Testing: The LG G5 Android Smartphone

By Ryan Whitwam

LG goes full modular, but was it a good idea?

LG has been chasing its hometown rival Samsung in the Android ecosystem for years now, but it's never managed to beat Samsung. The LG G5 is LG's attempt to address concerns about its materials and design while also keeping the features that set it apart from other Android OEMs. The G5 has an aluminum frame, whereas past phones were plastic. At the same time, it keeps the removable battery and adds a system of modular accessories. Is this enough to make for a compelling flagship phone?

I've been using the G5 for a few weeks, so let's see how it stacks up to the competition.

Design and Display

The G5 is an aluminum phone, which is a big deal for LG. In the past, it has been criticized for sticking with plastic materials while its competition used more impressive metal and glass designs. However, the way LG is using aluminum is probably not the way you would have expected. In fact, there's been a lot of argument about this on the internet.

So here's the deal: the G5 is a metal phone, but it doesn't feel like one. There's a thick layer of synthetic polymer primer on top of the metal that hides the antennas on the back panel. Most metal phones have those plastic lines across the back (think iPhone), but LG decided it wanted to hide those. The solution seems bizarre to me because part of the appeal of a metal phone is that it feels like metal. The upshot of all this is the smooth back (if you like that), and a more rigid frame that allows for the unique battery system (more on that shortly).

Also on the back is the power button with built-in fingerprint sensor. The volume rocker has, sadly, moved back to the side of the phone. I quite liked it on the back with previous LG phones. The fingerprint sensor works well enough, but it's not as good as the ones from Google, Samsung, and HTC.

On the bottom is the mono speaker, which is fine, and the new USB 3.0 Type-C port. The Type-C port will mean ditching all your old cables, but this is the standard of the future. Best we all just get with the program. The addition of Quick Charge 3.0 is nice as well.

LG has again gone with a 2560x1440 resolution LCD—it was the first mainstream OEM to do that with the LG G3 two years ago. The G4 was an improvement over that phone, and the G5 improves even further. The colors are solid and accurate without any of the blown out reds of some LCDs that are trying to emulate AMOLED. With the high resolution, this 5.3-inch panel is very dense and produces crisp images. The outdoor brightness is impressive as well. Some people are noticing some backlight bleed, but I haven't seen that one my unit.

Modular options

This is the G5's big pitch, and also its biggest weakness. The battery in the G5 is removable by pressing a button on the side of the device and pulling the chin section away. The battery slides out with the chin and can be replaced with a fresh one. If you need a removable battery in your phone, the G5 gets the job done. The modular aspect gets crazy when you look at what LG wants to do with that chin.

There are currently two modules available for the G5; the Cam Plus and the Hi-Fi Plus. The Cam Plus is a camera grip that includes manual controls and a extended battery for an added 1200mAh of juice. It makes the phone huge and awkward, though, and it costs $70. The Hi-Fi Plus is has a higher-quality DAC inside that's supposed to sound better. I can't really tell you if it does because the Hi-Fi is not available in the US. It won't even work with US phones because it lacks FCC certification (LG disables it in software). It's over the equivalent of $150 in Europe.

Mind the gap.

Basically, LG is not making its case very well for this whole modular phone idea. The company hopes that third-parties will start producing modules, but even in the unlikely event that happens, I'm not sure what LG's endgame is. How many $150 add-ons are people supposed to buy, knowing that they most likely won't fit on any future LG phones?

Perhaps the worst thing about the modules is how it affects the G5's build quality. The chin doesn't sit flush with the surface, and there's actually a visible gap between the body of the phone and the rest of the device. It just doesn't feel like a $700 phone in that respect.

Internals and Performance

The LG G5 has a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 820, a big step up after last year's G4 went with the 808 to avoid the 810's unfortunate overheating issues. You also get 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot, and a 2800mAh battery. You might worry about the build quality, but you don't need to worry about the speed.

The G5 is an incredibly fast phone. Multitasking, games, a ton of Chrome tabs—it handles it all fine. It even seems to have fast storage that rivals the GS7. In general, the G5 is a bit faster than the GS7. I assume the SD820 is clocked a little higher and doesn't throttle as fast.

As for the battery life, I think LG might have miscalculated. The battery in the G5 is actually 200mAh smaller than the G4's was. The GS7 even has a larger battery in its smaller frame. The battery life isn't bad, but it's short of what I expect from LG. You're looking in the neighborhood of 4 hours of screen time with moderate usage over the course of a full day. Android 6.0's Doze mode ensures you'll get a lot more usage if the phone is only being used lightly.

Camera(s)

The G5 stands apart from other phones not just in the number of megapixels it has, but in the number of cameras.

The G5 stands apart from other phones not just in the number of megapixels it has, but in the number of cameras. Yes, it's LG's turn to have two cameras this year, but I think it's actually much more successful with it than other OEMs have been. There's a standard 16MP camera much like the G4's camera last year, then there's an 8MP wide-angle lens next to it. That's not something you see everyday.

The regular camera performs well in my estimation. LG's software is great with plenty of options, manual mode, and some interesting (but maybe not very useful) multi-frame options with all three device cameras. Photos taken with the main camera are well-exposed and show good color reproduction. There's almost no noise visible in photos until you get into low-light scenarios. Even then, it's not terrible. I think Samsung manages more accurate, cleaner photos in poor light, but LG isn't far behind. It also has monster optical image stabilization. More often than not, you can get a good photo on the first try.

Top: standard, Bottom: wide-angle

As for that second camera, I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected to. You toggle between the two modes with a button at the top of the camera app. It only takes a second, and then you suddenly see a much more "real" field of view. LG says it's about 135-degrees, wider than some action cameras. There's also surprisingly little distortion. The wide-angle camera is especially great for capturing outdoor scenes. That's not only because of the wide open spaces, but also because it tends to get dark and fuzzy in dim indoor settings. It's not as good in that respect as the main camera.

Software

The LG G5 runs Android 6.0 marshmallow, just as you'd expect from any flagship phone launched in 2016. In the past, LG has had issues with its design aesthetic—neither the G4 nor V10 had a very pleasant UI skin. The G5 is a little better with more of a focus on light colors and subtle accents. It's still not as cohesive as Samsung, and certainly far short of the clean stock Android UI.

LG made some smart decisions with regard to the UI features as well. For example, there's no multi-window mode in this build of Android. LG's past phones had this, but to be frank, it was bad. Even Samsung's mediocre implementation is better. LG knows that multi-window mode is coming to stock Android in N, so it ripped its version out rather than continuing to develop it. That's a bummer if you actually want to use it, but it's probably smarter in the long run. Knock Code still lives on, and it's been beefed up with a higher minimum number of taps. That apparently makes it good enough to be considered a "secure" method for the purposes of Android Pay and full disk encryption. It also has neat screenshot annotation features.

On the not so good side, LG insists on continuing to develop its own versions of basic apps like the calendar, email, and file manager. Most people aren't going to use these apps, and they aren't very good anyway. They'll still clutter up the device, though. LG also took the inexplicable step of removing the app drawer from the home screen. I've used several phones (most from Chinese OEMs) that do this, and it's terrible. It's an absolute usability nightmare, and LG did nothing to compensate for that. Finding apps is a pain and the screen gets messy after you installed just a few of your own. You can switch to a third-party alternative, but that's not really the point.

I feel like I had to de-bloat the G5 more than other phones (with the possible exception of Samsung), but the experience isn't bad once I had it all set up. It could be worse, but it could be a lot better too.

Conclusion

There are a few reasons to get the LG G5 over other devices. If you want a removable battery, this is one of the only high-end phones that offers it right now. The wide-angle camera is a nifty extra too. I'm not sure anyone will base a buying decision entirely on that, though. The modular aspect, that just seems like a miscalculation to me.

The build quality of the G5 is the most glaring issue. It feels plasticy, looks boring, and feels downright cheap in places. It's not a bad phone, but it's not one I think is worth $700.