Monday, 27 June 2016 08:56

LG’s G5 flagship – Life’s as good as it gets (review)

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LG’s new G5 flagship takes its offerings to a new high – it is an amazing piece of kit that any high-end buyer should seriously consider.

The year 2016 is one of innovation in Android "glass slabs" – and each major brand has showcased its best technology in a bid to win consumers' hearts and minds (called street/brand cred). Invariably the flagship segment represents less than 10% of the overall market share so "first" impressions here equate to sales across the brand’s entire range.

While one brand may have more features over another, in 2016 it is going to be hard to give the ultimate "tick" to any offering. LG has its G5, Samsung has the Galaxy S7/Edge (GS7), Sony its Xperia X Performance, and Huawei has the P9. Even some offerings at around half the cost – like OPPO’s R9 and Plus – are all very good.

LG is banking on a dual camera and a removable battery "module" that can be used to dock "friends" – external add-ons. It’s a 10 out of 10 in the flagship category, and if it suits your needs, then I unreservedly recommend you buy it.

Out of the box

Let’s look at the base specifications:

  • 5.3”, IPS LCD, 2560 x 1440, 554 ppi, protected by Gorilla Glass 4
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, quad core (top of the range)
  • 4GB RAM and 32 GB UFS storage (20GB free) plus microSD up to 2TB (ditto)
  • Dual Rear Camera - 16MP, f/1.8, 1.12 μm, 16:9 plus 8MP, f/2.4, 135° wide angle – both laser autofocus, 3-axis OIS, single LED flash (ditto)
  • Front Camera - 8MP, f/2.0, selfie
  • Wi-Fi AC dual band MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, FM Radio, HDMI Out, IR blaster    
  • Removable 2800 mAh battery, 65 hour’s endurance rating, with USB-C and fast charge
  • Cat 9 LTE – Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20, 28, 38, 39, 40
  • 149.4 x 73.9 x 7.7mm x 159g  

These are all top specifications. Some contenders may additionally offer AMOLED, water resistance or wireless charging but the G5 has more than you could want in an attractive package.

Which brings me to the build and looks. The review unit (LG-H850) had an attractive Titan — smoky steel  finish, rounded corners and chassis, and is very well built, with a reassuring solidity to it. Gone is the leather cladding of the G4 – I liked that too.

It ships with a USB-C Quick Charger 2.0 (it's Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 compatible if you buy a separate charger), USB-A to USB-C cable, and a set of buds/mic with a fabric-covered lead.

Setup is very easy  you can avoid Google if you wish  and it has a copy feature from your old device (not tested).

Modular slot

The innovation is that the standard battery can be removed and different modules can be added. This includes a semi-pro camera grip and a Hi-Fi sound amplifier, but who knows what will come later?

Strangely, these are not listed on LG’s Australian site, but its US site shows the Cam Plus module has a shutter button, record button, zoom wheel and camera on/off switch and provides a thicker shooting grip. I understand that it has a 1200mAh battery as well as the 2800 mAh removable battery module that attaches to it.

It has a Hi-Fi Plus module with B&O Play that has a 32-bit Sabre ES9028C2M DAC and Sabre9602c amplifier to natively play 24bit/192kHz hi-res tracks, as well as tracks up-scaled to 32-bit. It has a 3.5mm audio jack to connect to an amp or headphones and USB-C charge/data port. This appears only to be available in Europe for a slightly different G5 model.

Other accessories include:

  • 360° Cam – a standalone, directional sound, spherical camera and that will be reviewed separately.
  • 360° VR headset that uses the G5 as the screen – it also works with the 360 Cam.
  • Tone Platinum harmon/kardon wireless headset.
  • LG battery charging cradle.
  • Various cases including a Quick Cover with a cut-out window to see the always on display.

My take on the modular aspect is that it is not a gimmick  especially if LG add to the functionality via other modules  but it is not sufficient reason alone to buy.

Android and user interface (user experience or UX)

The G5 uses Android Marshmallow 6.x, and the LG UX is clean and minimalist. It is secured by fingerprint, double tap on the screen or a secret knock code. Fingerprint was exceptionally accurate and fast.

You can customise themes from LG’s SmartWorld store and add an extra row of buttons – it supports widgets and everything you have come to expect from Android.

Some of the icons are a little obscure, but you get used to them. You can change the soft-keys order as well. In all, a clean interface that does not load too much bloatware.

Speed

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 is its fastest flagship CPU and GPU. It is similar in speed to Samsung’s Exynos and about 100% faster than the LG G4 (Qualcomm 808), which is no slouch either. The 820 has a reputation for strong graphics and it is about 20% faster than the GS7 or iPhone 6S Plus.

The phone remained cool during charging and extended use as an audio recorder or video player.

Camera may be reason to buy

The rear dual lens camera is centrally located just under the top on the back of the phone. There is a subtle camera bump as it "rises" seamlessly above the back plate. It is just above the circular fingerprint on/off button (and you can double tap the screen for on/off too).

Unlike Huawei’s P9 dual lens, "closely" coupled camera (which will be tested soon) this offers two separate cameras – a 16MP, f/1.8, 1.12 μm,75° standard lens and an 8MP, f/2.4, 1.12 μm, 135° wide angle. The two lenses can be "loosely" coupled for special effects like a "pop-out" picture and multi-view but for the most part you use them separately.

With still shots, it offers 16MP, 8MP, with and without HDR, in 16:9 or 4:3 ratios. With Video it offers 4K UHD, HD, and 720p.

I have a series of reference shots tested with flagship cameras including the Lumia 950 XL, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, iPhone 6S Plus and an ever-growing range of review camera shots on file. Tests are all at default settings and include:

  • Daylight, no flash, with HDR

Bright, accurate colours, fine detail, no noise, but perhaps a little too crisp. Autofocus was blazingly quick. As good as any current flagship.

  • Daylight, no flash, without HDR

The best way to describe this is what you lose without HDR – highlights, shadows and details are slightly less. Use HDR!

  • Indoors, no flash, with HDR

Excellent low-light capability from its f/1.8 lens. Lots of detail and bright colours. Autofocus slightly slower as it ‘soaks’ up the scene and adjusts accordingly. Samsung’s larger 1.4 μm pixels give it the edge here.

  • Indoors, no flash, without HDR

I cannot believe the difference – pure whites became off-white, colours became muddier, the detail was lost. Samsung’s larger 1.4 μm pixels severely show it up here. Use HDR!

  • Indoors, low light, flash, with and without HDR

You cannot have HDR and flash on at the same time. HDR does compensate for details, but it takes longer to autofocus and produces better results than flash alone. Its low light capabilities are excellent ,however Samsung’s larger 1.4 μm pixels edge it ahead here.

  • Speciality shots like panorama, time-lapse, slo-mo, etc.

Panorama was good as it stitches the shot together producing an accurate, seamless image of around 5000 pixels high.

The 8MP, wide angle lens deserved special mention. It is great for happy snaps and will cover more ground than any other smartphone camera – great for taking in those scenic cities and majestic buildings.

  • Video

The 4K 2160p x 30fps (about 6MB per second) using optical image and digital image (steady mode) stabilisation are superb. Good quality, good colours, good sound, but huge filesizes.

FHD 1080p at 30fps (about2MB/s) is great and will produce more manageable file sizes. It does not shoot 60fps.

There are other modes such as pop-out, lens blur, and more. The Pro mode allows you to alter almost every parameter.

  • Selfies

The 8MP, F/2.0 selfie was as good as it gets – I would have appreciated a screen fill (no flash), but it was fine for selfies and Skype. I loved the auto-shot mode that snaps when you are still.

Overall you will be delighted with the quality of the camera. Is it as good as other flagships? In reference shots, it is very close to the GS7 in outdoors and lost some acceptable ground in low light. It is very much ahead of the 6S Plus.

Screen

I won’t hide my preference for an AMOLED screen – it is strange that the G5 does not have one as LG make OLED screens.

The 5.3”, 2560 x 1440 QHD, IPS LCD, RGB, 554 ppi does a very good job. It has very good blacks (.17 cd/m2) but only reasonably average brightness (306 nits). Auto-brightness mode does try to compensate, and there is something called Assertive Display algorithms that selectively brighten parts of the screen as required, making it a credible performer in direct sunlight.

It is only when you put it beside the GS7 or the iPhone 6S Plus do you see the difference – the GS7 is visibly better in contrast and blacks, and the iPhone is visibly far worse. That makes sense as the G5 has a 1855:1 contrast ratio to the iPhone at 1361:1.

Colour accuracy seems fine – there is no adjustment. I set the phone to auto-brightness, and it immediately went from 100% to 50%. That makes the screen decidedly dull but improves battery life.

Always on Display (AOD) is pretty much a standard feature these days and it shows new emails, SMS, missed calls, etc.

For an IPS, LED, LCD, it is as good as it gets.

Phone/sound

The phone app does all that you expect including unique ringtones for every contact. It performed well in all circumstances/locations holding signals that were lost by the iPhone. I would not be surprised if it gets Telstra’s Blue Tick (given to phones with the best remote reception).

It's hands-free speaker was excellent, if a little too loud, as were the directional mics.

However, when playing music, at higher levels the speaker was distorted – so use the headphones instead.

In Cat 9 LTE data tests it achieved 200/50Mbps in Sydney – again, as good as it gets.

Battery

A flagship with a removable battery – yeah!!! Once the elation dies down you, realise that many other flagships don’t have this and as a consequence can be thinner, or offer water resistance, etc. I remember buying smartphones because of this feature and buying a spare battery, never to use it.

GSMArena tests indicate a 60-hour endurance rating that reduces to 50 hours with the Always on Display. In real-life use, it got well over a full day, and Quick Charge makes it painless to top up.

With a 1080p video loop, it got a little over seven hours. The same test on the GS7 Edge is over nine hours.

I missed the lack of wireless charging as I have multiple charge pads in the lounge, bedroom, office, etc.

Summary

‘Twas but a cigarette paper between them’ describes the LG G5 and its flagship competitors. The module concept is interesting but not a reason to buy unless you plan to use it. The performance is top-drawer, and battery life is fine. The camera is very good, and the super wide angle lens offers flexibility over all the others. So it gets the unreserved, fully deserved, 10 out of 10 rating.

I hate to make comparisons, but if you are a purist then you may want AMOLED, or water resistance or curved edge glass, etc., but in my opinion put the flagship contenders side by side, hold them in your hand, look perhaps at dollar deals and frankly you cannot go wrong with the LG G5 – Life is as good as it gets.

Speaking of dollar deals, the recommended price is $1099, and it compares favourably with all others in this price bracket. But looking online already shows the phone for a few hundred dollars less (note this appears to be the international H860 model – so LTE bands would be different to the H850 for Australia) so do shop around and bargain a little. Every dollar you save makes this an even more superior phone!

On that note, the superseded G4 (LGH815), one of the best in 2015, will be an amazing buy especially if you look online and get one for under $500!

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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