LG’s G5 Has Friends with Benefits

New Smartphone Takes a Modular Approach

This week LG introduced its latest smartphone at Mobile World Congress. In the competitive handset market, where margins are razor-thin, LG dared to be different. The South Korean electronics giant has in recent years played second fiddle to Samsung, but this year was different and the company is striking back at its detractors. At a lavish media event in Barcelona, LG’s CEO, Juno Cho, described the G5 as a “theme park in your pocket”.

The G5 has since attracted huge attention at Mobile World Congress for its unusual approach to expanding a phone’s capabilities by adding snap-in modules.

Until this week, the highest-profile example of a modular handset was Google’s Project Ara, which we covered in February 2015. But the G5 shouldn’t be confused with Project Ara. The G5 is a traditional phone in many senses, with a fixed set of features common to many of its rivals: a Snapdragon 820 chipset, 5.3-inch screen, 16-megapixel camera (plus an eight-megapixel secondary unit) and 32GB of storage.

However, the G5 also features a battery unit that slides out the bottom of the phone to be replaced by one of several units that LG has dubbed Friends. Current Friends of the G5 include a module with additional physical buttons for improved camera control, called the Cam Plus, and a unit with high-quality audio processing components that improves music playback, called the Hi-Fi Plus.

While Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 edge are solid iterations of their predecessors, the G5 is a complete departure from previous G generations. Ironically, it comes at a time when more components are being hardwired into devices. Batteries, memory cards and even SIM cards had offered at least some level of customisation in the past. But now these pieces are increasingly becoming permanent fixtures in phones. LG is going against the trend with the G5, but that’s the point: it’s a bold attempt to regain relevance by standing out in the smartphone sea of sameness.

LG should be applauded for its bold stance. Yet we wonder how much the G5 will appeal to ordinary consumers. Recent history has not been kind to snap-on accessories for smartphones. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 featured a snap-on camera grip with an extra battery, but the unit was cumbersome for everyday use and had little impact on sales of its parent device. We suspect that many of these camera grips now lie abandoned in gadget drawers.

The G5’s Friends may turn out to be like so many Facebook friends: everyone wants them, but few people have enough interest to interact with them on a daily basis.