One of our favourite flagship smartphones of the last year was LG’s G4.
In a break from the norm, the handset eschewed popular wisdom and instead of packing in the fastest processor known to man, it focussed on things owners really want, like a fantastic camera and superb battery life.
It was, frankly, a ballsy statement that high-end smartphones should no longer be judged on hypothetical FLOP performance and should be about useful features instead. We hoped that the trend would continue with the launch of the LG G5.
What LG delivered at Mobile World Congress last month was promising: the G5’s standout features are an unusual “modular” design in which the battery slides out the bottom and can be replaced with some speakers (which also have a battery built-in, obviously) and a twin lens camera that switches from dedicated wide angle to zoom glass at a tap of the screen.
This year, however, any Android phone coming into the market is up against Samsung’s strongest contender for a while, the Galaxy S7 Edge. Would you pick the LG over its fellow Korean rival – especially once you learn it costs more or less the same.
LG G5 review: Revert to the mean
We’re not sure quite what to make of the fact that LG has reverted to form and gone back to cramming in the most powerful processor it could get its hands on. From a performance point of view, it’s obviously great.
This is also our first encounter with the Snapdragon 820 chipset and it runs through the scores all the way to the (almost) top. Yes the S7 Edge takes the cake with its Exynos 8890 Octa, but the G5 is no slouch either, just check out our benchmark comparisons.
The downside is that while last year LG kept the price down by using a second tier chip in its top-end phone, this year it’s back up to a super-premium R13 999.
For those readers old enough to remember, it reminds us a bit of when Intel attempted to take clockspeeds off of its desktop and server CPU branding: Multithreading Core processors were so much more efficient than the beastly Pentium 4s it was phasing out, a 2GHz Core could run rings around a 4GHz P4. So Intel thought by removing clockspeeds from the packaging, Intel wanted to prevent buyers from feeling short changed.
The trouble is, buyers like to know the technical details and want top end gear to have top end processors, even if they don’t need them. So customer psychology forced Intel back into the clockspeed wars and – we assume – has seen LG return to packing in the best money can buy.
As an aside to that aside, the LG’s CPU does become noticeably warm when it’s run for long periods.
LG G5 review: Modular models
The much-vaunted ‘modular’ part of the design can be found in the bottom part of the handset where the glass of the screen meets the branded metal.
Push a small button on the left of the base and everything below the display slides out, along with the 2800mAh battery.
This can then be swapped out for optional accessories called “Friends”, like the LG Cam Plus. This is is not a different camera sensor but rather a a chunky grip to hold onto and a zoom feature at your fingertips.
The LG Hi-Fi Plus, another Friend, is a digital sound to analogue sound converter for better audio quality if you plug the phone into a HiFi system.
The Friends are swapped out by pressing a button and while we have only had the phone for two weeks we suspect that after a year or even just regular swapping out of the Friends, this button might wear badly and result in the battery slithering out of the handset.
A more immediate issue, however, is the limited range of Friends available. According to LG, some of these peripherals can be expected in South Africa in May but as to which Friends we will see, is yet to be revealed.
Among these Friends is the LG 360 Cam which can film videos in 360 degrees. That does sound like a gimmick but actually looks really cool. The 360 VR headset connects to the phone rather than using the phone’s display like that in Samsung’s Gear VR headset.
The final Friend is the LG Rolling Bot which you can use to patrol your home and feed images and videos to you wirelessly, or has LG suggests, “just chase the cat”. Unfortunately, while this is the coolest Friend of the lot, we don’t know when it’s coming to South Africa.
Because it’s removable, the bottom bezel doesn’t quite fit flush to the display. There’s a small gap which could mean that water and – a real problem in SA – dust may find their way into the insides of the phone.
LG G5 review: Beautiful biometrics
We’re on the fence with Friends, then, but that doesn’t mean the phone is a write-off. Some of the standard features are very good.
The fingerprint scanner is extremely responsive and rather than having to press the button and then touch the button again to scan your finger, the scanner simply scans your finger when you touch it.
Our biggest problem is the placement of the scanner. Much like Huawei’s Mate 8, it is at the back and while that makes sense when you’re holding the phone, but when it’s flat on the desk or in a cradle in your car, it’s a bit of a frustration.
LG G5 review: Wide load camera
You have a 16MP camera with a wide-angle lens at the back and a 8MP camera at the front, which are fairly standard.
However, the wide-angle lens is great. This feature is perfect for taking a picture of a group of your friends. You can also tak that artistic shot for your Instagram followers you by narrowing the angle on your shot.
We feel that the screen is bit on the cooler side so photos look a bit strange on the display but on your PC the images look great, just take a look for yourself.
LG G5 review: Warming up to the display
The 1 440×2 560p display is extremely sharp, but not quite as good as we expect. Its biggest flaw is that there’s a distinctly cool colour cast, which mutes bright reds right down, and there’s no way to adjust this in the settings.
If you’re used to the popping saturation of a Samsung phone, this will look downright odd – even if there’s nothing wrong with the actual panel itself.
On the upside, the more natural colour balance makes landscape and wildlife photos look better than on an S7, but for 90% of what you do on a phone we prefer the Galaxy. Here’s hoping the next update for the G5 will include more display options.
Slightly less surmountable is the “Always On” display. Just like the S7 and S7 edge, when the G5 is in standby mode it displays a dimmed clock face and notifications bar.
This is, genuinely, great. One day, all phones will have one. For LG, however, the problem is that the IPS screen sucks a lot more battery life and is never quite as dark as the OLED panel in the Samsung – which again gives the S7 the edge (pardon the pun).
LG G5 review: The power to move you (for a day)
One day of use, that is what you should expect if you’re using your phone to chat, check Twitter and Facebook, call people, send emails, and take pictures, you know, one of those busy days.
A quiet weekend will get you two days of use though you may be a bit fearful of running out of power before the end of the second day.
Our marathon battery test, which consists of an HD video played on loop until the battery dies, lasted just eight hours. Compare this to the staying power of the Samsung S7 edge, which gave us 10 hours.
LG G5 review: Conclusion
You can probably see where we’re going with this now. The LG G5 is a phone that’s got some very interesting features, but it lacks the panache of its predecessor and – when all’s done – there’s not much to recommend it over its chief rival today.
Yes, the battery drops out but the current modules available to replace it aren’t exciting. Yes, the screen is high resolution, but it’s wan and pale because of dodgy settings. Yes, the all-metal design is cool but it means no wireless charging…
And so the list goes on.
The numbers don’t lie: the G5 performs well and is – on paper – worth a premium price. But it’s just not quite good enough to part us from our money. You may feel differently.