The G5’s Modularity has Lots of Potential, but it Needs to get Better Friends

The G5’s Modularity has Lots of Potential, but it Needs to get Better Friends

The LG G5 and Galaxy S7 look to be the culmination of a pair of trends I’ve been closely examining for a while in both LG and Samsung phones, a dramatic shift in UX design that is what I think will make 2016 so interesting.

Whereas Samsung decided to simply fine-tune the experience they delivered with the Galaxy S6, LG went all-out in what many have called an ‘excess of innovation’. The word ‘innovation’, of course, comes with an imbued positive judgement, but it doesn’t have to — a phone’s ‘innovation’ could very well be so excessive or so underwhelming in execution that its resulting UX takes a hit (an example would be the Galaxy S4 and its sensor-based features). We all know the sight of phones chock-full of features that one may or may not use, ones that can sometimes take away from the user experience even if one decides not to use them. Up until now, we’ve seen this in software, with phones slugging through their interfaces weighed down by their heavy skins, or features that can’t be turned off as the OEM thought it knew better. The LG G5 bakes in its primary feature at the hardware level, and many are already skeptical as to whether the split-body design of the G5 will pose a threat to its integrity or durability. I don’t think it will impact the longevity of the phone in such a way, but I do question the decisions behind the modules currently offered.

The modularity won’t take away from the experience of those who don’t want it

g5pack

Lock & Load

This hardware feature is what took the blogosphere by storm, as LG is taking a small step towards the kind of modular future that Google and others have been plotting. The split-body design of the G5 (which I’ve seen people hilariously refer to as “unibody with a detachable chin”) allows you to replace the battery in case you either run out of juice or it closes into the end of its lifespan. The former is a usecase that will resonate with everyone who currently loves removable batteries — LG brought this feature with the G3 and has since stuck with it firmly despite its competition’s increasing deferment. This has earned LG a niche that few competitors can target, as LG offers the no-compromise hardware experience that Samsung infamously walked away from with the S6.

It’s smart of LG to keep this feature around, and I can see many eager LG fans are savoring the upgrade. The fact that LG managed to cleverly pack a removable battery with a metal body is no small feat, and that kind of engineering should be commended.

That being said, I have some personal quarrels with the approach, and also the expanded functionality of the detachable chin — that is, the LG G5’s modular “friends”, which constitute much of the hype behind this device. After all, and like stated above, a replaceable battery is nothing new to LG phones. But the modularity is, and it is also new to the flagship space in general. Sure, Ara, Blockphone and even Fairphone are projects that attempt to bring varying degrees of modularity, but I’d say LG’s modularity is the most unobtrusive, and obviously the most tangible at the moment. I also say this because the modular aspect is not necessarily main selling-point of the LG G5 package, but more of an additional extra that, on its face, is very nice to have.

But here is where my objections come around, with the execution of the current “friends” and through the sacrifices and costs that LG paid in order to make this possible.

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The two “friends” that many are raving about are, in my opinion, are not innovate in themselves. What’s innovative is the mechanism, the detachability of the G5’s chin in an otherwise single-piece metal construction. But the modules themselves, and the functionality they bring, are not what I’d write home about. The first of these modules is the camera, which adds additional camera controls, a nice complement to the spectacular optics the G5 packs, as well as an expanded battery – 4,000mAh at that – for extra photo-shooting longevity. Taking pictures with smartphones can be a pain, indeed, especially when many OEMs refuse to implement shutter buttons. But here lies the first problem — the hardware expansion does not actually impact the results of your pictures, it only simplifies the shooting experience by making it more intuitive and tactile (the zoom wheel is questionable without optical zoom, though). The additional battery capacity is a very nice addition, especially since the G5’s battery capacity has gone down from the G4’s by 200mAh, but the hump the module adds might be unpleasant for those who just want additional battery life, making it less of an ideal solution for that usecase only.

lg g5 and friends

The DAC module is, perhaps, the most puzzling option LG has presented. Whereas other manufacturers pack in great DAC’s in their phones (the Note5, for example, gave me one of the best audio experiences I’ve had on a smartphone), LG has made the really good DAC a separate package — perhaps because of space constraints, one might argue, but a quick look at the module reveals that it doesn’t take that much more space than the regular chin. It might be slightly taller, but the LG G5 already is a pretty tall phone, and without accommodating for the modular aspect, it likely could have fit in nicely. What’s more, the module packs a second 3.5mm jack, which would also take room within the module, and thus likely contributing to the additional height. This takes me to the second point — visible costs.

The phone was built around a mechanism that brings visible and invisible constraints to hardware allocation

The LG G5 comes in a nice metal package as opposed to the plastic and leather of old, but in doing so, it has finally killed one of LG’s old bread-and-butters: minimal bezels. Why nobody mentions this is beyond me; the LG G5 has a worse screen to body ratio than the V10 (a particularly clunky device), which in turn had worse bezels than the G4, which once again had worse bezels than the G3.

This company had introduced the notion that a phablet mustn’t need to feel like a phablet, but now they made a phone with a sub 5.5-inch display that feels more like a phablet than its other phones did, with its height 3mm taller than the G3’s and similar width, albeit with a smaller screen. The phone is significantly thinner at 7.7mm, but this typically doesn’t come with consequences either… Thus, the phone has a smaller display with relatively bigger bezels, but is thinner and has a smaller battery.

Thinness and battery size have always been at odds, and the LG G5 downsized the battery to 2,800mAh, breaking the 3,000mAh tradition of LG flagship phones. This doesn’t mean that the G5 will have bad battery life, as there are various factors involved in battery drain (many of which the G5 has improved upon). But it is a worrying downgrade when the S7 and S7 edge manage to pack bigger batteries in very tight packages, while also being water-resistant. Making a non-removable battery is arguably easier to minimize overall physical volume, and adding this particular chin mechanism is partly to blame for the downsized battery capacity. But even if it somehow isn’t a direct influence by constraining the volume LG could have allocated, it certainly did impact the specifications of the phone in one way or another. Here I introduce my third point.

bezels

Hello bezel, my old friend…

The compromises to accommodate for such a mechanism are arguably visible in the overall size of the phone and the volume allocated to battery capacity, but there are always invisible costs. That is, the fact that LG had to develop such a clever mechanism means that a considerable sum of resources were directed to that aspect of the device, and that the device was, in various ways, designed and built around that feature. But that’s not all — the phone’s “friends” also must have taken resources that could have been put towards the actual phone — for example, towards finding a way to fit the DAC or the expanded battery, or even the camera controls, into the same package. I am not saying that LG has sliced up a product and sold it in pieces as it’s done in other industries (say, videogames and DLC). But what I am saying is that without focusing on modularity at all, the base of the G5 could have been a more complete package, and perhaps even include many of the features the modules bring today. While I don’t have access to the logistics, it does seem reasonable to believe that LG could have, in fact, packed a better DAC and a bigger battery while still reducing the overall size; other manufacturers have done it.

It’s not that the G5’s modularity hurts the phone, but that much of what it adds could be achieved within the base device and is not exclusive to modularity

Because of all this, I think that we shouldn’t overestimate the LG G5’s modularity just yet, nor overrate it until after seeing all its capable of. The feature might surprise us in the future, and I have no doubt that the modules we have today will be appealing to many users. But as I said earlier, I find the mechanism more interesting than the modules; I think that this has tremendous potential, but that said potential must be realizsd in order for the overall product to be fully compelling. Luckily, and as many have noted, the G5 remains a stunningly good product, as far as hardware goes, despite the addition of modularity and the resources that went towards it. I don’t think that the G5 loses much by having modularity with questionable modules… rather, I think the G5 could gain a lot if it made better use of the modularity, and also that if it doesn’t, it might have been better to skip the idea altogether and figure out how to cram the DAC and bigger battery within the actual G5.

But only the future will tell, and again, I do commend LG for going out of its way to try and innovate — much of Android’s innovation ended up nowhere, and much of it came back with a surprising round-two, but all of it contributes to the evolution of the platform in some way or another. The modularity of the G5 is a clever work-around for the constraints of metal phones; but nobody said LG should have adopted a metal design in the first place, nor that it couldn’t try to integrate the modular functionality into the phone itself (with or without a metal body). Nevertheless, the mechanism itself remains an engineering feat that I wish was expanded upon; hopefully LG will make great use of it and convince me it was all very-well worth it.

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