LG G5 review: Mix-and-match design can't beat Samsung's S7

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The Good The LG G5's unique modular design lets you swap in fun accessories. It has (two!) great rear cameras, expandable storage and a replaceable battery -- a rarity in high-end phones.

The Bad Although you can swap out some parts, there aren't enough to make this feature compelling. You can only access the phone's app drawer in a specialized theme.

The Bottom Line This is the phone to get if you want a removable battery, but it fails to live up to its world-changing Swiss Army Knife potential.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 8

LG phones often play it safe, but this modular G5, which lets you swap out some parts, is all risk. I love the innovation -- no other company has gotten this far with a modular phone -- but unfortunately the device falls short on execution.

Swapping out parts means you turn off your smartphone each time, and there just aren't enough modules right now to make this truly captivating. (LG is selling two components, but they don't pique my interest all that much.) Maybe if there were more inspired modules, and more partners on board lining up cooler add-ons -- I love the idea of a swappable camera lens, for example -- I could be more excited about the G5, or at least more forgiving of its growing pains.

But it's not all bad news. Forget the modules and the device is the best handset with a removable battery, which is becoming a rarity in the phone world. Its aluminium build looks and feels great, and the two cameras on its back are a pleasure to use.

Overall, the G5 still isn't as good as Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge when it comes to processing speed and battery life, but it'll work very well for all the things you really need to do: take photos, browse the internet, and watch videos throughout the day.

(For more on the G5's hardware specs and how it compares to other flagship handsets, scroll to the end of the review.)

Design: This is not your modular fantasy

When LG first showed off the G5, it made a big deal of it being the first phone with modular capabilities. This ability to swap out and customize certain hardware parts 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. If you're going somewhere where you're going to take a variety of photos, for example, you might want to swap out your handset's stock lens for a fisheye or macro lens.

To use the feature, you'll need to push the small button on the device's left edge. The bottom of the G5 will pop out, allowing you to yank the attachment off the battery, clip the battery into the new module and push it all back together. Because the battery is attached to the bezel, the handset powers down every time you swap something out. This isn't a huge deal, but it takes time to fire up the phone after a switch, and if you swap parts often throughout the day it can be a power drain.

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

James Martin/CNET

Google attempted to make a modular handset with its Project Ara, but development on that stalled. The fact that LG got this off the ground is a win, but the feature is limited for now because there are only two accessories (so far) that take advantage of it.

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 phone's battery for extra juice. 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 G5 and use it all the time.

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 handset across the room when I pulled out the chin, I felt compelled to find a place to sit down to switch out the parts.

With these two official add-ons 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 is a great device. But solely in terms of modularity, it has a ways to go.

Software: Making a few compromises

You know the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well, LG tried to fix it.

On the refreshed user interface for the G5, LG buried the option to have an app drawer, the grid of icons that holds all of your apps. A bunch of other Android phone-makers, such as Huawei and Xiaomi, do something similar by getting rid of the drawer altogether, but if you aren't used to it, it can drive you crazy.

I like the app drawer, as this iPhone-like layout means I can't organize my homepages exactly how I want. If you want the drawer back you'll need to dive into Settings and launch a totally different layout called EasyHome. (Hat tip to Techno Buffalo for pointing this out.) Unfortunately, the EasyHome theme 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.

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

Basically, you have to choose between having a dashboard and no app drawer, or an app drawer with no dashboard and really big text. Neither choice is ideal.

Luckily, there are some software goodies to help counterbalance this. 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 handset 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 feature is useful, and it does save me a tap whenever I want to check the time. However, it's limited compared to Samsung's always-on feature. 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.

Editors' note, May 3: LG has said an over-the-air update will add an option called "Home and app drawer" that simply adds the drawer to the standard home layout.

Camera: Two cameras are better than one

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 that 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.

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