LG G6 hopes to out-iPhone the iPhone 8

By addressing some of the key rumors of Apple's upcoming flagship, LG is planting an early flag in the premium phone category. But will it even get noticed?

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read
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A thin frame around a display with rounded corners, wireless charging, a dual-camera setup and a water resistant body.

Sound familiar? No, it's not the rumored iPhone 8. It's LG's newest flagship phone.

LG on Sunday unveiled the G6 at Mobile World Congress at the packed Sant Jordi Club by Barcelona's old Olympic venue. It will likely be one of the more buzzed-about products at the trade show, partly because the company crammed a 5.7-inch display into a body that's significantly smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus, which packs a 5.5-inch display.

The G6 is a stark contrast with last year's more experimental attempt, which let you swap out the bottom chin for different pieces such as a special stereo and a better grip for the camera. Consumers soundly rejected the G5's modular concept, sending LG to back to the drawing board for its latest phone.

This year's back-to-basics approach is free of gimmicks and may end up resonating more with consumers. That would be good news for LG, which will need all the help it can get in 2017. Once a top phone maker, the company has watched several Chinese rivals zoom past it. The company now ranks ninth in the world with 3 percent of the market, according to Gartner.

Last month, it posted an operating loss of 258 billion Korean won, or roughly $220 million, partly due to weak sales of the G5 and marketing expenses for its V20 phone.

LG has always been a not-so-fast follower, often trailing behind Samsung when it comes to the latest trends. Indeed, the metal-and-glass construction of the phone is eerily similar to Samsung's Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S7. But by coming out ahead of both the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 8, LG hopes to get a jump on the wider trend of fitting a larger display into a smaller body. It was the central focus of Sunday's presentation, which brought on a cinematographer and professor of ergonomics to discuss the advantages of the new display.

"The LG G6 will set the tone for all others to follow," said Wayne Lam, an analyst at research firm IHS. "The idea of fitting a big screen in a not-so-big phone is critically important if we are to address the topic of ergonomics and immersiveness of the visual user experience."

Tight turnaround

Phones -- particularly premium flagship models -- often take more than a year to develop. When you see a phone launch, often the successor model for the following year is already in development.

But the G5's failure put LG in a difficult position. It wasn't until the phone hit stores in April and the company got a chance to gauge the reaction that it made the decision to scrap the modular gimmick. That left it with less than a year to develop and build the G6.

While the G6 seems to feature many of the rumored additions to next iPhone, LG denies that those rumors had an impact on what went into its flagship phone. The device was in development before speculation of an edge-to-edge display started to heat up in the fall.

"We had to finalize the specs way before those rumors became available in the market," said Ian Hwang, the LG product director in charge of the G6.

Ultimately, what drove the design of the G6 was the acknowledgement that consumers did, indeed, want a water-resistant phone. For years, Sony had put out water-resistant phones, but didn't get much attention. But then Samsung introduced the feature in the Galaxy S5 in 2014, and Apple added it to the iPhone 7 last year. LG couldn't ignore that trend.

The addition of wireless charging -- which is only coming to the US -- was driven by the need to soften the blow of taking away the option to remove and swap out the battery.

"We pack everything we can to make it a premium smartphone," Hwang said. "We reflect what people really want."

Does it matter?

By targeting some of the rumored key features of its flagship rivals, LG hopes to plant an early flag in the ground when it comes to the premium phone market.

"The G6 is a truly thoughtful design," Lam said.

The question is whether consumers will entertain a third option for a premium phone, with Apple and Samsung dominating sales.

LG G6 is tall, sleek and water resistant

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Phone enthusiasts have expressed disappointment that the G6 would run on Qualcomm's older Snapdragon 821 chip -- essentially last year's high-end processor. LG has said that the 821 was the best chip available when the company began planning the G6's development and opted not to wait. It's widely believed that the upcoming Galaxy S8 will be the first phone to use the new 835.

LG, however, may have some reason to be optimistic. Samsung could be vulnerable after the Galaxy Note 7 debacle. In his presentation to journalists on Saturday, Hwang made the point to say that the company added a battery puncture test during the development of the G6.

But a core problem remains the same: LG lacks the marketing heft of its larger rivals. It can't get in your face with ubiquitous ads like Samsung, and it lacks Apple's large loyal following.

"Compared to stiff competition from Samsung and Apple, don't expect LG to challenge either one of them," Lam said.

The G6 could very well be the phone of Mobile World Congress -- a tough task given the appearance of new Nokia and BlackBerry phones -- but that may mean little once Samsung rolls up next month.

MWC 2017: All the gadgets announced so far

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