LG G5 review: 2016's cleverest smartphone is having some problems
A top smartphone with a great set of cameras, superb screen and ingenious modular expansion system, but is the LG G5 a great smartphone?
Update: I really like the idea behind the LG G5. It’s about time smartphone manufacturers came up with something different, and LG’s flagship seemed to catch a wave of enthusiasm when it launched at MWC 2016. Recently, however, there’s been more bad news than good emerging about the reliability of the Korean firm’s top smartphone and the much-lauded expansion modules.
There’s a sizeable thread on Reddit with one user complaining he’d had his phone replaced two times, and was on his fourth CAM Plus module. Another said he was on his sixth LG G5. There has been no official word on reliability problems from LG itself - I didn’t experience any problems with the review samples the company sent across to me - and do bear in mind that satisfied customers rarely take to forums like these, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on before you splash the cash.
LG G5 review: In depth
The LG G5 is a smartphone that wants to be different. Instead of aping Apple and Samsung, firms that choose to seal their flagship smartphones firmly shut, LG has gone entirely the other way in 2016. It has completely remodeled its flagship handset to incorporate a removable battery, upgradeable storage and a system that, excitingly, allows users to expand the phone's capabilities through the connection of add-on modules.
And while Google's Project Ara fully modular smartphone remains a pipe dream long after its first appearance, LG's version is here now, it's real, and you can go out and buy one as soon as you finish reading this review.
In a very real sense, then, the LG G5 represents a watershed for the smartphone industry. By implementing this new approach to flagship smartphone production, LG has acknowledged that, actually, there's a market for something a little different, and instead of attempting to milk its customers for every last penny it's opening things up, making it easier to improve.
Moreover, it's an approach that other manufacturers seem increasingly keen to mimic. Motorola's Moto Z and Moto Z Force handsets, announced four months after the LG first broke cover, take a similar approach. They allowing expansion modules to be clipped onto the rear of the phone adding extra battery life, speakers, and even a projector to the phone's core capabilities.
LG G5 review: Design
It's a refreshing approach, and a laudable one, too, but perhaps the most ingenious thing about the LG G5 is that LG hasn’t had to revert to a shonky plastic back to do it. This is a handset that's constructed with premium materials and a close attention to detail.
It's finished in attractive anodised aluminium (this isn’t plastic, despite some early reports), flat at the rear and smoothly contoured towards the edges. It's a far cry from LG's previous flagship handsets, which were far more aggressive in their curves, and is a much more attractive phone for it. It isn't completely free of seams and nail catches, but what there is appears to have been engineered to the finest of tolerances. It’s elegant and unfussy and perhaps just a tiny bit reminiscent of the Nexus 6P.
I’m not a big fan of the bulging camera housing; it spoils the overall look, but otherwise the G5 a decent design, and practical, too. A subtle ridge around the edge at the rear helps you grip the phone, and the top portion of the glass front curves gently backwards. Best of all, the matte finish on the phone’s chassis doesn’t pick up fingerprints anywhere near as readily as the glass-backed Galaxy S7 does.
I also like the position of the fingerprint reader in the centre at the rear, which doubles as the phone's power button, and also that LG has finally seen fit to reposition the volume buttons. After a few years of rear-mounted volume keys, 2016 sees them return to their rightful place on the edges of the phone. This is most definitely a good thing.
The fact that it’s all wrapped up in a light (159g), slim (7.7mm) package certainly helps, and the mid-sized 5.3in display allows the LG G5 to strike the ideal balance between big-screen readability and easy pocketability.
LG G5 review: A phone you can expand
The only external sign of the LG G5’s modular approach is the pin-line seam that runs across the back of the phone at the bottom edge, and a small button on the left. Push this in and the LG G5’s expansion module disengages, allowing it to be withdrawn, complete with removable battery, from the end of the phone’s chassis.
Plugging in a new module in is a little more complicated. To connect the camera or music modules to the phone (see below for more details) or any of the other units for that matter, you first have to snap apart the battery and the bottom cap, attach the new module to the bottom end of the battery and slide the whole lot back into the phone. To replace the battery, remove the cap, attach it to the new power pack and slot back in.
It’s a deceptively simple idea, yet I’d like it to be slicker. Currently, it smacks very much of an engineering team fumbling its way into things rather than a confident step forward, but that’s what it takes to get a well-designed, solid-feeling phone that’s a little different, then I’m willing to accept that. And, don’t forget, you can also add extra storage via the microSD slot.
The only other thing to note is that, although the G5 is ultra-flexible, there’s no water- or dust-proofing and no dual-SIM capability. You can’t have everything, I suppose, although I can see the latter being added via an extra module at some point in the future - if the concept is a success.
LG G5 review: LG CAM Plus
Disappointingly, you can only buy two expansion modules for the LG G5’s ingenious expansion system. The first is focused on improving the camera interface, and it’s called the CAM Plus. This clips onto the bottom of the phone, replacing the plastic bottom lip, and adds a number of useful features. There’s a camera grip that’s aimed at helping you hold the phone more securely. In theory, as well as being more comfortable, you should get fewer blurry shots this way. There are also a few extra physical controls to help make the process of capturing photographs easier.
There are physical buttons for activating launching the camera app quickly, a two-stage shutter button, a rotary dial that lets you zoom in and out more easily and a dedicated movie recording button.
The CAM Plus also adds an extra booster battery, 1,200mAh in capacity, which allows you to shoot and record video in particular for a lot longer than you can with phone on its own.
In theory, it sounds like a great idea; in practice, it's not so exciting or even practical. The first problem with the CAM Plus is its size. It’s just not big enough to provide enough grip to wrap your fingers around, jutting out only very slightly from the rear of the phone when connected. It’s nowhere near as big and comfortable a grip as Nokia supplied with the Lumia 1020 back in the day.
On the other hand, it’s not small enough to justify leaving attached to your phone all the time, adding just enough bulk to make it uncomfortable to squeeze into an average-sized front jeans pocket.
The buttons are a definite bonus. I especially like that the shutter button is a two-stage trigger, allowing you to lock focus with a half press and snap your photo with a full press. With my DSLR I frequently use this feature to focus on one part of a scene, then move the frame carefully and fire off the shot to keep my subject in focus. It’s great to have the facility to do this here, and it make reframing shots much easier.
However, the zoom wheel is small and fiddly to operate even for my slim digits, and it's awkwardly positioned so it isn't easy to reach both shutter button and zoom wheel without having to move your hand around on the grip.
Its most useful feature - that extra battery - isn't all that impressive, either. True, it adds considerably more capacity, but for the size of the thing, I'd expect no less than double the size. As it is, the grip adds only a further 2hrs 50mins in our video rundown battery test (with the screen set to a brightness of 170cd/m2 and flight mode enabled). Again, it's not enough to justify leaving the grip in place all day, every day.
LG G5 review: B&O Hi-Fi Plus
The other module is audio-focused – the B&O Play - and this fall into a similar category. This expansion module, developed in collaboration with high-end audio specialists Bang & Olufsen, adds a high-resolution audio DAC and headphone amplifier to the LG G5, in theory improving sound quality. It costs £150, though, so it's not cheap.
The key question is, does it work? I plugged in a selection of headphones, from my reference Grado SR325i cans to cheaper in-ear jobs and found that it did make a difference, albeit small, to the depth, breadth and richness of the sound overall.
Is that difference big enough to justify £150? Absolutely not. If you're really dissatisfied with the sound quality, I'd encourage you to invest in a much cheaper, battery-powered headphone amplifier instead. That will make a far bigger difference to your listening experience and will cost you far, far less. And as Know Your Mobile pointed out, sound output on this LG G5 module is a little lacking.
And that's it for expansion modules, and it’s a fairly lean, unimpressive selection. All of which begs the question: will anyone actually go out and buy any of these modules? I suspect not, and unless LG continues to back the system for subsequent models, it’s an idea that’s likely to quietly fall by the wayside - quirky, intriguing and interesting, yes, but pointless in the long run.
LG G5 specifications
|Processor||Quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 820|
|Screen resolution||2,560 x 1,440|
|Screen type||IPS Quantum|
|Front camera||8 megapixels|
|Rear camera||16 + 8 megapixels|
|Storage (free)||32GB (23.5GB)|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||microSD|
|Size||149 x 7.7 x 74mm|
|Operating system||Android 6.0.1|
|Price on contract (inc VAT)||Free on £32-per-month contract|
|Prepay price (inc VAT)||£460|