If you were to ask me how many cameras and displays a phone needs, I’d say one good one of each. If you ask the same of LG, however, the answer would be five. The new LG V10 Android smartphone has two selfie shooters and a second screen, both sitting immediately above its 5.7-inch display. It’s a gimmick fest, even by LG’s high standards in this category — and an expensive one, at that, with the 64GB V10 costing over $700.
But LG is known for more than just gimmicks these days. The Korean company also has one of our favorite mobile cameras of the year — appearing on this summer’s G4 and returning in an enhanced form on the V10 — and some of the best displays to grace any smartphone. So there’s no inherent conflict between what I seek and what LG offers: the V10 can still be an excellent smartphone, superfluous extras notwithstanding.
The first thing to know about the V10 is that it’s big and burly. At 192 grams, it weighs exactly the same as the iPhone 6S Plus and has roughly the same dimensions. Opinions will vary on this, but I find both phones intolerably large. Call me old-fashioned for expecting to be able to fit a mobile device into a trouser or jacket pocket without having it affect my posture or gait. LG’s V10 is going up against the 5.7-inch Nexus 6P and Galaxy Note 5 for the title of best all-around Android smartphone, so its dimensions are forgivable, although it is noticeably heavier than both of its most direct competitors.
If you are okay with super-sized phones, you’ll be okay with the V10
Provided you can live with its size, there’s precious little to complain about in terms of the LG V10’s construction. The familiar plasticky feeling of LG phones has been replaced with a new rubber coating1 that has a pleasantly grippy texture — a major upgrade over the G4’s slick and slippery shell — and there’s a stainless steel frame on the inside. In fact, that frame shows up externally as well, providing the rounded, buttonless sides of the phone. The V10 feels rugged and rigid in a way that its lighter aluminum rivals just can’t match — there’ll be no bending worries with this handset. And as to the buttons, they’ve been gathered at the back in that signature LG style2: two volume keys framing one circular power button, all nestled centrally underneath the camera module.
LG calls the back cover a "silicone-like elastic Dura Skin," but it’s plastic on the inside and rubbery on the outside.
Acer’s Liquid Gallant in 2012 might have been the first to put the power button on the back. Asus also puts a volume rocker in the middle of the back of its ZenFones. But only LG turns the volume and power keys into a button sandwich.
The V10’s power button plays host to the first integrated fingerprint reader among LG’s flagship devices. It uses the same sensor3 as can be found on the Nexus 5X, which LG built for Google, and you might expect it to function identically, but that’s not quite the case. Whereas the 5X would unlock at just the presence of my finger, the V10 requires a press of the power button to wake and then something close to a half-press to recognize my fingerprint. It’s accurate, sure, but it isn’t as sensitive as on devices like the Huawei Mate S, which would authenticate me even with the slightest glancing touch. This is exacerbated somewhat by the lack of travel or definition to the LG V10’s power key — it’s not easy to find by touch and doesn’t have a satisfying click, such as you’d get from the iPhone or Galaxy Note’s home button.
LG uses the same Fingerprint Cards scanner on the V10 as on the Nexus 5X, but opts for a different supplier for the fingerprint recognition algorithm. So it’s the same hardware, but slightly different software.
The real attraction of the LG V10 is the camera that resides above the button cluster, so let’s get right to it. It’s amazing. I’m taking more photos and being more creative than I have with any other phone. Where other smartphones will render an indistinct blob of bright red, the V10 captures a beautiful, finely detailed flower in bloom. I see each petal distinguished from the next, with proper color gradation from the subtle pink hues to the deeper reds. At night, I’m unafraid to pull out the V10 and capture a particularly atmospheric scene — such as this tree illuminated by street lights behind it — knowing that this phone’s camera can handle it.
Unlike the Xperia Z5, which also has a superb camera sensor, the LG V10 isn’t hamstrung by poor software or performance. LG’s camera app is close to perfect. The automatic modes are a great entryway for neophytes and casual users, paring down the settings to only the most essential options. The manual mode flips that around with granular control over all aspects of the photo, including a manual focus option. I love both ways of taking pictures with the V10. In auto, this camera focuses quickly, exposes correctly, and processes in a flash. But sometimes I prefer to underexpose a scene to give it a certain mood, or to overexpose and warm up the colors in order to simulate a bright and sunny day. Those are just a couple of examples of what LG’s manual settings allow me to do, and the thoughtful and comprehensive nature of this app shows that LG can indeed do good software4.
Even LG’s photo editor app is good. Which makes sense because it's the Google Photos editor, same as you'll find on the Nexus 6P. It has the common adjustments easily accessible, and its photo filters are subtle and pleasing to the eye, named after planets and moons in our Solar System (which were themselves named after Greek and Roman deities).
Good photography was already a strength of the LG G4, and with the V10 the Korean company hopes to extend the same quality and versatility to the task of shooting video. The manual controls like ISO and white balance are now video options too, and you can set your own shutter speed and frame rate1. Along with LG’s new video stabilization, this library of options makes the V10 a compelling choice for anyone that wants to get more serious (or more creatively frivolous) about mobile video. Panning around with the V10 is delightfully smooth, obliterating the ill effects of unintended hand motion. It’s not quite so awesome as to let you walk and record without producing a jerky image, but in most circumstances, the V10’s video stabilization ensures a clean and very steady shot. As far as video goes, LG’s new system is nothing revolutionary until you capture your first unique video that only the manual controls could make happen — and then it’s awesome.
For a good explanation of the difference between shutter speed and frame rate, check out this Vimeo explainer.
Android camera standards have risen in a big way this year, in part thanks to LG
Apple’s iPhone sets a high bar for the convenience and ease of use of a cameraphone, and LG’s V10 comes as close as any other device I’ve used. LG’s phone isn’t quite as reliable as the iPhone 6 or 6S in nailing the focus every time, and it can sometimes make photos look obviously artificial by processing away the noise (and detail) that an iPhone would keep. But it is still such a joy to use and so damn good in the quality it produces. The V10’s manual flexibility is also an advantage over the iPhone6, lifting the creative ceiling that most other phone makers impose. I feel empowered by this camera.
There’s a diversity of third-party iPhone camera apps with manual controls, but LG’s V10 has the convenience of offering the best solution as the default option.
The less time spent on the gimmicky pair of front-facing cameras the better. They exist, one for individual selfies, another for group selfies7. They work. But is there any reason why LG couldn’t split the difference with just one camera? Nope.
I refuse to call them groufies. Never gonna happen. Nope.
Also superfluous is the 2.1-inch secondary display, which sits above the main 5.7-inch screen. Think of all the low-priority notifications that Android doesn’t bother to show you live on screen — such as app installations or the currently playing song — and you’ll find them on the second screen. It doesn’t replace anything, because the Android status bar and notifications system still work exactly as on any other device. It duplicates, which is the very definition of a redundant part.
The biggest problem with LG’s second screen is that it’s not big enough. It’s supposed to be an always-on display with useful information when the main display is powered down, but I find it easier to just turn on the phone to check things instead of squinting at the dim, small sliver at the top. You can customize a set of commonly used shortcuts to fill the second screen, but they have the same problem, requiring more precision to reach and tap than just unlocking the phone and opening an app from the home screen. On such a large device as the V10, it’s silly to have a tiny info ticker that doesn’t fit all that much information in the first place. Switch this thing off and you’ll immediately upgrade your V10 user experience8.
The only truly useful application of the second screen is for offloading the V10’s camera app controls from the main display. It does that job well.
The problem with LG software is that it's LG software
The story of the LG V10 begins and ends with its brilliant camera, but the connective tissue that makes this device a compelling smartphone is the software on board. Though it doesn’t ship with the latest Android Marshmallow, the V10 has pretty much everything Android users want and expect from their device. Well, apart from a clean and unoffensive skin. For all its sincere design efforts, LG continues to spoil rather than improve the look of Android. Case in point: there is a Settings menu for the Smart Settings inside the General Settings tab of the Settings menu.
I wish LG would do one of two things: abandon its Android skinning efforts in favor of shipping the stock Google experience (which the new Nexuses prove is pretty damn good), or hand the whole project over to its camera app team. Where the camera, photo editor, and gallery apps are understated, thoughtful, and always useful9, the rest of the LG UI feels scatterbrained and disjointed. The circles of the notifications menu have no relation to the squares of LG’s default apps. The only saving grace here is Android’s inherent flexibility. Download Nova or any other third-party launcher and you’ll immediately upgrade your V10 user experience.
I especially like the social sharing module that pops up after I take a photo, giving me one-tap access to my most commonly used photo-sharing app or a swipe and a tap to anything else I have installed on the phone. The definition of frictionless social photography.
Other than its camera app, the thing LG has done right on the software front is optimize performance. It might be the V10’s 4GB of RAM talking, but this new smartphone is noticeably smoother in operation than its G4 predecessor, which has the same screen resolution and processor, but only 3GB of RAM. Having used the V10 as my daily smartphone for over a week, I only notice in retrospect how frictionless many of my workflow interactions with the phone have been. It doesn’t lag, stutter, or delay anything. HDR photos can take a bit of time to process on most smartphones, but the V10 chews through them almost instantly. I can multitask like a champion, darting in and out of apps without any hangups. Basically, the V10 performs exactly as well as you’d expect from a high-specced device. It promises speed and delivers it.
The V10's performance is beyond reproach
If there’s one aspect of the LG V10’s hardware that disappoints me, it’s the battery life. I get a day and a half of use on a single charge with this phone and no more. That’s actually par for the course, with the Galaxy Note 5 and Nexus 6P achieving similar results, but just because it’s a trend doesn’t make it a good one. Big phones should beget long battery life, however the current crop of leading Android smartphones (and the iPhone 6S Plus too, for that matter) just doesn’t live up to that standard. It probably has to do with all three devices having huge 5.7-inch Quad HD (2560 x 1440) displays, which burn through a battery quickly even if you’re not recording 4K video or tearing it up in Real Racing 3 all day. On the plus side, LG’s V10 is one of the last remaining flagship phones to still offer a user-replaceable battery as well as a microSD card slot for storage expansion.
I’m not a lover of big phones, but if I’m ever to be converted, it will be by devices like the LG V10. This phone’s camera is more akin to a musical instrument than a mere image-capturing implement. There’s as much variety in what you can do with it as there is with the ways you can pull a guitar string. And the eventual outcome is typically just as organic and potentially just as artistic.
This phone exists because of its camera, singular. I don’t care about the gimmicks of extra front-facing cameras or info ticker displays. They add very little to the V10’s usefulness and appeal. More importantly, though, LG’s design doesn’t force me to care: I can ignore those features and just get on with using a really good Android smartphone. And that’s what the V10 is. Performance is fluid, the design is solid (if unremarkable), and the camera is so good that it’s prompted me to start using Flickr and Instagram again. This is technology unlocking new experiences and reviving old passions, which is the best kind of technology there is.
An expensive and highly entertaining toy
I only wish it didn’t cost quite so much. LG has crafted an interesting alternative to the Nexus 6P and Galaxy Note 5, but the V10’s high price demands that it be manifestly better — rather than just as good as — the competition. That’s not really the case here. If LG could shed its hardware and software gimmicks, and streamline its technology into a device usable with just one hand, it could be onto a winner. As it stands, the V10 is an expensive toy that’s super fun to play with, but not quite mature or refined enough to be a must-have device.