When looking at the landscape of Android flagship smartphones, I rarely find it easy to pinpoint a single manufacturer that, in one way or another, has consistently been able to meaningfully innovate one year after the other. More often than not, the OEMs have a go at things that are then removed the following year, or that in some way fail to broadly introduce a proper trend, like for instance the first attempts at fingerprint sensors or stereoscopic cameras…
There are countless examples of this: think of HTC’s infamous UltraPixel camera, which flopped badly, — twice — was then removed last year and is rumored to come back in full swing with the upcoming M10. Samsung has gone down the same path as well, possibly more than anyone else; the Galaxy S6 worked hard to please everyone’s eyeballs with its shiny design, but couldn’t bring back the usefulness of a waterproof coating and a microSD slot, both apparently on their way back to the S7 family. The original Note Edge didn’t really work at first, morphing itself into what we know today, but still it doesn’t seem like something worthy of wide adoption.
We loved HTC’s metal unibody constructions, started with the M7, the clean software of Motorola’s Motos, and drooled over the cameras in recent Galaxys and LG’s phones, but in the endless pursuit of a “perfect” device it was close to impossible to spot a pattern of consistency and steady, iterative improvement.
LG in particular has always seemed to suffer the overshadowing presence of Samsung, more or less bringing interesting ideas that were ultimately poorly executed, or completely undermined by the oft-terrible, clunky and not-cohesive software experience. However, its efforts to differentiate itself may deserve some praise, notably the positioning of the devices’ main buttons on the back.
Sure, as said, it may not have started a universally-followed trend, but it made LG’s products instantly recognizable, and while the forthcoming G5 may ditch this paradigm for the G lineup, other series (like the V) may continue to use it and improve on that.
What the G5 is rumored to bring however, other than an array of up-to-date specs and some form of ‘dual’ camera, is another interesting feature which, borrowing from a slightly more futuristic vision of the smartphone, may step into the territory and set a precedent. We’re naturally talking about its supposed ‘modular’ structure.
Now, to be entirely clear, going as far as saying that the G5 could be a ‘modular’ phone is a bit of a stretch, as its main aim may be more related to fixing an age-old problem rather than clearly marching towards that direction.
Metal-constructed, unibody phones have notoriously coped badly with memory expansions and most of all removable batteries, but LG’s design seems to integrate a removable slot at the bottom inside which the battery could be easily possible to swap in and out, without sacrificing the sleek aesthetics of aluminum. Whether this “magic door” is meant to allow the user to access other parts of the device, however, is unknown.
In any case, the concept behind it is quite intriguing.
We know for a fact that among all the crazy projects Google – or rather, Alphabet – is working on, Project Ara is alive and well. Sure, the number of technical issues related to it is far from irrelevant, but the idea of a phone whose parts are swappable, interchangeable and upgradeable at the user’s will is nothing short of exciting in a number of ways.
Imagine a situation where you phone’s screen breaks, and you can simply swap it out for a new one without touching any other component (nor, more importantly, having to rely on terrible customer services and infinite waiting times). Or what if you just wanted to have that shiny new Samsung-made camera, and that alone? You would be just once piece away.
We are probably quite far from that, but a nice first step could be a series of interchangeable parts made by the same manufacturer for a specific phone ‘base’. You will likely not be able to piece your dream phone together anytime soon, but who’s to say that within the span of a few years an “LG G7” customer may not be able to benefit from that LG v13 improved camera module without having to buy an entirely new phone just a few months later?
Such a thing could indeed be the start of a small revolution, one the smartphone world is in dire need of. Eventually, it could even turn out to be a way for Android OEMs to revert back their mobile businesses into something profitable, as very few (read: pretty much just Samsung) manage to make considerable amounts of money from phones. If, say, Sony, was able to quit the handsets’ business but still be able to sell camera modules directly to customers, that could be an opportunity not to miss, and one where the transaction would arguably be mutually beneficial.
As things are right now, the time arch separating us from the current offering to a future somewhat similar to the one described above is naturally uncertain, and to answer the original question the G5 is probably not going to generate any significant turmoil. Nevertheless, seeing an undoubtedly big manufacturer such as LG taking even baby steps towards an idea of a less-granitically built device may just be the right thing to do to spark interest in people — at least tech enthusiasts, if not the mainstream public at large.
While it justly eyes the future, however, LG needs to worry about the present, and what 2016’s market situation means for them — and, to begin with, picking February 21st, the same day as Samsung, to make its big announcement, certainly feels like the company may be up to throwing down the gauntlet.
Despite all its problems, which as mentioned don’t differ too much from LG’s, the Galaxy S7 is shaping up to be a monster of a phone, which alone may spell trouble for the second-largest South Korean giant. Samsung’s branding is undoubtedly stronger, and there’s no denying that the Galaxy S6 as well as the Note 5 were overall spectacular devices, so even in the case in which the G5 managed to match the S7s in real-life performance (and attractiveness) as well as the spec-sheet, convincing people is not going to be an easy task.
It may be when compared to the other flagship coming out in the first half of this year, HTC’s M10. The Taiwanese OEM’s position is arguably worse than LG’s, but choosing between the two will ultimately come down to design preferences and software, as well as extra potential features.
Personally, I have to say that I don’t have much faith in neither, and would still probably choose Samsung. Unless drastic changes to the software were to be made – and there is no indication of that – LG could come up with even a miraculous phone, but still wouldn’t get my vote. Despite a few interesting features, like multiwindow (which happens to be on Galaxys as well) there’s virtually nothing positive about LG’s UX, at least in my own experience. In a way, it’s Samsung’s story all over again: redundant apps, lack of polish, poor aesthetic design (a problem of old made worse by Material Design’s stunning visuals) and a generally ‘heavy’ feeling of incohesive lack of overall vision have always brought it down.
Keeping our feet to the ground, in fact, the question LG desperately needs to answer now is the same as everyone else: can it finally bring decent software to its phones (at a time when not even ‘decent’ is really enough anymore), or are we to expect another version (this time, unfortunately, quite consistent) of a disappointing mess?