Modular distractions aside, LG's latest phone gets a lot of things right. But this is a handset which often chooses 'different' over 'better.'
The quick take
The LG G5 is tailor-made to stand out in an increasingly homogenous smartphone world. The wacky modular design, removable battery and impressive dual camera setup are things only LG is doing right now. Aside from that all that, it's also a solid high-end phone across the board, with the cameras standing out as a major highlight. But the G5 focuses so much on being unique that it differentiates at the expense of quality in some areas.
- Lightning-fast performance
- Phenomenal cameras
- Removable battery + storage
- Quick Charge 3.0 support
- Inconsistent daylight visibility
- LG still lags behind on software design
- Whatever LG wants to call this finish, it still feels like plastic
LG G5 UK review
There are many valid criticisms of LG's last flagship, the G4. Even so, it was one of my favorite Android phones of 2015. Unlike most of its competitors, it gave me near all-day battery life and a removable battery option, and removable storage. And at a time when Android cameras weren't universally great, the G4 could take spectacular photos all day long.
But these are mainly logical, functional reasons. The G4, even when slathered in leather, wasn't what you'd call a beautiful phone — at least not in the same way as an iPhone or a Galaxy S6 edge. As such, LG faced the classic smartphone differentiation problem: to stand out at the high end you need to be great at everything, including design, and ideally offer something unique on top of that. The G4 was a very traditional Android smartphone in the way it looked and behaved, in a year when Samsung was striding ahead in industrial design.
That's where the LG G5 comes in. With its 2016 flagship, the Korean company steps up its build quality, augments its camera with a wide-angle lens and introduces a unique modular design with support for swappable "Friends" attachments.
Some AC editors have called out these modules as gimmicks — and I'm mainly in agreement on that point. Sure, modules are a big part of the G5, but they're also a distraction from the core experience of a phone which, as it turns out, is actually pretty good.
The question is, has LG made a different phone at the expense of making the best phone it possibly could?
About this review
We're publishing this review after just over a week with an unlocked European LG G5 (LG-H850) running firmware version 10c (with the April 2016 Android security patch) on the Vodafone and EE networks in the UK. It's been paired with a 64GB Samsung micronSD card, used for photo storage and offline music cache. And for most of our time with the G5, it's been paired with a Moto 360 (2015) smartwatch.
For this UK-centric review, we're focusing on the phone itself and not the various modular "friends" available in some markets.
LG G5 Hardware
After two years of LG designs largely derived from 2013's G2, the G5 is a clean break. LG's latest phone borrows more design cues from the Nexus 5X than any of the company's earlier flagships, with a largely flat design accented with subtle curves. It's a clean, uncluttered design that's broken up by reflective segments (to call them chamfers would be misleading, really) encircling the back of the phone and the camera modules.
Here's where you'll find the antenna bands — plastic sections subtly tucked away within this trim. They're there if you look hard enough, but not immediately noticeable. Once you spot them they're impossible to unsee, however you do need to look closely to see the transition from metal to plastic.
The G5 feels more like plastic than other aluminum smartphones. Whether that's a big deal is debatable, but it's definitely A Thing with this phone.
Which brings us to the somewhat contentious issue surrounding what the G5 is actually made of. LG insists it's a unique aluminum alloy coated with a primer — a process it calls "microdizing." We're largely splitting hairs here, though. And I can't help thinking LG is missing the point of using metal if its phone doesn't feel like metal. And make no mistake: while the G5 doesn't feel horrible in the hand, it definitely feels more like matte plastic than the traditional anodized aluminum you might find on an iPhone or HTC 10. It's also absolutely possible to chip small sections of the "microdized" coating off, revealing the plastic-like primer below.
That's something you'll have to accept if you pick up an LG G5. Rest assured that there's metal in that mix somewhere, just not in the way you might be expecting. After a week of using the LG G5, however, I'm largely over the controversy of metal versus plastic. It feels just fine in the hand — easily better than any previous LG phone — if not quite as premium as HTC or Samsung's latest devices.
What it does have going for it, though, is a unique and rather futuristic profile. This is weird to say, but in my view the back of the G5 actually looks better than the front. The reflective trim stands out against the matte surface. And the dual camera module, plus laser autofocus, combined with the fingerprint sensor, makes the back of the phone look like a quirky robot face. It's all a bit retro-futuristic.
Around the front, by comparison, there's not a whole lot to see: The 5.3-inch display curves gently towards the top — a pleasant visual cue. Meanwhile down below you've got a G3-style plastic section that's there to show you an LG logo.
There's something a bit retro-futuristic about the back of the G5.
This lower section is actually part of the G5's modular attachment — arguably the most unique thing about this phone, but also a fairly gimmicky addition owing to the dearth of quality modules available. In any case, pushing a tiny button on the lower left side of the phone releases the bottom section, which you can then pull free, revealing the 2800 mAh removable battery. I haven't noticed any issues with the joins between the lower module and the phone itself on my unit, though Android Central Editor-in-Chief Phil Nickinson did have issues with his T-Mobile U.S. G5. Your mileage may vary.
One thing that does concern me, however, is the force you need to apply to the battery to snap it free from the modular section. Applying that much force to any part of a smartphone — much less the battery, which can actually explode if it's damaged — seems like a bad idea. I haven't seen any damage to any part of my G5, but we'll have to see how it holds up over time.
So a removable battery, just done a little differently to most handsets.
The G5 also does buttons a little differently. The power key, with its integrated fingerprint sensor, lives around the back, while the volume keys have moved around the side. The result of this is it's easier to change volume levels when the phone is lying flat, but we do miss the simplicity of LG's old button arrangement, where everything was on the back. (It's also more difficult to use the camera quick-launch shortcut — a double-tap of the volume down key — with a smaller volume rocker.)
As for the fingerprint sensor itself, it works as well as an Android-based implementation. It still works as a clicky power button, but you don't need to press it in to wake the phone — a single touch instantly unlocks the G5. As far as accuracy goes, I've found it's about as good as rivals like the Nexus 6P, HTC 10 and Huawei P9, but slower than Apple's insanely fast Touch ID on the iPhone 6s. It's also worth noting that I've experienced far fewer errors with the G5's sensor than Samsung's on the Galaxy S6 and S7.
Of course LG's KnockOn feature is still there, so you're able to double-tap to wake the screen and peek at notifications. However if the phone's lying on a table you'll need to input your PIN or pattern to fully unlock it.
LG wowed us with its first "IPS Quantum" display on last year's G4, and while we'd like to say the company has faithfully recreated that display quality in a smaller form factor, our experiences with the G5's 5.3-inch panel have been ... mixed. On the initial v10a firmware, the screen would frequently fail to ramp up its brightness aggressively enough, particularly outdoors, where the super-bright daylight mode wouldn't kick in reliably. After an update to the newer v10c firmware, auto-brightness is more reliable, but daylight mode remains hit and miss.
The screen's good, but not Samsung good.
On the whole — when it's bright enough to see — the G5's display is impressive, with a ridiculously sharp 554 pixels per inch and exceptional clarity. Colors also pop without being excessively over-saturated, although the G5 frequently favors cooler colors than most LCDs we've used, to the point where even AMOLED screens start to look warm by comparison.
These are all issues you won't have to deal with on a Galaxy S7, and it seems like Samsung's a little further ahead of LG than was the case in 2015.
As for audio, the G5's built-in speaker is capable but unspectacular — it's loud enough to scare the crap out of you if you accidentally leave the alarm volume set at max. But it's no match for beefier dual-speaker setups on phones like the HTC 10 and Nexus 6P. You can get around that by listening with headphones, of course, and while the G5 doesn't quite match the HTC 10's power and clarity, it's about as good as the Galaxy S7 in this area. You'll need to provide your own equalizer app though, as LG's UI doesn't have one built in.
But there is one slightly unexpected area where the G5 excels, and that's performance. Specifically, the G5 feels exceptionally smooth and responsive in just about every area — from launching apps, to switching tasks, to scrolling through lists. And it does so in a way that makes it seem tangibly quicker — even quicker than speedy rivals like the GS7 and HTC 10. Part of that's due to the Snapdragon 820 processor running the show, and the ample 4GB of RAM. But there's obviously some secret sauce LG's using on the software side to improve responsiveness.
There's another notable addition that's becoming increasingly common — USB Type-C support, meaning you may need to swap out your old micro-USB wires, but the G5 will be free from cable orientation-related frustrations.
LG G5 specs
|Operating system||Android 6.0.1|
|Display||5.3-inch IPS quad-HD quantum display (2560x1440, 554 dpi)|
|Storage||32GB UFS ROM, microSD up to 2TB|
|Rear camera||16MP main, 8MP wide-angle (135 degrees)|
|Battery||2800 mAh removable|
|Modules||LG Cam Plus (camera grip with 1100 mAh)
LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O Play
|Dimensions||149.4 x 73.9 x 7.7mm|
USB Type C, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2
|Colors||Silver, Titan, Gold, Pink|
LG G5 Software
In previous reviews we've tended to damn LG's software efforts with faint praise. In essence, each year's LG UX was a little less worse than the previous iteration. And it wouldn't be inaccurate to describe the G5's software — LG UX 5.0 — in similar terms.
It's clearly derived from the software of the LG G4 and V10, and once again LG makes baby steps towards a cleaner, less cluttered user interface. LG continues its use of pastel colors, but they're less aggressively bright than in previous years, and the G5's menus favor fine black text and icons over white panels and backgrounds.
Just a little bit more minimalist, but still very LG.
And with its new launcher setup, LG introduces some iOS influences, with rounded squares in its own app icons, and a home screen launcher completely lacking an app drawer by default. (Though you can absolutely download an alternative launcher from LG, which basically duplicates the G4's home screen experience, or from Google Play.) I've stuck with the default app-drawerless home screen, and I haven't hated it. The main problem comes in actually locating apps. Unlike iOS and EMUI, LG doesn't give you an easy way to quickly track down a single app, which can lead to a frustrating experience hunting through folders if you end up misplacing an app.
There are a few additional visual flares this time around. Blurring effects are applied liberally to certain widgets, although these aren't executed as cleanly as they are in Apple's OS. (For example, widgets abruptly apply blurring when you scroll onto them, so there's a jarring transition between transparent and blurred backgrounds.)
Smart Notice — the "helpful" home screen assistant widget that's obsessed with telling you to bring an umbrella or pack rain boots — returns, but is no longer included on the G5's home screen by default. Same deal with Smart Bulletin — the slide-out panel that incorporates LG's Health and Calendar apps. Neither were particularly useful in any case.
And LG's notification shade is still a little busy for our liking, although it's easy to trim down unnecessary cruft like volume controls and screen sharing buttons from the assortment of controls up top.
At a functional level, that's basically it. LG's latest user interface isn't a dramatic departure from what came before. And if you didn't like what you saw on the G4 or V10, there won't be much here to change your mind. It's LG's software at its least offensive yet. Just like last year.
Other software bits:
- When you uninstall an app on the G5, it doesn't completely disappear straight away. It lives in limbo for 24 hours, giving you the opportunity to reinstall it and keep all your app data. Or alternatively the "Uninstalled apps" menu gives you a way to kill it for good.
- LG's "QSlide" windowed mode returns, but the split screen mode from the G4 — which was only ever available in a handful of apps anyway — has been removed.
- LG's record on Android security updates remains haphazard. The latest firmware update rolling out to European G5s is based o the April patch, as Samsung is starting to push out the May update to its flagships.
The same, but better
LG G5 Cameras
LG absolutely killed it with an amazing camera experience in 2015. The G4 and V10 gave us what was arguably the best main camera on any smartphone, with a 16-megapixel, optically stabilized, laser-assisted setup. All those things are back in the G5. In fact, the G5's main camera is basically a recreation of the G4's main camera, right down to the f/1.8 lens and Sony IMX234 sensor.
And LG's capable camera app makes a return too — largely unchanged from the V10 — complete with its impressive RAW shooting mode and full manual controls. As is often the case with features like this, however, the camera's so good in full Auto that you'll probably skip these altogether.
It's perhaps a tad disappointing that LG wasn't able to upgrade the main camera hardware, but it's also possible the parts simply weren't available. In any case, it's still one of the best cameras on any phone, even going toe-to-toe with the Galaxy S7 in low light thanks to the upgraded hardware processing.
The G5's main camera is a known quantity — the wow-factor comes from its wide-angle neighbor.
What's new this time is the second rear camera — an 8-megapixel sensor behind a 135-degree lens that's capable of taking impressive wide-angle shots. And because it's backed up by the same camera software as the regular 16-megapixel shooter, you'll also benefit from Auto HDR, RAW shooting and all that good stuff. Simply tap the icon in the camera app to hop between cameras. (A word of warning on accidental thumb-captures — it's easy to unintentionally block part of wide-angle shots with a your hand depending on how you're holding the G5.)
Image quality impresses across the board, with shots generally being evenly exposed, auto HDR kicking in when necessary and colors being generally accurate. In particular, we didn't notice any tendency to wash out night shots with a yellowish hue, as we've seen from many of Samsung's recent handsets. And LG seems to have addressed the G4's sometimes-problematic over-sharpening of images. You can tell there's some sharpening going on when viewing shots up close, but there's no artifacting, and only minimal loss of fine detail as a result.
All in all, the LG G5 might not take any huge strides beyond its predecessor, but it's an impressive camera all the same, and a worthy contender for the Galaxy S7.
Lock + load
LG G5 Battery life
A removable 2800 mAh battery isn't a big deal. In fact, it's a downgrade from the 3000 mAh capacity of the G2, G3 and G4. It's tempting to object to a decrease in battery capacity on principle alone, but in reality the G5 performs very well for its battery capacity. It lasts about as long as the G4 on a single charge, with longevity also being noticeably more consistent than that phone. (Whereas the G4 would readily tank its battery with a couple of hours of heavy use on LTE, the same isn't true of the G5.)
A smaller battery, but more reliable longevity than other LG phones.
That being the case, I haven't experienced any real battery anxiety using the G5 for normal day-to-day smartphone stuff. My days typically consisted of web browsing on Chrome, tweeting and messaging, streaming music and even using the camera to take a few dozen photos, and sharing on Wi-Fi and LTE. And with that kind of use I was easily reaching the 14-to-16-hour level where you basically don't need to worry about a mid-day charge.
So it's definitely not a two-day phone, but don't be fooled by the smaller battery capacity. The G5 does just fine with its comparatively smaller cell.
The G5's support for Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 is also a big deal, allowing you to bring the device back from the dead in a relatively short space of time. (The typical claim of over 50% charge from 30 minutes plugged in matches our experience here.) This, combined with the a removable battery, largely dispels any battery-related concerns.
In any case, if you plan on using a G5 long-term, a Quick Charge 3.0 plug and a spare battery should definitely accompany your phone on its travels.
The final thoughts
LG G5 Bottom line
At its current UK SIM-free price of £475, the LG G5 is a tempting package for anyone unimpressed by what Samsung's offering right now. It's a little cheaper than the regular flat Galaxy S7, and what it lacks in overall polish it makes up for with unique value propositions. While Samsung might well have brought a better core experience this time around, the G5's removable battery, wide-angle camera and higher-resolution main camera are enough to warrant consideration.
Should you buy the LG G5? Yes
Buy it for the phone, not the modules
But if you buy the LG G5, buy it for the phone, not the modules. As we've already discovered, the current crop of attachments are kind of a mess, with only one widely available — the largely disappointing CAM PLUS. Even though a central premise of LG's 2016 flagship may turn out to be a total flop, it's still well worth a look. Buy it because you want a high-end Android phone that's different, with a quirky appeal, serious photographic chops and a slightly lower price tag — and we don't think you'll be disappointed.