They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but when it comes to smartphones, consumers want more functionality, while expecting the hardware to keep getting thinner. With the G5, LG believes it’s found a way to meet those expectations by adding functionality through swappable modules.
A similar device appeared 18 years ago, when the creators of the Palm Pilot created the Handspring Visor, a Game Boy-like PDA with near infinite functionality thanks to swappable cartridges. It wasn’t exactly a runaway hit. Will LG have more success with the G5 and its Friends modules? When every smartphone looks like a boring slab of glass, it’s certainly a compelling reason to choose the G5, but only if those modules deliver.
That’s not to say the G5 isn’t a solid piece of hardware. LG’s newest flagship phone features a metal housing, which is not only a welcome change to the company’s gratuitous use of plastics in previous handsets, but a necessity if it wants to compete with Samsung and Apple.
The G5 also eschews the distinct, but often uncomfortable and inconvenient, hardware design cues of the G4 and its predecessors. The G4's sharp corners and bulging body are replaced with gently curved corners, and an overall flattering form factor. It makes the G5 more comfortable to hold, which is important given that the phone is slightly larger than both the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S7.
A minor complaint about the G5's design involves the removable cover on the bottom of the device where accessories are attached. It’s made of plastic and doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the hardware. When attached it sits flush with the phone’s rear panel, but there’s a slight lip where the cover meets the bottom of the screen’s glass on the front. Your fingers will feel it every time you reach for the Android home button, and it seems a little sloppy.
On the software side, LG has put a streamlined skin over Android (Marshmallow) that gets rid of the app drawer, instead opting for all of your installed programs to appear on the homescreen or stay hidden in folders. If that’s a problem for you, LG has promised an alternate app launcher, and the Google Play Store is full of third-party solutions.
LG isn’t breaking any new ground with form factor or software. In fact, it feels like the company has finally decided to play along with everyone else. So outside of brand loyalty, why would anyone choose the G5? LG is banking on two other big features.
For starters, there are the cameras. In addition to an eight-megapixel camera on the front for easy selfies and video calls, the G5 has a 16-megapixel camera on the back as its main shooter, plus a neighboring third camera with a 135-degree wide-angle lens.
The inclusion of that additional rear camera with its wide-angle lens is going to be a big selling point for amateur photographers. In these before and after shots, you can see how the G5's wide-angle camera captures a wider vista, making it a better option for documenting scenery, or just easier to take group shots and ensuring no one gets cut off.
The wide-angle camera really does add quite a bit of creative freedom to smartphone photography — particularly when zooming simply isn’t an option. The only compromise is that LG has limited its resolution to just 8-megapixels, and it simply doesn’t have the same image quality as its 16-megapixel neighbour.
On the plus side, the G5's camera app is pleasantly robust and a nice complement to the phone’s dual camera setup — even if some of the icons in its UI are a little confusing at first.
Switching between the standard and wide-angle camera requires a simple on-screen button tap, but it also happens automatically when you’re zooming in or out on a scene. The app’s “manual” mode is also surprisingly capable, giving complete control over shutter speed, f-stop, white balance, and countless other settings photographers will appreciate having access to.
All of these sample shots were taken with the camera in its “Auto” mode, though, using simple screen taps to ensure specific areas of each shot were properly exposed.
A wide-angle camera is a big step in the evolution of smartphones, but it pales in comparison to the G5's biggest selling point: its ability to be instantly upgraded with new features and functionality through the addition of swappable modules that LG refers to as...Friends.
Revealing the LG’s best new feature is accomplished through a near-invisible button located on the bottom left side of the phone. Pressing it releases whatever Friend module is currently connected, and while it can be easily overlooked that’s actually a good thing. It means there’s less of a chance of someone accidentally ejecting your battery.
Which could definitely happen. Each Friends module connects to the G5's battery, so when one is ejected and removed, so is the phone’s power source.
As a result, swapping out modules isn’t exactly quick and painless. Dealing with the hardware is easy enough, but you also have to factor in the time it takes to shut down your phone, if you choose to do so, and then power it back up again. Had LG found a way to make these modules hot-swappable without powering down, it would have improved the functionality and potential of the new system.
It takes quite a bit of yanking to separate the G5's battery from a module, to the point where you wonder if you’re doing it wrong. But there’s no special trick, you just need to commit, with a more brute force than you’d expect. “At least it’s still under warranty” shouldn’t be going through your head when you’re trying to use a smartphone’s biggest selling point.
Right now there are a handful of modules to choose from. The first is a Bang & Olufsen 32-bit digital-to-analog converter and amplifier called the Hi-Fi Plus Module.
The second is the Cam Plus module that truly demonstrates the potential of the G5's expandability. Many of us probably spend more time taking pictures with our smartphones than placing calls, and the Cam Plus module makes the G5 feel more like a traditional camera. It adds a thin but very usable grip that not only makes the phone easier to hold with one hand, but provides a series of manual control buttons so you don’t have to keep poking away at a touchscreen when taking photos.
Despite the G5 having a robust “manual” mode in its camera app, the Cam Plus module doesn’t give quick access to any of those settings. That thumb wheel? It only controls zoom, and at best serves as a shortcut to switching between the G5's standard and wide-angle cameras. There is no option to make it control shutter speed or f-stop, and don’t bother looking for a tripod mount either.
On paper the G5 seems like it might be the smartphone of choice for photographers, but the half-baked Camera Plus module is not going to convince anyone who’s serious about photography to leave their other snapper at home.
The third module is a 360-degree camera attachment that's perfect for that one time every six months you decide to take a wacky photo, and the last is LG's own VR visor, the 360 VR, which isn't all that great.
It’s hard to convince people to buy a product based on what it might eventually be able to do, but that’s the number one selling point the LG G5 currently has going for it: potential.
The G5 is a solid piece of hardware, and the second wide-angle camera on the back is a compelling reason to choose it over the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 6s.
Compared to phones of the past, the modern smartphone is a technological marvel. But as a gadget, they’ve become boring glass monoliths. The G5 has the potential to change that. A gamepad or joystick module could make the G5 a brilliant handheld gaming machine. FLIR could squeeze the tiny night vision camera from the FLIR ONE into a Friends module. If you’re into 3D printing, a laser-scanning module could let you digitise objects no matter where you are.
Now if only LG was as convinced and excited about the potential of the G5. It’s modularity should be a selling point, but with the lack of modules it just ends up feeling like a gimmick.
- Two cameras on the back greatly increase shooting flexibility
- Modular design presents the promise of expandability
- Lack of modules makes that modular design completely worthless
- Still a huge step up from the LG G4