VERDICT: By turning a series of gimmicks into a wonky sense of personality, the LG G5 stands apart from the crowd. It’s far from perfect, but there’s plenty here to love.
The LG G5 embodies the kitchen-sink approach to design. Three cameras, modular accessories, a hot-swappable battery – LG has packed enough new and different in this smartphone to turn heads. There’s a stark contrast, however, between being unique and being worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
LG has struggled over the past few years to define the value proposition for its phones. Is it the rear-mounted home button? Could it be the company’s Android skin with extras like Knock Code for unlocking your phone? Maybe the historically great camera? It may well be all three and more, but LG has always lacked that intangible sense of polish and refinement you find in phones from Apple and Samsung.
Most of the changes LG made to the smartphone formula concern the G5’s physical design. Like its predecessors, the G5’s power button isn’t on the side of the phone, nor is it on the front below the screen like a home button. Instead, it’s on the back cover, positioned just beneath the camera sensors. LG used to keep the volume buttons there as well but decided this year to move them back to the edges, like most of the best smartphones.
The placement of the power button – and its integrated fingerprint scanner – can feel strange if you’ve never used an LG phone before. Being unable to turn the phone on while it’s face-up on a table or desk is a bit of a nuisance, but the ambidextrous design has its fans. It also makes sense to have the fingerprint scanner on the back instead of below the screen because of the LG phone’s defining feature: its chins.
The G5 has a removable battery, but the way you switch it out is a bit different from most phones. Instead of peeling off the back cover, the G5 has you slide the phone’s chin – the bezel beneath the screen where most phones put their home button – out like a pistol magazine, taking the battery with it. You then snap the battery off the chin, attach a different one, slide it back in and power on.
You can even swap out the base chin with one of two attachments that provide some extra functionality. One gives you a camera-style grip, a zoom wheel and an extra 1200 mAh battery for long photo sessions, while the other is a hi-fi amp that packs a digital-analog converter and drastically increases sound output quality. Both accessories are sold separately.
As fun as the G5’s removable chins are, you probably won’t be switching out batteries every day. But you will use the camera every day, and LG sets itself apart here as well: The G5 has three cameras.
One of those cameras is the regular front-facing shooter you find on any top smartphone. Its 8MP sensor is as large as the competitions’, so selfies are crisp and look decent in moderate light. LG’s take on Android is a bonus here, since you can capture selfies by raising your hand and clenching it into a fist in front of the lens, starting a countdown timer.
The real stars, though, are the two rear-facing cameras, which work off one another depending on far you zoom in. The wide-angle lens has noticeable fisheye distortion around the edges. It likely won’t do for well with cityscape photos, but it’s great for capturing broad landscape shots. As you zoom in, the camera dynamically switches off to the classic lens, pumping more pixels into distant objects. It’s no substitute for a true optical zoom lens, but it’s a clever design nonetheless.
The G5 can run circles around many of the cheaper smartphones we’ve reviewed. However, compared to the heavy hitters, it’s a tad on the slow side. It packs a Snapdragon 820 processor under the hood – the exact same chip you find in Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the HTC 10 and even the OnePlus 3. Yet next to all of them, the G5’s performance doesn’t quite match up.
Why the performance difference? It’s all in the software. Google has spent years optimizing Android for all sorts of hardware configurations. As a result, Android Marshmallow – the latest version of the operating system – is exceptional. Because Android is an open platform, however, many companies like to put their own spins on its user interface. Some of LG’s additions are fun. It lets you do things with the G5 like unlock it with a tapped-out Knock Code or take selfies by closing your fist. Others are just there to be different; almost all custom Android skins change at least a few of the default app icons.
Where stock Android is highly optimized to take advantage of every ounce of processing power, manufacturers have to do their own optimizations on their overlays. HTC and Samsung managed to do this well; LG, it seems, bobbled the ball. Transitions between app screens can stutter every so often, and many of the built-in apps take up valuable processor time.
Again, the LG G5 isn’t a slow phone – far from it. It tears through high-end 3D games and lets you manipulate photos and browse websites with graceful ease. It just isn’t nearly as fast and fluid as some of the competition.
The smartphone industry has all but settled on 3000 mAh as the standard battery size for most new, flagship phones, so it’s a bit surprising to see a slightly smaller, 2800 mAh cell in the G5. The device’s battery life is commensurately shorter. Instead of the eight-and-a-half hour times of its competition, the G5 made it to just under eight hours in our web browsing test. It reached eight hours and 11 minutes in PCMark’s workload battery test.
Of course, the whole point of the G5’s design is to make the battery easy to swap out, and it is. Switching out an old cell for a new one takes about 10 seconds, with another minute of bootup time to get the operating system back in action. It’s a delightfully easy procedure, though you have to buy a separate battery.
As you’d expect from a modern flagship, the G5 packs quick-charge support. Your mileage with the technology may vary. You can generally expect about a 50 percent charge within 20 to 30 minutes. There’s no support for wireless charging through Qi or any other standard; the construction of the G5’s swappable battery pack doesn’t allow for it.
Should you buy the LG G5? Despite everything the phone brings to the table, and it’s a lot- dual rear cameras, an easily swappable battery, fun accessories – we’re on the fence. If you’re already an LG fan, own one of its phones and love it, it’s a no-brainer; the G5 is one of the best devices LG has ever made, and it has a lot of cool new features. If LG toned down its Android skin and optimized it a bit better, it would have our unreserved recommendation. As is, however, you’re paying a lot of money for the ability to use fun accessories, and those accessories aren’t included with the phone.