After making a huge splash at this year’s Mobile World Congress expo in Barcelona, the LG G5 is now available for purchase. Thanks to the handset’s modular design, which nabbed it an award for 2016’s best innovation of MWC, it stands out from the rest of this year’s flagship releases. Is the modular design enough to make the LG G5 a better buy than competing 2016 flagship offerings?

Manfrotto 502 Video Head

Design and build

The first thing you’ll notice about the LG G5 is its all metal design. I understand that there was some pre-launch controversy over whether or not the device truly qualifies as being metal, but LG has worked hard to clear up any build quality misconceptions.

The bottom line is that the G5 is technically all metal, as it uses a metal alloy instead of being sculpted from a single block of aluminum like the iPhone or the HTC 10. I wouldn’t say that the G5’s feel or look bests any of this year’s flagship smartphones, but it’s certainly a step up from the LG G4.

At first glance, the G5 might seem like a handset that doesn’t do anything to stand out. On closer inspection, however, a discerning eye will begin to pick up on cues that something is different about the LG G5.

It all begins with the decision of the G5’s designers to employ a modular design. Having such a design, where the bottom portion of the phone detaches from the rest of the body has some advantages for sure, but it can also have disadvantages when it comes to build quality.

LG G5 Screen

You’ll notice other peculiar things too, such as the chamfered edges, which feature four strategically placed breaks at the top of the handset and on the sides near the modular attachment. These breaks expose material underneath, which I assume is for the phone’s antenna. It’s not something that everyone will notice, but eagle-eyed customers will see it. LG has implemented a process called micro-dizing to help mask the antenna lines, but these four small breaks help us to remember their existence.

The rear of the handset, which features a dual camera module at the top, and a fingerprint reader/power button combo just beneath, has a refined look about it. Those of you who are familiar with the look of the Nexus 5X will note similar design cues.

Overall, there isn’t one major thing that makes me dislike the G5’s design, but it’s all of the little annoyances that add up. For example, the volume rocker on the left side of the screen makes it hard to discern whether you’re pressing volume up or volume down. The rocker is so low profile that it virtually blends into the side of the phone. If you’re going to use a shared rocker-styled button instead of two separate volume buttons like on the Galaxy S7, you’re going to need to make sure that the tactical feedback provided by such a button is well defined.

Interfaces

USB-C is where most smartphones are going these days, and LG made sure to embrace this change. Like Apple’s Lightning connector, USB-C is a symmetrical connector that can be plugged in either way.

The G5 can also take advantage of faster charging using Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 feature afforded by the unit’s Snapdragon 820 processor. QuickCharge 3.0, according to Qualcomm, is said to be 38% more efficient than the previous version. In my tests, QuickCharge 3.0 lived up to its billing, charging the LG G5 from 0% to exactly 50% in just 30 minutes.

Next to the USB-C port rests the device’s speaker. Like most smartphone speakers, it’s a single port down-firing design that gets the job done, but doesn’t bring anything special to the table sound-wise.

LG g5 USB-c

On the side of the G5, you’ll find a shared nano SIM card/microSD tray. The phone itself ships with 32GB of storage on board, but a microSD card is an easy way to add additional storage. Considering that this phone shoots high quality 4K video, I’d say that the additional storage isn’t just an option, but it’s a must for anyone thinking about seriously using the handset’s 4K shooting capabilities.

On the top of the handset, you’ll find an IR blaster between the noise cancelling microphone and headphone jack. This IR blaster can be used in conjunction with the unit’s QuickRemote app for controlling TVs, stereos, and virtually anything else that’s capable of receiving IR input. Of all of the big name flagships from 2016, the LG G5 is the only one that sports an IR blaster.

Video walkthrough

Display

The front of the G5 features a 5.3″ IPS display with a resolution of 2560 x 1440. From a resolution standpoint, that puts the G5 on par with other Android flagships, although pixel density comparisons will vary based on the size of the display.

I noticed quite a bit of backlight bleed when using the phone in dark settings. Backlight bleed can be found on many devices that utilize IPS displays, but I found the bleed on the G5 to be moderate. Although such an issue is generally unnoticeable in bright environments, it can be annoying when watching a movie or doing anything else that features dark scenes while in low light settings. For comparison, the Galaxy S7’s display suffers from no such issue due to it using AMOLED technology over IPS.

Both AMOLED and IPS have their pluses and minuses, but I tend to prefer IPS displays for doing anything with photos due to color accuracy. With a photo-centric handset like the LG G5, it’s a good thing in some ways that IPS is used.

Modular design

Most of the G5’s specs are standard fare these days, especially for a flagship device. The real draw of the LG G5, at least from a marketing perspective, are the modular components that allow you to enhance the device’s functionality.

LG is calling these modular components “friends”, and at launch only one of them — the LG Cam Plus camera grip — appears to be prominently promoted. There are other modular attachments, such as Bang & Olufsen’s Hi-Fi audio device, but availability of that module appears to be limited.

It’s difficult to speak authoritatively on the phone’s modular components without at least trying the LG Cam Plus, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on one at launch. As someone who admires the camera abilities of this phone, I could see myself using the LG Cam Plus modular attachment, but the company faces an uphill battle in order to get customers, and more importantly, 3rd-party hardware manufactures, to latch on to the idea.

LG Cam Plus

Of course, LG didn’t invent modularity, and Google, with its Project Ara, has toyed with the idea of an open hardware platform incorporating a wide range of modular pieces. LG’s efforts are nowhere near as ambitious as Google’s Project Ara, but it’s a start.

Though I wasn’t able to go hands on with any of the extra modular components, the G5’s stock bottom lip is detachable, which at least gave me a glimpse into how the rest of the modular attachments work.

LG G5 Unboxing

On the bottom left-hand side of the phone, you’ll notice a small button that allows you to detach the handset’s bottom lip. Each modular component features a slot for the phone’s battery to attach, which then slides into the G5’s housing. The effect of such a design is two-fold — you get modularity, and the ability to swap batteries.

It’s nice to be able to swap batteries on a flagship phone, when most competitors have long moved away from that strategy. I am concerned about the amount of force required to remove the battery from its connector, however. It’s an odd design choice — one that doesn’t exactly instill confidence about the connector’s ability to stand up to repeated removals.

Having a removable bottom lip also means that the phone isn’t truly a unibody phone like that of an HTC 10 or a Galaxy S7. The side effects of such a design decision become apparent when you witness small gaps between the bottom lip and where it attempts to rest flush with the main body of the phone. Not only will design purists find this annoying, but it also tosses out the idea of water resistance in favor of modularity.

LG g5 Modular gap

Overall, I find the general build quality of the LG G5 to be satisfactory. It feels good in the hand, features a solid display, fingerprint sensor, USB-C, and above average camera options. There are some questionable design decisions thrown into the mix for sure, but nothing that’s alarming to the point where I wouldn’t consider buying the phone.

Software

The G5 ships with Android 6.0, and benefits from many of its enhancements. Awesome features like Google’s Now on Tap, native fingerprint recognition, on demand app permissions, and improved power management make the cut.

Like most of the other OEMs, LG provides its own non-removable applications and design cues. There are some unmistakable layers of LG paint, which as you’ll see, skews toward being a negative thing.

Launcher

The biggest problem is with LG’s launcher. LG’s default launcher is pretty sad all the way around. Not only does the stock launcher lack an App Drawer, which is controversial in its own right, but it’s extremely slow and laggy. There’s no excuse for a smartphone with a Snapdragon 820 to have a slow and laggy launcher, and none of the other flagship devices that I’ve tested have that problem.

The issue is with LG’s launcher alone, as replacing it with something like the Google Now Launcher remedies the sluggishness and lag instantly. Not only is the lagginess removed, but using another launcher also brings the benefit of an App Drawer for those who prefer having such a feature.

Camera

Despite the terrible launcher, there are some redeeming factors to LG’s customization. The Camera app, the best custom application found on the phone, provides many different modes to take advantage of all three of the G5’s cameras. The LG G5 is 4K-capable and contains low-level manual options for control beyond what you’d get on most stock camera apps. We’ll discuss the camera more in depth later.

LG manual Camera

Smart settings

Smart settings is LG’s location/contextually-aware feature that will automatically perform functions, such as change sound profiles and Wi-Fi connectivity, based on location or contextual situations. In a nutshell, it’s a way to automate things like ringtone volume based on where you are.

Multitasking

Like the Galaxy S7, LG lets users enjoy side-by-side multitasking, although it takes a more limited approach. LG calls its multitasking QSlide, and it’s buried deep within several menus in the settings app. It’s obvious from its location in the Settings that LG isn’t putting much stock into QSlide, and that seems warranted given its limitations.

QuickRemote

The G5’s QuickRemote app utilizes the IR blaster on the top of the phone. QuickRemote turns your smartphone into a remote that can be used to control all sorts of components. If you have lots of electronics that still use infrared remotes — receivers, TVs, AC units, and projectors — then this is a handy feature to have for sure.

Always-on display

Found under the Display section of the Settings app, the always-on display lets users dedicate a small portion of the lock screen to an always-on overlay. Users can set the always-on display to show the time, signature, and notification indicators while the screen is off. The always-on display isn’t actually always on. If you place the phone in your pocket or cover the ambient light sensor, the phone will intelligently shut off the display.

Such a feature may end up saving battery life, because it lessens the need to fire up the full color display in order to perform date, time, and notification checks. LG says that having it on uses less than 1% of battery per hour, and that seems about accurate.

Final software thoughts

Overall, my impression of the LG G5’s software is mixed. As expected, the camera app is awesome with its manual features, but the stock launcher really puts a damper on things. My recommendation is to change to an alternate launcher as soon as you can, because it noticeably improves the performance of the phone when opening and closing folders and browsing around the home screen. Alternate launchers also bring back the App Drawer, which many Android users love.

Cameras

The LG G4’s camera was a favorite of mine, and the follow-up edition continues the trend of being the handset’s primary standout feature. Yes, it’s the camera package, not the modularity, that make this smartphone different in a way that will matter to most.

The front-facing camera is your standard fare 8-megapixel camera. I was hoping that LG would bless the G5 with the LG V10’s dual selfie camera for extra wide selfies, but such a feature didn’t make the cut.

You will, however, get dual rear-facing cameras. The rear-facing cameras, a primary 16-megapixel shooter at f/1.8, and a secondary wide angle 8-megapixel shooter at f/2, bring some interesting possibilities to the table. Now it’s easy to capture extra wide shots on demand instead of having to rely on some eye-sore of a camera attachment that might not even be on your person at the moment you need it.

Dual cameras

Alone, the 16-megapixel sensor is good for acquiring fantastic-looking shots, especially when mated with LG’s manual controls. But having the extra wide angle camera helps this phone to stand out in ways that the modularity doesn’t. Granted, the 8-megapixel sensor is an obvious downgrade when it comes to image fidelity, but it’s still a great feature to have when the need for extra wide angle shots arise.

For starters, LG’s Camera app seamlessly integrates the two cameras together. When you zoom out beyond the standard camera’s focal length, the software automatically switches to the 8-megapixel camera to give you the added framing area. It’s also possible to instantly switch between the two cameras via the Camera app without relying on zoom controls.

LG G5 Camera

Besides just making the wide angle camera available, LG has created some unique camera modes that take advantage of multiple cameras simultaneously. The Multi-view camera, for example, allows you to use all three cameras at the same time for an instant photo collage. There’s also LG’s Popout mode, which uses both rear-facing shooters to snag images that frame the standard camera inside of the wide angle camera.

LG Popout cam

Having a second extra wide angle lens isn’t going to produce completely accurate looking shots, because it’s leaning toward that of a fish eye lens. Still, I found it to be a ridiculously fun feature to use creatively.

Manual controls

The best part of the G5’s camera is the manual control feature. This makes it possible to control various aspects of the camera, such as shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. While shooting with the main camera, you get access to the full gamut of controls. While using the wide angle camera, you get access to most manual controls, but you won’t have the ability to utilize the manual focus feature.

LG g5 manual controls

After the impressive LG V10, which also includes manual controls for video capture, the G5’s manual features feel like a step back. That said, it still provides more features than most users will likely take advantage of.

Video

The LG G5 offers 4K shooting via the 16-megapixel rear-facing camera. It’s possible to shoot video with the wide-angle camera as well, but it’s downgraded to 1080p quality.

While I do like the video capabilities of this phone, especially when in ideal lightning conditions, it’s certainly not perfect. For starters, where are the manual controls for shooting video? LG throws the kitchen sync at still shot photographers, but makes it impossible to use manual controls while shooting video. The aforementioned LG V10 featured manual video controls, so why limit your flagship phone?

4K video test

Another thing that I found odd is that the G5 captures video images at 3840 x 2160 while set to 4K, even if you shoot with the wide angle camera that’s only capable of 1080p. The end result is a file that advertises itself as 4K, yet is obviously well below that resolution. This was probably done for the fact that the G5 has the ability to switch on the fly between both cameras while taking video.

OIS vs Steady Record + OIS

For video shooters on the go, LG’s Steady Record feature piggybacks on top of the built in Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) to provide even smoother videos while moving about. I found Steady Record to do a decent job of keeping in-motion videos steady and balanced, although a slight ‘wobble’ effect is introduced when walking about. Unfortunately, Steady Record is only available while shooting in 1080p or less, which isn’t very clear while rummaging through the Camera’s many menus.

Performance

The G5 is powered by a Snapdragon 820 processor. This is the same processor featured in both the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10.

Below, you’ll find a benchmark of the LG G5 vs the Galaxy S7 vs the HTC 10. As you can see, performance is fairly similar across the board.

Benchmark compare LG G5

While the LG G5 performs just as expected when playing games and using apps, as mentioned, the default launcher features inherent lag that takes some of the sheen off of the new flagship smartphone.

External storage

The G5 features a microSD card slot, but external storage can only be used in the traditional manner. That means that LG G5 users can’t take advantage of Android 6.0’s new adoptable storage feature, which lets users mount the card as a part of the file system. If you use tons of large apps, such a feature can come in handy, because adoptable storage lets you store and run apps from a microSD card.

Fingerprint sensor

Like other smartphones that we’ve seen recently, the LG G5 integrates its fingerprint sensor into the power button the back of the device. It’s not necessary to press the button in order to unlock the phone, you just need to rest a registered fingerprint on the button.

LG g5 fingerprint sensor

I found the LG G5’s fingerprint sensor and corresponding unlock to be slower than the HTC 10 and iPhone 6s, and about the same as the Galaxy S7. If the device isn’t already awake, there is a slight lag that occurs between it recognizing your fingerprint and waking the display. It’s not a huge inconvenience but it is noticeable when pitting it head-to-head against other devices.

Conclusion

LG is hanging its hat on the G5’s modular design. But the “friends” as LG labels the modular attachments, fall short of making this phone great. Sadly, one of the reasons that the LG G5 suffers, is due to the very feature meant to separate this flagship from the rest of the pack. Having a modular device means more moving parts and a less cohesive design, and the LG G5 is a textbook example of that.

Is it worth worsening design for the benefit of modularity? It could be, but at this stage, and basing some of my thoughts on what I’ve read from others, the idea is still in its infancy, and the attachment features aren’t quite there yet. That said, I applaud LG for daring to try something new.

LG G5 Box

If there’s one surefire reason why a person might be compelled to choose the G5 over something like the HTC 10 or Galaxy S7, it would have to be for the camera options. LG lends tons of options to photographers, including a wide angle lens built right into the phone. I absolutely love the presence of this second camera, as it allows me to grab shots that simply wouldn’t have been possible from any other smartphone without some sort of attachment.

LG has always been really good with camera stuff, and I hope the dual camera feature is a trend that other OEMs will be willing to experiment with. If you’re seriously into photography or video, and don’t want to carry around any other cameras or attachments, then you should lend a serious look at the LG G5. Despite its many flaws, and there are quite a few of them, I believe there is a subset of customers who can overlook the aforementioned issues based on what this phone brings to the table camera-wise.

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