LG G5 review: LG's appetite for risk is admirable, but doesn't pay off

I never thought I’d write this about any phone, but the LG G5 just feels a bit desperate. It feels rushed. It feels like LG’s designers were locked in a room, working on what could be a very good phone, and then someone bolted out the door Leeroy Jenkins-style, and unleashed the G5 on the world before the concept was fully realized.

Check it: In the transition from last year’s G4 to this year’s G5, LG moved to a nearly all-metal design, added a fingerprint sensor, and overhauled its battery swapping system. The company also added an always-on display, and a second rear-facing camera for taking wider-angle shots. On face value, these all sound like interesting, welcome additions. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find some of the changes are quite incremental, and not always well-executed.

And then we have LG’s new Friends accessories: two hardware modules that snap directly into the G5’s body, giving the phone an upgradability story that’s similar to what Google imagines for Project Ara. The Friends are LG’s bid to show that the company is still thinking big in the mobile space, and pushing the edge of what a smartphone can be.

Dan Masaoka

The LG G5’s removable battery, along with the phone’s stock chin (bottom), Hi-Fi Plus (middle) and Cam Plus (top).

These are admirable goals. Just one problem, though: The two Friends I tested—the Hi-Fi Plus digital audio converter and Cam Plus camera controller—just aren’t very good. They drag down the G5’s score, which is already imperiled by poor execution and dubious decisions.

It’s a shame, because the G5 ($689 unlocked on BestBuy) does improve upon last year’s G4 in a few areas. But for this review we have to look at the entire G5 concept—the full experience, and what it says about LG’s smartphone development.

Finally, an (almost) all-metal body

For two years running, we’ve had to diss LG for shipping its premium flagship phones with plastic shells. Apple has had a metal unibody design since the iPhone 5, and Samsung made the jump to full metal cladding for its Galaxy flagship two generations ago.

Of course, LG has always had a defensible excuse: Its earlier flagship phones required a plastic back panel to facilitate the company’s battery-swapping scheme. The opportunity to swap a depleted battery for a fully charged battery has been a unique selling proposition for LG, but owners have had to accept the compromise of a downmarket design—along with the possibility that their back panels will fly away into oblivion when they drop their phones. Indeed, those back panels were difficult to pry off for battery swaps, but eager to pop off during spills.

Dan Masaoka

Here’s a good look at the G5’s dual cameras and rather tiny fingerprint sensor. Also note the almost glowing luster of the case edge.

In the new G5, LG finally improves its system for battery swaps, and introduces a mostly all-metal body in the process. As LG explains, the phone’s body is made from “microdized” aluminum—a die-cast aluminum shell covered in primer, which is then covered by a metal pigment. Our pre-production unit (which I cover extensively here) came in pink, and has a bit more glowing luster than the silver version I tested for this final review. But both the pink and silver bodies look and feel more high-end than the plastic-backed G4 I reviewed in 2015.

Just be aware that the microdized surface will scuff and and scratch under abuse. I would have preferred a more durable finish, and maybe that’s something LG can improve in next year’s G6.

A better approach to battery swapping

The company’s materials choice notwithstanding, I think LG has finally landed on a good compromise for its battery-swapping scheme.

In the new system, you power down the phone, press a button on the side of the body, wiggle out the “chin” that serves as an end-cap for the chassis, and then slide out the cartridge that holds the G5’s 2800 mAh battery. From here, you unseat the battery by sort of “breaking” it off the chin. It feels like a violent motion that will damage the chin’s seating point, but I tested the procedure ad nauseum, and the materials appear to hold up. I have confidence in the new swapping system, overall.

Dan Masaoka

It requires a rather violent snap to remove the battery from its chin.

At first glance, the chin doesn’t look horribly incongruous with the chassis to which it connects, especially when you’re looking at the front of the phone. However, if you look at the back of the phone, you’ll see a prominent seam between the two pieces—it immediately telegraphs that you’ll never be dunking the G5 in water.

If you go one step further, and hold up the G5 to a bright light and look very closely, you’ll see that there are slight gaps between the chin and the unibody. I can imagine some loose clothing threads—or, in my case, dog hairs—getting snagged in these crevices. I think the real-world impact of the gaps is marginal, but simply from a philosophical design perspective, this is the kind of thing that would have gotten an Apple designer fired during the Steve Jobs era.

Jon Phillips

Note the gap. Also note that non-hi-tech flosses will fit in the gap as well. It’s just not an elegant design.

I never found myself swapping batteries with the G3 and G4 because prying off the plastic back panel was a pain in the ass. So, for this reason alone, the improved system might compel me to finally to get with LG’s swapping program. But here’s an even more compelling reason for battery swaps: The G5 falls behind its competitive set in terms of raw battery life.

With a time of 6:33 in the PCMark battery life test, the G5 has noticeably less longevity than the Galaxy S7 (7:15) and Galaxy S7 Edge (8:17). Accordingly, the G5 lagged behind in the Geekbench 3.3 battery test as well, lasting for 6:03 to the S7’s 6:56 and S7 Edge’s whopping 7:59.

The LG G5 beats the battery life of last year’s G4, but falls behind its current Samsung competition. The orange line represents PCMark’s battery life test. The green line refers to Geekbench 3.3’s battery life test.

Beautiful display with a near-useless always-on feature

LG’s battery has to drive an insanely high-resolution 5.3-inch “Quad HD” display. Last year’s G4 has the same 1440x2560 resolution, but measures 5.5 inches. I typically like my phones as large as possible, but during testing I never noticed the G5’s slight dimension decrease, and LG’s IPS LCD display is as beautiful as ever. I did notice a small amount of backlight bleed with the Fullscreen Display Test app, but my review unit didn’t suffer enough bleed to be a tangible problem issue during real-world use.

On the flipside, LG’s new always-on feature—which shows the current time and notification icons when the phone is sleeping—is insanely dim compared to the Galaxy S7’s similar implementation (which benefits from Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen).

Dan Masaoka

The LG G5’s display measures 5.3 inches, and boasts a breathtaking pixel density of 554 ppi.

Just as troubling, LG’s always-on feature doesn’t share helpful information: You can only see which apps have waiting notifications. I much prefer Google’s Ambient Mode, a similar feature in pure Android Nexus phones, which presents much more granular detail, like the content of texts and Hangouts messages.

LG still supports its Knock Code feature to wake the display from sleep, but now the system requires six screen taps (instead of four) to unlock the phone. I’ve always loved Knock Code, but throughout testing I used LG’s new fingerprint sensor almost exclusively to unlock the phone. Like the Nexus 6P’s sensor, LG’s is superfast and accurate, and sits on the back of the phone.

It’s a slightly less convenient position than the front-of-phone sensor orientation you’ll find on Samsung and Apple phones, but it undoubtedly helps preserve the G5’s compact dimensions. Indeed, LG’s display seems to make use of every millimeter of available space, and putting the sensor in the front would probably just increase the G5’s height.

Dan Masaoka

LG’s fingerprint sensor is small but that doesn’t seem to impair accuracy in the least.

LG’s fingerprint sensor is smaller than the Nexus 6P’s sensor, but the decrease in size never posed any problems during a week of use. LG’s sensor also integrates directly with the power button—which means the power button remains stuck on the back of the phone. But at least LG finally moved its volume controls to the side of the body. This makes adjusting music volume during the middle of a workout a bit less awkward.

Strong performance with a missing app drawer

Armed with the same Qualcomm 820 processor that appears in Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the LG G5 performs similar to its direct competitor. In PCMark’s Work Performance productivity test, the G5 scored 5686, where the Galaxy S7 hit a slightly higher 5774. In 3DMark’s Sling Shot ES 3.1 gaming test, the G5 scored 2309 to the Galaxy S7’s 2554. Throughout all our other benchmarks, the G5 trailed the Galaxy S7 by similarly small margins, and none of the performance deltas were wide enough to be of any concern. More importantly, the G5 doesn’t stutter or lag during real-world use.

This is how the G5 performs in PCMark’s basic productivity test. It clearly beats the G4, and runs within a margin of error of Samsung’s latest flagship phones.

On the software side of the equation, LG mostly executed small tweaks to its skin of Android Marshmallow. There are some changes to the Settings interface, but they won’t piss you off. You’ll just think, “Hmmm. That’s different.”

But when you get to the bottom of your home screen, brace yourself. Out of the box, the G5 ships without an app drawer—and that’s just madness if you’re a long-time Android user who’s come to rely on the app drawer for finding, sorting, and simply storing apps.

In its reviewer’s guide, under a section titled “Advanced UX,” LG says managing apps has become more and more complicated, and asserts its new “integration” of home screen and app drawer is “expected to provide a more straightforward approach to app management.”

Dan Masaoka

See anything missing? Yeah, the LG G5 ships without an app drawer. If you want it back, you’ll need to install a separate launcher.

In LG’s new world order, you can sort apps by name or download date; create different grid arrangements (4x4, 4x5 or 5x5); and hide apps by checking which ones you want to banish from the home screen. But, no, you can’t have an app drawer unless you download a separate launcher.

Installing the Google Now launcher brings back the app drawer. You can also download LG SmartWorld, do a search for Home 4.0, and install that add-on to bring back the app drawer. LG tells me this will become an over-the-air update later this month, so, clearly, LG’s Leeroy Jenkins foray into “Advanced UX” is being reconsidered.

Dan Masaoka

You can get the app drawer back if you download a different launcher from LG.

Is a wide-angle camera a real innovation?

One of the best features of last year’s G4 is its 16-megapixel rear camera with f/1.8 aperture and laser autofocus. The sensor itself is great, but the phone’s manual software controls are even better. The G4 lets you manually adjust white balance, focus, exposure, ISO, and shutter speed—from 1/3200ths to an insane 30 seconds. You can even save your shots as RAW files. The upshot is that you can execute a wide range of effects and treatments with editing software that were heretofore only available in expensive stand-alone cameras.

The camera package is one of the reasons I recommended the G4 so highly. And now that very same package is back in the G5. But this time it’s augmented by a second rear camera... which is more gimmicky and one-dimensional than impressive.

Dan Masaoka

The LG G5’s manual camera controls give you DSLR-caliber options, like controlling ISO.

The second camera is only 8 megapixels and the aperture drops down in quality to f/2.4. But where the standard rear camera is limited to a 78-degree field of view, the second camera can capture a more panoramic image with a field of view of 135 degrees. Both cameras share a single software interface, and you switch from one to the other by pinch-zooming on your camera preview screen.

Jon Phillips

The front straight at Laguna Seca, shot from the flag station with the LG G5’s standard 16-megapixel camera at its widest (78 degrees) field of view.

It’s an easy system to use, but the wide-angle camera introduces significant fish-eye distortion, and has limited applications. LG suggests using it to get more people into a group shot, but your friends on the edges of the photo will look like they’re being stretched by a fun-house mirror.

Jon Phillips

The front straight at Laguna Seca shot with the LG G5’s 8-megapixel wide-angle lens at its widest (135 degrees) field of view. Note the buildings that suddenly come into view—as well as the distortion of the white line in the lower left.

You can also use both cameras together to create “pop-out pictures” where an image from the wide-angle camera is surrounded by an image from the standard camera. Add in wacky filters like Fish Eye and Lens Blur, and you have the kind of horrible decoupage that only appears in third-grade art projects. It’s another feature that would have made Steve Jobs apoplectic.

The dual-camera feature feels like another missed opportunity—or wild shot in the dark—from LG’s engineering team. You can tell they’re trying hard to innovate, but the results just aren’t classy.

With Friends like these, who needs accessories?

To put a kicker on the entire confusing G5 story, the two Friends accessories left us wondering why LG created them at all.

Let’s start with the Cam Plus, a somewhat chunky module that boasts physical controls for toggling on the phone’s camera interface, snapping the shutter, starting and stopping videos, and adjusting zoom. The Cam Plus includes a 1200 mAh auxiliary battery (giving you a total of 4000 mAh with the module in use), and has a grippy texture that’s intended to make the G5 a more comfortable, secure shooting device. You install the Cam Plus with the same procedure required for battery swaps.

Dan Masaoka

Using the Friends modules also requires battery swaps. Note that the Cam Plus shown here includes a 1200 mAh auxilliary battery.

It all sounds intriguing, but I found the Cam Plus’ed G5 to be too bulky in my pocket, and I always feared losing the phone’s original chin. But even worse, the physical camera controls just don’t provide enough benefit to justify the accessory’s $70 price. I appreciated the ability to quickly toggle back and forth between LG’s camera software and home screen, but that was about it.

The jog dial for the Cam Plus zoom feature lacks resistance, and is difficult to use for smooth, gradual zooms. It’s just inexplicable that such a feature-limited accessory would foul up this one function so badly. Beyond that, all I can say is that a much more useful Cam Plus would provide physical adjustment for all of LG’s wonderful manual camera controls.

Dan Masaoka

The Cam Plus Friends module is a clever but poorly executed idea. The jog wheel for controlling zoom just isn’t easy to use.

Next up, we have the Hi-Fi Plus with B&O Play, a digital-to-audio converter (DAC) that’s supposed to improve the G5’s sound quality. It’s not currently cleared by the FCC for sale in America, and probably never will be. But that’s okay, because when I tested the Hi-Fi Plus with the pre-production Korean version of the G5, I couldn’t hear any improvement in sound quality whatsoever.

Would the DAC suddenly make a difference if the G5 was feeding its signal to an external DJ set-up? Perhaps. But who’s going to do this? For that matter, who will tolerate cold-swapping LG’s chins just to listen to slightly better sound fidelity? Fact is, the G5’s standard audio is quite good and loud, so who needs more?

Dan Masaoka

The three chins. From left to right: Cam Plus, Hi-Fi Plus, and the standard chinny-chin-chin.

It’s also worth noting Hi-Fi Plus introduces an even wider “chin gap,” and only works with wired earbuds, which I no longer use in this age of Bluetooth headsets. Finally, the module slightly lengthens the G5’s total package, and, like the Cam Plus, forces you to find a home for the chin that came with the phone.

Jon Phillips

Here’s the chin gap with the Hi-Fi Plus installed. You can see daylight through the other side.

Paying the price for bold ideas

I was more enthused by the G5 when I wrote my 24-hour impressions of the pre-production unit. But now that I’ve spent quality time with the phone, and have had a chance to play with the Friends, I’m left disappointed.

We have to applaud LG for taking so many risks—overhauling battery extraction, ditching the app drawer, adding a second camera, and beating other manufacturers to the modular accessory punch. But each of these innovations is flawed to one degree or another, casting a dark shadow on a phone that otherwise does have a lot of offer. 

If a friend said she was thinking of buying the G5 for its state-of-the-art processor, breathtaking screen, killer manual camera controls, and removable battery, I wouldn’t try to dissuade her. But this is still a phone that earns 3.5 stars. It’s just got too many problems to earn a higher score. 

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