LG G5 Review: Where it Does and Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype

The LG G5 is one of the most notable smartphone releases of 2016. The phone competes directly with Samsung’s Galaxy S7, as well as other high-end phones. One of the key features that differentiates the G5 from the competition is the fact that it’s modular — sort of. You can snap off the bottom piece of the phone to swap out the battery, or replace the end with a CAM Plus camera module or a HiFi audio module.

That sounds impressive, especially if you’re already interested in the idea of modular phones. And despite some initial criticism over some problems and design flaws, the LG G5 promises to be a great phone — especially with the addition of the optional CAM Plus module, which sounds like the perfect addition for mobile photography enthusiasts. But does it live up to the hype surrounding the modular system? And can it stand up to the tough competition offered by other Android flagships? I tested out the LG G5 and the CAM Plus module to find out.

LG G5 aesthetic

LG G5 aesthetic

Does the LG G5 live up to the hype? | Jess Bolluyt/The Cheat Sheet

I reviewed the LG G5 in gray, also called “titan,” which is much darker than the silver option offered. (In addition to silver, it’s also offered in pink and gold, depending on your carrier.) The metal unibody design is a departure from LG’s past smartphones, and is sleek, thin, and comfortable to hold. The bottom section of the device, however, does not match the rest of the metal unibody and feels plasticky. But the base is so small that you’re really only likely to notice the texture when you’re detaching it (which you can do to replace the battery or to swap it out for a module).

The top bezel of the phone is dark and blends seamlessly into the screen when the screen is off.  The 5.3-inch QHD display is bright and attractive. Since it has always-on functionality, the time, data, and notification icons remain visible when the screen is turned off. The phone features a USB-C port, and a headphone port that, oddly enough, is on the top of the phone. The speaker, on the other hand, is on the bottom edge of the phone.

The buttons are smooth and unobtrusive. The volume rocker is on the left side of the frame, instead of on the back of the phone. That means that you don’t have to pick the phone up off your desk to adjust the volume of your music or your podcast. The back features a dual-camera system and a central, circular fingerprint scanner/power button. The aesthetics of the scanner offer nothing to complain about. The raised design of the button makes it easy enough for your finger to find, though the scanner could certainly be larger to aid usability.

The camera system visible on the back of the phone is not exactly pleasing to the eye. But given the fact that it features not only a standard camera but one with a dramatic 135-degree field of view, you can probably give LG a pass. Nonetheless, the dark gray “titan” colorway likely makes the protrusion of the fingerprint scanner and the camera system less obvious (and less offensive) than they’d be on other models. You can’t escape the fact that the overall design of the phone is not as attractive as some of 2016’s other flagship phones. In fact, the design is a pretty divisive topic among smartphone buffs.

The CAM Plus, the module that I tested with the G5, isn’t meant to enhance the aesthetics of the device and unsurprisingly, doesn’t manage to do so. Its plastic build and grippy back add considerable bulk and weight. The phone looks and feels off-balance with the module attached. The other module available is the LG Hi-Fi Plus module, which adds two headphone jacks optimized for Hi-Fi Plus, supports 32-bit DAC with unsmiling, and 384KHz audio. Unlike the CAM Plus, it can be used with any other USB-C smartphone.

I’d hesitate to say that the module swapping system, though satisfyingly clever, is well-designed. The process of swapping the modules in and out is cumbersome. It makes you wonder whether LG could have just made the CAM Plus an accessory that you’d snap on and off without having to power off the device, remove the base of the phone, and switch over the battery.

LG G5 build

LG G5 Build

The LG G5 unibody build looks impressive | Jess Bolluyt/The Cheat Sheet

The metal unibody build of the LG G5 not only looks sleek, but feels substantial and well-weighted in the hand. While the screen tends to collect fingerprints, it’s otherwise attractive. The 5.3-inch screen seems to be at the upper end of the range reasonable to use with one hand (depending on the size of your palms and the length of your fingers, of course). It wasn’t at all uncomfortable even for this iPhone user, accustomed to a 4.7-inch screen, to handle and navigate. The top and bottom bezels slope slightly away from the otherwise flat surface of the display. The odd design choice has no practical use, and often isn’t visible without the light hitting the device at the right angle.

Though the aesthetic concerns of the rear-facing fingerprint scanner are one thing, the utility of the placement is another. For anyone who routinely uses their phone laid flat on a desk or table, the rear fingerprint scanner will be an annoyance. I found it inconvenient to have to pick up the phone, or to reach around the back when using it one-handed, to activate it. (I also found it annoying to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to summon the virtual home button, coming from an iPhone where a hardware home button is ever-present and ready.)

The base of the phone can be removed to reveal the microSD card slot, the battery, and LG’s Magic Slot. The Magic Slot is the new and proprietary connector that enables users to connect modules. Notably, the removable end cap enables LG to offer a removable battery, even while jettisoning the traditional removable back. But thanks to the build quality and design, actually removing the battery isn’t quite as easy to accomplish as you might imagine. The module release button, which enables you to remove the base of the phone, is small and sits flush with the side of the phone. That makes it surprisingly difficult to press.

After you manage to press the button, you’ll need to grip the phone securely and pull uncomfortably forcefully to separate the battery and end from the rest of the device. Actually removing the battery from the end cap — which is necessary whether you want to replace the battery or switch the end cap for a module instead — also requires cringe-worthy force. It also necessitates an odd arcing gesture that will disengage the battery and make you feel as if you’re breaking the connectors. This wouldn’t be a big deal if adding a module were a one-time installation. But as we’ll address on the next page, the CAM Plus feels more like an accessory for occasional use than a module that you’d leave on the phone for long periods of time.

LG G5 performance

LG G5 performance

The LG G5 is a speedy and responsive smartphone | Jess Bolluyt / The Cheat Sheet

With a Snapdragon 820 chip, an Adreno 530 GPU, and 4GB of RAM, the LG G5 is speedy. Even LG’s UX 5.0 interface doesn’t slow it down. In fact, I didn’t experience any problems with the device lagging or slowing. For the record, LG’s interface is much cleaner and less colorful on the G5 than it was on phones like the LG G4 and LG V10. Scrolling through menus and swiping through screens is quick, apps are fast to load, and the keyboard is responsive. There’s much less bloatware on the G5 than on past LG devices. But there’s also little in the way of unique features or functionality to differentiate LG’s software from that of other manufacturers, which may make you wonder why it needed to be added to the device’s Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow at all.

The screen is bright and attractive, with QHD resolution of 1440 x 2560, which works out to about 554ppi. The colors and brightness are strong and offer good visibility in bright light. The IPS LCD’s always-on functionality, which is new with the G5, may not be as bright as competitors’ implementations of the feature, but its inclusion of notification icons proves useful. The feature is likely to save some battery if it keeps you from powering up the display. Nonetheless, the functionality reportedly uses 0.8% of the battery each hour. That adds up to a significant amount of power through the course of a day. You may want to evaluate your habits and consider whether the extra battery drain is worth it, or whether you want to turn the feature off.

The device offers 32GB of storage, which is expandable up to 2TB (if you can find a card large enough to get you to that theoretical ceiling) via the microSD card slot. The fast-charging feature is enabled by Quick Charge 3.0 support, and charges the phone from 0% to 80% in 35 minutes. The 2,800mAh battery is smaller than that found in some of the LG G5’s competitors. While sheer battery capacity isn’t always a good indication of a phone’s performance, its size shows in the surprisingly fast battery drain caused by moderate to enthusiastic usage. The G5’s battery life is somewhat disappointing. (Though we recently learned that the iPhone 7 is even worse.)

A big draw for the LG G5 is its dual-camera system, which consists of a 16MP camera and a wide-angle 8MP camera. The 16MP camera features an f/1.8 lens and three-axis optical stabilization, while the 8MP camera features an f/2.4 lens. Both cameras use laser-assisted autofocus, which is fast and generally accurate. (The front-facing camera, for the record, features an 8MP sensor and an f/2.0 lens.) It’s easy to switch between the two rear-facing cameras in the camera app, where there are two icons to choose from. Either hit the button with one tree in it to use the 16MP camera, or tap the icon with three trees in it to switch to the wide-angle option.

The camera system performs well and yields sharp images even in iffy lighting situations. All the standard controls are relatively easily accessible, though the settings change position depending on shooting mode. There’s a manual mode, and the ability to capture RAW files for photography enthusiasts. Video, however, can only be recorded in Auto mode.

According to DxOMark, the LG G5 scores an 86 for camera performance, right on par with the iPhone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge (but behind the Sony Xperia Z5, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and the HTC 10). DxO reviewers experienced good target exposure and good detail preservation in low light. They also experienced fast and accurate autofocus, and generally accurate white balance in all condition. But they did notice slight color shading in low-light conditions, an occasional blue cast in outdoor photos, chromatic noise in bright HDR photos, loss of detail in low-light situations, and ringing visible in all conditions.

While I’m in no position to subject the G5’s camera to the same level of scientific scrutiny as DxO, I did notice a few drawbacks to the camera system. I was disappointed by the occasional difficulty I had in achieving the exposures that I wanted outside of Manual mode, even in what I’d consider decent lighting situations. I also disliked the fact that the wide angle lens produces extreme distortion at close ranges. While the wide-angle camera isn’t intended for photographing subjects close to you, the resulting photos look like they were shot with a fisheye lens. They also come with a noticeable drop in image quality. To my eye, both cameras produced images with overly punchy, unnatural colors. But that’s a matter of personal preference. And my preferences are undoubtedly colored, so to speak, by my affinity for film photography.

A comparison of the LG G5's 8MP wide-angle camera vs. the 16MP main camera

These two shots, taken from the same vantage point, illustrate the difference between the 8MP wide-angle camera and the 16MP main camera | Jess Bolluyt/The Cheat Sheet

LG G5 CAM Plus

LG G5 with CAM Plus

The CAM Plus helps frame and capture photos on the LG G5 | Jess Bolluyt/The Cheat Sheet

The CAM Plus, counterintuitively, doesn’t add new sensors or capabilities to the LG G5. However, it provides a better grip for framing and capturing a shot. It also offers quick access to some of the controls that you’ll need to get the perfect shot. Those include a two-step shutter, a record key, a zoom dial, and a camera on/off key. The module also features a 1,200mAh battery to boost the battery life of the G5.

The CAM Plus’s most useful feature is the button to quickly launch the camera, which saves several seconds and helps you to capture impromptu shots. The switch can be used when the screen is off, which is a major plus. But tapping it again after you’ve taken your photo sends you to the home screen instead of turning the screen off, as one might expect it would.

The two-step shutter on the CAM Plus is also a welcome addition, since you can depress it halfway to lock focus. The zoom wheel, on the other hand, often felt jumpy. The grippy texture of the module makes the phone more comfortable to hold when you’re trying to get a shot, but the added bulk and weight is something you can’t miss when you’re using the phone. That makes the CAM Plus feel more like an accessory that you’d plug in for a day of photography-heavy sightseeing than a module that you’d keep on the phone regularly.

The G5 takes longer to charge when the CAM Plus is attached. The phone’s internal battery and the module’s battery both need to charge, and the CAM Plus seems to disable the fast-charging functionality. Annoyingly enough, you can’t charge the CAM Plus when it’s not connected to the G5, and you can’t opt to charge the CAM Plus without topping off the G5’s internal battery first.

LG G5 and CAM Plus

The CAM Plus can appear clunky on the phone | Jess Bolluyt/The Cheat Sheet

Is the LG G5 worth it?

LG G5

The LG G5 may be the right phone for you depending on what you’re looking for | Jess Bolluyt/The Cheat Sheet

The LG G5 is a major improvement over the LG G4. So if you’re an LG fan in search of your next smartphone, it’s a logical upgrade to make. The G5 is great if you’re sold on the dual-camera system. It’s a compelling option if you don’t mind putting up with the drawbacks of the module system. It’s also a good buy if you want a high-end phone with a user-replaceable battery.

Thanks to the Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM, the LG G5 is a fast-moving phone that makes everyday tasks easy to accomplish. The display is bright and attractive. Those are qualities that just about any smartphone owner can appreciate, regardless of the kinds of apps you run. The build quality makes this an attractive device (if you don’t mind the design of the back). But the device’s battery life is a disappointment. That’s frankly an unfortunate drawback for an otherwise attractive phone. At $624, the device is expensive. You’ll want to make sure you’re getting the features and performance you want at this level of investment.

The modular system is unlikely to spawn the development of a major ecosystem. And the CAM Plus isn’t the game changer I’d hoped it would be. The CAM Plus may or may not be worth the $70 purchase price. If you don’t mind wondering whether you’re going to break your phone each time you want to insert or remove the module, then it’s a semi-convenient way to get more stability and more battery power when using the camera. The accessible controls save you time and give you a more convenient way to control the camera, but there are some definite design flaws that detract from the experience.

The upshot is that the LG G5 is a solid phone, with a few flaws and a few features that don’t seem entirely thought out. The camera offers impressive performance, but lacks the excitement that one would hope for with a dual-camera system. For mobile photography enthusiasts, the LG G5 performs well, and the CAM Plus can be a useful add-on. But if camera performance (or even battery life) is truly your priority, you can find better phones than the G5. LG had some great ideas with this phone, but ultimately, the LG G5 isn’t quite as exciting to use as it is to read about.

LG G5 specifications as reviewed:

  • Snapdragon 820 quad-core processor
  • Adreno 530 GPU
  • 4GB of RAM
  • Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
  • 32GB of internal storage, plus microSD card slot
  • 5.3-inch 1440×2560 pixel display
  • Dual 16MP f/1.8 and 8MP f/2.4 rear cameras with laser autofocus and three-axis OIS
  • 8MP f/2.0 front camera
  • GSM / CDMA / HSPA / LTE
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • Bluetooth 4.2 LE
  • Removable 2800 mAh battery
  • Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow

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