The most ambitious phone of recent years, LG’s modular G5’s an incredible handset that finally stands shoulder to shoulder with Samsung’s S7.
They all said it couldn’t be done. There was simply no way you could have a smartphone with a full metal unibody and an interchangeable battery – it just wasn’t possible. HTC hasn’t managed it with the HTC 10, and even Samsung couldn’t bring it back for the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. And yet, here we have the LG G5, a smartphone with a gorgeous aluminium unibody and a fully removable, user-replaceable battery.
How has LG achieved such a feat of technical wizardry? The key lies in a small button on the left hand side of the handset. Press this, and you’ll quickly notice that the whole lower section of the phone beneath the main display has just become a little looser, revealing the ingenious master stroke of the G5’s design. For unlike other flagship smartphones you’ll see this year, the LG G5 is an altogether different kind of handset – it’s modular.
It’s by no means the first smartphone to incorporate interchangeable modules into its design – Google’s Project Ara has that particular honour – but it’s still the first modular phone from a major manufacturer that you can actually buy and use like a normal handset. Admittedly, LG has only announced two modules for the G5 so far – the £80 Cam Plus, a camera grip that adds physical buttons and a zoom wheel (buy now from Mobile Fun), and the £150 Hi-Fi Plus (also from Mobile Fun), a Bang & Olufsen-made portable Hi-Fi DAC with a built-in amplifier that supports 32-bit 384KHz high-definition audio and B&O Play – but more are sure to follow later in the year.
Of course, having to carry around extra (and quite expensive) attachments all the time might not be very convenient in the long run, but each module is pretty tiny. The Hi-Fi Plus, for instance, doesn’t add any extra bulk to the phone whatsoever, instead taking the exact same shape as the default lower section. It’s a little taller, but that’s about it.
The same can’t be said of the Cam Plus, but this one isn’t designed to be discrete. Instead, this wedge-like add-on is intended to provide a greater amount of grip when taking pictures, with its physical shutter, video record and zoom buttons making the G5 feel more akin to a traditional camera.
However, the Cam Plus arguably isn’t quite chunky enough, as its uniform profile of just 11mm doesn’t really make the phone any more comfortable to hold when you using it in landscape. It definitely feels a lot more stable when you’re taking pictures with both hands, but its rather slippery inner edge doesn’t provide much puchase for your fingers, making it feel slightly hazardous for one-handed use.
As long as you’ve got a firm hold on the Cam Plus, though, the zoom wheel is great for moving effortlessly between the main camera and wide-angle sensor. Instead of having to tap the screen to swtich between the G5’s dual rear cameras, you can simply slide between them in a single scroll. It’s also much more convenient for using the main camera’s digital zoom, too, as it means you don’t have to faff around trying to pinch-zoom to the right distance.
Likewise, I’m very fond of its dedicated shutter button. Like a proper digital camera, you can half-press the Cam Plus’ shutter button to focus your shot, and then press it fully to take the picture. There’s also a smaller button next to it that immediately switches over to video mode, and a small toggle button on the side lets you quickly go back to the home screen without having to re-orientate the phone or change your grip.
However, whether it’s worth spending £80 on is debatable. It certainly makes taking pictures a bit easier as long as you hold the phone in both hands, but it’s a shame LG didn’t design it with a proper hand grip that you can really wrap your fingers around.
The Hi-Fi Plus, on the other hand, is probably going to appeal to a wider number of people, particularly if you use your phone as your main music player. It’s expensive, but it does add a palpable boost to the overall soundscape, widening the range of sounds you hear as well as giving the bass a bit more oomph regardless of whether you’re listening on high-end over-ear headphones or in-ear buds. That said, unless you have a library full of high-res audio tracks, the difference it makes to ordinary music isn’t quite as impressive as I was hoping considering its price. Yes, it sounds better, but I wouldn’t pay £150 for the privilege.
LG also says you can use the Hi-Fi Plus module as a separate standalone unit with other Android, iOS, Window and Mac devices, but this proved nigh-on impossible to set up. I connected the module to both my own Android smartphone – a Moto X Play – and my Windows 10 laptop, but my phone music didn’t sound any different with the module plugged in with the module’s bundled USB-C to Micro USB cable, and my laptop didn’t even recognise it as a device, as it continued to play music through its own internal speakers. It’s hardly the seamless experience you’d expect from such an expensive little do-dad, and it rather limits its overall appeal.
As a result, it’s uncertain whether the G5’s modules will really make any kind of impact over the long run, but even if these modules end up falling completely flat with consumers, the fact you can simply pop off the bottom and slot in an extra battery is arguably one of the biggest reasons why you’d go for a G5, and it’s a pretty big coup compared to the rest of its flagship competition this year. Yes, the S7 and S7 Edge might have stonking battery lives without the need for additional batteries, but for those who like the added security of having essentially another smartphone’s worth of power in their back pocket, the G5 starts to look like a pretty convincing alternative.
In our continuous video playback test, for instance, the G5’s 2,800mah battery lasted 11h 10m when we set the screen brightness to our standard measurement of 170cd/m2. While not fantastic compared to the 17h 48m I got from the S7 – which, to be fair, has a larger 3,000mAh battery – anyone with another G5 battery module at their disposal could theoretically extend that to 22h 20m, providing more than enough juice to get you through the day and long into the next.
It’s also exceedingly quick to charge. In testing, I got a 30% charge in just 15 minutes, and it only took 30 minutes to reach 50%, making it incredibly easy to top up during the day. At least, it is provided you remember to bring the bundled USB-C cable with you, as LG’s opted for a USB-C port on the G5 rather than a regular Micro USB. Still, at least it comes with a USB-C to USB-A cable in the box unlike LG’s Nexus 5X, which only came with a USB-C to USB-C cable. With a USB-C to A cable, this means you can still use it with existing USB plugs as well as connect it to your PC or laptop to easily transfer files and photos.
The modular design isn’t the only interesting thing about the G5, though, as it’s also the first smartphone I’ve seen that comes with Qualcomm’s brand-new Snapdragon 820 chip. Unlike the octa-core 2.0GHz Snapdragon 810, which powered almost every major smartphone in 2015, the Snapdragon 820 is a quad-core chip with a maximum clock speed of 2.2GHz. More cores doesn’t necessarily mean better performance, though, as the G5 proved to be significantly faster in our benchmark tests.
Paired with 4GB of RAM, the G5 scored an impressive 2,325 in Geekbench 3’s single core test and a massive 5,422 in the multicore test. The latter isn’t quite as high as the S7’s score of 6,437, but the G5’s single core score is almost 200 points faster, showing it can beat the S7 at some tasks.
The Snapdragon 820’s GPU also provides a big step up in graphics performance. In GFX Bench GL’s offscreen Manhattan 3.0 test, for instance, the G5 produced 2,844 frames, which translates to a super smooth 46fps. This is significantly higher than both the S7 and S7 Edge, which only managed around 37fps in the same test. In practice, it handled complex games like Hearthstone beautifully.