LG is in a tricky position: starting with the G2, it's made consistently lovely flagship smartphones, but it can't even crack the top five top-selling mobile brands. The time has come for something seriously off the wall, and, well, LG went for it. Say hello to the LG G5, the most ambitious smartphone the company has ever made.
As usual, we knew a lot about the phone going into MWC. Qualcomm Snapdragon 820? Check. Always-on display? Sure. The true story lays in how all of these disparate bits of news come together in a single package. This year, LG built a denser, more premium-feeling machine. And here's what those leaks couldn't tell you: It feels pretty damned fantastic to use. Part of that is because of how much better it fits in hands thanks to a slightly smaller 5.3-inch IPS Quantum display. Like the G4, LG was shooting for accuracy over color saturation, and the result is a brighter, attractive screen with great viewing angles and a protective glass panel that curves enticingly away from you at the top of the phone. When the screen's off, part of it will remain lit to offer you the time and your notifications; LG says that always-on stuff drains the battery by only 0.8 percent an hour.
The phone's back is simultaneously more and less interesting -- aside from a tiny G5 logo at the bottom, it's bereft of the textured style we got in the G4. That's not all the G5 lacks, either. Its all-metal body (finally!) doesn't have the telltale antenna seams, thanks to a finishing process LG calls "micro-dazing," which shouldn't impact the phone's connectivity at all. Meanwhile, the sleep/wake button on the phone's back returns yet again, and this time it doubles as a fingerprint reader.
And just above that is one curious-looking camera hump -- there's an 8-megapixel camera sensor on one side of the LED flash and a 16-megapixel sensor on the other. LG admits that smartphone cameras from big players are all competent shooters, and was a little hard-pressed to figure out the way forward. Their approach -- this time, anyway -- was to use those cameras to snap photos that capture more of the world around you. Our eyes usually take in 120 to 124 degrees of whatever vista is in front of us, while rival smartphone cameras have a field of vision of only about 75 degrees. The secondary 8-megapixel camera on the G5 can capture ultra-wide-angle shots -- think 135 degrees, or slightly more than we'd notice with our eyes. At last, a smartphone shooting experience that really tries sticking to the "what you see is what you get" philosophy. I can't comment much on picture quality without pulling photos off the phone (an LG no-no, apparently), but shots looked crisp, bright and expansive on that Quad HD screen.
Everything runs really nicely, too, as you'd expect from a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM. Jumping between apps and trying to stymie the thing didn't work. This thing is oozing with power. LG has used a relatively light touch with Android over the past year or so, and that's mostly the case here. The biggest visual difference is the traditional Android app launcher -- while the G5 ships with Marshmallow, the launcher is gone completely so all apps live on your homescreens. Company reps say it's because people complained about the complexity of having multiple places to launch apps from, but man, that's not for me. Then again, such screen setups are common in Asia -- maybe this is a little pandering to pick up traction in other markets.
And now for the really off-the-wall bit. Press a tiny button on the G5's edge and the bottom and battery easily separate from the phone. (My fingernails are already thankful.) More practical types will be glad to know that makes it incredibly easy -- not to mention badass -- to swap out a depleted battery for a fresh one. More important, though, LG has cooked up some slide-in modules to amplify what the G5 is capable of. Need to listen to up-sampled, 32-bit audio? You're crazy, but you could pop in LG's Hi-Fi Plus DAC module, co-designed by Bang & Olufsen. And if you prefer a little extra control over those cameras, there's the Cam Plus, a chunky grip with a two-stage shutter button, a 4,000mAh battery and a jog dial for precision zooming. We pressed for more info on whether LG would specifically partner up with other companies or just license the connection interface out to anyone and were met with a halfhearted "We're not announcing that." Great.
Alas, the phone's biggest blessing might also be its foulest curse. See, when you swap out modules -- the stock battery bottom for the Cam Plus camera grip, for example -- the phone goes dead and then restarts. In this case, if you were looking to get some more granular control over your photos, the minute or two needed to swap modules could mean losing a shot. This maybe isn't the best example, but this feels like modularity without continuity. I can't help but wish LG had packed a tiny, secondary battery inside the G5 to keep things running while we swap modules. It would have made all the difference.
It's honestly been a little frustrating to see LG -- a quality smartphone player -- slip in and out of vogue so frequently. The G5 might change that; emphasis on might. When chatting with product design folks and even PR types, there's a palpable sense of excitement around what they've managed to build. And frankly, they have plenty to be proud of: The G5's first impression has been an almost entirely positive one, internal battery griping notwithstanding. Of course, without that modular angle, the G5 is yet another handsome, well-made flagship Android phone with a good camera. There's no way to tell whether the notion of swapping modules for added functionality is something regular phone shoppers will actually go gaga over. Still, LG shot for the moon with the G5, and we can't wait to dig in further once the review units start flowing.