Review: LG’s G5 is a good competitor to other high-end phones but modularity is a gimmick

If you need evidence that LG is capable of making world-class handsets, have a look at the new G5 smartphone. LG’s new flagship handset is a polished and compelling entrant into the high end of the smartphone market.

I’m a lifelong Apple geek, but the week I received the demo model of the G5 was in the middle of my fortnight-long struggle to get my iPhone’s wrecked screen repaired. And so, rather than just a few hours of tinkering, I relied on the G5 for more than a week.

I was (mostly) extremely impressed. In terms of look and feel, the G5 is a fairly good match to the Samsung S6, its most obvious competitor. Samsung’s finishes do feel more premium, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly why. The G5 has a nice heft, and it’s objectively a good looking phone. It just feels oddly plasticky, which is odd because it’s not made of plastic.

The build quality is more than skin deep. The screen is crisp and bright and is slightly larger than the Samsung S6 (5.3 inches compared to 5.1). Once you turn on the automatic brightness adjustment setting, the screen is perfectly visible both in and outdoors.

The G5 has the kind of engine room you’d expect from an iPhone and S6 competitor: a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC, 4GB of RAM and a 2800 mAh battery. The phone never feels laggy or sticky, even when playing video or multitasking.

The cameras are also good - particularly the 16-megapixel rear-facing (main) camera. The pics look every bit as good as my iPhone. Pros may quibble about the exact properties of the sensor but, for 99% of humanity, this is a great camera.

The fingerprint sensor is integrated into the power button, which sits neatly on the back of the phone. It’s really excellent - I almost never had to reposition my finger before it would unlock for me. On that subject, though, the power button is not in an obvious spot. Some customers might struggle to find it at first. On balance I think the struggle is worthwhile, given how ergonomic the experience of unlocking the phone is once you’ve mastered it.

The device ships with Android version 6.0 and so benefits from Google’s recent focus on improved usability. Marshmallow is clearly a world class operating system, even to an iPhone guy.

And, of course, all my Google account goodies synched with the device in a matter of painless seconds. There’s a reason European regulators are suspicious of Google’s grip on the market - shifting to another search or mail provider just seems silly to anyone who’s used an Android device of this calibre.

One of my only real criticisms of the phone is the LG branded bloatware the company loads (and hard locks) into the OS. I don’t want the LG Friend Finder or your dumb Concierge Board or any of the three dozen other LG branded apps. Forcing me to have these on my phone only makes me irritated.

LG has made a big deal of the modular capabilities of the G5. In English, that means you can pull the bottom of the phone off (which is attached to the battery) and replace it with “modules” that do specific things.

There are four of these at the moment. The CAM Plus gives you more battery and a better grip for using the phone as a camera.  The Hi-Fi Plus amps up the phone’s audio capabilities by adding a digital-to-analogue-convertor (DAC) designed by the HiFi snobs at Bang & Olufsen. The 360 VR is a virtual reality headset that connects to the smartphone by a cable and is compatible with Google Cardboard content. The 360 CAM (allegedly) allows you to create your own content for the 360 VR.

The thing is, 90% of the people who buy the phone won’t even know (or care) about the modularity, let alone be willing to pay another R2,000 to R3,000 for one of the modules. I suppose the phone might gain a cult following with audiophiles or camera geeks, but I think that’s a pretty big bet.

When most people are happy with playing Spotify tunes straight from their phone speakers while snapping selfies with the lower resolution front-facing cameras, these modules are never going to be hot sellers.

But if I were an unsuspecting consumer and was upgraded to the G5 by some harried guy at the local cell phone store, I wouldn’t be too unhappy. Sure, I could have bought an iPhone 6 or a Samsung S6 for pretty much the same price, but arguing LG vs Samsung or Apple is arguing Merc vs BMW or Audi. There’s not much logic involved.

TL;DR - Good quality phone, nice operating system, great camera. 4 stars out of 5.

Edit notice: I added info about the two modules that I missed in my first draft. Sorry folks.