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Monday, June 6, 2016

LG G5

LG G5


What's Hot: The first metal-body LG phone. Wide angle rear camera is useful and fun. Fast performance, removable battery, has microSD card slot.
What's Not: Look could be better, fit and finish uneven. LG UI does away with app drawer. Friends are interesting but lacking.

There are those who say that mobile phone innovation has stalled, and that's hard to counter. LG has been brave enough to try something new, and even if it isn't yet the right thing, or the ideal way to execute on it, we have to laud that they took a chance. It's easy for those of us who are press, analysts and even customers to clamor for fantastic new features, but not many among us can come up with that. LG's next big thing are the terribly named LG Friends for the new LG G5 flagship Android smartphone. There's been chatter and even actual work on modular phones--Google's Project Ara for example, which is an entirely modular phone built with camera, processor, display, wireless and battery modules. LG's Friends are just a small (and more consumer friendly) version of that. The bottom chin of the phone is removable and the Friend modules slide in and out. So far there's a battery that ships with the phone, a camera grip and a hifi audio DAC for better headphone audio.

Specs at a Glance
The LG G5 is the company's mainstream size flagship Android smartphone for 2016. It has a 5.3" IPS QHD display and it runs Android 6.0 with LG UI on the top of the line Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 CPU. It has an ample 4 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of storage. You can expand storage via a microSD card slot. We can still count on LG to provide both removable storage and a removable battery. Speaking of the battery, it's 2800 mAh, which like the display, is smaller than the LG G4. The phone has the same 16MP main rear camera as the LG G4 plus a very fun 8MP extreme wide angle rear camera. There's a front 8MP camera for selfie love too. LTE 4G, WiFi 802.11ac, Bluetooth, NFC, GPS and an IR blaster for AV remote control round out the feature set.

Design and Ergonomics
There are big changes here: this is LG's first metal body phone. It's available in your choice of 4 colors: silver, titan (dark gray), gold and pink. Gone are the shiny plastic backs that defined LG, though they did occasionally jazz things up with the leather backs for the LG G4 and the rugged ribbed and rubbery LG V10 back. The phone looks like a cross between the Google Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, and is closer to the fluid curvy look of the 5X (the more affordable Google phone of 2015 made by LG). Yes, it's really a metal casing, even if the curvy back looks like injection molded plastic. Alas, it's painted with a primer (to add color we assume and to hide the antenna lines according to LG). That cheapens the look a bit, and we are worried as to how well that paint will hold up against scratches and wear. Several manufacturers have managed to incorporate antenna lines into the phone's design, and we're not sure why LG shied away from this (perhaps trying to one-up the competition).
LG's back fingerprint scanner is here and it's better than ever. It works extremely well and is easy to find by feel. The scanner doubles as the power button. It helps that they've moved the volume control buttons to the side rather than flanking the scanner as with the LG G4. As you might guess, thanks to the new Friends design, the back is no longer removable and the battery instead slots in from the bottom. There's a wide door on the side (opened via a paper clip or poke tool) that allows access to the microSD card slot and nano SIM card slot.

Above: yes that's how big the gap is on ours and the module is fully seated.
The phone feels good in hand thanks to curves and reasonable proportions. Fit and finish concern us when it comes to the fit of the Friends module on the bottom. If you watch our video, you'll see there's a gap large enough to see light through and slide a piece of paper into. We looked at other examples at our local store, and some of those fit more tightly. Our phone's highly polished chamfered sides weren't rough or sharp, but some at the store were. The paint on the back of our phone wasn't even and seemed as if it had run down before drying, causing a subtle lump just above the area where it mates with its Friends. LG will have to work out their QA issues to match their direct competitors, and even some $300 and lower Android phones we've reviewed recently from Huawei, Asus and Alcatel.

Is it Better to Have Friends?
The LG G5 has friends--both the kind that slot into the bottom of the phone and external accessories like a rolling bot that can do surveillance or harass your cat. There are only 2 Friends modules at launch (not including the included battery), though LG has made the design available to third parties who might make Friends if the phone sells well enough to warrant development costs (that seems iffy). Those third parties must agree to partner with LG to make the Friend, and obtain LG's approval as well. Such hurdles, understandable though they might be since LG doesn't want a rogue module compromising the phone, will likely temper excitement over building Friends.

LG offers the included battery Friend... your phone won't do much without a battery. The Cam Plus camera grip adds a 1200 mAh secondary battery and a hump that's supposed to make the phone easier to hold when shooting (dubious). The LG HiFi Plus audio DAC increases audio resolution through the headphone jack from 16 to 32 bits at 384 kHz. We're not sure if LG will sell the audio DAC in the US, but the camera grip is a go for around $70.
Friends can be complex, and LG's friends are easily ejected after you press a release button on the lower left side of the phone. That will power down the phone (since the battery has been ejected), and you'll need to wrestle the battery off the included battery Friend and attach it to the new Friend before use. Yanking that battery off is a traumatic experience--it's very hard to get off and you'll worry that you might break the module. Forgive me, I don't often bring up Apple in our Android phone reviews, but that's just the sort of hassle that Apple would never require of users. In fact, I don't think Samsung and HTC would either. It's just not fluid or fun, and the Friends so far don't warrant the effort. Innovation is wonderful, but not that sort that adds fiddly steps for dubious payoff.

Display
The LG G5 has an IPS QHD 2560 x 1440 resolution display that's competitive with other Android flagships in terms of resolution. Colors aren't as saturated as on the AMOLED Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, but for those who prefer more natural colors, that's fine. The display is actually smaller than the outgoing 5.5" LG G4; it's 5.3", which is a tiny bit bigger than Samsung's smaller flagship, the Galaxy S7. While the LG G4 was cool because it fit a bigger display in a still manageable phone, the G5 can't quite pull that off since the Friend feature enlarges the phone. These days folks love big screen phones, but I'd say that 5.3" is certainly comfy and adequate unless you prefer phablets or don't want to downsize from your LG G4.
Brightness is good, though the auto-brightness function (which you can disable) still leans towards what I find too dim. It has a very high max brightness of 850 nits when running on auto-brightness and using the phone outdoors in bright sunlight, but I found it a little challenging to get it to kick into brightness overdrive. Still, it's pleasingly bright, and many of us don't need retina-searing brightness when using the phone indoors. Contrast is good and black levels are likewise good for an IPS screen. Some users have complained of light bleed (white backlight bleeding through near the edges of the screen when viewing a dark image or letterboxed video), but ours didn't have that problem (see our video review to see the phone at max manual brightness with a dark home screen).
The LG has knock-on, which we love--tap twice on the screen to see info that's available without unlocking the phone. It also has an always-on display option that shows the time, date and notifications (the Galaxy S7 always-on screen lacks notification info). In our tests, it didn't impact battery life.

Horsepower and Performance
We've got top of the line specs here with the 1.6 GHz Snapdragon 820 CPU, 4 gigs of RAM and a decent 32 gigs of storage. Performance is spritely and the phone doesn't get burning hot (the fatal flaw of the Snapdragon 810 in some conductive metal body phones). Storage is expandable via microSD cards that load into a side slot, and LG says it's compatible with cards up to 2TB (theoretical since cards of that capacity don't yet exist).

Software

LG's UI is here, with its squared off, cartoony icons that remind us a bit of Samsung's older TouchWiz versions. This time, LG has banished the app drawer, which is a controversial move. Your app icons live on additional home screen panes instead of in a drawer. If you don't like that, but otherwise want the phone, load an alternative launcher like Google's own Google Now launcher or one of the other popular alternatives.
Underneath that UI, which has its good points like spilt-window multitasking, easy access to screen shots with annotations and the ability to rearrange the bottom navigation icons, there's Android 6.0 Marshmallow. That's currently the newest OS version available to Android phones. How quickly will LG offer updates to newer versions? That in part depends on carriers and how long their approval process takes.

Cameras
The LG G5 has the same very good 16MP rear camera with Sony sensor as the LG G4. In that respect, you're not upgrading if you move to the G5 from the G4. But it adds an 8MP extreme wide angle rear camera with a 135 degree field of view (similar to a 16 to 20mm lens on a dSLR). That might sound like a gimmick, but it's actually a lot of fun and useful for providing a near panorama field of view. Sure, there's distortion inherent to such a wide angle view and resolution is lower, but it still allows for very usable photos.


LG's camera software is similar to other models, with auto mode and a manual mode that lets you set shutter speed but not aperture manually. The 16MP camera can shoot 4K video at 30 fps as well as 1080p video at 60 fps. Results are nearly identical to the very good LG G4, so we won't dwell on that here. The front 8MP camera is quite high resolution for a front camera. It has a wide (but not crazy wide like the rear 8MP shooter) angle lens, so it will capture a good deal of your surroundings but some distortion of your features.

Battery Life
The LG G5 has a removable 2,800 mAh battery. That's actually a lower capacity than the LG G4 and LG V10, but this phone has a smaller display and the Snapdragon 820 is fairly power frugal (though we're not sure if it's that much more battery friendly than the Snapdragon 808 used in those two older phones). The phone supports Quick Charge 3.0 and a fast charger is included in the box that plugs into the USB-C port on the phone's bottom.

Standby times are truly superb, even with the always-on display active. Android 6.0's Doze feature prevents runaway apps from chewing through your battery when the phone is sleeping, and LG has done well here even when compared to other phones. Actual runtimes--screen on time for actual use, vary depending on the activity and screen brightness. 3D games kill the battery alarmingly fast (sometimes 2% every 5 minutes), but social networking and streaming video over WiFi allow for fairly competitive battery life. Display brightness has a strong effect on runtimes, and we suspect that's why LG's auto-brightness opts for what I'd call too dim a display. If you disable auto-brightness and run brightness above 50% battery life is noticeably weaker. I suspect user-selected brightness settings are why we've seen so many reviews and users claim widely disparate runtimes.

Conclusion
I'll be honest: the LG G5 doesn't excite me the way the LG G4 did. Last year LG offered a microSD card slot and removable battery when their archrival Samsung did not with the Galaxy S6 family. Their camera offered full manual mode and RAW format (though RAW quality is dubious on phones). This year, the Samsung Galaxy S7 has a microSD card slot and adds water resistance and one of the very best cameras on the market. LG brought design to the table to counter the Galaxy S7 and iPhone, and we have a full metal jacket. Alas, that jacket is clad in painted primer, and that reduces the metal feel and may make it vulnerable to scratches. The innovative Friends modules are perhaps ahead of their time: the modular design has promise but the Friends are few and not all that compelling (and they require very fiddly battery swaps). If you ignore the Friends feature, sad as that is, you're still getting a phone that's very fast with a very good camera and a near 8MP super wide angle rear camera. It's a reasonable size that can appeal to those who don't want a phablet, yet it's ample enough to not seem small-screened.

Website: www.lg.com
Price: $625 to $688, depending on carrier


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