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Thursday, April 12, 2018

First Impressions: LG V20

To be honest, I didn't purchase the LG V20 to use as a cell phone at all! What happened was that I was shopping for a high res music player. In particular, I wanted LDAC or AptX-HD support as well. But even the cheapest high res music player from Sony was $218 and wasn't capable of say, playing back movies or doing anything interesting except for playing music.

The LG V20, however, has always had great reviews for audio, and during an eBay sale, you could get one for $135 after a coupon code. That's even cheaper than a refurbed or used Sony, so I bought it, reasoning that at worst, I had a music player that could double as a portable movie machine on a plane as well.

The biggest problem with buying used or refurbished smartphones is the battery life. Lithium Ion batteries have a limited lifespan usually measured in cycles. If the battery on the phone is regularly drained, within a year, the battery would have gone from barely making it through a day to not making it at all. But the LG V20 was the last of the flagship phones that has a removable battery, so that concern was not an issue either.

Through a freak accident, on the same weekend my LG V20 arrived, the camera on my Moto G5 Plus was smashed. My best guess as to what happened was that I had the Moto G5+ in my cycling jersey pocket, and my kids pedaled the tandem right into my back and the nose rivet of my brooks saddle smashed the lens like a hammer. In the old days, losing a smartphone camera would have been a "so what" event, given that I have dedicated cameras and are not afraid to use them. But nowadays all sorts of apps on the phone depend on the camera, including the all important check deposit app.

So when I got home and unboxed the LG V20, I didn't just plug it in, I removed my sim card and sd card from the Moto G5+ and put those into the phone as well. I did eventually repair the Moto G5+, but it was a ham-fisted repair and didn't really restore the camera to full functionality (the camera's output is still marred).

The LG V20's SoC, the Snapdragon 820, dates from the same era as the Moto G5+'s, the Snapdragon 625. In all the benchmarks, the 820 runs circles around the 625: not only are the cores fully custom Qualcomm "Kryo" cores, they're also clocked higher. In real life, we run applications, not benchmarks, and the LG V20 doesn't feel appreciably faster than the Moto G5+ did, just more power hungry. With one exception: RideWithGPS's route planning web-site does feel faster, because the single-threaded Javascript website just run faster with higher single-core performance, demonstrating that for native Android apps, the 625's 4 additional cores make up for each core not being as fast as the 820's faster cores.

In exchange, the phone's battery life is abysmal compared to the Moto G5+. While I could regularly charge the Moto G5+ to 80% and make it through the day, there's no way the LG V20 could do so. In fact, if I charged it to 100%, it might make it to 6pm before begging for more power. And that's without doing anything expensive like navigation. I immediately bought a 2nd battery for the phone. Given that the phone's battery is replaceable, I could charge the battery to 100% each time without worrying about longevity.

The big pluses are significant. First of all, the audio is indeed awesome. I'd come close to retiring my Sennheiser HD 600 headphones, because they weren't appreciably better than other random stuff I had sitting around. Plug those into the LG V20, and wow. OK, I just didn't have suitable amplication to drive them before! They sound awesome! The bluetooth stack seems better engineered as well, dropping much less frequently than the Moto G5+ did when playing music wirelessly (and the device will use AptX-HD if your headphones support it). My garmin watch also disconnected much less frequently and at higher distances than Moto G5+ did. It does connect with Apt-X HD with  my Sony X1000/M2, but I don't think I can actually hear the difference between Apt-X and Apt-X HD.

The bigger screen is better, though I'm not sure I notice the resolution increase. I didn't miss having NFC on the Moto G5+, but it's actually fairly useful, not just because of Android Pay (which is mostly a gimmick --- you still wouldn't leave the house without your wallet, not just because your driver's license and health insurance cards are in there, but also because enough vendors still don't take Android Pay that you'd be stuck without a payment method in the worst possible places), but because of the "tap to link" camera implementation that Canon has implemented in both the M5 and the G7X2. Now that's a feature that no iPhone has. The NFC antenna/chip is implemented in the back cover of the case (near the top), rather than the battery (like some Samsung phones), so you can swap out the battery without losing NFC, a very nice feature. You can even buy a Murgen 9300mAh extended battery that comes with a new cover and the NFC chip for an extended run-time, though apparently the added weight of that battery means that the phone is no longer mil-spec for drop purposes, and you can't find a protective rubber case for the phone if you attach the big battery.

The fingerprint reader's on the back of the phone, which is useful when picking up the phone off the desk, but not useful if you're trying to use it on a table while eating breakfast, for instance. I also miss the "touch gestures" that Motorola implemented on the Moto G5+, which saved some screen real estate. That's made up by the fact that a 5.7" screen with .2" lopped off for the navigation buttons still gives you a 5.5" screen.

The camera is meh. It's not nearly as good as the Moto G5+'s, which surprised the heck out of me, given that the LG V20 has 3 cameras (2 front and 1 self-facing). I was also surprised by the lack of a selfie-flash, which was present in my wife's Moto Z Play, another phone that's also not in the same price range. It's also not waterproof, but again, if it didn't have a user-swappable battery, I wouldn't have even given the phone a second thought --- my experience buying a refurbished Samsung S7 was that refurbished phones are worthless not because the phone's not functional, but because battery wear usually renders the phone useless:  it doesn't matter how many cool features your phone has if the battery is dead.

The second screen on the phone is also pretty worthless -- it just doesn't add enough usability to the device for me to value it highly, and it feels that it's just using up power for no reason. The LG V30 probably eliminated that feature for this reason.

I do miss the Moto G5+'s gesture: twist to shoot, shake to turn on flashlight. The LG equivalents are clunky: you tap the volume down button twice to activate the camera when the phone is locked, but because of where the buttons are positioned, I have to use my thumb to do that, which is ergonomically unsound. Maybe if I was left-handed it would work better. And the flashlight has mysteriously turned on in my pocket for no reason I can discern, and then it's a bear to turn off requiring unlocking the phone and multiple gestures.

For those who care, the V20 does get excellent updates for the software. After I booted up the phone, it immediately popped up update notifications, and a few days later gave me yet another security update. The phone's even supposed to eventually get Android Oreo. The Moto G5+, by contrast, got maybe 2 updates in the nearly 1 year period during which I owned it, and even though it too is supposed to get Oreo, it's quite clear at this point that Motorola isn't only going to follow through on that reluctantly, if at all. My wife's Moto Z Play does get fairly regular updates, however, so this is entirely due to the price/tier of the phone rather than Motorola's inability to keep up with Android revisions.

All in all, there's no way this phone was worth the $500 premium over the Moto G5+'s price when both were new. And I wouldn't pay more than the $135 I paid for the LG V20. But at the price I paid, I'm somewhat OK using this phone. It's got some pluses, some minus, and overall, the pluses are just barely enough to make up for the minuses as long as I'm not traveling.

But I now know what I'd really like to see as a "flagship" device. I'd like to see the "flagship" features (e.g., huge screen, NFC, waterproofing, nice camera, micro sd card, headphone jack - especially with the Quad LDAC that LG put in), but paired with a power-efficient chipset like the Snapdragon 625 and a lower resolution screen to save battery power. Now that would be a phone worth paying real money for. But of course, no such phone exists, and it doesn't look like any of the Android vendors will have the courage required to make such a radical move in the near future --- they're too busy chasing Apple. Which is a real pity, because again, a phone with a dead battery is a phone with zero features, which is what I see all too frequently with this phone.

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