Note: This article was first published on 7th November 2016.
The timing for LG could not be better.
With mixed reaction to Apple's headphone jack-less iPhone 7, Samsung reeling from its Note7 explosion issues, and Google's Pixel smartphones not officially available in Singapore, the market is wide open for a new premium device for the masses to embrace.
The LG V20 could very well be that phone. Building on last year's interesting V10, LG's newest phone boasts a dazzling array of high-end unique features including the world's first 32-bit quad Hi-Fi DAC, speakers tuned by B&O and a pair of B&O Play earphones worth S$198 (according to LG) included in the box, elaborate professional-level video and audio manual recording controls, and no less than three cameras and two displays.
It looks great on paper, but can the V20 live up to those expectations and capitalize on the current market situation? Is this the phone you want to spend your Galaxy Note7 refund money on? Let's find out.
The LG V20 is available now and retails for S$998. For a comparison of telco price plans click here.
Unlike LG's other flagship smartphone, the G5, the V20 doesn't have any modular functionality. In fact, without its predecessor's stainless steel and rubber build to set it apart, the V20 now looks very similar to a lot of other Android smartphones, particularly the OnePlus 3 and HTC 10. But while LG may have switched to an aluminum build, that doesn't mean that the V20 is any less rugged - like the V10, it's MIL-STD-810G certified to US military standards, which means it can withstand repeated drops and shocks and continue functioning. To achieve this, LG is now using an aircraft-grade AL6013 aluminum that also has the added benefit of making the V20 slimmer and lighter than its predecessor, with measurements coming in at 159.7 x 78.1 x 7.6mm and a weight of 174g.
On the top and bottom of the device is a silicone polycarbonate material, commonly used in crash helmets, which is what makes the V20 shock resistant. Compared to the V10, it's a safer look that has more mainstream appeal, but personally I quite liked the unique power tool aesthetic of the V10, and I'll miss it. One thing I would have liked to see from LG is some form of dust and water resistance (although you'd probably have to lose the removable battery feature to achieve that), especially with both Samsung and Apple now boasting IP68 and IP67 ratings respectively on their flagship phones.
On the back of the phone, like the G5, the V20 has a centrally located fingerprint scanner/home button in one. You don't actually have to press the button to unlock the phone, you can just hold your finger on it. Above the fingerprint sensor is the V20's dual-camera module setup, a step-up from the V10's single rear camera. Unlike the G5, where the camera module is elegantly molded into the rear of the phone, the V20 has a more utilitarian camera bump. Unfortunately, it's a pretty prominent bump on an otherwise sleek phone.
On the top of the phone there's an IR blaster and one of three microphones that assist the V20 in capturing pin point audio. On the bottom, you'll find a USB Type-C port, a second microphone, and a downward-firing speaker. You'll also find the hottest 'feature' of the year down here, a 3.5mm headphone jack.
On the left side of the phone, you'll find two volume buttons, while on the right, there's a button that looks like a camera shutter button but is actually used to release the rear cover so you can access the removable battery, microSD card slot (which takes cards up to 2TB in capacity) and dual Nano SIM card slots. Annoyingly, you have to remove the battery to access the primary SIM slot.
Like the V10, the V20 has two displays: a main 5.7-inch 2,560 x 1,440 QHD IPS Quantum Display panel (513ppi) and a secondary 2.1-inch 160 x 1, 040 pixels resolution (513ppi) IPS Quantum Display panel that sits above it. The secondary display is brighter than last year’s but generally has the same functionality. Unlike the main screen, it's an always-on display, and will display the time, date and current battery status when the main display is off.
It’s also where your notifications will pop up. When you get a new notification you can tap the expand button to read long messages and send a reply. Swipe across the second screen and it will rotate through various functions: favorite apps (up to five), recent apps, quick tools (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, flashlight, etc.), and media controls. Like last year, you can also put your signature here, or rather, you can put a line of text in a curly handwriting font. If you don't like the second display, you can disable it entirely.
The secondary screen isn't the most useful feature you'll find on a smartphone, and the always-on display (AOD) of the G5 generally does the same thing, but better. Still, it's useful to be able to see the time and any notifications at a glance without having to turn the main display on.
As for the main display, it’s very bright, with vivid colors and crisp detail. Contrast is not quite on the level of Samsung's AMOLED displays, but it's pretty close.
As an iPhone user I've become accustomed to using 'Night Shift' mode, which filters out blue light to make the display easier on your eyes at night. LG's version of this is called Comfort Mode, and while it basically does the same thing, the yellow hue is a lot more obvious on the V20. There is however an option to tweak the color temperature of the screen, so I've been able to manually adjust it to more closely match the iPhone's Night Shift mode.
Despite the V20's focus on audio, it unfortunately doesn't sport front-facing stereo speakers. Instead, you get a single downward-firing speaker on the bottom of the phone. Having said that, the speaker has been tuned by B&O, and is one of the better single speaker units out there. However, the real audio experience on the V20 happens when you plug in a pair of headphones.
The V20 is the first smartphone to feature ESS' new ES9218 SABRE HiFi 32-bit stereo Quad DAC, which features a parallel sub-DAC configuration to improve noise performance and reduce total harmonic distortion. According to ESS, the chip boasts theoretical maximums of 130SNR, 124dB DNR and -112dB THD+N, although real world performance is likely not going to be quite as good. In layman's terms, this basically means higher quality audio with less distortion and noise, and much better dynamic range than competitive offerings.
Specs-wise, compared with the ES9018 found in the V10, the V20 actually has slightly worse dynamic range and distortion characteristics, but superior signal-to-noise ratio at 130dB versus 122dB. The ES9218 also features a dedicated headphone amp with a high 2Vrms output, which makes it capable of driving professional high impedance headphones.
The V20 supports nearly every audio file format, including ultra high-end DSD512 32-bit files. I don't actually have any DSD512 format files to test, but I did listen to the entirety of Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool on lossless 24-bit FLAC files through some Audio-Technica ATH-M50s and the experience was superb. Unfortunately, I no longer have the V10 available to do a direct comparison, but I can't imagine the V10 to outperform the V20 in any way. LG's audio player app also includes a 75-stage volume control with left and right balance controls, so you can really fine tune the audio to your personal preferences.
The V20 also comes supplied with a pair of B&O Play in-ear earphones that's claimed to be worth S$198. The earphones sound really good with the V20's DAC with plenty of bass and relatively clean, sparkly highs. And while I still preferred my own Audio-Technica headphones, this is definitely the best audio I've heard from a pair of earphones bundled in the box with a smartphone.
It's worth noting that while the V20 supports audio through both the 3.5mm jack and the phone’s USB Type-C connection, the Quad DAC is only compatible with the 3.5mm connection. If you have a pair of USB Type-C headphones, or you're using wireless Bluetooth headphones, your audio quality will depend entirely on the quality of the DAC inside those devices.
The V20 isn't just capable of playing high-end audio, it can record it too. The V20 has no less than three High Acoustic Overload Point microphones for better pin point location recording. Additionally, the microphones themselves can now handle inputs up to a deafening 132dB, up from an already huge 120dB with the LG V10.
The V20's HD Audio Recorder app offers an abundance of configurable options for music and instrumental recordings and can output 24-bit, 192kHz FLAC files, which LG claims will match professional studio recordings, thanks to the use of a background noise filter, and a limiter to pick out sounds at a set recording distance. The app also includes a Music Recorded feature that lets you record singing over existing music.
Android 7.0 Nougat
LG has made a big deal out of the fact that the V20 will be the first device preloaded with Android 7.0. While that's good news, LG's UX 5.0+ reskin is a pretty drastic change to stock Android.
For starters, UX 5.0+ removes the app drawer, with all apps placed on the home screens, much like you find on Android smartphones from Chinese brands like Xiaomi and Huawei. On the plus side, it's relatively easy to get it back, by going into the Settings menu and downloading it. Other than the app drawer, most of Android 7.0's big selling points are accounted for, including Multi-Window support, revamped notifications, Direct Reply, customizable Quick Settings toggles, and Doze on the go. Google's System UI Tuner, which lets you tweak specific parts of the UI unfortunately seems to be missing on the V20. For a full rundown of the features available in Android 7.0 check out this feature.
The other big Nougat feature, Google Assistant, is of course, only available on Google's own Pixel phones. In its place, you get the old Google Now assistant, which still works pretty well. Unlike some Android phones, you can also enable always on "OK Google" voice detection, which will let you voice activate Google Now even with the display off.
LG has also included plenty of its own apps on the V20. The QuickRemote app takes advantage of the IR blaster on the top of the device and can control everything from your TV to your aircon. QuickMemo+ is a useful app for taking screenshots or jotting down quick notes.
Smart Bulletin can be turned on in the Display Settings and can then be accessed by swiping to the left of the home screen. It houses a collection of useful widgets, including your calendar schedule, LG's Health app, which displays your daily step count and calories burned, a music player and a Smart Settings option that lets you customize what the phone does when certain conditions are met, e.g. when the phone recognizes that you're at home, it can automatically switch your Wi-Fi on.
There's also an LG SmartWorld app where you can download exclusive wallpapers, font types, and ringtones.
The LG V20 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU, the same SoC found inside the G5. While the 820 is a speedy and powerful processor, it's nearing the end of its life cycle and has already been surpassed by Qualcomm's newer 821 processor (used on the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe, Google Pixel phones and Xiaomi Mi5s among others - although having said that, none of these phones are currently available in Singapore at the time of writing).
Quadrant is an Android benchmark that evaluates a device's CPU, memory, I/O and 3D graphics performances. As this is an Android benchmark, the Apple iPhone 7 Plus is not included here. The V20 again fared slightly worse than the G5, and also trailed the 6GB RAM, 820-equipped OnePlus 3, although it nearly doubled the performance of last year's V10. Samsung's Exynos 8890-equipped S7 Edge was the clear winner here.
3DMark Sling Shot
3DMark Sling Shot is an advanced 3D graphics benchmark that tests the full range of OpenGL ES 3.1 and ES 3.0 API features including multiple render targets, instanced rendering, uniform buffers and transform feedback. The test also includes impressive volumetric lighting and post-processing effects. We're running this benchmark in Unlimited mode, which ignores screen resolutions.
The V20 once again lagged behind the G5 and OnePlus 3. Apple's newer A10 Fusion processor was the clear winner here.
The V20's rear camera setup is basically the same one we saw on the G5, pairing a 16-megapixel sensor with a f/1.8, 75 degree field of view lens alongside an 8-megapixel sensor with a f/2.4 wide-angle 135 degree field of view lens. Like the G5, you also get a hybrid auto focus system that combines laser, phase-detect and contrast auto focus to select the best one for the scene. You also get optical image stabilization, but only on the 16-megapixel camera.
LG has made a few minor tweaks to the camera app and the second screen now includes shortcuts for toggling between manual video, photo and auto modes. The rest of the settings generally lining up down the left side of the screen. Annoyingly, there's no HDR option here - you have to go into the full camera settings to turn it on and off.
Like the V10, the V20 also offers comprehensive manual photo and video modes that provide even more granular control over your settings, including white balance, focus, ISO and shutter speed. Both photo and video modes now include continuous tracking focus, and the video mode also sports an improved Steady Record 2.0 feature that combines OIS and EIS for ultra-stable video, which is set to better what the V10 was already well known for. Audio recording for videos is also suitably impressive, with audio recorded in lossless LPCM (24-bit, 48kHz) format, which is the same format used by professional camcorders.
A nice new feature this year for manual focus mode is focus peaking, which will highlight pixels that are in focus, making it much easier to tell when your subject is in focus.
Pictures on the V20's main 16-megapixel camera look excellent with good detail, natural color reproduction and sharp focus across the image.
However, switching to the wide-angle 8-megapixel camera isn't as good. The focal length is really wide, in fact, in my opinion, it's a bit too wide. It's great for landscape, travel photography or huge group photos but it gets so much in frame, it's hard to frame anything else nicely, and you can't just crop the photo later because you're only working with 8 megapixels - there's some noticeable fisheye distortion too and its f/2.4 aperture doesn't handle low-light conditions as well as the main camera. It also lacks OIS, and the EIS software just isn't as effective at stabilizing the camera.
As for the front camera, while the V10 had two cameras on the front of the phone, one for selfies, and one for group shots, you only get a single 5-megapixel f/1.9 camera on the front of the V20. The camera is a wide-angle lens with a 120-degree view, which makes it best suited for group selfies. If you want to take a regular selfie, there's a portrait button you can press that digitally zooms the lens in slightly. Unfortunately, this reduces the quality on an already fairly low megapixel camera, and you end up with pretty grainy looking shots as a result. I would have liked to see the two camera setup return to the front of the V20, but maybe four cameras is just too much for one phone?
The V20 has a marginally larger battery than its predecessor, with 3,200mAh capacity compared to 3,000 on the V10.
Our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:
- Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100%
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on
- Constant data streaming through email and Twitter
N.B. at the recommendation of LG, we disabled the Quad Hi-Fi DAC during this test as it's mentioned to hog more power than usual.
Despite the increase in battery size there wasn't much of an improvement in battery life, with the V20 lasting only nine minutes longer than the V10. The V20's more powerful 820 processor and brighter secondary display probably had a lot to do with this. There's no wireless charging on the V20, but it does support Quick Charge 3.0, which gets it back to around 60 percent charge in just 30 minutes.
The LG V20 is a premium phablet with ambitious features that set it apart from the crowd of Android competitors. LG has clearly done a lot of research and development to ensure the audio and content creation features meet the demanding needs of audiophiles, professional videographers and photographers but I do wonder how much use casual consumers will get out of these relatively niche features.
Additionally, nearing the end of 2016, it would have been nice to see LG opt for Qualcomm's Snapdragon 821 processor, instead of the relatively old 820, which is likely to be surpassed entirely when the next-gen Snapdragon 830 starts appearing in phones sometime around MWC in February next year.
So is the V20 the phone to fill the void left by the Note7? It's certainly the best 5.7-inch phablet out there right now, but its mediocre battery life and unimpressive benchmark scores will disappoint the power user crowd that make up a large part of the Note7's user base. For power users, you're probably better off importing the more powerful Google Pixel XL (click here for our guide on how to buy the Pixel and Pixel XL locally) or waiting for the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe.
Ultimately, if you can make good use of the V20's more unique features, you'll be delighted by what it is capable of - there's really nothing else like it. On the other hand, if you're not an audiophile and you're perfectly happy shooting all of your pictures in full auto mode, there's not much reason to pay a premium for it when you can get something like the OnePlus 3 or Xiaomi Mi 5 for around $300+ less.