LG's G5 Shows Bold Mobile Move, We Go Hands-On

Introduction

LG just announced the G5, its latest Android smartphone, at MWC 2016, and we were able to go hands-on with it and check out its metal design, innovative modular components and dual camera setup. This phone bears the fruits of LG's efforts to changes people’s perceptions of its phones, and it certainly symbolizes LG’s bold intentions to be a leader rather than a follower in the smartphone industry.

LG became a significant player in the Android smartphone space with 2013’s LG G2, but it has always played third fiddle to the two giants of mobile, Samsung and Apple. Last year, though, we started to see signs that it isn’t content to play that role anymore. LG’s Snapdragon 808-powered mainstream flagship, the LG G4, was an example of this new direction. Although it wasn’t particularly adventurous from a design and materials perspective, its camera broke new ground, and it was one of the best smartphone cameras we’ve ever tested. LG’s next high-end device, the LG V10, included some premium materials, namely stainless steel, and it also had full manual controls in its video mode.

Not only is the G5 a culmination of all of LG’s previous endeavors (it still has a removable battery and microSD slot, is made from metal, and has full manual camera controls), it also has a wild, perhaps daring, unique new feature -- it’s modular. Yes, modular. LG has taken a page from Google’s Project Ara and added the ability add modules to the phone to enhance its capabilities. In addition, another shot across its competition’s bow is a collection of companion devices designed to work with the G5, include a virtual reality headset and robotic camera.

We were fortunate enough to get an early look at the G5, its modular components and some of the “LG Friends” companion devices. Read on to see why we think that the G5 is one of the most exciting mobile devices to come out in a long time.

Design

Metal Unibody Design With A Removable Battery

LG has long been known for making all-plastic phones, and although you can certainly craft a premium device from this material, in most peoples' minds, a plastic phone just doesn’t carry as much value as a metal one. When Samsung went premium with the Galaxy S6 last spring, we were sure LG would do the same with the G4, but it disappointed us with another plastic device, with its one concession to high-end design being its optional leather backs. It wasn’t until last fall’s V10 that we finally saw LG up its game in the design department, but that phone used its stainless steel for more than just looks. Its steel construction and impact-absorbing plastic back allowed it to be more durable than most smartphones.

With the G5, LG has decided to use metal in a more conventional way, creating a metal unibody device in a similar fashion to Apple and HTC. The back of the G5 has sides that curve down to what LG calls a “shiny cut edge” -- a lip with a polished finish that contrasts with the matte metal of the back. The curved sides add comfort, and the lip helps with grip when holding the phone.

The G5 is available in four colors (silver, pink, titanium and gold) through what LG is calling “advanced micro anodizing,” which likely refers to micro arc oxidation, a process that produces a more durable finish that regular anodizing. The G5 doesn’t use stainless steel though -- just aluminum -- so LG doesn’t make any additional durability claims like it does for the V10, and it unsurprisingly doesn’t have any element protection, either.

No Antenna Lines And Buttons On The Side

Impressively, LG has managed to integrate the G5’s antenna into the body without the unsightly plastic seams found on the iPhone and HTC One handsets. The smooth back is only broken by the camera module hump, the combination fingerprint reader/power button below that, and the seam for the removable bottom (more on that in a moment).

You are probably wondering where LG’s characteristic rear buttons have gone, and the ones for volume have been moved back to the side where many of you feel they should be. I for one liked their placement and am a little disappointed to see this move. At least the power button is still on the back. The SIM card and microSD card are inserted into the phone using a pop-out tray on the right side.

Around front, the G5 has a 5.3-inch display covered in what LG is calling “3D Arc Glass,” with what looks to be a very gentle curve in the glass towards the top of the phone. The G5 is a lot less squared-off than its predecessors, the G4 and G3, and its shape is closer to that of LG’s Nexus 5X. However, despite its smaller screen (when compared to the G4), it’s a tad taller that all three of those phones, but at 7.7 mm thick and 73.9 mm wide, the G5 is a slimmer and narrower device.

LG G5 Modular Smartphone Hands-On

A removable battery is something LG has long touted in its marketing as a core feature on all its phones, unlike most of its competitors. To allow for this on the G5 with its metal unibody, LG had to get creative. What it came up with is ingenious: There is a button on the lower left-side of the phone, and when pressed, it releases the entire lower part of the G5 below the screen. The battery then simply slides out from inside the phone, which you can see demonstrated in our hands-on video above.

What does concern us, though, at least from our experience with the phone we tried, is how good the fit will be of the removable bottom (and, therefore, the modules mentioned below). The seam where it meets the G5’s main body was very noticeable on all the phones on display. Because these were likely pre-production models, we hope LG tightens up the tolerances on the shipping units.

A Mainstream Modular Phone

We’re not sure what came first, the chicken or the egg. Did the need to have a removable battery on a metal unibody device open the door for LG to make modules that could also be connected, or was it the other way round? We can’t answer that question, of course, but we can definitely say that when it was revealed to us that the G5 would have this feature, we were shocked, in a good way.

The idea of a modular smartphone has been a concept that has been kicking around for the past few years, with Google’s Project Ara and Circular Devices’ PuzzlePhone. However, we never expected to see this concept applied to a mainstream device from a big manufacturer any time soon. Although the modularity of the G5 is a far cry from what’s proposed in the aforementioned projects, it’s a start and is probably the most interesting aspect of LG’s newest phone, even though there are only two modules so far.

The first is the LG CAM Plus (shown in the slideshow above) that adds a camera grip and buttons to the G5 to turn it into almost a proper point-and-shoot. The buttons are a shutter, video record, and power, and there is also a zoom wheel that is used with the G5’s dual camera setup that we’ll cover later. The CAM Plus module also incorporates a 1,200 mAh battery for additional shooting time.

The other module is the LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O PLAY, and we, unfortunately, weren’t able to see a working version of it – the images shown above are of what clearly is a mockup. This module adds high-end audio hardware to the G5, with the same 32-bit Hi-Fi DAC found in the LG V10. The B&O PLAY also supports 32-bit 384KHz HD audio playback, and surprisingly it can also be used as a standalone DAC with other phones or even your PC.

Another morsel of info that LG shared with us is that it is open to third-party modules for the G5, and we’re very interested to see what some of them come up with. Well, that is if the G5 becomes popular enough to warrant investing in its module ecosystem. Whether or not third parties get on board, we’re sure there will be more modules coming from LG, and it will be interesting to see if this feature inspires other phone OEMs to try something similar.

Hardware Specifications

SoCQualcomm Snapdragon 820 64-bit Processor
CPUQualcomm Kryo (2 x @ 2.15 GHz + 2 x @ 1.59 GHz)
GPUQualcomm Adreno 530 @ 624MHz
Display5.3-inch Quad HD IPS Quantum Display (2560 x 1440, 554ppi)
Memory4 GB LPDDR4 RAM, 32 GB UFS ROM, microSD slot (up to 2 TB)
CameraRear:
Standard Lens: 16MP, 1/2.6" Sony IMX234 Exmor RS, 1.12μm, f/1.8, 28mm, Laser AF, OIS 2.0, HDR, color spectrum sensor, LED flash

Wide Lens: 8MP, f/2.4

Front:
8MP
Battery2,800 mAh (removable) with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0
BiometricsRear-mounted Fingerprint Sensor
Operating SystemAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow with LG UI
Size & Weight149.4 x 73.9 x 7.7 mm, 159g
NetworkX12 LTE Modem with Cat. 12 download (up to 600 Mbps),
Cat. 13 upload (up to 150 Mbps)
AudioaptX HD 24-bit Hi-Fi Wireless Audio
ConnectivityWi-Fi 802.11 a, b, g, n, ac, USB 2.0 Type-C, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2
MaterialsAluminum, Gorilla Glass
ColorsSilver, Pink, Titanium, and Gold
CarriersTBA
PricingTBA

A Brief SoC History Lesson

In 2015, Qualcomm’s flagship SoC, the 64-bit octa-core Snapdragon 810, was plagued with problems, especially when it first launched. To catch up with the competition (Apple), Qualcomm wasn’t able to design its own custom CPU cores fast enough and ended up using ARM’s reference Cortex CPUs in its 2015 chips. The problem with the 810 was it used four power-hungry Cortex-A57 cores built with TSMC's 20nm HKMG process. The 810 ran hot because of this, and thermal throttling had to be used to keep its heat in check, which resulted performance that was not much better than its predecessors.

LG had used the 810 in its first 2015 phone, the G Flex 2, so when it came time to pick the SoC for the G4, it was well aware of the 810’s issues. Instead, LG opted to use the step-down chip, the hexa-core Snapdragon 808, and although it was built on the same process as the 810, it only had two A57 cores, which minimized the thermal issues. In practice, that meant from a CPU performance perspective that the 808 performed just as well as its bigger brother, as our testing of the LG G4 showed.  

What the 808 didn’t have was as good as a GPU as the 810, nor did it support higher bandwidth DDR4 RAM. So while its CPU was able to keep up with the competitor’s flagships, the G4 was underpowered graphically, with the Adreno 418 GPU sometimes not being adequate for its QHD display.

Powered by Qualcomm’s Latest And Greatest

For 2016, LG has gone back to using Qualcomm’s most powerful SoC in its flagship phone -- the new Snapdragon 820. The 820 uses Qualcomm’s “first custom-designed 64-bit CPU,” the Kryo, designed for heterogeneous computing, which combines the abilities of all the SoC’s processors (CPU, GPU, DSP, and ISP) to maximize performance while minimizing power use. One example of how the 820 uses heterogeneous computing is combining the power of the CPU and GPU to speed up video post-processing, and both Qualcomm and LG claim that this allows for double the performance with 40 percent less power consumption. The thermal issues of the 810 are a thing of the past, with the 820 using Samsung’s more efficient 14nm FinFET LPP manufacturing process.

Also, the Snapdragon 820 is equipped with Qualcomm’s latest and most powerful GPU yet, the Adreno 530. Unfortunately, we don’t know too much about its architecture, other than it runs at up to 624 MHz. It should be faster than the already fast Adreno 430 found in the 810, and LG claims 40 percent improvement in both performance and power efficiency. The 530 also supports the new next-generation Vulkan graphics API. There is also the new lower-power Hexagon 680 DSP and the new Spectra 14-bit dual ISPs. Cellular connectivity is enhanced by the X12 LTE modem that supports Category 12 LTE download speeds of up to 600 Mbps.

Each of the 820’s chips is significantly faster than the previous generation, but when working together through heterogeneous computing, they can power through tasks even faster while still saving power. Qualcomm has designed the 820 to be able to apply its performance to optimizing demanding applications like virtual reality, computer vision, 4K capture and playback, and advanced image processing, all of which will significantly benefit the G5. As you’ll read later on, the G5’s dual cameras and add-on VR headset will all be able to utilize the 820’s enhancements.

If you want to learn more about the Snapdragon 820, you can read our detailed performance preview. We were certainly impressed by it, but our testing was done on Qualcomm's Mobile Development Platform (MDP), so isn’t totally representative of how a shipping device like the G5 will perform.

Part Of LG’s DNA: MicroSD And A Removable Battery

The G5 has 32 GB of faster UFS (Universal Flash Storage) internal storage, which is step up from the G4’s slower eMMC storage. With the G5 also having a microSD slot, you should be able to use Marshmallow’s new adoptable storage option (if LG has enabled this feature) that allows you to combine both storage amounts into one pool. This will significantly simplify storage management if you use a microSD card, but once it's adopted, the card isn’t supposed to be removed.

Also, keep in mind that even the fastest U3 microSD card isn’t going to be as fast as the built-in UFS storage, so you may see a slight storage performance drop if you do this. Of course, you don’t have to adopt the SD card, and it can still be used for normal removable storage.

We’ve already covered the fact that the G5’s battery is still removable, but what we haven’t said is that it's only 2,800 mAh, which is quite a bit smaller than the 3,000 mAh batteries of the G4 and G3. This concerns us a bit because the G4’s battery life was only average. However, the G5 does have a much more power-efficient SoC and has Low Power Location Estimation (LPLE) technology, which is supposed to reduce the power consumption of location-based apps. In addition, its display is physically smaller and has smarter backlight control, so perhaps all these enhancements will allow for better battery life despite the smaller cell. The only way to be sure, of course, will be to put the G5 to the test, which we look forward to doing.

With its metal body, the G5 isn’t going to be able to support wireless charging, but what is does support is Qualcomm’s new Quick Charge 3.0 standard through its USB Type-C port (USB 2.0). LG claimed that this new standard is “27 percent faster and 45 percent more efficient than the previous generation.” Let’s hope this time round LG sees fit include a quick charger in the box with the G5 – although the G4 supported Quick Charge 2.0, the charger to utilize it was optional.

Display And Camera

Always On Display

One of the LG V10’s unique feature was a small ticker-style secondary display that resided above the main screen and was designed to be always-on. This was so when you glanced at your phone, you could see important information like the time, date, and battery level without any interaction. On the G5, LG has dropped the idea of a secondary display but has brought its always-on functionality to the main display.

When we first learned about this feature, we assumed this meant that LG had switched to an OLED panel, which would allow for only the pixels of the date, time and battery life to be continuously illuminated, therefore saving power. We were surprised, then, to learn that the G5’s display is still an IPS Quantum display like the G4’s, and to achieve the always-on feature, the screen's backlight is divided into at least two zones, with the ability to adjust their brightness independently. That way, only the area of the display with the notification stays lit, and LG claimed that because of this, the impact battery life is minimal -- an additional 0.8 percent per hour of extra drain.

In addition to the always-on feature, when we asked about power-efficiency, we were told that part of the G5’s efficiency improvements come from smarter backlight control and brightness adjustments. It sounds like LG is still playing the same games it did with the G4’s screen brightness when we tested it to improve battery life. LG is also likely using content-adaptive backlight control (CABC), which also helps saves power, but often leads to image quality problems.

Learning that the G5’s display is another IPS Quantum screen also has us a little worried. Although LG claimed that this display technology allows it to achieve a better, wider color gamut on an IPS panel, we found when we tested the G4 that this led to a display with over-saturated, unnatural looking colors. This is what we had to say in our G4 review:

"This sounds great from a marketing perspective—yay, more colors!—but wide gamut displays (those that extend beyond the sRGB color space) are not necessarily a good thing. The problem is that iOS and Android do not support system-wide color management, and neither do any of the default apps. Without color management, the extra color potential of the G4’s display is wasted, and it’s reduced to rendering over saturated, unnatural looking colors by stretching points in the sRGB color space into the display’s larger gamut."

Of course, it's possible that LG has addressed these issues on the G5, and it's something we’ll look into closely when we get to test the phone properly.

Dual Cameras, But Not For Depth-Sensing

When we first snuck a peak at some of the leaked images of the LG G5 a few weeks ago, we were excited to see that it supposedly had two cameras on the back, aligned horizontally. Our minds immediately went to thinking that LG was incorporating a depth-sensing camera system, perhaps even an Intel RealSense camera. That would mean that the G5 could potentially be another Project Tango phone, like the Lenovo device announced at CES, and it could be used as part of an AR/VR system.

Unfortunately, the truth is a lot less exciting, at least to us. There are two cameras on the back of the G5, each with a lens of a different focal length. One is a 16MP camera with a "standard" 78-degree lens (likely to be around 28mm like the G4), and the other is an 8MP camera with a super-wide 135-degree lens. When shooting with the G5, you can switch between the cameras on the fly, so you can use the wider one “to capture more landscape, taller buildings or larger groups.”

You can also continuously zoom throughout the focal length of both lenses, and this is likely done using software interpolation. The Snapdragon 820’s Spectra dual-ISP (Image Signal Processor) is supposed to help create superior photos with features like “computational camera innovations,” so it's likely LG is leveraging the power of the ISP for this zoom feature. This new ISP is also supposed to speed up focus, have superior noise reduction, and improve low-light performance, so we do expect to see a marked improvement from the G4, which already takes excellent pictures.

What LG was not able to tell us yet is anything about the actual camera sensors or the aperture of the lenses. Considering it has been using Sony’s sensors on its flagship for the past number of years, it's pretty safe to assume that the G5 uses the same. Considering that the G4’s 16MP Sony IMX234 Exmor RS sensor was so good, perhaps LG has used it again. What they did confirm is that there is still Laser Autofocus and a Color Spectrum Sensor (CSS) to improve while balance. There is no word if there is optical image stabilization (OIS).

As you can see from the image above, the G5 camera UI hasn’t changed much from the G4’s. The only addition we can see is the icons at the top to change cameras. The full range of manual shooting controls are still present, but one big disappointment for us is that apparently the manual video controls of the V10 are not making an appearance on the G5. We can’t see why not, because it's just software, so perhaps this was a miscommunication.

Software And Accessories

What, No App Drawer?

Unfortunately, this section of the preview is going to be the lightest on info, because LG hasn’t shared very much with us about what they’ve done to the G5’s software. All the press release said is that it runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow. However, from the brief time we spent with a demo unit at our briefing, it’s clear that there’s more happening than LG has let on.

To start, the LG’s software has had a substantial visual makeover and looks significantly different than the G4. The G4’s icons and menus, while certainly not stock Android, still seemed to adhere to Google’s Material Design aesthetic. It looks like on the G5 that LG has struck out on its own with a look that is disappointingly more Samsung than Google.

Perhaps the biggest change, and likely to be the most controversial, is that the G5’s Android UI does not have an application drawer. This means all your applications live on your homescreen, just like iOS, or a number of Asian flavors of Android like Huawei’s EMUI. We’re not sure why LG chose to make this change, and we can’t say we’d be happy without an app drawer. (Because it's Android, though, there’s a simple fix – you just need to download a third-party launcher from the Play Store.)

The G5 Has Friends, Including Virtual Ones

The G5 has Friends. Quite a few of them, and although we don’t cover accessories too much here on Tom’s Hardware, some of the “companion devices” LG has announced for the G5 are quite significant. Unfortunately, as it was with the software and camera, LG hasn’t shared with us the complete details of all of them.

The first and probably most exciting LG Friend is the LG 360 VR headset, which you can see in the slideshow above. The model we saw was non-functioning, but we were immediately struck as to how much smaller it was than other mobile VR HMDs. That's because unlike its peers, the LG 360 VR doesn't use a phone as its display. Instead, it has what were we told are two 1080p screens in the headset, and it connects to the G5 via USB Type-C so the Snapdragon 820 in the phone can power the headset. Because there is no phone, the LG 360 VR is considerably lighter (118g) and more compact than something like Samsung’s Gear VR. We were also told that the tethered phone’s screen can be used as a control for the VR experiences.

In our minds, the two other important LG Friends are the LG 360 CAM and the LG Rolling Bot, both shown in the images above. The camera wasn’t at the preview event we attended, so like the VR headset, we don’t have too much to share and obviously couldn’t test it out. It looks a little like a stubbier Ricoh Theta -- it has two 13MP 200-degree wide angle cameras, one on each side, to capture full 360-degree video. It has a 1,200 mAh battery, 4 GB of image storage, a microSD slot, and connects to the G5 for control. It can capture 360-video at up to 2K and has three microphones for 5.1 surround audio recording. LG said the resulting footage can be uploaded to Google Street View or YouTube.

We did get to see the Rolling Bot (see the end of our video above), possibly the most off-the-wall phone accessory we’ve seen, and at first glance it looks like a bigger version of the popular Sphero robot. You control the Bot with the LG Friends Manager app (that is also used to manage the other Friends), and while driving it around, you can take pictures and shoot video with its built-in 8MP camera. LG is touting it as a home monitoring system more than just a toy, because its camera can livestream remotely to the G5, and there is also two-way audio. It even has a “pet mode” and a laser pointer so it can play with your cats!

There are also a number of other LG Friends coming that we didn’t get to see, including a new Harmon Kardon-tuned LG Tone Platinum Bluetooth stereo headset, the H3 by B&O PLAY (which is a set of high-end noise canceling earphones and the LG Smart Controller), and a drone control attachment for the G5.

Conclusion

When we reviewed the G4, we liked it enough to give it an award. However, it wasn’t quite good enough to be in consideration to be one of the best phones of 2015, simply because LG was still playing it safe. Yes, it had an awesome camera and great performance, but it didn’t have enough to make it stand out from the crowd of excellent smartphones released last year. What we wanted from it successor was a phone that took more risks, and a phone that could go toe-to-toe with the very best LG’s competition has to offer. After spending some time with the G5, it looks like LG may have delivered.

Not only is it made from premium materials this time around, but there aren’t any specification compromises. It uses Qualcomm’s newest and most powerful SoC, the Snapdragon 820, and it also has fast UFS flash storage, 4 GB of RAM, and still retains the removable battery despite its metal construction. If that were all there is to the G5, we’d probably be satisfied, but, wait, there’s more! The G5 is the first modular smartphone from a mainstream manufacturer, and this feature certainly caught us by surprise. Although it's not nearly as modular as something like Google’s Project Ara, the very existence of this feature impresses us, and we look forawrd to seeing where LG takes it.

There’s also the inanely-named series of LG Friends accessories. It's great to see LG getting into VR in a big way, with an innovative USB Type-C tethered VR HMD and 360-camera. And what about the Rolling Bot? Surely it's the oddest accessory we’ve ever seen from a big OEM, but even so, it looks really cool. Let’s just hope it isn’t too expensive.

We don’t have any pricing or availability information as of now, but we’re sure LG will be sharing that soon, and like the LG G4, we expect to see the G5 available on nearly every North America carrier.

Update, 3/01/2016, 1:15 a.m. PST: LG did confirm to us that the G5’s ‘standard’ 16MP camera is the same as the G4’s, so it uses a Sony IMX234 Exmor RS sensor, has an f/1.8 aperture, Laser AF and OIS 2.0. LG also confirmed that the G5 will not include the V10’s manual video features, lest it make the V10 obsolete. The camera details in our specification table have been updated.

Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware and Tom's IT Pro, covering SmartphonesTablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

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  • jgskpx0389
    I'm just loving this modular battery. I'm currently using Note 5 and I love the fast charging feature but at the same time it feels like the battery drains faster than my previous phone because I have to charge during lunch time and then at night time when i'm at home

    with this new modular battery by LG I can finally go back to having 2 batteries and just swap them out so i don't have to charge battery at all during daytime
  • LordConrad
    Still has a button on the back. This is the only thing keeping me from buying this phone, as I find rear buttons to be highly annoying.
  • l1ghtm4st3r
    Quote:
    Still has a button on the back. This is the only thing keeping me from buying this phone, as I find rear buttons to be highly annoying.

    The buttons are on the side. It's only the fingerprint sensor on the back.
  • pocketdrummer
    Quote:
    Still has a button on the back. This is the only thing keeping me from buying this phone, as I find rear buttons to be highly annoying.


    What's truly annoying is their insistence on ruining the android experience with their own crappy launcher. Why would anyone want to have their home screen cluttered up with every single app they own? Stupid...
  • seth89
    No rear rocker buttons, WTH LG!
    Anyone who has a LG G3,G4, or V10 gets it.

    It's ugly too, I was really looking forward to the same body the G series has always had but metal not an iPhone knock off.

    <-----this guy is let down.
  • Chris Droste
    I really would have appreciated a more evolutionary step this time. I think the G5 should have been the G4(leather back and back buttons in all) with the new, slightly smaller screen, the built-in DAC from the V10, the new Snapdragon chip, improved camera software, clean up the UI bloat even more (though i still love QMemo, QuickRemote, and Dual Window) and keep the dark theme, i really don't want to get my face bleached in the dark when i pull down the notification bar. the Dark Theme was clean, good contrast and easy on the eyes. this reminds me of the stupid color removal thing on the top icons after upgrading from Jellybean (STUPID!!!) App drawer; I'm indifferent. it helps when i lose a homescreen icon after a software update but millions of iPhone users may find it's removal another ease of use to draw in former apple devotees. And for the love of god what was wrong with the 3,000mAh battery? I personally loved that curved back!
  • mobtus
    Quote:
    What's truly annoying is their insistence on ruining the android experience with their own crappy launcher. Why would anyone want to have their home screen cluttered up with every single app they own? Stupid...


    I have a V10, the android version it has is actually pretty close to vanilla android... You might be thinking of Microsoft's launcher
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