The recent confirmation that Google is charging ahead with its Ara modular smartphone concept may have triggered public interest in the idea of a smartphone you can take part and put back together again, but it's important to remember that LG has already got on phone on sale that does this, albeit to a slightly less drastic degree.
The LG G5 is easily one of the most interesting handsets we've reviewed in a while, offering some genuinely different to its competitors. Its modular design involves removing the bottom of the device and attaching new components which bestow the phone with new functionality, and while this doesn't go as far as Google's Ara concept, it's a neat element to set the G5 apart from the crowd.
Only two modules are available at present, and we've spent the past few weeks messing about with both.
LG G5 Cam Plus And Hi-Fi Plus Review: Cam Plus
The more affordable of the two modules currently available, the £80 Cam Plus is - as you might expect - focused on photography. It adds a bump to the back of the phone which makes it easier to hold with one hand, but thankfully that's not all; it also comes with a range of physical buttons and a 1200mAh battery to give the G5 even more stamina.
A quick-launch switch can be found on the bottom edge of the Cam Plus and this instantly boots the phone into camera mode when the screen is asleep. On the side there are two physical keys, one of which acts as a two-stage shutter for photos, allowing you to refocus the camera without having to tap the screen. The second controls video recording. Finally, there's a scroll wheel which is in charge of zoom, and this automatically switches between the 8 megapixel wide-angle camera (for a zoomed-out shot) and the 16 megapixel standard lens, which is a neat touch. However, it's still a digital zoom so don't expect too much - the wheel also lacks any feedback when turned, which feels a bit odd.
These physical controls do make taking photos easier; pressing a button is always going to be preferable to stabbing at a touchscreen, but the module doesn't actually do anything to enhance the images or video you're capturing. To do that you'd need to replace the phone's camera, and that's obviously not possible with LG's design.
Having another 1200mAh of battery power is possibly the biggest benefit of the Cam Plus; while the G5 never has any issues lasting an entire day, that additional helping of juice means you can use the phone quite aggressively and still have power in the tank by the time the evening rolls around.
LG G5 Cam Plus And Hi-Fi Plus Review: Hi-Fi Plus
At twice the price of the Cam Plus module, the Hi-Fi Plus unit is naturally a harder sell. Made in conjunction with Bang & Olufsen, the unit is far less bulky than the Cam Plus unit and only adds a few millimeters to the bottom of the phone.
Inside is a 32-bit digital audio converter and headphone amp which - when used with high quality audio sources and a decent set of cans - produces truly amazing sound quality.
The G5's 24-bit DAC is already a step ahead of the 16-bit DAC seen in the Samsung Galaxy S7, but with the Hi-Fi Plus module installed the results are incredible. This is the best audio you'll ever get from a smartphone, but you obviously need to ensure the tracks you're playing are encoded at a high enough standard or you won't feel the benefit.
The Hi-Fi Plus unit can also be used with other devices as a stand-alone DAC and amp, so if you're keen on your "high res" audio then it's a worthy purchase - however, I can't help but feel that for most casual music lovers, the ideal of spending £150 on such a unit is going to be hard to stomach.
LG G5 Cam Plus And Hi-Fi Plus Review: The Future
While the Cam Plus and Hi-Fi Plus modules are interesting to use and show that LG is at least thinking outside of the box, neither could truly be deemed essential, and neither really gives a compelling argument for the whole modular phone concept. Worryingly, LG is yet to confirm if any other modules will be released in the future, which could suggest that its modular dream begins and ends with these two units.
That would be a real shame, because while the G5 doesn't go as far as Google's Ara, there's definately untapped potential here. Just imagine bolting on a proper physical gaming interface on the G5 for arcade titles or emulation, or a cheap-and-cheerful module which simply expands the battery capacity of the unit without adding too much bulk to the phone itself. It could even be possible to add another camera to the device by including it in a module, or packing a larger, more powerful speaker so the handset can be used as a fully-fledged portable music system.
While these ideas might sound unexciting of half-baked, if LG - or a third party manufacturer - could produce them at a low cost, they'd become the kind of accessories you would happily invest in, picking a different module to suit the needs of your day. Going on a long trip? Better pack the physical gaming module with its built-in battery. Visiting a friends for a barbeque? Attach your speaker module for some open-air tuneage. LG needs to harness this level of focused customization with cheap add-ons rather than £150 high res sound units. Changing modules on the G5 is practically effortless, so why not encourage people to swap them out on a daily basis to make sure they have the functions they need?
It remains to be seen if LG will stick with its modular approach when the inevitable G6 comes around, but I for one hope that it isn't a flash in the pan and the Korean company sticks with the idea. There's a lot of potential here, and hopefully devices like the G5 and Google's ARA will prove the worth of a modular phone.
Thanks to Mobile Fun for supplying the G5 modules used in this feature.