If there’s one company you can count on to shake things up with something different for each year’s flagship then it’s probably LG. They like taking risks – and that’s fine – but after evaluating the latest, the G5, it does seem as if they went a bit too far this time. Unpleasant edges, a wacky replaceable bottom concept, a dual camera that doesn’t really add much. Read on for the details in our LG G5 review, but it just doesn’t feel like a top-end flagship. And that’s a crying shame, given the absolute top end specifications and ambitions.
The problem is that the LG G5, full of new ideas, is on the market at the exact same time as the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge and HTC 10. You see, the latter two are like jewels in the hand – you can fondle them, enjoy the premium metals and glass, the smooth edges, the chamfers. True, you’re probably going to put both in a case while out and about, but you know – and can appreciate – why you just spent over £500 on each – they’re prime slices of extreme high tech.
In fact, so is the G5 – in terms of raw technology, but it’s not packaged anywhere near as well, or as cohesively. Pick the G5 up and it’s solid enough – yet doesn’t feel like metal. This is because it’s a strong metal unibody for the most part, but covered in plastic – presumably for durability reasons, maybe to hide the external antennae, who knows? The finish doesn’t show fingerprints, which is good, but it’s vulnerable to scratches and might age in a rather ugly fashion.
Fit and finish
But the plastic coating isn’t my concern here. The biggest problem by far is the fit and finish down at the bottom. The whole end section comes off, as you probably gathered by now, pulling the main battery with it and giving a chance to replace this when it gets worn out – or, on the fly, when empty and you have a charged spare standing by. The bottom is detached by pressing this annoyingly almost-flush button and then gripping and pulling hard from the opposite corner.
Which is all fine, there are two ‘Friends’ available, alternative bottom sections, one with extra bulk to act as a camera grip, with a proper shutter button and zoom control, plus an extra top-up battery (see photo below, under ‘Imaging’); and one with a larger speaker, high end DAC and second 3.5mm headphone socket, for music fiends. Neither of these were available to me for a full review, but equally, neither are exactly essential – the camera add-on is just ergonomics and doesn’t affect photographic results at all, and the music add-on is rendered extremely niche because audio from the standard G5 headphone jack on the top is already excellent.
However, having an end section that pulls off and then clips on again is something that you could probably make work on a budget handset, but it falls down horribly here. As I gently move my thumb down the left front of the G5, there’s a truly horribly sharp point at the top left of the clip on section – this sits proud of the phone’s Gorilla Glass 4 screen and annoys me every single time I pick the phone up. It was suggested to me that this was just a defective sample, so I got another LG G5 in from another supplier. And the exact same sharp, annoying corner. Doh!
Then, around the back, there’s a step up of at least half a millimetre when moving one’s finger or thumb from end section to main body. Now add in that the eject button itself is quite sharp and not flush, add in that, when held up to the light, you can see small gaps either side of the end section, and you’ll rightly get the idea that LG’s risk in going with the modular ‘replaceable bottom’ idea isn’t going to sit well with expectations for a smartphone that you’ve just paid £500 for. (Again, I compared my second G5 – and also saw gaps. In fact, the gaps were there out of the box, before I’d even detached the bottom section!)
Rubbing salt into this wound is that LG has chosen to go, all round, with a stepped design – the back curves gently into some bare metal foundation and then there’s a jarring step across to the smooth painted outer rim of the phone. When picking up almost any other top flight smartphone in 2016 (from iPhone to HTC to Huawei designs) and then subsequently picking up the LG G5, there’s a feeling that you’re holding a prototype, something – quite literally – with ‘rough edges’.
It’s ‘clicky’ too – the power button on the back (which doubles – very well – as a fingerprint sensor) moves with the feel and sound of something right at the bottom end of the market – there’s no dampening of the click, no attempt to make you feel like you’re powering on – or off – an expensive piece of high-tech.
And all of this just isn’t good enough at this end of the market. Even £100 phones like the Lumia 650, the Moto G (and many others) are built well and designed to be a delight in the hand. This…. isn’t.
Rescued by specs?
But can the technical capabilities of the LG G5 make you forget about any cosmetic concerns? Well, maybe – the G5 is certainly highly specified. Powered by a Snapdragon 820 chipset and 4GB RAM (just as on the HTC 10 last week), the G5 is certainly speedy and at no point did I notice any lag or slowdown.
Battery life was exemplary too, with the 2800mAh cell giving at least a day of heavy use – plus there’s that facility to power down and put in a new, charged cell if you need to. Or plug in a Quick Charge 3.0-compatible charger for the same super-speedy top-ups (60% in half an hour) that we saw on the HTC 10. The eagle eyed will have spotted that the charging and data port is USB Type C and also part of that removable bottom section. One of the reasons why any Friend modules will be relatively expensive, since they have to include these original components – or better – by necessity.
There’s plenty of storage too, with 32GB integrated (though of which only 20MB or so is available out of the box) and with a microSD tray in the right hand side pop-out caddy. Wi-fi goes up to ‘ac’, of course, plus there’s Bluetooth 4.2 – the LG G5 is right up to date in all the essentials.
The 5.3” IPS QHD display’s terrific, as you’d expect, albeit slightly smaller than the G4’s (5.5″) oddly. QHD resolution, i.e. 1440p, still seems over the top for an LCD panel at this size, but really high resolution content (e.g. 4K media from YouTube) is incredibly crisp and this seems to be the 2016 standard, so why not?
Playback of media is helped by the really rather good mono speaker, it’s right up with the best and, other than there wasn’t a stereo arrangement, Marshall London-style, I had no complaints in this department. It’s absolutely fine for podcasts, sat-nav and speaker-phone calls.
Aside from the end section and Friends, the G5’s biggest marketing bullet point is the dual camera system, of course. Now, there are three reasons to have two rear-facing cameras in a phone
- To have one that’s wide angle and one that’s ‘normal’
- To have two that are ‘normal’ but use them for interesting depth and refocussing effects
- To have one that’s normal and one that’s zoomed in (invented by these clever chaps at Corephotonics), the idea being to be able to do optical zoom with no need for bulky moving optics
People may remember that I was hoping for no. 3 above when I previewed the G5 before launch. However, it turned out that LG had opted for no. 1, the easier solution technically and the one involving the thinnest optics. Look, at some point someone’s going to make no.3 work, LG, and then they’ll get the interest, the plaudits and the sales – so I’m a bit disappointed here. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I fully expect triple-camera-equipped phones within two years, given the best of all worlds. Heh.
Not that the wide angle camera is of no interest – it certainly works well enough and I loved the way you can zoom in or out of your subject scene, with the software seamlessly transitioning between the two cameras as needed.
Of course, with the wide angle camera only being 8MP (for no apparent reason that I can see, other than cost), you lose a lot of central detail when you veer into ‘wide’ territory. But for arty landscapes or large objects destined for Twitter or Facebook it’s absolutely fine. You do get a bit of a fish eye lens look to each wide angle image, but then isn’t this to be expected?
Here are some sample photos taken on the LG G5, with 1:1 crops where appropriate so that you can see quality:
The OIS-equipped 16MP main camera is certainly very capable, but it’s similar to that in the G4 last year – the latter raised the bar across the board and all other flagships have now risen to match. So there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, indeed the G5 camera is bested a lot of the time by the likes of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and Samsung Galaxy S7. But it’s more than good enough for most discerning users, the laser focussing’s very fast, ditto the shot to shot time and burst mode. And the camera interface still has the excellent break down into ‘Simple’, ‘Auto’, and ‘Manual’ modes, the latter going right up to everything being adjustable, and of course there’s the option to shoot in the disk-guzzling RAW mode if needed.
The front facing camera’s 8MP, though not wide angle – you’d have thought that wide angle would be needed more on the front? Just thinking out loud, LG!
Interface and apps
Running the G5 is Android 6.0.1, so it’s the latest battery-efficient Marshmallow, though you do get LG’s “UX 5.0” skin over the top. This came at first, somewhat controversially, with no application drawer, i.e. all icons lived somewhere on the home screen panorama, but after lots of negative comments from reviewers and users a system update was pushed, now giving the choice of ‘Home’, ‘EasyHome’ or ‘Home & app drawer’ when the home control is first touched after the update. I’ll admit that Android does feel more familiar with sparse home screens and an app drawer, but I was also prepared to get used to the original arrangement and I rather wish LG had stuck to its guns – as Huawei has. Still, it’s up to the end user which system they plump for.
One thing that Android phone makers have taken from Nokia and Symbian and/or Windows Phone is the idea of an always on display – as on the Galaxy S7, the G5 has an optional always-on time and date (or message-of-your-choice and date, if you prefer), plus some notification icons. This being an LCD display there’s a moderate power drain to keeping the backlight on, even at low power, all the time, of course, it’s in the order of 1% per hour. Which doesn’t sound like much, but means that, over a full 18 hour day, 6am to midnight, you’d be allocating up to a fifth of your phone’s battery capacity to this feature. Happily, if you don’t find it essential then it’s trivial to turn off in settings. And, again, the user has the choice, so it’s hard to complain.
LG’s Android skin is definitely getting lighter each year, but there’s still quite a bit added over a typical Nexus Android phone. The notifications and quick settings shade here is fully customisable, just add the icons, toggles and sliders that you want to see. Plus there’s the usual – for 2016 – theme engine, albeit with no themes supplied out of the box – for these you have to dive into LG’s SmartWorld mini-store, where compatible themes exist going right back to Android 4.0 days!
LG have scaled back the applications they bundle too, though some of LG’s own creations persist, including their versions of Calendar, Music and Gallery. So still some confusion for new users, though most of the Google first party applications are tucked away in a folder by default. Notable extras include bundled installs of Instagram, Facebook and Evernote, with LG Backup, LG Friends Manager and LG Health, plus LG staples like QuickMemo+ and File Manager rounding things off. Oh, and you get QuickRemote, in which you train the app to mimic various infrared household remotes.
In the past, I’ve championed devices with removable batteries, rightly and for the obvious reasons. I’ve also championed modular phones, for example the Fairphone 2, despite all its caveats. And I absolutely recognise that every form factor, every design involves some compromises. For example, needing a peel-off-back, as on the Galaxy S5. Or slide-off-screen, in the Fairphone’s case! And, in a better designed world, LG could have made the G5’s bottom section work. But trying to butt up (no pun intended!) two hard, metal sections, repeatably, with no wear, no tolerance problems causing steps and edges and sharp points, was always going to be nigh-on impossible. That’s why plastic was invented, LG, have one of the halves be an obviously different material and texture so that the user’s fingers are expecting discontinuities. Heck, have the bottom bit coated in leather, as on the G4!
My question above was whether the raw specs and functionality are worth putting up with the design and materials issues? Possibly. If you fancy that unique wide angle camera, perhaps, or if you really need a phone with a genuinely user-replaceable battery? And the G5 is a very fast and capable device in every area. But with the quality of the 2016 competition, LG’s fighting a tough battle with its G5 design and materials choices.
[A video version of this review will be embedded here within a few days]
PS. Thanks to MobileFun for sending over the G5.