It's hard to stand out. But LG's next Android flagship — the G5 — might have a few new tricks up its sleeve.
Over the past three and a half years, LG has slowly grown into the de facto alternative to Samsung in many markets around the world, including the U.S.
Since the rebirth of the firm's "G" series in 2013 with the LG G2, the company has put being differentiation the heart of its products. The G2 was the first to feature LG's famous rear-mounted buttons. The G3 was the first mainstream Quad HD display phone, and the first with laser autofocus. And the G4 mixed things up with a leather-backed design and impressive RAW photo capabilities. Most recently, the V10 introduced dual front-facing cameras and a secondary ticker display.
So where next for the other Korean manufacturer, with a new flagship phone on the way in just a few weeks and a need to recover from lackluster financial performance in mobile in recent months. Let's dive in.
Standing out in the Android marketplace of 2016 is hard — especially at the high end, in which the price of entry is a massive marketing budget and complex arrangements with carriers around the world. Because the Android ecosystem is controlled by Google — at least in the West — manufacturers often find it difficult to lock users into their own suite of apps and services. Then there's the fact that many phones around the $400 level are starting to get really competitive, and that a phone that aims at flagship status and misses is often eviscerated by cheaper rivals as well as direct competitors.
It's a tough business to be in.
LG is one of the few companies with revenue from other less glamorous businesses to pour into mobile.
But LG is one of the few companies with revenue from other less glamorous businesses — think washing machines and fridges — to pour into mobile and meet the table stakes of the high-end Android game.
Even then, standing out is hard. In an interview with Android Central for our Android History series, LG's VP of product strategy, Dr. Ramchan Woo, reflected on the challenge of differentiating the company's G-series phones.
Dr. Woo told us that although LG's G-series phones had been praised for their technological prowess, getting that message across to consumers proved difficult. And so as well as serving a technological function in allowing for slimmer bezels, LG's back buttons became a feature of LG's brand.
"From the marketing standpoint, it was really difficult to differentiate LG phones from others," Woo said, "So from all aspects really, that's how we came up with the buttons on the back."
"What we really wanted is: 'well, we are LG and we are different,' and if you really fall in love with the regular form factor you can buy [another phone] [...] but if you want to try something different, this is the answer, [LG] is the alternative."
"What we really wanted is: 'well, we are LG and we are different.'"
But in 2015, LG found itself up against a stronger rival in the form of Samsung and its Galaxy S6. Gone was the plastic Galaxy design of old, replaced with a sleek new metal-and-glass chassis, and the impressive (though largely useless) edge screen. The LG G4 did a lot of things really well, arguably besting Samsung in camera performance and battery life.
In terms of features and build quality though, LG wasn't doing a whole lot different. And next to the GS6, the G4 seemed like another ho-hum, largely plastic Android smartphone.
So with the G5 comes the need for further differentiation.
Samsung was once the company throwing crap against the wall and seeing what stuck. Sometimes the result was a Galaxy Note — an unexpected hit. Other times you'd get something like a Galaxy Beam or Galaxy Round — a one-off dud. But as smartphone hardware plateaus and Samsung settles into its place at the top of the high-end food chain, it seems there's less crazy experimentation going on. And that represents an opportunity for Samsung's major Android rival.
LG is still doing wacky and unusual things in the smartphone space — take the V10's dual displays or the G3's laser autofocus, adapted from the company's robot vacuum cleaners. If the rumors about the LG G5 are to be believed, there's more weird and wonderful technology to come.
The most intriguing possibility for the G5 is one of the oldest, having surfaced in the last days of 2015. According to VentureBeat's Evan Blass you'll be able to swap out portions of the G5's hardware to enable new features.
While its physical incarnation isn't very clear, it is said to enable some functional expansion by way of hardware modules. The examples we were given range from an array of specified cameras — action, 360 VR, "party" — to an audio amplifier to a physical keyboard.
Since then, CNET Korea has reproduced images of how the modular G5 might look and function, with the bottom portion of the device apparently being interchangeable, and sliding into the main body of the phone along with the removable battery.
Real modular hardware is something that's being developed at a higher level by Google's Project Ara, but it's something we've yet to see in a mainstream Android smartphone. LG faces challenges in developing modular G5 "cartridges" in a way that's not just a shameless gimmick, but the possibilities it presents are pretty huge.
Selling retailers and carriers on the idea of stocking and selling modular G5 add-ons to consumers will be a separate problem, especially since LG lacks the retail muscle of Samsung and Apple.
Next up we have dual cameras and a secondary display — both features we've seen before on the LG V10, so it's not a huge surprise to see them trickling down to the mainstream G-series. The reported use of two rear 16-megapixel cameras could present some interesting possibilities, though. There's a good chance this setup will simply put identical sensors behind both a regular lens and wide-angle lens, like the V10's front-facing cameras. The other possibility is that LG will go all-out with exotic camera modes and improved low-light capabilities, like Huawei's dual-lens Honor 6 Plus.
As for the second screen, here's another idea introduced in the V10 that seems to have stuck — and with good reason. Not everything the second screen does is useful, but a couple of things stand out as being surprisingly functional. The second screen serves as a pretty good quick app switcher if you're using more than one hand. And being able to access music controls without hitting the notification shade is a neat time-saver too.
There's a thin line between a really cool differentiating feature and a silly gimmick.
The G5's volume keys also look set to buck the trend started by the G2 and opt for a traditional side-mounted placement, according to a number of recent leaks. As we've mentioned, a major technological reason behind the G2's move to back buttons was opening up space for tiny horizontal bezels, and so maybe this isn't so surprising after all. We've since seen plenty of phones with super-slim bezels from companies like Motorola and Samsung, proving that it's possible to marry minimal horizontal borders with traditional button placements.
The phone's fingerprint sensor remains around the back, and it's unclear whether this also doubles as a home key, like the V10's. Either way, it's a readjustment to the smartphone norm, and perhaps an admission that different isn't always best.
Nevertheless, differentiation is, on the whole, a good thing. As much as it's sometimes mocked for copying Samsung's software features, LG's G-series hardware has alwasy been about doing things different. And a plethora of new and unusual features could give the G5 an edge in the ongoing battle with Samsung. Dual cameras front and back, dual displays and modular components are features that set the new phone apart from what we're expecting from the Galaxy S7.
But there's a thin line between a really cool differentiating feature and a silly gimmick, and that'll be the challenge when it comes to assembling all this stuff into a single compelling product. We'll have our first sense of whether LG has succeeded or failed when the LG G5 arrives at Mobile World Congress from Feb. 21.
What features are you looking forward to the most in the LG G5? Shout out in the comments!