LG’s changes the phone game again with the G5

MWC 2016: Modularity that is not a science experiment

LG logoThe LG G5 has indelibly changed the smartphone world for the better and it isn’t even out yet. Based on what SemiAccurate saw at MWC, even if the G5 isn’t a raging success, it has made life better for phone users already.

Those are pretty big words to describe a new phone, but like the G4 before it the most important points are not on the spec sheet. Unlike the G4 before it, the G5’s important features are quite noticeable this time around, in fact they are the main attraction and make the new phone stand out from everything on the market. That said based on our initial impressions of the device it has great potential and a few potential teething issues. Lets take a look at the phone and talk about why it matters so much.

At first glance the LG G5 is a stand out device, it looks and feels quite different from the rest because the edges are smooth and rounded. If you pick one up, if feels different, this isn’t a good or bad thing but it is different. You can see the roundness in the picture below, Samsung released an iterative design with the S7 but LG stepped out of the design rut with the G5, see?

LG G5 and three Friends modules

LG G5 with three Friends

Starting out with the base phone you have about what you would expect, an aluminum clad phone with nice construction, a removable 2800mAh battery, and a 5.3 inch 4MP 2560×1440 (554ppi) display all backed by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 CPU. On the memory side the G5 packs 4GB of LPDDR4 memory, 32GB of internal flash, and thankfully has a microSD slot.

Once again stepping out of the pack there are the standard 8MP front and 16MP rear cameras but also an additional 8MP wide-angle rear camera. As with the G4, LG put their money into useful features like the camera, a second full camera module isn’t cheap but it does add real value for users. On the radio front there is nothing earth shattering, the G5 has all the features of the Snapdragon 820 modem other than 802.11ad but this simply might not be called out in the spec sheets. In any case all the latest mainstream features like 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2 are there.

All of this is wrapped up in the aforementioned nicely rounded aluminum case that feels pretty nice to the touch. It measures 149.4 x 73.9 x 7.7mm while weighing 159g. It is tidy, has almost all the features you would expect from a modern high-end phone, and does nothing wrong on paper or on our first brief use. If you pick it up the LG G5 looks similar to any other phone of its generation, the paradigm is pretty well adhered to on most fronts. Then it drops a nuclear bomb on you.

That brings us to the next big thing or more to the point the one big thing LG did differently this time around, Friends. Friends are the marketing name for the replaceable modules that snap into the bottom of the G5 with a click, slide, and push. This is what changes the game forever, and it does so for all the right reasons. The wait for a real modular phone is finally over, the G5 is the polar opposite of the science experiments that grab all of the headlines and fade away, it is real.

Instead of the usual sci-fi marketing trial balloons that make you struggle to conceive of how it would make your life better much less how it would survive a few days of real world use, the G5 and Friends immediately seems correct. It doesn’t make you wonder how it could possibly be manufacturable or sane, the G5 will be out on the market real soon so that is a moot point. There are three modules, we can’t say Friends with a straight face too many times, and all look really useful. That would be real world useful, not cool to show your friends when your turn on the space plane arrives.

The three modules announced above are the standard battery, LG CAM Plus, and LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O PLAY, all pictured above. Before we get into what they are, lets look at how they work, specifically the mechanism. This is the first really smart thing LG did with the G5, there are two buttons on the sides on the black plastic piece that holds the battery. These are little metal tabs which hold the modules into place, see?

LG G5 latching mechanism

The latching mechanism on the G5

Why do we say LG did it right while most others didn’t? Simple engineering, the physical mechanism for the tabs are on the cheap, replaceable part, not the expensive and data housing pieces. The phone itself only has covers for the tabs to fit in so while not immune to breakage, it is highly unlikely to be damaged. This is the long way of saying LG did the engineering right and it is unlikely to cause the consumer problems if it is fragile, not that we expect it to be. From our time with the device, it is just a spring-loaded plunger that works decently.

Better yet the default module is just holder for the battery and you can pull the two apart. This means you don’t need a new module for a second battery but it will swap out amazingly fast. Click, pull, pull, slide, slide, click. No magnetic interlocks, no square holes for round pegs, no bending of physics, just decent looking engineering to make a common use case easier and better for the owner. And did we mention it will actually be produced too?

Of the two non-standard modules the most interesting is the LG CAM Plus even if it is the simplest. CAM Plus is the grey box on the back of the lower phone pictured above. Despite its name there aren’t any optics on the module, it is just an accessory for the three cameras on the G5. Luckily it solves two of the biggest issues with camera phones, the grip and the buttons.

The CAM Plus module is significantly thicker than the G5 which means it is much easier to grip and hold for long periods of time. If you have ever tried to film something with your phone for extended periods of time, you know the pain of a cramped hand. The thickness of the module helps a lot with cramping, it is a real world use case good thing.

Better yet there are lots of physical buttons on the module which all map directly to a camera function. The scroll wheel on the corner is a zoom knob but unfortunately reports say it is not remappable. Hopefully LG will allow user programmable buttons with an update. In any case a physical button on the edge is a lot easier to use than fumbling with a touch screen and the zero tactile feedback it gives.

Last up is the size of the CAM Plus module, it isn’t just a hollow grip, it adds a 1200mAh battery too. If you buy a CAM Plus you effectively have a 4000mAh battery in your G5, a welcome addition not just for filming marathons. For this reason alone SemiAccurate wants a G5 with this module, it would make our life better.

That isn’t to say the module is perfect, there are three down sides to the CAM Plus which are related to that step in height on the back. First off it would probably feel pretty uncomfortable if placed the wrong way in your pocket. Luckily most user are smart enough to utilize correct pocket insertion technique so this is an owner adjustable comfort feature. Basically if it hurts, turn it around and stop complaining.

Pulling it out of the pocket makes us wonder if that lip could catch on something and break, it is a convenient lever to a non-hinge point at the base of the phone. Until we get a G5 in-house we can’t say for sure but it does not look fragile enough to be a great concern and there aren’t big gaps to catch on. Better yet the edges of the block are cambered in the right way to minimize snagging. Consider this a minor issue to look at before you buy the G5 and CAM plus.

More questionable is that the step on the back of a phone is a potential problem if you put some weight on the G5, sit on it, or place it in a bag with something heavy like books. Unless you have an Apple product most modern phones are thin but strong so the step is another concern but a minor one. The solution to all three potential quibbles is simple, pull the CAM Plus out when you are not using it, problem solved. Given how easy it is to replace a module, none of these potential headaches would dissuade us from buying a G5 or the CAM Plus.

Next up is the LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O PLAY. This module is a curious one, a high-end 32-bit DAC which supports up to 384KHz audio playback. That is some serious audio capability and could easily power a very high-end audio system from the G5. Although LG didn’t specify how many channels the Hi-Fi Plus has, we assume it is more than two, if surround sound isn’t supported the module isn’t really useful.

On one hand anyone with the requisite audio system needed to appreciate the module’s DAC with will probably have a better storage device than a phone, but a portable source for high quality audio output never hurts. Things get much more interesting when you notice a statement in the G5’s press release that says, “LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O PLAY can be used either as a module with the LG G5 or as a separate Hi-Fi DAC by connecting to any smartphone or PC”. SemiAccurate isn’t sure how this will work but it has a lot of potential if done right. Intriguing isn’t it?

This isn’t to say that there are no down sides to the G5’s modular construction because there are some. First is the fact that moving parts can break. No, moving parts usually will break. As we said above though, LG did things right and if the G5’s moving parts do break, you buy a new end cap and all is right again. Unless the locking mechanism proves insanely fragile, and it didn’t feel that way when we used it, this is a non-issue. If your breaks, consider it a sign to buy one of the other modules, you need an excuse to upgrade, right?

Now on to the down sides of modularity and both of them are quite subtle secondary effects. First and foremost, or at least first and least important is that the seam where the modules dock could let water in so the G5 is obviously not going to be waterproof. For some this is a deal breaker but for SemiAccurate it is a minor point, customers will have to make up their own mind.

Future LG phones could easily have a modular architecture and be waterproof, or if you want to do things right, put a conformal coating on the PCB like Saygus and not worry about it. The battery contacts make things a bit more complicated but it is not an unsolvable problem by any means, others can do it and if modularity takes off, I expect LG could make a water-resistant and modular phone.

Next up is a secondary but more important tradeoff, internal volume. Having modular parts and removable batteries means you have to put an extra case on the battery so it will be safe to handle. There also needs to be some tolerance between the battery and the case, rails for bits to slide on, and other things that take up volume but don’t directly provide services to the user. By services we mostly mean battery capacity, all of the things that make the G5 modular could be traded for much higher battery capacity. As it stands 2800mAh for the standard battery isn’t bad but it’s rivals are higher capacity but they are not removable.

As engineering tradeoffs go the modularity is a clear win, the time it takes to swap a battery is the killer app for many, the author included. Having an external battery to recharge your phone on the fly is nice but the discharge/recharge efficiencies mean you need to take a much larger and heavier battery with you all day, a second battery for the G5 would be very efficient and weigh a lot less. Lets just count this as a technical loss but a real world win.

Last up is a great hope for the future, the module connector itself. SemiAccurate took a few pictures of it at MWC but for some reason they went poof, darn computer thingies. From the look of them, and some hints from LG personnel at MWC, it looks like a simple USB connection plus the obligatory battery terminals off to the side. In the basic module there are no electronics, just the mechanical plungers and a plastic and metal cap. If the connector turns out to be just USB, it opens up a lot of possibilities for third-party modules, most could just repackage their existing accessories in a new case.

That is a big ‘if’ though, most companies are loathe to allow users to even know what is in the device they just bought much less tinker with their property. Most companies would make it nearly impossible for third parties to try and add value to the ecosystem. Luckily LG is not most companies and they have promised to open up the specs for their connector to anyone interested in making modules. This is a good thing and depending on how many hoops LG forces people to jump through to develop modules, the ecosystem may blossom. Based on conversations with LG representatives, SemiAccurate thinks LG has the will and the corporate mandate to do it right. Stay tuned but we are hopeful.

So how does the G5 change the game? Modularity, but not just science experiment modularity, real world usable modularity that makes the owner’s life better. Cell phones have become stagnant and iterative, the G5 is the first one in a long time to step way out from the expected and do something very different. Can you think of the last time a phone did something truly different from their competition? If you had to pause while you dredged one up, you quite succinctly explained why LG’s modularity is a big deal.

Better yet it hits all the right points. The G5 is manufacturable, modular, different, and through it all adds up to a better user experience. The Friends announced so far are nice and the big battery in the CAM Plus is a clear win, but none of them are a mass market killer app. Yet. Expect a few to be announced in the coming months that could change that perception but for now the G5 is just a really good thing. Depending on how it is priced and how the modules are priced, there is a good chance it will do well in the market. Even if it doesn’t, the G5 has changed the game and changed it for the better.

That said there are a few things that SemiAccurate feels LG could have done better. Lets take a look at them now.

Note: The following is for professional and student level subscribers.

Disclosures: Charlie Demerjian and Stone Arch Networking Services, Inc. have no consulting relationships, investment relationships, or hold any investment positions with any of the companies mentioned in this report.

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate