Review: LG G5 – modularity brings true innovation, but at the cost of looks
The South Korean giant’s 2016 Android flagship is a sleek and powerful handset, but the modular design is both a blessing and a curse
South Korean electronics manufacturer LG made quite a splash at the Mobile World Congress in February, announcing the G5, a Transformers-like smartphone that can turn into a high-quality camera or audio player by plugging various modules into its removable chin. Since then, the buzz has simmer downed a bit – most notably when a YouTuber with access to the phone disputed LG’s claim that the G5 was an “all metal phone” – but the G5 remains a one-of-a-kind smartphone.
Hardware and features
The G5’s most advertised and eye-catching feature is its modularity. Press a button near the bottom of the phone and out comes the bottom bezel, with the battery attached. This means the phone does allow for battery swaps – the only remaining high-end smartphone to do so – but it also means the phone will shut down every time you want to plug in a module.
At launch the phone will only have two modules available (though LG promises more to come). The hi-fi audio module is developed by Bang & Olufsen and that was enough to excite me. It outputs audio files to 32-bits and doubles up on amplifiers. With a proper set of headphones, it’s audiophile quality, multidimensional sound – but it doesn’t work with Bluetooth headsets.
The second module is dubbed the Cam Plus, and it’s a camera grip add-on that has physical buttons for taking photos and videos, as well as a zoom wheel. While it adds considerable bulk to the otherwise svelte G5, LG has shoved an extra 1200 mAh worth of battery in there, bringing the milliamps to a whopping 4000 mAh.
During use, the zoom wheel proved to be the most useful feature, next to the handy spring-loaded camera toggle that acts to prevent accidental activation. With just 16 megapixels to play with, though, you might not want to zoom in too much, or the end result will not be good – but that’s the case with any digital zoom and not an LG-specific problem.
Even without the camera add-on, the G5’s camera is a highlight, with a dual-camera set-up on the back of the phone. The first lens is the aforementioned 16-megapixel shooter, while the second lens is a 135-degree wide angle lens (wider than the human eye can see). It’s quite useful for capturing wide canvases, but unfortunately it’s only 8 megapixels, so photo quality takes a hit.
Now, on to the advertised “metallic unibody” construction. I’m left with a great big question mark over what LG means by the term. What we’ve seen in the past is phones with a mostly metallic exterior and assumed them to be so in the interior, as they cannot be opened without a proper kit. But with the G5, while the inside is indeed made of a polycarbonate-like material, the outside of the phone is this odd material that looks metal but isn’t quite metal (the aforementioned YouTuber discovered this when he scratched at the phone to reveal a bit of plastic). LG has taken a lot of flak for this since that video went viral, but the company has been insistent in defending its manufacturing techniques. Again, it’s all down to interpretation. Whatever the phone is, it is light at 159 grams.
Design and specs
The G5 has a nice looking “3D arc” display in which the glass at the top slopes downward into the chassis. It’s a sexy curve and gives the impression of smoothness. LG has kept the power button on the back of the phone, which also doubles as a fingerprint scanner.
Ironically, what makes this phone so innovative is also what broke its design. The seam in which the phone and the modular bottom meet has a noticeable gap, and it’s just ugly. While there’s no rattle and the release button seems to hold the two parts tightly in place, it nevertheless is a big flaw in an otherwise sleek design.
Battery life and performance
The G5 runs Snapdragon 820 and Android Marshmellow, and it performs very well. Its benchmark scores are identical to the Galaxy S7 Edge (Snapdragon 820 variant). The battery has downsized to 2800 mAh, compared to the G4’s 3000 mAh. Real-world usage has been particularly interesting, as the G5 typically drains quickly. But so far, after two weeks of testing it has never died on me. My “medium” usage pattern is a mixture of an hour of music streaming, an hour of video, an hour of web browsing mixed with social media plus messaging and light gaming amounting to roughly 30 minutes.
The G5 has always held on after a 14-hour day with around 10-20 per cent power left to spare. It’s passable but not amazing. I’m not sure LG has done enough optimisation when it comes to the modules.
With the G5, the modular phone is finally a reality. There’s no denying the innovation LG has brought to the smartphone industry, and the modules can be fun. But will it prove to be useful to the mass market? It’ll be interesting to see how LG expands its module accessories line-up, which the company has dubbed “Friends”. So far, there’s also a VR goggle and a 360-degree camera.
Ultimately, the G5 feels very much like version 1.0 of a new tech experiment. That gap in the phone could be a deal-breaker for some. But if you’re fine with fun, and function, over form, then by all means, the G5 is a powerful, fast, and most importantly, different, type of smartphone.