The LG V10 was one of the more underrated phones of 2015 — in many ways, the logical conclusion of the plastic Android smartphone. The hardware was a weird mishmash of metal and plastic. Performance was fast. The screen was pretty good. The camera impressed. The software was kind of a mess. There was a removable battery!
LG augmented all this with some standout camera software features, a pair of front-facing cameras (one regular, one wide-angle) and a quirky second screen up top, which could show notifications in tickertape form, or let you quickly hop between apps.
The V10 was targeted at content creators and power users — a good chunk of the audience Samsung attracts with its Galaxy Note series. So a year on, and with Samsung in an even more dominant position, how might LG react? Let's take a look at a few possibilities for the V10's successor, reportedly coming to market as the LG V20 this September.
Surprise! Turns out LG's modular experiment with the G5 has largely failed. That device has, by its manufacturer's own admission sold in disappointing numbers. And if nobody's buying the phone, we can be sure few are snapping up the lackluster selection of plug-in modules. As a result, the ecosystem of modular LG "friends" is as good as dead.
LG isn't afraid to try all sorts of crazy concepts, as evidenced by the aforementioned modular mess, and the fact that things like the LG Rolling Bot exist. It's also a phone maker with a notoriously short attention span, unafraid to drop ideas that don't work without much of a second thought.
Case in point: the Nexus 4's sparkly glass back, the LG G4's leather hide, and the laughably bad G Flex 2 "self-healing" back, which scratched up faster and more permanently than any phone I've ever used. Before long the G5's modules will surely end up on the same conceptual scrapheap.
A lot of crap has been thrown at the wall, but very little has stuck.
Consequently, LG isn't chained to any particular design language or feature set in developing the V20, mainly because its recent efforts have been so haphazard. It could do just about anything with its next phone. And after a disappointing start to the year, we'll be looking to the V20 for signs that LG can stay relevant at the high end.
We shouldn't overdo the doom and gloom, though — there are strengths to be built upon. LG's cameras have been superb lately. Although mostly identical to the G4's, the LG G5's rear camera can challenge Samsung in most conditions. And the secondary wide-angle camera is a great example of how twin cameras can add real value.
And LG Display makes great screens — not just for LG phones, but also for the likes of Apple.
With all that said, what's the best option for LG? Surely we'll see another large display, likely around the 5.7-inch mark, as before. The standard collection of high-end internals will be along for the ride — probably a Snapdragon 820 or 821, 4 or 6 gigabytes of RAM. Expect USB Type-C and some form of quick charging. So far, so Android smartphone in late 2016.
As for the chassis containing all these guts, anything could happen. But we think it's time for LG to finally move past removable batteries and the design compromises involved in making a phone you can take apart and remove components from. There's a good reason LG's the only manufacturer left making high-end phones with removable batteries — everyone else has figured out you can make more solid, better-looking gadgets if they're not designed to be disassembled by the average user.
That being the case, the question is which direction LG will go in. Free from the constraints of a removable battery, LG could step up from the G5's mix of resin-coated (plasticky) aluminum to a more traditional unibody. A glass back is another possibility, and one LG explored way back when with the Optimus G and Nexus 4. Plastic isn't inherently bad — see last year's Moto X for an example of how to combine metal and polycarbonate in a way that works. But it's getting harder and harder to justify anything but premium materials in a $600+ smartphone.
The V20 might have a big reason to move away from 'buttons on the back.'
Next, let's talk about back buttons, and how the G5's move away from rear-mounted keys didn't really make much sense. Sure, the power switch stayed back there, but LG had a great little differentiator in its trademark rear-mounted volume keys, which made its quick-launch camera shortcut really easy to use.
As much as we'd rejoice to see back buttons return, LG has a big reason to move even more stuff off the back of its next phone. Back in May LG Innotek unveiled the first fingerprint scanner embedded into the front glass of a smartphone. It's unclear when it'll be ready for the mass market, but if this technology was used in the V20, LG might want to stick all its buttons back on the side, and rely on its fancy new screen-mounted fingerprint reader.
Speaking of the screen, we're hoping to see the return of the V10's quirky secondary display. It's one of those features that's way too easy to mock until you've actually used it. Sure, the default function — showing your name or some cutesy message — is dumb. But as a way to hop between recent apps in fewer taps, or flash up notification content without obscuring other apps, it works shockingly well. And depending on its size and placement, it could double as a reasonable "always-on" screen.
LG's cameras are already really good, but it needs to not stand still in this crucial area.
LG's cameras are already really good, but it needs to not stand still in this crucial area. It's used the same 16-megapixel Sony sensor and f/1.8 lens in the G4, V10 and G5, so it's time for some progress — be it in the sensor, the lens, the stabilization or all three. LG's doing some good stuff with dual lenses, but the V10 needs to be more than just a G5 with a bigger screen to turn heads. (Samsung can afford to just build a bigger version of its small phone thanks to the S Pen, and the fact that the small phone in question is exceptionally good. LG doesn't have that luxury.)
As for software, there's always room for improvement when it comes to design, and LG's taken a lighter tough to software "skinning" this year. Arguably it's still well behind Samsung in this area though. If nothing else, the G5 is lightning fast, and the most onerous of LG's software additions are easy to disable. What's most important for the V20 though, considering its likely footprint of 5.7 inches or above, is that it ships with Android 7.0 Nougat — in fact, LG has come out and said that the V20 will be the first phone with the latest version of Android. The phone will then benefit from Nougat's native multiwindow support, as opposed to the half-baked implementation used in earlier LG phones (which as it happens was bizarrely absent from the G5.)
Standing out and successfully differentiating a new high-end smartphone is hard, even for a company with the resources of LG. That's surely why we've seen so many off-the-wall ideas over the years from Samsung's local rival. But by now the firm has no excuse for knowing what works and what doesn't, because it's tried just about everything.
The V20 should be better, and not just different.
In recent years LG has, it seems, looked at Samsung and just tried to be different. Now, with the benefit of countless product cycles, it's time to prioritize being better. Mobile Nations Managing Editor Derek Kessler remarked to me after the G5 launch event that this phone was LG at its most LG — its most different for different's sake. That's the mindset LG needs to move beyond if it's to succeed with the V20 and, eventually, the G6.
So will the V20 be the device that finally brings some fire to LG's mobile division? According to reports from the Korean press, the LG V20 is set to break cover in early September. We'll be watching with interest, bringing you full coverage along the way.
What would you like to see from the LG V20? Share your hopes and fears down in the comments!