The LG G5 is another example of how LG's not afraid to go out on a limb in its smartphone designs. The question is whether dual rear cameras and a crazy modular battery/accessory scheme will be too much for consumers.
Forget what think you know about the LG G5. Forget about unflattering leaks. Forget, even, that the G5 has optional "modules" that slide in from the underside that either give it additional functionality or improve on what's already there. Those are all distractions.
The LG G5 is this: A pretty damn good smartphone. OK, it's also a simultaneous continuation of the line of smartphones we've come to know and love while at the same time serving as a pretty serious departure from phones of the past. And it's done without looking or feeling like a Frankenstein's Monster.
Oh, and, yes. It's got optional modules that slide in from the underside that give it additional functionality or improve on what's already there. And like we've said about LG before — when it bedazzled the Optimus G and Nexus 4, or when it started with rear-mounted buttons with the LG G2 — it's a little crazy. And it just might work.
Or not. Either way, it's different, and it's pretty damn cool.
Let's take a look. This is the LG G5.
LG G5 Hands-on video
Sometimes you just want to sit back, relax and watch a nice video compilation showing off the latest and greatest phones. Well, we have you covered here with our hands-on preview video of the LG G5. Feast your eyes on the beautiful images above, then scroll on down to the rest of our hands-on impressions here.
Crazy, sexy, modular? ...
LG G5 Hardware
For a company with any number of black slabs in its past, LG has mastered the curve. In fact, it's very consciously brought the feminine form to smartphones. The LG G3? Curvy. The LG G4? More sleek, but still curvy. If you'll allow us — a "sexier" phone.
And now we have the LG G5. It's sort of settled into the same rounded edges as other designs. Not unlike what Samsung's been doing. Not unlike where HTC has been moving with the A9. And, yes, not necessarily unlike the iPhone. Whereas the G4 was curvy with sharp edges, the G5 is more subtle. The corners more rounded. The edges softened a good bit.
Whereas the G4 was curvy with sharp edges, the G5 is more subtle.
But LG has definitely managed to maintain its own design identity in the G5. You can tell whose phone this is. It's not an iPhone clone. It's not trying to be part of someone else's Galaxy. This definitely is an LG product, through and through. If we had to compare it to any current phone, in fact, it's the Nexus 5X that comes to mind, if only because LG designed it, too. You can see where the sloped edges of the dual cameras was born. You can see the similarity in the corners. In the edges.
And particularly in the curve at the top of the display. LG's VP of product strategy, Dr. Ram-Chan Woo, knew what was coming when asked about that top curve by CNET Español during a group press briefing at Mobile Congress. "There's a slight curve at the end of the phone, near the earpiece. What is the logic behind that? Is there a purpose for that?"
Dr. Woo didn't miss a beat. "Doesn't it look beautiful? That's it."
Every inch of this phone has a purpose, no matter how crazy it may seem.
We've seen companies — LG included — experiment with dual cameras before, for various reasons. Back in the day they were used for 3D imagery. Later on, HTC started the short-lived dual-camera faux-bokeh phase with two cameras in the One M8, followed by the Huawei Honor 6 Plus. But that was quickly supplanted by software solutions. The LG V10 brought two cameras to the front of the phone — one normal selfie camera, and one wide angle at 120 degrees (about as wide as the human eye can see).
The LG V10 brought two cameras to the front, and the G5 brings that philosophy to the back.
Now, LG's moved that philosophy to the rear of the phone. It's got one "normal" lens at about 75 degrees. And it's got a wide-angle lens that ratchets things up to a full 135 degrees — so wide that it's very possible to get a finger in the way just by holding phone normally. Speaking in terms of megapixels, the "normal" lens does 16MP, and the wide-angle a mere 8MP. ("Why are you zooming in on a wide-angle shot?" LG asked us in response.) The idea is one that LG brought over with the V10 and is continuing with the G5 — "We want to kill the selfie stick."
And we're OK with that.
There's a quick one-touch software button in the camera app to seamlessly move you from one lens to the other. It'll take a little practice, for sure. And maybe it makes the back of the phone look a little funny. But in practice — even in the short time in which we've used the G5 — it works. And it works well. And LG's rigged up new camera modes to take advantage of the wider angle lens.
The G5 buttons and fingerprint sensor
LG has already experimented with a combination fingerprint sensor and camera button on the V10. The end result was less than spectacular. The secondary display of the V10 played a part in that, however. On the G5, even in very brief testing, things work more as we'd expect them to. The fingerprint sensor and power button are beautifully paired, with no horizontal wiggle like we saw on the V10. You can wake the phone with a light tap on the sensor, if that's how you've locked things down. Or you can full press for the traditional power button experience. (Phones, by the way still need a physical power button so you can turn them off in an emergency — for safety reasons.) We paired a finger to the G5 without issue, and unlocked the phone with a simple tap, and not the two-stage press it takes on the V10 — where the phone has to be awake first.
This also means that the volume buttons have moved from the rear of the phone to the side. Sticking them on the back was a pretty radical move in 2012 with the G2. But it worked, and it worked well. And it continued to work well in the G3, and in 2015 with the G4. But now they're back on the side of the phone. I can live with that. I wake the phone far more often than I need to adjust the volume. And because the fingerprint sensor is now dialed in — and you really should try one at some point — I can wake it there in an instant. Maybe the volume buttons break up the symmetry of the phone a tad, but I'm OK with that trade-off in this case.
The G5 Modules
The big rumor leading up to the release of the G5 was that it had modules that change the way you use the phone. That's true, and yet not really true. This is a smartphone, first and foremost. In fact, if you never told someone that they could pop off the lower section (via a nicely done button on the lower left side) and replace it with something else, there's a very good possibility they'd never know. Blogs took to calling things thing the "Magic Slot." But there's really not that much magic going on here. It's a pretty simple (albeit very smart) physical connection at work.
This is a smartphone, first and foremost — the modules are just a bonus.
To swap the modules, you depress a little button on the side of the phone, and a section of the bottom of the phone pops out slightly. Just about a millimeter. LG assures us that there's no likelihood of this ever happening on purpose — and in fact it takes a decent mount of effort and concentration to get this thing to come out, which isn't a bad thing at all. And even then only one side pops out. From there you have to pull it on your own. It's not the most graceful of feats, but then again it shouldn't be. You definitely don't get the feeling that this is ever going to pop out on its own. (And the button to start this procedure is fairly inconspicuous as well.)
Once you've gotten the module section out, you've still got a little work to do. The 2800 mAh battery is housed in here. It's still completely removable — and very green, and with a little rock along the long axis it comes out pretty easy. (Though it wasn't exactly intuitive — we had to ask for help.) So if you only ever want to swap out for a fresh battery, just like you could with so many LG phones before the G5, you're still good to go.
That brings you to the Big Decision. Which module are you going to use? You don't have to use any, of course. At the time of this writing there are only to other modules known to us — and we have absolutely no idea how much either will cost.
One available module is a camera grip, called the LG CAM Plus. It's a (rounded) square of a base that adds a good bit of thickness, an extra 39 percent battery capacity thanks to the built-in cells, and a dedicated dual-action shutter button (half-press to focus, full press to shoot), analog zoom wheel (which smartly kicks over from the normal lens to the wide-angle lens on the back), an LED light, and a shortcut button that takes you to (and back out of ) the camera app. It's clunky. It's not particularly ergonomic — certainly nothing like what Nokia did with the Lumia 1020.
The problem here is that the camera grip isn't comfortable. Look at that Lumia 1020 grip again (or any other camera grip on any other phone), and you see what a camera grip should be. What it probably shouldn't be is just a square, extended battery-shaped thing. There was no obvious way to grip it. The buttons on the outboard edge weren't easy to reach. The zoom wheel — maybe the most important part of this module — isn't all that easy to reach either. Good concept, we're not sold on the implementation just yet.
The second module — the LG Hi-Fi Plus With B&O Play — brings high-definition audio to the G5, courtesy of Bang & Olufsen. It's another high-profile audio partnership for LG, which has done those before, and is currently doing so with other big names in the audio space. Instead of plugging headphones in to the top of the phone — which, by the way, does 24-bit audio just fine for those who can subject themselves to such audio peasantry — you'll plug in to the module at the bottom of the phone.
That gets you more proper 32-bit audio — provided that you have the right (read: expensive) headphones to take advantage of the higher bit rate. (As an added bonus, this module also works outside the phone thanks to its USB-C port, bringing high-def audio to Mac, Android and iOS.) Whether you'll actually notice any difference? Well, that's both objective and subjective.
And in any case, this all very much depends on whether it's economically feasible in the first place. We have absolutely no idea how much either of these modules is going to cost. The B&O audio may be worth it. (And before you ask why it wasn't just baked into the phone in the first place, remember that a digital-to-analog converter requires extra hardware that would add bulk and weight to any phone.) But we're more lukewarm on the camera grip.
Other hardware items of note
We've sort of glossed over the display a little bit — it's still an IPS LCD Quantum Display at quad-HD resolution (that's about 544 pixels per inch at 5.3 inches) — and it's still really good. The G5 also has an always-on display now, with basic date and time and notifications. LG tells us it uses about 0.8 percentage points of battery life per hour, with no concern about burn-in (this is an LCD, after all).
We'll need more time with the Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM to make any sort of determination on how that's all working out, of course. Same goes for battery life.
The LG 360 CAM and 360 VR
Along with new software features and a camera grip module for the G5, LG also has taken the wraps off a small 360-degree VR camera and a sort of souped-up VR visor. The camera ties into the phone, of course and also stores images and video on an SD card. The 360 VR connects to the LG G5 via USB-C and gives access to Youtube 360 and Google Cardboard content on a slim, light visor.
Life's good with Android 6.0 Marshmallow
LG G5 Software
The LG G5 demo units we took a look at were running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow (with the February security patch). As has usually been the case, LG's continued to iterate on its own take of what an Android user interface should look like. It's maybe a little less flat this time around, and colors seem to flow better than they did on the LG G4.
But there's no longer an app drawer on the launcher. ... We'll let that sink in for a minute.
LG has gone the route we've seen Chinese manufacturers take — Huawei and Xiaomi come to mind — and is now dumping everything onto the home screen. Folders help keep that clean, of course, but it's still a pretty radical departure.
The reason for the change, LG told us, was that it eliminates a layer of confusion for users. No more removing an app from the home screen only to find it still on the phone when the intention was to delete it. (There's a somewhat curious app for retrieving apps that you've deleted in the past day, though.)
In any event, you're still free to load up a third-party launcher. And most reading this will likely do just that.
The other big change in the G5 is the addition of software to aid in pairing of the new Bluetooth accessories it's rolling out along with the phone. Dubbed the "LG Friends Manager," the idea is to take away the headaches that come along with pairing Bluetooth devices. (Though when there are 20 of the same Bluetooth device in a demonstration room, any sort of pairing app like this is sort of moot, since everything is named the same thing anyway. We'll need more time to play with this one.) The idea is a worthy one in any case.
Old idea in a new place
LG G5 Cameras
There's not a whole lot more to say about the cameras over what we said in the hardware section above. In the LG V10 the wide/normal angle setup was on the front of the phone. In the G5, it's on the back. It's arguably more useful on the rear of the phone (and it certainly changes the look of the phone a lot more back there), and LG has done a good job of integrating it into the camera app.
Some quick indoor tests — nothing particularly difficult or challenging — gave us the impression that if you've been happy with the G4 and V10 cameras (and we most certainly have been) then you'll probably be happy with the G5's camera.
There's still the manual shooting mode for still images (along with RAW support), the multi-shot mode that rotates through the two rear cameras and the front camera to create a three-paned image, and the aforementioned "Pop-out" mode that uses both rear cameras for a neat little pop-out effect.
One big addition to the camera software — and it's one that LG said it had purposefully shied away from in the past — are film filters that give photos and video an old-school film effect. You get live previews as you flip through them, and it's a fun little feature.
While the G5 software isn't yet final (and camera tuning is almost always one of those things that goes to the last minute), we've got high hopes for this one.
The bottom line so far ...
We didn't have a whole lot of time to play with the LG G5. Enough to manhandle it, certainly, and to get an idea of the overall look and feel. Know what? It's a smartphone. The rounder design is a nice change from the G4 (which I still like a lot). It feels natural, yet distinctly different from all the other rounded designs out there. Software also seems improved, and you've got to applaud LG for trying to make pairing to Bluetooth accessories just a little easier.
And that's before you get to any of this removable module stuff. Again, the camera grip didn't impress all that much. It seemed more like an extended battery (adding 39 percent more capacity) with some extra camera buttons than a true camera grip. And until we know what either it or the B&O audio module are going to cost, it's almost a moot point anyway.
But for as strange as the modules may seem, they were also very well done. That you can pop off the bottom section of the phone in no way felt like a compromise, and it's a neat trick to also allow for battery swaps. (You're going to have to reboot the phone when you change modules as well, since it's also a battery pull.)
We have so much more to explore on the LG G5, and what we've seen so far has us excited to do so.
One more thing ... LG Rolling Bot!!!
The name pretty much says it all. LG's got a sort-of-not-really cute robotic ball that you control with the G5 — it's the LG Rolling Bot! It bloops. It bleeps. It lights up. It shoots lasers. It's part of LG's home monitoring (and cat tormenting) line of products. And it's pretty darn cool.