaxy S7 and the Nexus 6p, but the G5 still holds up as a more refined version of what was already one of the best smartphone lines on the market.

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