LG G5 review: a modular phone is a brilliant idea but has the gamble paid off?
Most smartphones today largely look the same
With the exception of the maverick BlackBerry Priv, sporting both a touchscreen and physical keyboard, the vast majority of phones are slabs of metal, plastic and glass, with large displays and the physical home button thrown in for good measure.
So hats off to LG for trying something different with the LG G5, the first major brand smartphone to feature modular components, meaning you can clip new batteries, cameras and Hi-Fi adjustors to customise the phone further to your own requirements.
Though Google’s Project Ara was the first mainstream manufacturer to promise modular phones, LG is the first to actually deliver it.
Last year’s LG G4 was a bit of a let-down in terms of average battery life and the horribly ill-informed decision to coat it in leather, meaning the G5 has a lot of ground to make up to match the excellence of 2014’s G3. So how does it measure up?
Where both the G3 and G4 before it were slightly curved, the G5 is a more conventional candy-bar shape, with two rear-facing cameras, a back-mounted fingerprint scanner/power button and slightly smaller 5.3-inch display, down from last year’s 5.5-inches. It comes in a choice of silver, ‘titan’ (effectively a dark grey) and gold finishes.
The decision to position the power button on the back leaves the edges of the handset largely uninterrupted, bar the subtle volume button on the left-hand side and indented button on the lower left edge to release the unfortunately-named magic slot - the bottom edge for clipping modules in and out. Though it’s quite difficult to press the button in and pull the section away initially, it soon becomes easier.
As I’ve made extremely clear, I wasn’t a fan of the G4’s dodgy leather and easily-scratched porcelain backs, and had high hopes for the G5’s all-metal body. Except, it’s not quite all-metal. LG has coated its aluminium body in layers of primer and paint, presumably in an effort to make it more durable and cover up its plastic antenna strips, resulting in a slightly tacky finish that’s not entirely becoming of a flagship phone.
I’m also not an enormous fan of back-mounted fingerprint sensors - having to pick the phone up to unlock it seems enormously counter-intuitive to me. LG goes some way to remedy this with the inclusion of its always-on technology, displaying notifications on the dimly-lit screen. Granted, you can tap the display awake and tap in your code to unlock it, but I still think the fact you need to be already holding the handset to use the scanner kind of negates the point of having one in the first place.
The LG G5 comes with 32GB of storage, upgradable to 2TB thanks to its microSD card slot, (were there a card in that available size), and 4GB of RAM. However, it’s unable of taking advantage of Marshmallow’s adoptable storage, allowing the SD card to act as internal memory. It’s powered by a speedy Snapdragon 820 processor, which runs games, multiple-tab web browsing and relatively power-intensive apps without a hitch.
Display and interface
The bright 5.3-inch OLED display has a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels (554ppi), compared to the HTC 10’s 564ppi, the Samsung’s Galaxy 7’s 534 and iPhone 6s Plus’ 401ppi, and has a good contrast ratio and depth of colour. The always-on display is largely a matter of taste, with LG claiming it should drain no more than 0.8 per cent of battery per hour.
The interface is customisable: choose whether you want to have an app tray or not Credit: david rose/telegraph
It ships with Android Marshmallow 6.0.1, running LG’s skinned UX 5.0, featuring redesigned app icons and the option of a home screen with our without an app drawer depending on your preference. This effectively means you can choose between arranging apps within a drawer and out of sight, or having them display on the screen in a similar manner to how Apple’s iOS home screens appear.
I like the bright icon designs and punchy colour schemes, but the software is let down by the sheer amount of bloatware it is pre-loaded with. Whereas the HTC 10 admirably attempting to scale back on the amount of doubled-up apps, the G5 is bogged down with its own music and email apps etc alongside the usual litany of Google replicas.
Similarly, Facebook, Evernote and Instagram are all automatically installed, which won’t be for everyone.
A theoretical advantage the G5 has over its rivals is its return to the days of the removable battery, a useful staple for any festival or long day away from a charger.
Its 2800mAh battery is a brash luminous yellow, and takes some considerable force to snap it away from the phone’s lower edge and replace it with a newly charged one.
It’s just as well the battery is replaceable, as I found the battery life to be generally pretty poor. The blame for this can be largely lain on powering the screen, though what I would consider quite light web-browsing and music streaming also took a sizable toll.
I regularly found myself recharging it at around 2.30pm each day having charged it overnight, although thanks to its USB Tyle-C cable it recharges extremely quickly. Considering both the HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7 use 3,000mAh batteries, LG need to up their game here, though it’s still more powerful than the iPhone 6s Plus’ 2750mAh.
Unfortunately at the time of writing, LG didn’t have any spare Cam Plus camera and Hi-Fi Plus modules to test, so I’ll have to update this section when I get my hands on some.
If the G4’s primary selling-point was its camera, the G5’s remains the same. LG has been producing brilliant smartphone lenses for many years, and the G5’s two rear-facing cameras are no exception. One lens has been designed to capture standard 16MP pictures, while the other takes 8MP wide-angle shots, taking in a 135-degree field of view.
This independence of lenses, rather than relying on the two to create a composite image like the Huawei P9, is a great feature, and a true point of differentiation. Once the camera app is open, press the icon of a single tree to use the 16MP lens and the three tree icon to switch to the 8MP one.
Pictures taken with the standard lens are detailed and true-to-life, and it performs particularly well in low-light conditions, where the majority of its rivals struggle. The wide-angle lens is less powerful, but the slight fish-eye effect it gives photos it far superior to trying and failing to take a panoramic shot.
The camera app comes complete with all the standard modes: Auto, Popout (for taking a detailed centralised shot surrounded by a wide, blurred border), Multi-view for the view from both rear-facing and single 8MP front-facing camera, Slo-mo and Time-lapse, and all work widely well.
The Popout mode sharpens the centre of the image and blurs the edges slightly.
With the LG G5, the South Korean company has made a major step forward from last year’s setback and has proved it’s not afraid to try something different in a sea of uniformity. On measure, I’m not entirely convinced the gamble has paid off.
It’s a slick, competent and well-performing smartphone that is carried by its outstanding camera and let down by its bloated software, average frame and the modular aspect, while great in theory, currently feels a bit underserved with just a Hi-Fi booster and camera grip currently available.
The LG G5 costs about €690.
For this much money, LG should have worked harder to make the G5 feel like the premium phone it’s being marketed as, both in terms of aesthetics and the user experience.
In years to come, we may look back on the LG G5 as a landmark model which helped to kickstart the mainstream adoption of modules and the rise of the functional, customisable phone. But for now, I think that’s unlikely.
1Brilliant standard and wide-angle cameras
3Great HD display
1Modular components a bit under-developed at present
2Weak battery life
3Body doesn’t feel premium enough for the price