A stellar camera and capable processor aren't enough to make me recommend this phone to most people.
LG has had a fascinating journey over the last couple of G-series releases. Their phones have a tendency to stick out as uniquely LG, but those hardware decisions don't usually add or take away from just how good the phones are. This year things are a little different. LG has made the shift to metal with the G5, but made sure to keep the removable battery and expandable storage that helped the G4 stand out last year. Unfortunately that transition comes off a clumsy and awkward, with a host of fairly bland accessories standing almost as an attempt to distract from what LG has assembled.
We've already written a full review of the LG G5, and Phil's thoughts on this experience do a great job focusing on the whole picture LG is trying to assemble this year. As someone who only has the G5, and who isn't really interested the "Friends" that dock in the bottom of this phone, the picture is a lot smaller. It's also not quite as clear as what LG has offered in the past, making the overall experience less than great.But, hey, at least the camera is nice.
How we got here
LG's relationship with metal on phones has never been great. The G-series has always been plastic, living somewhere in between the creaky flexible mess Samsung used to use and the rigid, smooth plastic HTC used to use. Glossy, metal-colored plastic coated the outside of the G4 last year, and while that doesn't give a premium sense to the phone it can't be denied that LG released one of the best pieces of hardware we saw last year. As is all-too-often the case with LG phones, what dragged it down from that top spot was software.
The LG G5 feels like a violent mashup of all the phones released last year.
Late last year LG released the V10, a massive Android phone with polished metal rails and a grippy, flexible backplate that offered access to the battery. It was the first time LG had really messed with a mostly metal phone, and it worked well for people who enjoy those large experiences. The V10 was the first time we saw LG try a fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone where the power button was, which maintained the "rear key" design while adding features to the phone. LG moved on with Google's guidance to a much better fingerprint sensor on the back of the LG Nexus 5X, which ditched the "rear key" design for volume buttons on the side of the phone.
The LG G5 feels like a violent mashup of all the phones released last year. The profile of the phone is undeniably LG, with an edge that leaves you almost ready to pull the back off as though it were a G4. The smooth metal rim of the phone feels like a compromise between the G4 and the V10, and the fingerprint sensor on the back feels like a combination of V10 functionality and 5X performance. All that was needed now was a way to access the battery, which was solved by making the bottom "chin" of the phone removable.
It's clear that LG's design team was focused on familiarity while executing all of these different ideas. What isn't clear is why so many of those executions lack polish. The retail G5 I've been using (we bought this one from AT&T) lines up with the removable just fine, but distortions in the back plating where the primer didn't set evenly looks unfinished. It's the kind of look I'd expect in a pre-production model, but for a retail unit this is the kind of thing that should never have left the factory.
Lets talk about that primer for a minute. LG has done something technically impressive with the antennae in this phone. Instead of breaking the design up with those rubber or plastic lines that make it so the radios can reach out into the world no matter what, LG put the antennae between the metal back of the phone and the paint that covers the metal. There are no antennae lines on this phone, which is impressive. You do feel a texture difference between the back of the phone and the sides of the phone as a result. The sides of the phone have that cool to the touch metal feel, but the back plate isn't quite as metallic. I wouldn't go so far as to say it doesn't feel like metal, just that it doesn't feel like the sides. That may be off-putting to some, but not nearly as distressing in my use as how easy it is to completely cover the speaker grille and muffle all sound with my finger.
The edge that separates the back and sides of the phone is another point I found myself appreciating. The metal is almost sharp in the way the two sides angle away from one another, and even has a rough quality to it if you run the edge across your finger. Since it's on the back of the phone, however, your fingers won't touch this edge much. Instead that edge catches the palm of your hand, and adds just enough grip to make the phone feel comfortable. This idea would have been brilliant, but the edge is alongside the wider back point of the phone with sides that taper in. This means anyone with larger hands is touching the screen every time they reach across to tap something, which is the exact situation you do not want grip. This was less noticeable on most G4 models due to the way the leather backplates would extend beyond the back a little, but on the G5 is makes using the phone with one hand painfully awkward.
All of this comes together to form a phone that doesn't feel like it was made to compete in a premium space.
LG's spectacular bragging rights when it comes to the screen to bezel ratio on their phones has been sacrificed to the removable battery this year, but that doesn't mean the glass isn't special. The curved top of this phone feels fantastic when on a phone call — yeah, people still do that — and looks damn nice when set down on a table. The design of the bottom is clever enough, you push in a button that isn't likely to even be pressed accidentally and out comes a corner of the bottom. Pull the rest of the way, and you have a battery. If you ignore the things you can also shove in this slot to add mostly pointless features to the G5, the battery slot is a little unusual. It doesn't look like you'll be able to put a larger battery in this space, which means your only real option is to keep a separate charged battery with you at all times. That isn't unheard of, but this method of battery removal feels slightly inferior to the V10 design in its ability to extend battery life.
It's not often that the display on a phone is one of the last things that need to be talked about when discussing the hardware, but here we are. LG's display is spectacularly average for a high-end display, and feels mostly the same as the G4 and V10. The 2560x1440 resolution IPS display is great indoors, and is plenty sharp for images and text. Outdoors, things aren't so great. The phone leans a little towards the blue side and auto-brightness doesn't kick up to full brightness fast enough. Manually setting to full brightness works in most situations, but direct sunlight isn't one of them. It gets the job done, but don't expect any situations where you find yourself in awe of what the display is capable of.
All of this comes together to form a phone that doesn't feel like it was made to compete in a premium space. There's nothing about the outside of this phone that lets you know it was made to compete for your attention as one of the best phones available today, despite being priced as such.
Android 6.0 is alive and well on the LG G5, with no shortage of modifications from LG — and in my case AT&T — to scratch your head at. If such a thing as peak bloatware exists, we've reached it on this version of the LG G5. AT&T is desperate to tell you about their DirecTV partnership as a persistent notification, and beyond that you've got the usual suite of worthless apps pre-installed that can only be hidden. When it was all said and done, navigating through and removing the AT&T nonsense took me nearly half an hour. No user should have to go through that as part of the setup process, and while most of this is AT&T's doing this is something LG allowed to happen.
Imagine a world where these hardware manufacturers started telling the carriers where they could shove all of this user unfriendly crapware. Alright, now back to reality.
Nerds on the Internet collectively wet themselves over LG's decision to remove the app drawer in their new LG Home design, and then LG bent over backwards to make sure there was an option available to install when the phone started shipping. As someone who keeps almost no apps on the single home screen, the new LG Home isn't my thing and was quickly replaced. No outrage, no fist shaking, no swearing this would be the end of LG. Just three quick taps in the Google Play Store, and all is well in the world. Whatever you do, don't try to install the LG Home 4.0 with the launcher. On top of not being available through the play store (it's in LG's own "SmartWorld", it's painfully mediocre. The Play Store has lots of excellent launchers, go try one. Or see how you like life without an app drawer. Who knows, you might not hate it.
LG's notification tray looks like it takes up more space than most, but in reality it's almost the same amount of consumed space as Samsung's notification tray. LG's is flat white, which makes it look like it takes up more space. As much fun as it is to jump on the "why can't you be more like Google" bandwagon, I like a big friendly slider for manually controlling brightness when I need it. LG could give me the ability to ditch the screen sharing and file sharing buttons that I'll never use, but it's not a huge deal.
The most important thing about LG's execution of Android 6.0 on the G5 is that nothing appears to be obviously broken. No LG features get in the way of Android being Android, which is a nice change of pace for LG. I wouldn't go so far as to call the experience "toned down" but it's clear LG listened to criticism and fixed behaviors that were obviously broken. On top of this, the Snapdragon 820 processor in this phone screams. Apps launch faster on this phone than any other Android phone I've used to date, which is great.
All told, the LG user experience isn't bad once you spend upwards of half an hour dealing with the mess AT&T and LG made in the beginning. Unfortunately, outside of the double-tap on the volume down key to launch the camera, there also doesn't seem to be much that feels uniquely LG about the experience anymore.
While they didn't quite make it to the top of the pile last year, LG's cameras in the G4 and V10 are exceptional if you know what you're doing. The auto modes aren't much to write home about, but the manual modes have been incredible. This year LG decided what we really needed was a second camera so we could all get nice and artsy with our photos, but that is just the headline of a long list of impressive things this camera can do.
LG's second camera is an 8MP sensor with a 135-degree wide lens, which complements the primary 16MP sensor in several interesting ways. The first is a sort of picture in picture mode, where the standard shot is seated within the wide shot for a creative double photo. There's also a mode for taking pictures from all three cameras at nearly the same time, for those interested in showing off what was happening with the front-facing camera at the same time. More than anything, these camera modes are a ton of fun to play with.
LG sacrificed none of the features from the previous generations in the G5, which means an already complex camera became just a little bit more full of features. To me, this is fantastic. If all you want is a camera that takes a quick picture, the Simple mode exists and removes all of the options. If you like playing around with modes and filters, the Auto mode is there to give you something to play with. If you want to see just how far you can push a smartphone camera or you're a real photographer who wants to use familiar tools to get the best possible shot, Manual mode is for you. It's a complex camera for sure, but there really is something here for everyone.
There's no arguing with the results, either. LG's cameras focus quickly, capture great colors, and there's a ton of detail in every shot. It's a camera that easily competes with the Samsung Galaxy S7 in its ability to take a quick, great picture. While it could be argued that maybe LG should consider making Simple mode the default, there's nothing about this camera experience I would change.
The bottom line
With exception of the camera, there is very little I enjoy about the LG G5. While I applaud LG's efforts in making it so you can do more with your phone by extending it with various "modules" I struggle to see why I would recommend this phone over the V10. (The much better fingerprint sensor, perhaps.) LG could have gone all-in with these modules and made it so there was something for everyone, or they could have made this phone priced more competitively, but instead we got neither.
This phone seems to exist because someone at LG decided the next phone needed to be metal without compromising the things that make LG phones stand out, and in the process the G5 feels like several different compromises all at once.