LG: Stop focusing on Apple and Samsung. There's us. And our G5. Look at it. Look at it

The forgotten flagship

Review Every year LG threatens to steal the flagship crown, but the press pauses briefly only on the device before returning to speculating about Samsung and Apple.

LG’s flagships have featured ground-breaking screens (Quad HD), unusual banana shaped glass and consistently good imaging. But still no breakthrough. No wonder LG got fed up and decided to do something really radical this year: opening up a phone for hardware expansion modules for the first time.

The G5 boasts a feature no one else has: a modular, expandable design. Pop a latch and the battery comes out, which you can replace with another expansion unit, or in LG marketing speak, a "Friend". So far only two compatible "Friends" have been announced, a DAC audio module made with B&O that supports 32bit sound, and an imaging module that’s a combo battery and camera grip. Neither is yet available.

In addition, LG has a whimsical set of complementary accessories including a 360 Cam and a pair of budget, portable VR specs – 360 VR. LG’s take on VR is pretty interesting: you don’t need to spend a day to set it up, or wire it to a massive PC. Another “Friend” is Rolling Bot. Unlike the Sphero BB-8, LG’s bot has a camera and mic. We did say it was whimsical.

The Bang & Olufson-branded "HiFi Plus" unit

With the expansion units elusive, we’ll just look at the phone here, as it impresses in many ways in its own right.

Except one.

After the expansive, confident and distinctive designs of the G3 and G4, the G5 lands with a dull thud. It has lost much of its personality. The curved back and banana-shaped curved glass display are dumped – they’re too weird, apparently. So is the option to have a stitched leather back. The only concession to past adventures in design is that the top of the front of the phone curves away from you slightly. For no particular reason.

When the G4 was launched LG explained people wanted “an analog experience” with their digital phone, and the craftsmanship was evident. Well maybe they don’t now. The rear volume keys have also been ditched. The case is stunningly dull, and contrives to look much cheaper than it is. From a distance it looks like a Sammy in a cheap TPU case. Some bloggers thought it was plastic, in fact it’s made of aluminium with a special alloy primer that has a surer grip.

If you must know: "After the die-casting is complete, the insulating antenna slit is applied directly to the aluminium casing followed by a coating of primer which provides additional insulation and enhances the surface profile for the "microdizing" process, where pigment containing tiny metal particles is applied directly to the primer to provide a smooth and durable finish."

Which is great, but the dull case takes the sheen (both literally and figuratively) off what transpires is a formidable device.

The G5 in pink. This is actually as interesting as it gets

Once you get past first impressions, you’ll find it’s much improved on last year’s already strong G4.

The G5 gains a fingerprint sensor, and the battery life is no longer a constant worry, thanks to Marshmallow. LG’s last two flagships have featured a Quad HD display panel - the G3 was the first to do so - and while LG sidestepped the Snapdragon 810 debacle, the large, bright display guzzled a lot of gas.

LG’s has downsized the display: 5.3 inch (down from 5.5 inch), while the device remains about the same height, to make room for a larger chin. It’s still a pin-sharp Quad HD - you expect great panels from LG, with superb colour gamut, and this doesn’t let you down. It has a decent boost for sunlight, too. It’s a pity you’re stuck with one fey, light pastel green theme for the permanent UI furniture, when more could show off the display’s subtleties. LG’s downloadable themes, as ever, tend to be the whimsical pastel palettes that are a safe bet in South Korea.

There’s no bending or creaking, which is good for a design with plenty of air inside. I could never quite get used to the G3/G4’s rear-mounted volume keys, particularly on the G4, where they didn’t provide enough relief. But a rear power button makes perfect sense, and here it’s combined with a sensor, just where Huawei puts it on its own devices and the Google Nexus 6P. Both the power button/sensor and imaging unit bulge a little, but the actual glass is recessed a tiny amount.

Calls were reliable and the signal held up well around notspots. Only Huawei makes a big deal about the quality of its radio engineering, such as antenna design, but every bit helps. The speaker throws out a well balanced sound: alarms weren't as annoying to wake up to as on a cheap phone. The battery made it through a day, but not much more.

The G5 is one of very few top brand phones left to retain an IR blaster: HTC and Samsung have discarded the feature. Even though most modern appliances have an insufferable app of their own, IR is still a huge convenience and much less faffing about, particularly if you only want one of the appliances functions and quickly. (Like change channel or volume).

This flagship lacks for nothing in tick box flagship features: Rapid charging to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 spec, lots of protocols including 24bit audio, and there’s an always on display. This one really is always on, and as with the Galaxy S7, there’s a subsequent power drain. Tests suggest it’s less than one per cent an hour. The Snapdragon 820 and its screaming GPU proessor, with 4GB of RAM, give it plenty of power for games and handling 4K video.The G5 plumps for USB Type-C, and it does support USB OTG for dumping stuff to and from a USB stick (You’ll need an adapter for this).

What’s missing? In a nutshell, there are no promises about waterproofing, and the Qi charging that featured briefly (in the LG G3) remains MIA. It’s odd that LG dropped it just as Samsung added it, but there you go.

Imaging

The G5’s headline feature is a dual camera: a second 8MP sensor sits alongside the 16MP main camera. The second unit allows you to toggle between normal and 135-degree side snaps with an onscreen toggle, which seemed to switch to wide angle by default. Wide angle produces 8MP snaps Previous G flagship models made advances with very fast focus, setting a high bar for rivals, and the tradition continues.

Somewhat surprisingly, LG hasn’t exploited the depth of field possibilities opened up by having two sensors, largely because it can’t: most of the time, the two units are not really operating simultaneously. HTC’s M8 duo camera gave you some crude but fun bokeh effects, and Huawei’s Leica-branded dual camera has really gone to town on depth of field.

LG’s imaging team puts an emphasis on more accurate colour reproduction. Again I rued having a quick way to start the camera - a factor when, all other things being more or less equal, is a clincher. Ideally a phone should have a hardware camera button, but Samsung has turned its home button into a camera button via a double-click, and that’s a huge convenience over hunt and peck.

LG doesn't do much with the dual camera setup, but the combination or "popout" photos are one gimmick

Software

This year LG has tidied up the Optimus skin considerably, and succeeds in removing much of the eccentric South Korean cruft without removing the LG character, something HTC struggled to achieve with the 10, which may as well be stock Android with a decent skinning engine. LG’s often-infuritating QSlide floating window apps are still there, but much less in your face.

LG UX 5.0 does away with the app drawer

LG has toned down its UI without losing its LG-ness

Not your Shenzhen generic: small but useful features abound in the LG G5.

The settings panel is still a tabbed affair, dividing the options into four categories, and LG retains its own phone and messaging apps. There are small but useful tweaks to be found here, like being able to pin apps in the Recent Apps switcher. There’s a Recently Uninstalled Apps app - the G5 doesn’t fully delete apps but puts them into temporary storage for 24 hours. If you’ve lent a phone to a child, you may know why this is included - but really, if you want to give a phone to a child at all, give them a restricted foolproof account.

As with other flagships, I see Chinese-influenced features creeping in. One is discarding the app drawer so all the app pile up on the home screen. You can download a traditional launcher from the LG store, search for “Home (UX 4.0). As far as I can tell, they’re identical. Another is spam blocking, which has been there for a while, but has now been enhanced so you can filter SMS by keywords.

Conclusion

The G5 is a powerful flagship marred only by an undistinguished case design. The modular design is a great idea, offering to future proof your phone - they’re not going to be outdated by advances in CPUs or networks any time soon. But the potential of the modular design is only going to be realised with a strong range of “Friends” - otherwise it’s a compromised design, including dead space that could have been taken up by a beefier battery pack.

I doubt G5 owners will be unhappy, but this year Samsung’s all round package with the S7 and S7 Edge marries strong design incorporates both waterproofing and wireless charging out of the box: with no expansion needed. For around £150 less you can find very high quality competition from out of Shenzhen, such as the Huawei Mate 8. And scarily, last year's excellent G4 can be picked up for 250 quid - stitched cow hide and all.

Brand name flagships in 2016 really need to hit all the spots. It's a great idea, but if you're not in a hurry to upgrade, keep watching the market for signs of any interesting new expansion units. ®

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