LG G5 Hands-on: Modular is the playground

Ted Kritsonis

February 21, 2016 8:01am

For LG, Mobile World Congress is an open table to gamble and take a shot at winning a larger pot. And its main card to play is the G5, a revamped iteration of its flagship line that brings newfound modularity to a smartphone.

It can be argued momentum is on LG’s side. Whereas splashy pageantry is expected from Samsung, its Korean rival doesn’t feel the same kind of pressure. Still, this is an opportunity to win favour with consumers that could reap rewards further down the line.

Video G5 hands-on by Patrick O’Rourke 

The G5 represents a significant departure from the design language the company has used until now. The leather back of the G4 was innovative and helped carve a fashionable niche for those who paid attention, but plastic is now passe, whereas glass and metal are in.

So, the G5 adopts a metal body, includes a removable battery and presents a modular strategy with a wider ecosystem that LG hopes will have some takers amongst vendors and consumers, alike.

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Hardware

The metal body already makes the G5 look different than any LG handset that came before it. Stylish with an air of luxury, it maintains an understated presence, meaning that it is straight-up metal; no brushed or patterned treatments to make it stand out more. Though it doesn’t really need a closer look, the lack of an antenna band is one of the more interesting elements to what LG has crafted here.

Dr. Ramchan Woo, VP of product planning at LG, says the company’s method in doing this was a “secret” but it involves a micronized “special treatment” of the metal that hides the slits to enable signals to pass through without having to separate the panel. Despite that, the process shuts out wireless charging, which won’t be supported on the device.

Woo spent little time on specs, noting the 7.5mm thickness (8mm at its thickest point), 32GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and Snapdragon 820 processor. Clock speeds and performance data weren’t shared at the time.

The 5.3-inch IPS display also sports the same resolution, yet does include a tiny chipset that powers the Extended Always-On features that shows the time and notifications without waking up the phone. When turned on 24/7, Woo says the feature consumes 0.8% of total battery per hour. The content is also fixed, given that burn-in isn’t an issue with IPS LCD panels.

The use of metal does seem to raise the G5’s weight from the lightness of its predecessors, but it’s not yet clear by how much it does that. The phone doesn’t feel altogether more or less wieldy than the G4, though moving the volume rockers to the left side does shift the ergonomics slightly. I caught myself accidentally pressing them twice. The power button on the back remains, and is now circular and doubles as a fingerprint reader.

There are two rear lenses above that, which I’ll touch on a little further down, neither of which is specially designed for depth-of-field photography.

The speaker has been moved to the bottom, next to the microphone and USB-C port, as LG begins its commitment to the burgeoning standard. A microSD card slot is also on board, ensuring that memory expansion wasn’t sacrificed. Woo wasn’t specific as to its storage limit, but we’ve since learned that the phone can accommodate microSD cards with up to 128GB of storage.

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Going modular

The fact that LG has a removable battery in spite of the metal body is one thing, but having a modular strategy behind it is the most impressive takeaway from the device. Pushing a small button on the bottom left side releases the bottom compartment just enough to pry it open and slide out the battery from below. It felt a little odd at first, but after a few tries, it became easier to get the hang of it.

The 2,800mAh battery is lower than other phones of the same size and rank, so it’s unclear how well it will perform in real-world settings. As is, though, the battery is the centrepiece of this modular approach because it is the component that connects hardware add-ons to the unit.

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Case in point, Woo unveiled two accessories that do just that. One is the LG Cam Plus, a camera grip that adds analog controls, like a shutter, video recording button and zoom dial. It adds extra girth and features a leather-like front for better handling, but also has a battery inside that bumps up the G5’s overall capacity to 4,000mAh, good for another six-to-eight hours of shooting, he says.

The other is the LG Hi-Fi Plus, a portable DAC (digital-to-analog converter) co-designed with high-end audio brand Bang & Olufsen that raises quality from the native 24-bit in the G5 to 32-bit. Audiophiles may rejoice, though it’s unclear how much mainstream consumers will take to something that feels niche. It does upscale any audio content it plays, so streaming music lovers should sense an improvement, regardless. Since the microphone jack is at the top of the G5, it would be possible to listen at regular 24-bit through that, or 32-bit through the jack at the bottom where the Hi-Fi Plus is slotted in.

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In a nice touch, it can also function as a standalone DAC, compatible with other smartphone devices, platforms and PCs and Macs.

Whether or not there will be more of these types of accessories by launch day remains to be seen. What is confirmed is that LG is opening this up to third-party vendors to create their own add-ons that can work with the phone. If this were Apple or Samsung, it would be easier to conclude a path to success in such an endeavour, but with LG, it is a toss up until or unless consumers embrace it. Pricing for these products will also be a determining factor.

Inevitably, questions may arise over the merits of having to carry around extra components that serve singular purposes when apps might be able to pull the same weight. The two I saw serve highly functional, albeit niche, purposes that won’t resonate with everyone, yet I still came away intrigued at the possibilities. A larger battery down the line in the same form factor? Sure, why not. A mini-projector of some kind? Certainly possible? Another unique camera accessory that can add another lens? Maybe.

It sounds like pie in the sky, in some respects, but the open architecture presented here does mean LG or other manufacturers can go a little nuts in developing add-ons.

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Camera

Personally, I felt the G4 was the best smartphone camera of 2015, particularly because of the superb manual mode. In going with two rear lenses in the G5, LG is attempting to solve a problem of wider angles. The lack of optical zoom is already old hat in smartphones, so the G5 effectively has two focal depths — the larger one being 135-degrees wide and the shorter one being the standard 75-degrees.

The difference between the two, including the seamless transition from one lens to another (with a slight delay), is stark, to say the least. LG has managed to put in a field of view that is more typical of home security cameras. I did catch a slight fish-eye effect on the fringes but wasn’t in an environment where I could truly assess it.

After eschewing filters for unknown reasons, LG is bringing them in with an ode to old school film. The nine filters initially available will be based on film styles of the past, rather than the artistic and funky ones usually offered elsewhere, though the visual variations might render that distinction moot to some users. They can be previewed in real-time, and can also be applied to recording video, too.

In light of all the additions, it’s not evident that anything was subtracted. The camera interface looks identical, save for the new options that are now included. I also never got a straight answer on whether the f/1.8 aperture was the same or if LG lowered it further to push the envelope on low-light shooting. Laser autofocus continues to do its thing while the colour spectrum sensor so lauded at last year’s G4 launch received nary a mention this time around.

That may not be surprising, as there wasn’t much to fix on that front, except for perhaps more consistent performance in Auto mode. A few test shots on a demo unit indicated solid results, but only proper testing will show if LG can hold off competitors who are sure to up their camera game this year.

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Software

LG’s old bugaboo from past devices has been its erratic take on Android with its UX overlay. Very little was mentioned about this other than that the app drawer being jettisoned in favour of a more open setup. In this new iPhone-esque layout, apps and folders are laid out in a grid from one page to the next — a design tweak Woo says has been proven to work with market research.

At first glance, the home screen and overall feel of the interface feels a little different, not a major step in any particular direction. The notifications shade is the same layout as in previous LG handsets, refuting notions that more of stock Android will permeate the G5. That’s not meant to be a conclusion, simply an observation that the G5 didn’t really feel like it was influenced by stock Android, like I did when I first held the HTC One A9, for example.

One software addition that could help is Friends, melding an ecosystem of hardware products that can speak the same language and simplify setup and pairing. LG unveiled a few of these, including the LG 360 VR, LG 360 Cam and LG Rolling Bot, a Sphero-like robot that is about the size of a 5-pin bowling ball, and includes an onboard camera and microphone to double as a home surveillance and pet accessory.

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The other two are self-explanatory. The 360 VR is LG’s first shot at a virtual reality headset, lacking a strap at the top to avoid “VR hair,” and weighing a mere 100 grams. Rather than outfit it with various components, the G5 will reportedly do the heavy lifting instead, meaning the headset is little more than an accessory tied to the phone. That should be reflected in the price, but only time will tell.

The 360 Cam uses an upright form factor with two identical 16MP lenses to capture 2K video in 360-degrees. A simple button push on one side snaps still photos, while holding it triggers video recording, making it as simple to use as a pocket video cam from days gone by.

The camera can pair directly with the G5 for a live view and to stitch the two shots together for a fully rendered photo or clip.

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Wrap Up

Availability isn’t confirmed yet, but early April seems to be the teased launch period, putting the G5 out in an earlier timeframe than its predecessor last year. Pricing isn’t known, either, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive LG is on that front, considering it has to undercut Samsung, one way or another.

The G5 is clearly part of a bigger picture that includes not only the modularity LG is attempting, but also the Friends products that are designed to complement each other. The phone itself will need to be successful in order for the other elements to achieve any notoriety, a fact LG is no doubt fully aware of. Simply from the way it looks and feels, this is the company’s best smartphone to date, leaving behind a tradition of using materials that looked like metal, and finally going with a proper metal design.

The camera will also be interesting to watch. Will a wider angle be something users want more often than not? Will film filters be perceived any differently? Time will tell.

No Canada-specific information has been released as yet, but we will update pricing and availability once it has been confirmed, including which carriers will be offering the G5.

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  • Allan

    what an ugly phone.

  • southerndinner

    Neat features but that’s the ugliest phone I’ve seen in a long, long time. Especially with the modules attached and good luck LG getting people to carry the modules.

  • Theros

    Selling a camera shutter button a la carte. Clearly LG has never done any research on how addons fared with literally any game consoles…

    • Keppay

      It also adds additional battery (4000mAh). Think of it as Lumia 1020’s Camera Grip

    • zanzee

      no it adds 1200mAh of battery, 4000mAh total.

  • thereasoner

    It’s not without its draw backs but I’m impressed! So much nicer design than previous G models and the modular approach should be a money maker for LG as well as nirvana for the removable battery crowd.

    You’re turn Samsung, you have your work cut out for you.

  • G.P.

    The back with fingerprint sensor is very nexus’ish the same for how the case folds up near the camera.

    • Omar

      Well they did design the 5X.

  • Crossed

    People call it ugly… Do you enter your phone into a beauty pageant or something? Get over yourselves.

    • GPman

      Yes, and Samsung won. But then Patrick came back in, said he made a terrible mistake and said Samsung was runner up then gave the top honors to iPhone. 🙁

    • Jaycap4

      The Samsung S6 Edge was one of the worst phones I’ve ever used.

    • GPman

      You clearly missed the miss USA joke here…

    • Zbiba

      You probably didn’t use many phones then

    • zanzee

      I agree as a device I value usability over prettiness. The craze over making the slimmest “premium” material has made me skip two generations of phones. My note 3 is getting old and has no replacement in sight. 🙁

  • Brad Fortin

    I guess the accessories won’t be hot-swappable if they’re attached to the battery.

    • mobilesugar

      It would be a great idea to do so on the next model, but I doubt it will appear again soon. If the battery stayed in place and you could pop an add-on, it would be awesome. A speaker/kickstan might be nice for some but BT equipment is widely available….

  • John Marshall

    LG and Samsung have not come out with anything groundbreaking or must have with their new models. Minor upgrades at best. Sticking with my G4. Excellent camera, removable battery and sd card. Don’t need this other crap.

  • SC

    It’s missing wireless charging. I’d take wireless charging over USB C any day.

    • h2oflyer

      Wireless charging is slow and is really for people that have problems figuring out the plug end of the charging cord.

    • SC

      Says the person who never used both. Wireless charging is not slow. See the Note5 wireless fast charge it’s only 25 minutes longer than compared to wired

    • h2oflyer

      Says the person that took 7days to realize how slow his wireless charger is and somehow learned to plug it in without help.

    • Miles Harbord

      Have you tried USB C charging yet? I can get a full charge in about 35 minutes on my 5X.

    • SC

      No you can’t stop exaggerating. I have a 5X at work it doesn’t go from 0 to 100% in 35 minutes. it seems weird that your 5X is charging 3 times faster than everyone else’s…

    • Miles Harbord

      Let me guess, you swapped out the cable that came with it.

    • Miles Harbord

      Oh, and this isn’t a Nexus 5x feature, the 6p does the same thing. Not sure if it’s purely a patent thing, or just because USB type C carries more power, either way you need a a seat belt when you charge with the cable it comes with.

  • Omar

    I’ll admit the phone looked ugly in the leaks I saw earlier, but the pictures in this article really do it justice. It’s a nice-looking phone.

  • jay

    I like the LG phone a lot. They really did bring the game to a new level. If they getting developer to adapt to the modules I think they can really do a lot.

    One thing I am really curious is the ball! Does the robot only works with a G5?

    Just wondering how the otterbox case look like?

  • Ro Tep

    Very happy to see LG not giving up like Samsung with their Apple-ish policies even if they brought the MicroSD slot. The compromise to make the tech journalists with their big love of metal but now same of them are complaining about the design…. Overall, I’m very satisfied that LG tried many great things for the sake of innovation. I really hope it will be available with every carrier and a very agressive price. ????????????

  • TP

    A lot of innovation, but I still do not see how LG will lead and prosper the ecosystem of this ‘modular’ accessories. Both ‘Cam Plus’ and ‘B&O’ are very niche products. Most people who choose G5 over other strong contenders will not even bother with them, as long as the phone works out of box. And without popularity, the ecosystem will die in no time. I do like the phone as-is though, sounds like a very competitive device against Samsung or other Androids….though the design itself is a huge step down from G4 or V10.

  • FlamesFan89

    This will never ever happen, but just imagine if LG, Samsung, HTC, Sony, and others, all sat down and decided that yes, this modular thing is a good idea, but you know what would make it better? If we all used a standard connection/size/type. It would create a 3rd party market of modules that could be used on any of our flagship phones.

    One can dream.

    • kaostheory

      Already had that with windows desktops and I still had to change the case with every upgrade. Sure I could add more memory and I could sometimes port the hd to the next system but most of the time I just replaced everything. Phones are too small and it will never work.

  • JD

    Modular won’t do squat. Most of the modules for mobile devices are always stupidly priced eg “by time I get the phone and those modules I could be have bought 2-3 flagship phones…” So it won’t fly. The other part is Phone life cycles are wayyyy too short, in some cases 6-9 months. So it’s not you’ll own the phone for 6 months and feel yeh I’ll get the camera to make it better or to extend the life of the unit.

    • TP

      Exactly my thought. These modular accessories are designed to fit this phone with a very specific dimension. What if G6 comes out with a 5.5″ screen and hence wider but thinner bottom? All these expensive modular accessories become obsolete.

  • Humbre

    That’s a cool phone

  • GNS

    This is the phone I was waiting for. Snapdragon 820, 4gb RAM, removable battery, micro SD card slot and the best part: IPS LCD display. The new generation of AMOLEDs are very good, but they still can’t beat LCD screens on all categories, particularly when it comes to screen longevity.

  • Electrify85

    I feel that LG and Samsung have switched places this year. Last year Samsung was doing everything they could to copy Apple, while LG doubled down on what makes Android great. This year the S7 brings back expandable memory, a larger battery, and the skin looks very much like stock Android. Meanwhile LG removes the app drawer (seriously WTF?!) and overlay apps, and puts out a smaller screen and a smaller battery as well. Also as someone with a Sony Z3, though I keep it in a case most of the time, when out glass finish like Samsung’s choice really feels high end and premium – not to mention a nice way to differentiate yourself from iPhones.

    That said, it does have some pretty cool features. The modular add-ons, which I haven’t seen as well described as I have here, sound really cool with lots of potential. The dual camera setup and the fingerprint sensor on the back also are pluses. Not to mention the removable battery, which while I don’t care about it, I know that many out there do.

    I’m not in the market for a new phone this year, but if I were, I would go with price. Personally I really like the S7, but if it is more than about $100 than the G5, I would pick the latter over it. Put on the Google Now Launcher and use the money saved towards that audio enhancer, and that more than makes up for it.

  • kaostheory

    Would rather have bt devices I can use with any phone or with my next phone. Problem is (this is why I gave up on 2nd battery in lieu of a battery backup) is I don’t want to pay hundreds for accessories that won’t work with my next phone, that are sometimes upgraded in a year.

  • Justin Steen

    The modular design would be cool if they made an oversized battery for it.

  • Simon Cohen

    32-bit audio? Where would one even acquire material encoded at this spec? We’ve barely come to terms with hi-res 24-bit audio!

  • Miles Harbord

    I actually love the plastic body of LGs 5X, it’s nice and light, and it feels nice.