There are those who say that mobile phone innovation has stalled, and that's hard to counter. LG has been brave enough to try something new, and even if it isn't yet the right thing, or the ideal way to execute on it, we have to laud that they took a chance. It's easy for those of us who are press, analysts and even customers to clamor for fantastic new features, but not many among us can come up with that. LG's next big thing are the terribly named LG Friends for the new LG G5 flagship Android smartphone. There's been chatter and even actual work on modular phones--Google's Project Ara for example, which is an entirely modular phone built with camera, processor, display, wireless and battery modules. LG's Friends are just a small (and more consumer friendly) version of that. The bottom chin of the phone is removable and the Friend modules slide in and out. So far there's a battery that ships with the phone, a camera grip and a hifi audio DAC for better headphone audio.
Specs at a Glance
The LG G5 is the company's mainstream size flagship Android smartphone for 2016. It has a 5.3" IPS QHD display and it runs Android 6.0 with LG UI on the top of the line Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 CPU. It has an ample 4 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of storage. You can expand storage via a microSD card slot. We can still count on LG to provide both removable storage and a removable battery. Speaking of the battery, it's 2800 mAh, which like the display, is smaller than the LG G4. The phone has the same 16MP main rear camera as the LG G4 plus a very fun 8MP extreme wide angle rear camera. There's a front 8MP camera for selfie love too. LTE 4G, WiFi 802.11ac, Bluetooth, NFC, GPS and an IR blaster for AV remote control round out the feature set.
Design and Ergonomics
There are big changes here: this is LG's first metal body phone. It's available in your choice of 4 colors: silver, titan (dark gray), gold and pink. Gone are the shiny plastic backs that defined LG, though they did occasionally jazz things up with the leather backs for the LG G4 and the rugged ribbed and rubbery LG V10 back. The phone looks like a cross between the Google Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, and is closer to the fluid curvy look of the 5X (the more affordable Google phone of 2015 made by LG). Yes, it's really a metal casing, even if the curvy back looks like injection molded plastic. Alas, it's painted with a primer (to add color we assume and to hide the antenna lines according to LG). That cheapens the look a bit, and we are worried as to how well that paint will hold up against scratches and wear. Several manufacturers have managed to incorporate antenna lines into the phone's design, and we're not sure why LG shied away from this (perhaps trying to one-up the competition).
LG's back fingerprint scanner is here and it's better than ever. It works extremely well and is easy to find by feel. The scanner doubles as the power button. It helps that they've moved the volume control buttons to the side rather than flanking the scanner as with the LG G4. As you might guess, thanks to the new Friends design, the back is no longer removable and the battery instead slots in from the bottom. There's a wide door on the side (opened via a paper clip or poke tool) that allows access to the microSD card slot and nano SIM card slot.
Above: yes that's how big the gap is on ours and the module is fully seated.
The phone feels good in hand thanks to curves and reasonable proportions. Fit and finish concern us when it comes to the fit of the Friends module on the bottom. If you watch our video, you'll see there's a gap large enough to see light through and slide a piece of paper into. We looked at other examples at our local store, and some of those fit more tightly. Our phone's highly polished chamfered sides weren't rough or sharp, but some at the store were. The paint on the back of our phone wasn't even and seemed as if it had run down before drying, causing a subtle lump just above the area where it mates with its Friends. LG will have to work out their QA issues to match their direct competitors, and even some $300 and lower Android phones we've reviewed recently from Huawei, Asus and Alcatel.
Is it Better to Have Friends?
The LG G5 has friends--both the kind that slot into the bottom of the phone and external accessories like a rolling bot that can do surveillance or harass your cat. There are only 2 Friends modules at launch (not including the included battery), though LG has made the design available to third parties who might make Friends if the phone sells well enough to warrant development costs (that seems iffy). Those third parties must agree to partner with LG to make the Friend, and obtain LG's approval as well. Such hurdles, understandable though they might be since LG doesn't want a rogue module compromising the phone, will likely temper excitement over building Friends.
LG offers the included battery Friend... your phone won't do much without a battery. The Cam Plus camera grip adds a 1200 mAh secondary battery and a hump that's supposed to make the phone easier to hold when shooting (dubious). The LG HiFi Plus audio DAC increases audio resolution through the headphone jack from 16 to 32 bits at 384 kHz. We're not sure if LG will sell the audio DAC in the US, but the camera grip is a go for around $70.
Friends can be complex, and LG's friends are easily ejected after you press a release button on the lower left side of the phone. That will power down the phone (since the battery has been ejected), and you'll need to wrestle the battery off the included battery Friend and attach it to the new Friend before use. Yanking that battery off is a traumatic experience--it's very hard to get off and you'll worry that you might break the module. Forgive me, I don't often bring up Apple in our Android phone reviews, but that's just the sort of hassle that Apple would never require of users. In fact, I don't think Samsung and HTC would either. It's just not fluid or fun, and the Friends so far don't warrant the effort. Innovation is wonderful, but not that sort that adds fiddly steps for dubious payoff.
The LG G5 has an IPS QHD 2560 x 1440 resolution display that's competitive with other Android flagships in terms of resolution. Colors aren't as saturated as on the AMOLED Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, but for those who prefer more natural colors, that's fine. The display is actually smaller than the outgoing 5.5" LG G4; it's 5.3", which is a tiny bit bigger than Samsung's smaller flagship, the Galaxy S7. While the LG G4 was cool because it fit a bigger display in a still manageable phone, the G5 can't quite pull that off since the Friend feature enlarges the phone. These days folks love big screen phones, but I'd say that 5.3" is certainly comfy and adequate unless you prefer phablets or don't want to downsize from your LG G4.
Brightness is good, though the auto-brightness function (which you can disable) still leans towards what I find too dim. It has a very high max brightness of 850 nits when running on auto-brightness and using the phone outdoors in bright sunlight, but I found it a little challenging to get it to kick into brightness overdrive. Still, it's pleasingly bright, and many of us don't need retina-searing brightness when using the phone indoors. Contrast is good and black levels are likewise good for an IPS screen. Some users have complained of light bleed (white backlight bleeding through near the edges of the screen when viewing a dark image or letterboxed video), but ours didn't have that problem (see our video review to see the phone at max manual brightness with a dark home screen).
The LG has knock-on, which we love--tap twice on the screen to see info that's available without unlocking the phone. It also has an always-on display option that shows the time, date and notifications (the Galaxy S7 always-on screen lacks notification info). In our tests, it didn't impact battery life.
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