LG G5 review: Twin cameras and modular design set LG's flagship apart

Update, 11/5/2016: We’ve now received and tested the LG 360 VR, LG 360 Cam, LG CAM Plus and B&O Hi-Fi Plus expansion models to test with the LG G5 and have updated the relevant sections within the review. Scroll to the bottom of this page to get the lowdown on the new peripherals, or read on for the full LG G5 review. 

The LG G5 is something of a breath of fresh air in an area where it’s increasingly tough to stand out. Where most companies seem content to up the pixel count to pointless highs, push the CPU speeds and edge forwards with incremental upgrades, LG has achieved something completely different. It has reinvented its flagship phone with a design that allows users to augment its functions using add-on modules and replace the battery at will. Welcome to the world of the modular smartphone.

If you think it’s gimmicky you might well be right, but in a very real sense the LG G5 represents a watershed for the smartphone industry. Where most other manufacturers seem keen to follow the Apple model of sealing everything tight inside, with even budget phones from big names nowfollowing this model, LG has acknowledged that its customers are looking for something different. And instead of attempting to milk its fans for every last penny, LG is giving them exactly what they want.

LG G5 review: Design

It’s a refreshing approach, and a laudable one, too, but perhaps the most ingenious thing about the LG G5 is that LG hasn’t had to revert to a shonky plastic back to do it. This is a handset that’s constructed with premium materials and a close attention to detail.

It’s finished in attractive anodised aluminium (this isn’t plastic, despite some early reports), flat at the rear and smoothly contoured towards the edges. It’s a far cry from LG’s previous flagship handsets, which were far more aggressive in their curves, and is a much more attractive phone for it. It isn’t completely free of seams and nail catches, but what there is appears to have been engineered to the finest of tolerences. It’s elegant and unfussy and perhaps just a tiny bit reminiscent of the Nexus 6P.

I’m not a big fan of the bulging camera housing; it spoils the overall look, but otherwise the G5 a decent design, and practical, too. A subtle ridge around the edge at the rear helps you grip the phone, and the top portion of the glass front curves gently backwards. Best of all, the matte finish on the phone’s chassis doesn’t pick up fingerprints anywhere near as readily as the glass-backed Galaxy S7 does.

I also like the position of the fingerprint reader in the centre at the rear, which doubles as the phone’s power button, and also that LG has finally seen fit to reposition the volume buttons. After a few years of rear-mounted volume keys, 2016 sees them return to their rightful place on the edges of the phone. This is most definitely a good thing.

The fact that it’s all wrapped up in a light (159g), slim (7.7mm) package certainly helps, and the mid-sized 5.3in display allows the LG G5 to strike the ideal balance between big-screen readability and easy pocketability.

LG G5 review: A phone you can expand

The only external sign of the LG G5’s modular approach is the pin-line seam that runs across the back of the phone at the bottom edge, and a small button on the left. Push this in and the LG G5’s expansion module disengages, allowing it to be withdrawn, complete with removable battery, from the end of the phone’s chassis.

LG G5 expansion module release button

Plugging in a new module in is a little more complicated. To connect the camera or music modules to the phone (see below for more details) or any of the other units for that matter, you first have to snap apart the battery and the bottom cap, attach the new module to the bottom end of the battery and slide the whole lot back into the phone. To replace the battery, remove the cap, attach it to the new power pack and slot back in.

It’s a deceptively simple idea, yet I’d like it to be slicker. Currently, it smacks very much of an engineering team fumbling its way into things rather than a confident step forward, but that’s what it takes to get a well-designed, solid-feeling phone that’s a little different, then I’m willing to accept that. And, don’t forget, you can also add extra storage via the microSD slot.

The only other thing to note is that, although the G5 is ultra-flexible, there’s no water- or dust-proofing and no dual-SIM capability. You can’t have everything, I suppose, although I can see the latter being added via an extra module at some point in the future – if the concept is a success.

LG G5 review: LG CAM Plus

Disappointingly, only two expansion modules will be available at launch. The first is a camera extension: the CAM Plus. This adds a comfortable grip and DSLR-style controls to the phone, with physical buttons for activating the camera mode, shutter, zoom and movie recording. It also adds an extra 1,200mAh battery, allowing you to shoot and record for longer.

LG G5 camera grip module

In theory, it sounds like a great idea; in practice, it’s less effective. The first problem with the CAM Plus is its size. It’s neither big enough to provide enough grip to wrap your fingers around, nor small enough to justify leaving attached to your phone all the time.

The buttons are a definite bonus. I especially like that the shutter button is a two-stage trigger, allowing you to lock focus with a half press and snap your photo with a full press. However, the zoom wheel is a tad too small even for my slim digits, and it’s awkwardly positioned so it isn’t easy to reach both shutter button and zoom wheel without having to shift your grip.

Its most useful feature – that extra battery – isn’t all that impressive, either. True, it adds considerably more capacity, but for the size of the thing, I’d expect no less than double the size. As it is, the grip adds only a further 2hrs 50mins in our battery test. Again, not quite enough to justify leaving the grip in place.

LG G5 review: B&O Hi-Fi Plus

The other module is audio-focused – the B&O Play – and this fall into a similar category. This expansion module, developed in collaboration with high-end audio specialists Bang & Olufsen, adds a high-resolution audio DAC and headphone amplifier to the LG G5, in theory improving sound quality. It costs £150, though, so it’s not cheap.

The key question is, does it work? I plugged in a selection of headphones, from my reference Grado SR325i cans to cheaper in-ear jobs and found that it did make a difference, albeit small, to the depth, breadth and richness of the sound overall.

Is that difference big enough to justify £150? Absolutely not. If you’re really dissatisfied with the sound quality, I’d encourage you to invest in a much cheaper, battery-powered headphone amplifier instead. That will make a far bigger difference to your listening experience and will cost you far, far less. And as Know Your Mobile pointed out, sound output on this LG G5 module is a little lacking

And that’s it for expansion modules, and it’s a fairly lean, unimpressive selection. All of which begs the question: will anyone actually go out and buy any of these modules? I suspect not, and unless LG continues to back the system for subsequent models, it’s an idea that’s likely to quietly fall by the wayside – quirky, intriguing and interesting, yes, but pointless in the long run.

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