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LG G5: Five things you should know (hands-on)

Turns out the LG G5's dual rear-cameras are way cool, but its modular features are underwhelming.

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This past February during Mobile World Congress, I had a whirlwind affair with the LG G5. In the flurry of the trade show, I snatched a few brief moments with the new marquee device, admiring its unique pull-out design, dual rear cameras and always-on display. It was nice -- we had a few laughs, shared some memories and then went our separate ways after I departed Barcelona.

Now I'm back in San Francisco and a G5 preview unit has followed me to my doorstep. We're still getting to know each other and there are still some things LG has yet to reveal about the phone (namely, how much it'll cost across different countries and carriers). Because it's a pre-production model I can't justifiably give it a rating or a buying recommendation yet. But after spending a few days with it, and knowing that it's close enough to a final product, I'm going to divulge the five most important things I learned about LG's new flagship phone.

Editors' note: This piece was originally published on February 21, 2016 and has been updated with further information and deeper analysis.

1. Its modular design is unique, but not fully realized

When LG first showed off the G5, it made a big show of it being the first phone with modular capabilities. This ability to swap out and customize certain hardware parts -- in this case, the bottom bezel detaches and you can remove the battery inside and replace it -- has been a longtime fantasy for mobile users. Like building a personal computer, you can upgrade certain components that are important to you or fit a certain need.

It's encouraging to see LG take these baby steps towards modularity. This isn't a concept device stuck in developer limbo (Project Ara, I'm looking at you). Instead, LG ran this on a mass-market flagship phone, which hopefully means it's committed to furthering this feature in the next iterations.

The G5's bottom bezel can be removed and swapped out for another accessory.

James Martin/CNET

But that's the key term here: "next iterations." With only these two official add-ons (more on that later), and no plans to make more, LG will need to rely on third-party developers to expand the usefulness of the phone's current modular features. As a top-tier handset in and of itself, the G5 looks to be a great device. But solely in terms of modularity, it has a ways to go.

As for the two accessories that swap out with the bottom chin, one is called the Cam Plus. It's a camera grip that has a physical shutter button to record and capture video, and a zooming wheel. It also has a built-in battery, which you can use on top of the handset's battery for extra juice.

The LG Cam Plus camera grip, which can attach to the handset.

James Martin/CNET

Swapping out the bottom bezel was a bit difficult at first. The pieces fit tightly, and the unlock button that lets you to detach the chin lies flush with the surface of the device, so I had to dig my nail in to press it. After a while, I got the hang of it and got faster at swapping the parts out. That doesn't mean I ever got to the point where I could walk around, stop and switch out the bezel casually. There's still some wrangling involved, and due to the sheer fear that I'd accidentally fling the top part of the G5 across the room when I pulled out the chin, I felt compelled to find a place to sit down to switch out the parts.

The other accessory is the Hi-Fi Plus, a portable digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that boosts audio playback for high-definition sound files. Because the Hi-Fi Plus includes an audio grill, a USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack, you can leave it attached to your device and use it all the time.

2. LG buried a beloved software feature

You know the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? According to LG, most users don't often launch the grid of icons that holds all their apps (known as the app drawer). Instead, their most-used apps are usually arranged right on their homepage. But I use my app drawer, and I bet plenty of people do too. So I don't understand why LG buried the feature in a secondary (non-default) layout option called "EasyHome."(Hat tip to Techno Buffalo for pointing this out.)

EasyHome is tucked under Settings (to get there: Settings app > Display > Home screen > Select Home). While you get the app drawer back, EasyHome also enlarges the font size on your home screen (which you can't adjust) and gets rid of the dashboard, which is a row of up to five apps that you can choose to display on the bottom of your home page. Obviously this isn't a deal-breaker, but I'd rather just have the default Home layout with the app drawer because the possibility of accumulating pages and pages of apps doesn't appeal to me. What am I, some sort of iPhone user?

LG did, however, add some new software goodies. One is the always-on display. Like the Galaxy S7, the screen continuously displays the time, date and any missed notifications on the display, even when the phone is sleeping. Because the information is "always on," you won't have to wake it up or wave your hand over the screen (like on Motorola phones).

The device's Home layout (left) without an app drawer, and the simpler EasyHome layout (right) which has an app drawer but removes the bottom dashboard of apps.

Lynn La/CNET

The feature is useful, and it does save me a tap whenever I want to check the time. Compared to Samsung's always-on feature though, it's limited. With the Galaxy S7 you can choose different clock faces and there's a monthly calendar option. On the G5 you can add a "welcome message" but that's pretty much it. And while its always-on text is visible in sunlight, it's not as bright as on the S7.

Other features include increased customizability with the notifications shade and on-screen home buttons (you can add keys to launch the note-taking and multitasking apps). Aside from eliminating the app drawer, these other changes are welcome and keep the general navigation of the phone intuitive.

3. You might become an over-shooter with its dual cameras

The G5 has two cameras in the back: a 16-megapixel camera with a standard 78-degree wide lens and an 8-megapixel camera with a wide-angle, 135-degree lens. The wider lens lets you capture more space within each frame.

At first I wasn't too excited about this. I thought a wide-angle lens made more sense on the front (like how the LG V10 had it) so you can include more people in your group selfies. Turns out though, having a wide-angle lens on the back is useful if you're more into sweeping landscapes than selfies (which I am). And because you can seamlessly switch between the lenses by zooming in and out on the camera's interface, it's easy to quickly snap two versions of every scene I wanted to capture.

Every time I took a regular photo using the standard camera, I'd pause, then zoom out even wider for the wide-angle version "just in case" I liked that photo better. It became a little addictive.

A closeup of the handset's two back cameras.

Josh Miller/CNET

To take advantage of the dual cameras, LG added two software features: "Popout," which superimposes an image from the standard lens on top of the wide-angle lens' view with a few effects and "multiview." Multiview arranges images taken from all cameras (including the 8-megapixel front-facing camera) into instant collages.

The cameras themselves operate quickly too, and they take sharp images. When I was capturing a photo of a lanky flower that was blowing in the breeze, the camera's burst shot feature took several pictures of the flower in succession, all of which were in focus. Lighting was also even and colors were true to life. For more on photo quality, check out the shots below (and be sure to click on them to view them at their full resolution).

A shady outdoor image using the standard 16-megapixel camera.

Lynn La/CNET

Capturing the same scene in the same spot using the wide-angle 8-megapixel lens.

Lynn La/CNET

Focusing up close on a succulent outside.

Lynn La/CNET

Some fruit and vegetables in a brightly lit kitchen.

Lynn La/CNET

Another indoor shot, this time with moodier lighting, taken at Salt House restaurant in San Francisco.

Lynn La/CNET

4. It's super speedy

The G5 features a Snapdragon 820 processor and operates lightning fast and very smoothly. As I mentioned before, the camera operates swiftly, and I didn't run into any problems playing games, launching and quitting apps, or flipping through the home pages.

As for benchmark tests, it performed comparably to its rivals. Though it beat the Nexus 6P on all our tests, it didn't outperform the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. Still though, it clocked respectable results. Again, this is a preproduction model and I'll rerun the tests when I get a final unit.

LG G5 preliminary benchmark scores

LG G5
2317
5333
28757
Samsung Galaxy S7
2323
5429
29031
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
2370
5493
28896
Google Nexus 6P
1286
4313
24224

Legend:

Geekbench 3 Single-Core
Geekbench 3 Multi-Core
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

5. Its battery is great but not the best

The handset's 2,800mAh battery did a great job surviving the work day without a charge. After surfing the Web, running benchmark tests and snapping photos, it was at about 60 percent in the evening.

It also did well -- so far -- in our lab tests. When I get a final unit I'll run the test again of course, but this model clocked in 12 hours and 33 minutes of continuous video playback in airplane mode. That's a marked improvement from the G4, which had a 3,000mAh battery but only lasted 10 hours and 38 minutes. It lasted longer than the Nexus 6P's 3,450mAh battery (11 hours and 15 minutes) too.

Compared to the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, however, the LG lags behind. Those phones lasted an impressive 16 hours and a whopping 19 hours and 48 minutes respectively. They can also charge wirelessly.

The one caveat with the Galaxy devices, though, is that you can't remove their batteries, unlike with the G5. Some users won't care considering they last so long anyway. But others like having the option to swap in a charged battery when there's no plug nearby. It's also handy when you're a year or two into owning your handset and the battery isn't performing as well as it used to. (Plus it helps to have a fresh battery up your sleeve if you plan to resell the phone later.)

The phone has a removable 2,800mAh battery that lasted about 12 and a half hours in our lab tests.

James Martin/CNET

Extra nitty-gritty spec details:

LG G5 spec comparison

LG G5 Samsung Galaxy S7 Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge Google Nexus 6P
Display size, resolution 5.3-inch, 2,560x1,440 pixels 5.1-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels 5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels 5.7-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 554ppi 576ppi 534ppi 515ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.88x2.90x0.3 in 5.6x2.7x0.3 in 5.9x2.9x0.3 in 6.3x3.1x0.28 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149.4x73.9x7.7 mm 142.4x69.6x7.9 mm 150.9x72.6x7.7 mm 159x78x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.61 oz; 159 g 5.4 oz; 152 g 5.5 oz; 157 g 6.3 oz; 178 g
Mobile software Android 6.0 Marshmallow Android 6.0 Marshmallow Android 6.0 Marshmallow Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Camera 16-megapixel, 8-megapixel wide 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 12.3-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 5-megapixel 5-megapixel 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor 2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapgradon 820 processor 2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapgradon 820 processor 2GHz eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Storage 32GB 32GB, 64GB (varies by region) 32GB, 64GB (varies by region) 32GB, 64GB, 128GB
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB 3GB
Expandable storage 2TB 200GB 200GB None
Battery 2,800mAh (removable) 3,000mAh (nonremovable) 3,600mAh (nonremovable) 3,450mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor Home button Home button Home button Back cover
Connector USB-C Micro-USB Micro-USB USB-C
Special features Pull-out battery, two rear cameras Water-resistant Curved screens, water-resistant "Pure" Android
Price off-contract (USD) AT&T: $689, U.S. Cellular: $636, other carriers TBD AT&T: $695, Sprint: $650, T-Mobile: $670, Verizon: $672, US Cellular: $672 AT&T: $795, Sprint: $750, T-Mobile: $780, Verizon: $792, US Cellular: $780 $499 (32GB); $549 (64GB); $649 (128GB)
Price (GBP) TBD £569 £639 £449 (32GB); £499 (64GB); £579 (128GB)
Price (AUD) TBD AU$1,149 AU$1,249 AU$899 (32GB); AU$999 (64GB); AU$1,099 (128GB)

Should you think about getting it?

Like with most reviews, my final judgement call on the G5 will depend on its price. In the US, the only carrier that announced pricing and availability so far is U.S. Cellular, which will offer it for $199 with a two-year contract and $636 without starting April 1. And while its novel modular features don't exactly send me over the moon, its overall reliable performance carries plenty of potential for a satisfying, high-end phone. Some things to consider, though:

  • For US customers, AT&T and U.S. Cellular announced that the G5 will cost $689 and $636, respectively, which is more expensive than when the G4 first launched. If global pricing remains the same as last year, the G5 should cost £450 and AU$879 unlocked.
  • That's more expensive than the Nexus 6P, which starts out at $499, £449 and AU$899 for 32GB.
  • The Nexus 6P doesn't have a removable battery, but it runs pure Android with no annoying carrier bloatware, and will receive software updates the moment they're ready from Google.
  • As for Galaxy S7, it has a crazy-long battery life and is pretty resistant to water.
  • However, the G5 will likely be cheaper than the Galaxy S7 on some carriers, which costs $650-$695, £569 and AU$1,149.

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