LG V10 review: Could this underdog be the phablet of the year?

We’ve heard rumorings throughout the year about a refresh to LG’s flagship, dubbed the LG G4 Pro. However, when the time came, LG thought it best to put the new phone its own category and not tied to the G4. Allow me to introduce the V10.

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Many may want to argue that despite its new nomenclature, it is essentially an updated G4. In some respects, that’s definitely true, such as with the repeated use of the Snapdragon 808 chipset. But I wouldn’t dismiss it so quickly. The V10 brings some worthy changes and interesting additions.

To make the argument more compelling, I’ll mention that I traded my shiny Note5 for the V10. I enjoyed the Note5 quite a bit, particularly, the build, screen, and camera are top-notch. Was the switch to tickle my LG-curiosity a bad idea? That’s what we will find out in this review.

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Design

Although the V10 follows a similar design language to the G4, there are a multitude of changes. The first one I’ll address is the size. The V10 is significantly larger than the G4, and well in the “phablet” category. It is also larger than the Note5 despite having the same 5.7″ screen size. But the reason for that isn’t bezel, it’s because LG has a couple extra hardware features above the main display – dual front cameras and a 2.1″ secondary screen. I’ll get to what these features are for later in the review.

When you turn the V10 around, you’ll notice quite a departure in the design of the back cover from its predecessor.

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It’s still plastic but very rubbery now (which largely improves grip from the glossy back of the G4). The texture is also different, with a tiled, diamond-dotted layout, which also increases friction and grip.

Also with the V10 comes LG’s debut of metal on a smartphone. Although, it’s a far cry away from a metal-built device. The metal only resides on the sides, as railings to grip onto.

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They look merely glued on, which may bug those who prefer a more premium facade. But it should be apparent that LG is still aiming for functionality more than beauty. The metal is made out of Stainless-Steel, rather than more common, softer Aluminum. LG’s choice of materials on the V10 revolves around durability.

The plastic on the top, bottom, and front panels resembles the Nexus 5 materials in appearance and feel, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Its soft/smooth finish is nice to the touch and portrays quality for a plastic. We can see LG’s typical etched logo on the bottom, front panel.

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On the bottom of the phone, from left to right, we have the 3.5mm headphone jack, micro-USB 2.0 port, microphone, and external speaker. The top is fairly bare, with only another microphone and IR blaster for TV control. The physical button arrangement is the same as on the G4, located on the back and under the camera module. Only, the power button is now circular because it houses the new fingerprint scanner.

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Around the camera lens, there’s now a more pronounced circular ring surround. It looks great and has a ringed texture, like on a record disc.

Display

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Anyone who follows LG knows that the company made quite a statement earlier in the year with the introduction of its own display technology – the Quantum IPS LCD. I won’t go into what exactly that means, but with it came the promise of superb colors, contrast, and viewing angles. When folks got their hands on the G4, the claims were proven. This Quantum display was said to be the LCD that could actually compete with Samsung’s leading S-AMOLED panel.

Therefore, it was logical for LG to move that spectacular QHD screen over to the V10. This is one area that coming from a Note5 should provide a valuable opinion – how do day-to-day use of both compare?

From a quality perspective, the displays are neck-and-neck. You have to nitpick on the details to pull away the differences. And it ultimately comes down to the advantages/disadvantages between LCD and OLED panels.

Blacks are surprisingly deep on the V10, for an LCD. But a fine-tuned eye will notice the backlight. I don’t mean light bleeding, I mean the faint hue of the backlight when black is displayed on the screen. When you come from an OLED panel (where only lit pixels show light), the non-true blackness is more apparent.

Another difference is in color richness/vibrancy. Relative to the Note5, colors on the LG panel look flat/dull. Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing, it’s more a matter of user preference. Some folks may like a more natural look to images. The V10’s panel would then your cup of tea.

Off the bat, I noticed the Quantum panel’s fantastic outdoor visibility. In the past, I’ve praised the capability of Samsung’s panel to counter sunlight. But Samsung achieves this by shooting up the brightness when the light sensor detects bright ambient light. The Quantum panel doesn’t struggle as much in sunlight and doesn’t need to brighten to that extent for visibility (potentially saving on battery). Another point is that when Samsung fires up the brightness in situations like this, the color accuracy degrades – Samsung figures that at this point you’ll care about seeing what’s on the screen than accurate colors. To me, the V10 is the winner outdoors.

One of the V10’s stapled features is the additional strip of screen above the main display, which provides quick launch shortcuts (more on that soon). From what I can see, it is a continuation of the main Quantum display, so the quality is fortunately consistent (the resolution PPI is also maintained). However, being that it is butted up against the cutout for the front cameras, you can see a light-bleeding effect at the border.

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It’s less visible during the day, but at night it may be bothersome to some people (especially being that the second screen is always on). Using an AMOLED panel would be advantageous in a case like this.

Performance

I know many folks worry about a performance hit from the use of a hexa-core Snapdragon 808 versus Qualcomm’s top-end octa-core processor. Word of advice: Don’t worry. This phone is speedy and I’d challenge that you wouldn’t think twice about it.

Based on overall, day-to-day use, I would want to give the slight edge to the Exynos 7420 chipset in the Note5. Overall, it felt like a smoother experience. However, this isn’t only attributed to hardware speed but also software optimization. TouchWiz on the Note5 feels more refined than UX 4.0+ on the V10 (but more on software later in the review).

One important thing to note is that LG up’d the RAM on the V10 to 4GB, from 3GB on the G4. I can’t comment on the impact of this, because I didn’t have a G4. But I can say that app switching and multitasking on the V10 is a breeze. Multitasking on the Note5 needs work, as TouchWiz too frequently closes apps when leaving them. The V10 honors Android’s true multitasking nature better.

Oh, and the V10 comes with 64GB of on-board storage, standard. Together with up to 2TB of expandable storage via microSD card, I have more storage than I know what to do with. Kudos to LG for doing the right thing here.

Usability

There’s no getting around that this is a big phone. If the front cameras weren’t there, the display would be about 6 inches. Footprint-wise, it’s similar to the Nexus 6. However, the thinner width makes it much more manageable. I’ve owned a Nexus 6 before and the V10 isn’t quite as daunting to handle.

Thanks to the grippy backing, handling of the V10 is also leaps and bounds better than the slippery Note5 despite the larger size. The V10 never wants to slip out of my hand. And it attracts no fingerprints at all. The Note5’s glass back too easily gets grimy with fingerprint smudges.

Another advantage to focusing on practicality is that the cover is removable, allowing user access to the battery and microSD slot. Since Samsung dropped this capability with its new focus on form, LG has the last remaining flagship with a swappable battery.

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The metal rails on the sides have a smooth finish, which had me worried that LG sacrificed grip for appearance. But my concern was alleviated after some use. They’re beefier than the metal sides on the Note5, which means you have more material to grip onto. The curved shape is tasteful and the brushed-metal finish where the rails taper looks classy.

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After using LG’s rear button placement after some time, I can’t say that I’m a believer. This may be due the size of this phone, but my thumb on the Note5’s side power button is more natural than my index finger on the V10’s back power button. Also, I too often can’t tell if I’m pressing the power or a volume button.

New Features

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When you pick up the V10, you won’t help but notice the unusual-ness going on above the main display. It has not one, but two unique features – two front facing cameras and an additional, small display. Fans of symmetry will be disturbed by this, and it does look prototype-y. LG hopes you can look past that for the sake of the functionality.

But is that functionality worthwhile? That will depend on you. One thing I’ll say, however, is to not dismiss it as a gimmick until you’ve tried it for yourself. I have had gimmick-like features that did in fact turn out to be gimmicks – a couple of these that comes to mind is HTC’s glasses-free 3D in the Evo 3D or Motorola’s ring flash last year. After using the V10 day-to-day, I have to say that it’s not fair calling the second screen a gimmick.

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Having a list of recent apps a touch away does wonders for multitasking. It actually challenges Google’s Recent Apps button very well. A nice touch is each time you move to a different app, you see the app icon float to the front of the line (five apps are shown at a time). The animation makes the app list feel alive and it reminds you that the helpful list is up there. You can also set the second screen to show favorite apps (like what Samsung’s Edge phones do), but I find the recent apps list most helpful.

The other great thing about the secondary screen is notifications. It is comparable to Moto Display, which gives you a peak at incoming notifications without turning on the phone. This was another aspect that I found valuable. Not only this, but the screen reacts to on-goings, such as controls for music playing (yes, it works with Google Play Music as well) and answering/rejecting a call.

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The display is always on by default, with enough dimness to read it but not enough to diminish battery life. You can see the icons of present notifications (music, email, text, etc.) and the weather, day, time, and battery life icon without turning the phone on. But if you don’t want it always on, LG includes the option to turn this setting off.

Next up is the dual front cameras.

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I have to admit that this one is kind of gimmicky. LG explains that the inclusion of two front camera sensors is to give the user options between field of views. There’s a typical lens and a wide-angle lens, both with 5MP resolution.

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My question is: Why couldn’t there just exist the wide-angle lens, then the user shorten its field of view if desired? Wouldn’t it be the same effect? Yes, you would have less pixels in the cropped view, but the extra space would allow you to put a bigger/better sensor. I bet most people would choose one fantastic sensor in that space rather than two good sensors.

In an effort to keep up with the changing times, LG threw in a fingerprint scanner on the back power button. It doesn’t look much different from the fingerprint spot on the new Nexus phones. But where Nexus has Imprint (only requires your touch to unlock the phone), the V10 requires you to press the power button first before scanning for your fingerprint. LG should take note of Nexus Imprint and add it in.

Coming from the Note5, I much prefer LG’s implementation of the fingerprint scanner. I got way too many misses on the Note5. I do get some misses on the V10, but not nearly as many. However, on the flipside, the large size of the V10 somewhat hinders accessibility of the scanner. Because the phone is big, my index finger doesn’t naturally land on the power button when I grasp the phone. Also, when I have my phone on a dock, I have to annoying reach around the phone to unlock it (or enter the pin code, which I’m not a fan of either).

Camera

The main 16MP camera sensor on the V10 was carried over from the G4. And this isn’t a bad thing, it is a terrific performer. From what I can tell, the image quality is neck-and-neck with Samsung’s top-end smartphone camera.

But LG goes above and beyond with manual controls in the camera software. Smartphones typically throw in some manual tinkering, such as White Balance or ISO control. But on the LG camera, you additionally have Manual Focus, Shutter Speed, and Exposure Compensation adjustment. You can also access these controls for video recording.

However, most people will simply use the Auto Mode. I really like how LG’s software shows the focal points that the camera finds, they light up in small green boxes on the viewfinder. This kind of interaction lets the user know what the camera is thinking. On the Note5, you don’t know what it autofocuses on. You also get laser-assisted autofocusing on the V10.

An interesting thing about the V10’s camera is that it captures the image before you press the shutter button. My dogs helped me notice this. You know, when our pets pose and then move right when you press the shutter button? When I looked back at the pictures, I did in fact get the shot.

I was overly impressed with the image quality. Colors are natural and contrast is reproduced well. The detail and sharpness are excellent. The depth of field is fantastic for a smartphone camera. However, you can have over-exposed whites in reflective conditions (a common problem) and I wish the software’s capture feedback was a little quicker (it is lightning fast on the Note5).

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Backed by a f/1.8 aperture lens, I found the V10’s camera to do a stellar job when light was barely present.

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Audio

There are two parts to the V10’s audio story. The first part is that LG moved the external speaker from the rear (on the G4) to the bottom. This was a great move. While it’s no BoomSound, more of the sound will reach your ear this way. As far as quality, both the Note5 (also bottom-facing) and V10 speakers sound as good to me. As you increase the volume, I would say that the Note5 stays composed better. The V10 gets shrilly at extreme volumes.

However, what LG did uniquely is internal. The V10 has a dedicated Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) for sound processing, additional to the standard DAC on the Snapdragon chipset. This won’t mean much to many people, but this could be a big benefit if you care about getting the most out of your pricey headphones.

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I have such a case, where the lack of fidelity of smartphone audio playback shows on my pair of Shure SE846. Not only that, but sensitive earphones can pick up noisy floor from the headphone jack. Does the V10’s DAC alleviate these issues? Yes!

I immediately noticed the dead silence upon plugging my earphones, leaving only pure music to get transmitted through. This was true even on the Snapdragon 808’s DAC, so LG must’ve paid close attention to audio interference in the phone’s design. There is a “Hi-Fi DAC” toggle in the Settings, allowing the user control. One reason for this is because the dedicated DAC draws more power (and battery) than the standard one. If the user doesn’t care, then they won’t be forced to use up their battery for no reason.

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Something else that was well done is the fine tuning in the volume attenuation. The volume steps go from 0 to 100, you can specifically choose between single digits if you desire. To avoid frustration, just pressing the volume up/down buttons change the volume by larger steps. You can do the fine tuning via the software slider bar when it pops up. This option is fantastic for sensitive headphones, as the difference between two volume jumps can mean a lot.

Screenshot_2015-11-06-15-55-50Before I go on to my Hi-Fi audio impressions, there is a caveat. The dedicated DAC only works with certain apps. I was quite disturbed when I loaded Google’s Play Music app up and didn’t notice a difference when switching between the DACs (and LG’s software doesn’t tell you if it’s supported or not). I stream most of my music and don’t desire to use LG’s stock music app. Fortunately, when I tried Tidal, it worked. It makes more sense to use it with Tidal anyways, because that service streams Hi-Fi music files. Nonetheless, LG should add support across the board and let the user decide.

The HiFi 32-bit sound processing is provided by ESS Technology. It is a SABRE 9018 DAC coupled with a SABRE 9602 amplifier. You also find SABRE hardware in a lot of dedicated DAC/Amp hardware made for audiophiles. It’s no gimmick. On a pair of headphones that can resolve the extra detail, you’ll notice a richer and fuller sound.

I typically use a separate iBasso D-Zero MK2 portable DAC/Amp for my audio listening and I found LG’s solution to be very close in quality. They both have a neutral sound signature (the frequencies don’t sway in a particular direction). I would say that the soundstage is a little wider and the bass is a bit more pronounced on the iBasso DAC/Amp. But the differences are marginal to my ears. I’m impressed and for the first time, willing to leave my iBasso behind.

Battery

I must say that at the beginning of my battery test with the V10, I was worried. Although the Note5 and V10 share the same 3,000mAh capacity, the V10 was not lasting as long. Fortunately, after a couple full battery cycles, I noticed that battery performance significantly improved. It may be that LG batteries aren’t cycled out of the factory. So don’t fret like I did at the beginning.

I’ve been as satisfied with the V10’s battery life as I was with the Note5. Most days, I can get through the day with a full charge. The following graphs show an 11-hour progress (T-Mobile’s network from 100% to 50% and WiFi from 50%-15%).

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As I was out and about, there’s a fairly constant slope (about 8%-10% battery loss each hour). My most common apps are Google Play Music, Maps, Chrome, Feedly, Tidal, and Slack. As expected, you can see the battery loss decrease when I switched to WiFi.

Something I noticed off the bat is the QC 2.0 charging time on the V10 is slower than Fast Charge on the Note5. The Note5 would charges up at about 1 hr and 30 min from a depleted battery, whereas the V10 is just shy of 2 hours.

The result of my overnight test (battery life depletion at idle) was just OK. When I woke up I had lost 12% battery. The Note5 bested that result by a couple percentage. If I turned on LG’s Power Saving feature, it helped slightly, at 9% battery depletion overnight. Android 6.0’s Doze feature should help significantly whenever it gets pushed to the V10 (no word from LG on that yet). Fortunately for now, LG threw in a couple extra battery saving options – to restrict apps in the background and/or block use of the second screen.

Another area where the Note5 has the upper hand is the native ability to wirelessly charge. LG still doesn’t have this feature built-in. But fortunately, like with the G4, there will be a Qi-enabled cover than you can swap in.

Software

LG’s UX 4.0 UI in the G4 wasn’t the most attractive Android skin out there. The V10 doesn’t do much to help its cause, the focus of the newer UX 4.0+ was to add functionality. Most of the additions are specific to controlling the new V10 hardware, such as the second screen options or Hi-Fi audio settings.

I don’t have any functional issues with the UI on the V10. Basic functionality is actually very smooth (scrolling, opening folders, app launching, etc.). I would only advise LG to work on aesthetics. The overall appearance of the software is blocky and generic. I don’t receive any feeling from it. I can say that Google’s launcher is animated, I can say that Samsung TouchWiz is colorful, and I can say that HTC Sense is classy. I can only describe UX 4.0 as functional, which isn’t a word that invokes an emotion.

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I do however appreciate all the control that LG gives the user. You can rearrange the on-screen buttons or add two new ones in. This is something I wish you could do in stock Android; the stock layout has space for additional buttons, and I prefer the Back and Recent Apps button locations swapped.

You can also change the vibration strength (or type of vibration) of notifications or on button taps, use two apps at once with Dual Window, hide the on-screens buttons, and set certain settings to trigger based on location.

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Final Thoughts

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So now to answer that question: Was trading my Note5 for the V10 a good idea? Yes, it was. And I kind of have to bite my tongue to say that. Let me explain.

I am somewhat a “premium hardware” snob, so the Note5 is my natural choice. But after spending some time with a phone that prioritizes function, I now can’t say that fashion is worth the sacrifice. Phones live on our hands, they should be grippy not slippery. In that same respect, they shouldn’t be fragile but able to take a hit. And being that they are multimedia and battery-eating monsters, our storage bank should be expansive and our battery replaceable.

But the V10 is not a perfect phone. Samsung’s S-AMOLED screen is superior technology. I’m not convinced on LG’s rear button and fingerprint scanner placements (at least for a phone this size). And although the UX software is fast and functional, I’m just not feeling why it needs to be there. Why can’t LG just take a Motorola approach and add functionality to a stock Android build?

All in all, this phablet is fantastically well-rounded with great hardware and thought-out functionality. In my opinion, the V10 is the best phablet yet.

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