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Featured Review: LG V10 on AT&T

November 11, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

What’s in a name?  First impressions are everything, so when you see a phone named something simple like G4 or V10, you might think it’s a pretty simple phone.  That’s where you’d be wrong though if you assumed that the LG V10, LG’s newest high-end phone on the market, was a simple phone.  It’s quite the opposite, as the V10 not only boasts a second screen above the main one but also pushes the manual mode features of the camera on board to the limit, blurring the line between professional cameras and smartphone cameras.  All this tacked on top of the already massive and complex ecosystem and OS that LG has built on top of Android and you’re looking at one of the most complex and feature-rich phones on the market.  But in this age of simplicity and speed is this really the right product for LG, or will this one forever be relinquished to a niche market?  Let’s find out.

Specs

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LG has really intelligently designed the V10 instead of just pushing all the numbers as high as they go, and it really shows in the spec list.  Just like they did with the G4, LG has opted to use the Snapdragon 808 instead of the Snapdragon 810, which is a 64-bit hexa-core CPU comprised of a dual-core 1.82GHz Cortex-A57 processor and a quad-core 1.44GHz Cortex-A53 processor.  This one packs an Adreno 418 GPU yet still pushes the 5.7-inch Quad-HD 1440 x 2560 pixel Quantum IPS display and a secondary 160 x 1040 pixel Quantum “ticker” display above the main one.

4GB of LPDDR4 RAM are inside for the speediest experience you can have, and 64GB of internal storage are here with microSD card support in case that isn’t enough.  There’s a 16-megapixel 1/2.6-inch Sony Exmor IMX234 sensor on the back with OIS, and on the front there’s not one but two cameras as well.  Both are 5-megapixel cameras but one features an 80-degree lens while the other is a wide-angle 120-degree lens.  A 3,000mAh battery keeps the phone going all day long, and there’s even a high-resolution 32-bit DAC inside for amazing audio quality.

Display

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LG’s Quantum IPS displays have been making their appearance in a few flagships now and show LG’s reliance on LCD technology for its mobile devices.  It’s particularly interesting to see this while they’re the ones pushing OLED TVs to the market more than any other manufacturer out there, and it leads one to wonder why.  Black levels  range from poor to decent but are generally within the range of most LCDs on the market.  There’s some significant light bleed that comes from that second screen, particularly in ambient screen mode when the top screen is displaying only date and time.  The only time black levels look great are when the display is kept to a darker brightness level, a level that it often prefers when in auto brightness mode.  Viewing angles are mostly good except for the black level loss, and there’s some weird screen sharpening going on here too that gives it a jarring look.  It’s not as bad as on the G3, but it needs to be done away with entirely.

Color accuracy is pretty good as well and features less saturated colors than your typical AMOLED panel, however, white balance was a tad too on the cool side for my liking.  Brightness was certainly phenomenal as you would expect from an LCD and I had zero issues seeing everything even in broad daylight.  The touch experience was also superb and shows that LG still sources some of the best digitizers on the market for accurate and fast multi-touch responsiveness.  The top display has all the exact same qualities and setbacks as the larger display, including the great touch responsiveness and mediocre black levels.  Both panels are super high resolution and you’d be hard pressed to see any pixels no matter how close you get to either screen.

Hardware and Build

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A 5.7-inch display is a tad larger than the displays that LG has been using in its flagships of late, and it’s actually interesting to see them do this given that there’s now an additional smaller ticker display on top of that one too.  It’s entirely possible that LG is trying to prove a point by providing extra screen real estate yet again without actually increasing the size of its phones over competitors, as this phone features the same sized 5.7-inch display of the Nexus 6p, for instance, while adding an additional screen and still coming in with a slightly shorter form factor.  It is a tad wider than the 6p though thanks to those metal bars on each side, but overall the slight curve of the back of the phone, coupled with the silicone rubberized material on the back, make this one easy to hold for fans of larger phones.

The build itself is solid enough, but it honestly looks a bit weird.  The frame is stainless steel and quite solid, with a good weight to it that makes it feel more durable than most phones.  Couple this with the silicone material used on most of the body and the back and you’ll understand why the V10 received the MIL-STD-810G toughness rating.  This means that the phone should be able to be dropped somewhere in the ballpark of 26 times on a wooden surface, and somewhat less when it hits concrete.  That of course, doesn’t mean it’s infallible as we’ve seen from a few drop tests around the web, but it certainly will last longer in these scenarios than the vast majority of high-end devices out there.  All in all the phone comes in Space Black, Luxe White, Modern Beige, Ocean Blue and Opal Blue colors, giving you plenty of choice.

On the back, you’ll find those famous LG buttons including a round power button which doubles as a fingerprint scanner. Volume up and down buttons surround the power button and are recessed into the frame while the large round camera sensor protrudes a tiny bit from the body, and a metal ring protects the lens from hopefully getting scratched or broken.  On either side of this camera module, you’ll find the dual-LED flash as well as the color sensor and laser auto focus.  On the bottom, you’ll find all the ports including the 3.5mm headset jack, microUSB charging port, and a single small speaker. Up top, you’ll only find one of three noise-cancelling microphones as well as the IR blaster for using the phone as a remote control.

Performance and Memory

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LG has once again opted to use the less powerful Snapdragon 808 instead of the top-tier Snapdragon 810 as they did with the G4.  This means that while benchmarks and other tests are going to show this one being a tad bit weaker than even last year’s flagship phones, like the Galaxy Note 4, you probably won’t notice much of a difference in everyday tasks.  LG’s interface is certainly cluttered and messy looking, but it’s fast and fluid and presents some seriously butter-like performance in every key area.  The only place I noticed any difference at all in performance was during gaming, in which games consistently ran at a lower framerate than on a Snapdragon 810 powered phone with the same resolution, like the Nexus 6p for example.  The biggest holdup here is going to be the weaker GPU coupled with a high-resolution Quad-HD display and the additional ticker display, which doesn’t push any graphical boundaries but is still more pixels to render.

Multi-tasking was phenomenal, which should be expected given the 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM.  This makes the LG V10 among the absolute top-tier in RAM performance and available usage size, meaning apps quickly load in and out of memory when needed and apps stay asleep in memory more often, keeping their relaunching faster than ever.  A dedicated multi-tasking Overview button is here and is always welcomed, as it gives a one-touch way to get to apps.  There’s also multi-window support here for extreme multi-tasking on apps that support it, although that list is relatively short unless you want to root the phone and expand it.  Lastly is the memory performance which is absolutely off the charts.  This phone isn’t encrypted and on top of that LG uses the absolute cream of the crop internal NAND for storage, earning it the EPIC certification from SanDisk.  This is the absolute fastest internal storage I’ve ever seen in a phone. On average it’s an absolutely bonkers 5-15 times the speed of many other phones on the market, especially encrypted phones like the Nexus 5x and 6p, which don’t use hardware encryption solutions and suffer for it in storage speed.

Benchmarks

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As was said before, benchmarks will likely be disappointing to behold, but they don’t mean a significant amount in real-world situations.  The exception here, of course, is that insanely fast internal storage speed, which has a big impact on multitasking and loading of apps and other information.

Phone Calls and Network

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AT&T’s network is mostly excellent and provides both great LTE coverage and a solid 3g/HSPA network to back that up.  I found that the signal strength was more or less similar to T-Mobile’s, which means LTE nearly everywhere you go with a few spots of HSPA-only when you’re inside of some buildings.  Rural coverage, especially LTE coverage, was better than T-Mobile in my testing, but overall LTE speeds were the same or slower than T-Mobile’s in areas where available.  Call quality was excellent and the network signal was reliable in every situation I was in.

Sample AT&T LTE speed
Sample AT&T LTE speed

Battery Life

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3,000mAh is pretty standard for a phablet-sized phone nowadays and even ranges on the small side when compared to some recent phablets like the Nexus 6p.  Regardless of this physical difference I found the battery life to be better than average in every regard, especially when it comes to standby.  On average I got through a full day from waking up to bedtime (around 18 hours) with at least 20% left every day, even on days with heavy usage.  Standby time was incredible and I found the phone would last days on end with little to no draining of the battery, all happening even without Android 6.0 Marshmallow’s new Doze battery saver mode.  Benchmarking put this one around 5 hours of screen-on time and I found that to be slightly higher than my average of just under 5 on its best day.

Sound

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Let’s get the less exciting part out of the way first this time around and talk about the meek speaker on the bottom of the phone.  This speaker placement is certainly better than back facing without a doubt, but having speakers on the front is considerably better for obvious reasons.  Regardless this is a decent tiny speaker with plenty of volume and clarity, but not a whole lot else to cover.  Sound output via the headset jack is the really exciting thing here, and LG has paid particularly close attention to the V10’s abilities in this area.  A 32-bit DAC provides high-resolution audio for units that support it and can be toggled on and off to save battery when the higher-powered DAC doesn’t need to be used.  On or off though the V10 outputs some of the most spectacular sound I’ve ever heard on any smartphone, and will likely blow you away with its quality. This may actually be the single phone to own if you’re an audiophile just because of this particular feature.

Software

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LG users since the 2013 G2 will know exactly what to expect here.  LG’s skin certainly looks unique with that grey and teal color scheme.  Little to nothing has changed here since the latest design was unveiled at the G3 announcement last summer, except for a few extra features being tacked on here and there.  Initially the phone was completely overwhelming and I found myself not knowing exactly where to start first.  There’s a lot of visual information on screen at any given point in time and while basic users should be fine just using the mainstay phone, messaging, email, browser and camera apps, those looking for some extra features may have to hunt around a bit.  Menus are nested within menus, settings are hidden and in general the whole experience is pretty confusing.  Most of LG’s features are incredibly useful and really nice, but there’s almost too many of them, and it would be nice to see LG trim up their OS significantly next time around.

Outside of the clutter and hidden nature of many of the features there’s not too much to complain about here.  LG really needs to get with the times and allow users to expand the quick toggles into the full-screen grid, as having a scrolling row of 15 icons is neither quick or easy to use, and ends up being a confusing affair that most will probably never use outside of the first few set there by default.  The rest of the features here are all mainstays of LG phones and we’re not going to go in depth with every single one since they’re not really anything new, however you can fully expect to enjoy a number of extra features like the IR blaster remote control app, plenty of AT&T pack-ins and pre-installed apps, and a home screen launcher that’s mostly excellent.  All of LG’s apps have been fully updated to look more modern, including flat shading, tinted status bars and hovering material design action buttons.  So long as the odd color scheme here or there doesn’t bug you these are all incredibly functional, useful apps.

Second Screen

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One of the biggest features of the V10 is the second screen and it comes in handy in more than one way.  Besides acting as an always-on display to give you information without having to turn the large screen on, the ticker also displays shortcuts, extra controls for apps like the camera, and even more detailed notifications that don’t have to pop up on your main screen.  There are two different configuration modes for the second screen, the first of which is while the phone is off.  This is the most simple mode and will either display a simple message that’s completely customizable, or the date and time instead.  It’s nice to be able to pull the phone out of your pocket to check the date and time without having to turn the whole screen on, especially if you don’t have a watch or aren’t near a clock.  It saves battery and it’s one less step in having to press that power button.

While the main screen is on there’s a ton of different things that can be done with the second ticker screen including keeping a signature or message up top, shortcuts for 5 apps of your choosing, music playback controls, quick contacts and calendar events.  All of these panes can be enabled or disabled to your choosing, and I found myself disabling the signature one right away since it’s fairly useless (it’s just a simple text that does nothing).  App shortcuts are quite possibly one of the best uses of the display and keep you from having to go back home just to launch your favorite apps.  There’s also the quick contacts feature which lets you dial or message a contact directly from the second screen, again without having to navigate away from what you’re doing on the main screen.  All this comes together to make the V10 an absolute beast when it comes to multi-tasking.  More than likely those that love to root and modify their phones will have an absolute hayday with this one.

Security and Privacy

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Fingerprint scanning has been an industry-changing trend over the past 2 years, and while this only runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop and doesn’t include Google’s new native fingerprint scanning support, it’s got LG’s custom solution instead.  Unfortunately I found that the fingerprint scanner really wasn’t all that great when compared to the 2015 Samsung flagships, the Nexus 5x, or the Nexus 6p.  It was slow and often just wouldn’t register my fingerprint to unlock the phone, and while I never removed the fingerprint unlock security for the duration of my review I found myself getting annoyed with it more than once.

Oddly enough you can’t just unlock the phone by placing your fingerprint on the scanner, you have to press it first and leave your finger there for it to be read and unlock the phone.  This wasn’t ideal, especially after being spoiled by the Nexus 5x and 6p’s lightning fast one-touch unlocking.  Not having native Android fingerprint scanning support in Lollipop means no support for fingerprint NFC payments, an update that’ll be coming soon to the V10 everywhere and will eliminate this issue.  On the bright side you can also lock content like pictures and video via the fingerprint scanner, so those private photos can’t just be looked at by anyone that has your phone.

Camera

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Software

The second really big feature of the V10 is the camera, and it’s the feature that LG has pushed the most both in the unveiling of the phone in New York City and in all of LG’s ad campaigns.  LG has become a market leader in camera software and performance, particularly the manual mode on the camera, and has taken it up to 11 with this phone.  There’s not only a manual camera mode here with all the settings you would expect and RAW picture support, there’s also full manual movie control mode as well.  This phone is designed to take gorgeous photos and near film-class videos if you know what you’re doing, and that may be the biggest problem for some users when delving into this camera.

There might be too many features, and while that sounds ridiculous it’s likely all in the layout of the software.  Row upon row of icons are what LG uses for its settings instead of a well marked or labeled menu and it can be downright confusing at times.  It’s really a shame too because the overall layout is just fine and actually works incredibly well given just how much there is to do here.  For instance going into video mode there are icons for the resolution, framerate, bitrate, toggling the grid and the timer, but bitrate options don’t tell you anything beyond an H, M or L label.  If you pay attention to the information bar up top it’ll show the bitrate changing, so it’s just a slight bit of trial and error until you figure it out, but it could be better labeled.

In addition to this there’s no resolution listing in the camera mode at all, just a simple aspect ratio.  This is a 16:9 16-megapixel sensor and is set to that by default, but what’s confusing is that the software never tells you that.  Couple this with the fact that nearly every other camera sensor on the market is 4:3 and often times OEMs will ship the software in 16:9 with a cropped resolution and you’ve got some confusion all around.  LG needs to add some better labels or at least a toast notification to the camera to better explain some of these features, but at the same time they are intended for more advanced users that are probably familiar with most of the icons already.  Regardless the more basic users out there should have no trouble as all the default settings are just fine and a simple tap of the shutter or record button is likely all some people will ever do, and there’s no configuration required for that.

Manual mode is incredibly powerful and has all the tools you’d ever need as a photographer including white balance, exposure, manual focus, ISO, shutter speed and even an exposure lock button.  Everything is set to automatic when launching the manual mode so that you only have to adjust parameters you feel are necessary.  Since the software does a generally good job of automatically detecting the scenario you’re taking a picture of this is a phenomenal solution for helping ease users into manual mode.  Those looking for current settings will find them up top in the information bar, in which literally everything you’d need outside of the actual resolution is present.  There’s even directional audio capabilities thanks to 3 well placed microphones on the body.  Check that out in action in the video below:

Selfies and Social Video

LG has included not one but two front-facing cameras on the V10.  Both are intended for selfies of course but one features an 80-degree lens for more personal single shots of yourself, while the other features a 120-degree wide-angle lens for getting groups of people or backgrounds in the shot.  These aren’t the best quality selfie cameras around and I found that even with HDR enabled things tended to get washed out, but it’s what you can do with these cameras that’s really interesting.  LG has included a mode in the camera software called Multi-View in which you can select different collage grids and take pictures within these grids using any of the 3 cameras on board.  Swiping in each box changes between cameras and you’ll take the photos one at a time rather than all at once, letting you do lots of different things between shots to get the point across.  It’s a really fun mode that makes creating fun photos quite easy.

Snap video is another social mode where LG has created a way to make quick 60-second videos of what you’re doing, or for the more Vine or Instagram heavy user a way to clip those videos into a much shorter clip.  From this mode you can either press and hold to record clips as you are likely used to with apps like Vine and Instagram, or you can let the software assemble a demo reel of what’s worth watching in the clips and videos stored on your phone.  Check out our hands on from the LG event to see this in action!

Photos and Video

Camera quality as a whole is phenomenal and ranks among the finest of any smartphone on the market.  That 16:9 16-megapixel resolution might throw you off at first just because we’re generally used to seeing pictures in 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratios, but know that these are the full 16-megapixel resolution and they pretty much always look glorious.  LG tends to overexpose just a tad bit in most shots, and while that will lead to blown out highlights it also picks up more shadow detail that other phones might miss.  It’s certainly down to what look you want and there’s always the manual mode too, where you can leave everything else at auto and just select the adjustments you’d like to make.

Auto-HDR mode makes a return here and tends to do a phenomenal job of detecting what’s needed in a split second.  HDR is generally excellent although sometimes I found that the exposure bracketing took too long and even the OIS module couldn’t help keep it from being a blurry shot, especially when one-handing the phone to take photos.  Focusing is lightning fast and almost always gets it right the first time, and the white balance is almost always excellent too thanks to that color spectrum analyzer next to the laser auto focus module.  Overall I found that some photos tended to look slightly cooler than normal, but again this slight adjustment can be made in manual mode if it bothers you.

Daylight quality is downright amazing and even indoor shots come out crisp and clean.  LG’s denoise filter works well here and its negative affects are minimized simply because there are so many pixels to work with, and photos often turned out quite a bit sharper than other cameras I have in my possession during well-lit or indoor scenes.  There’s really not any one area the camera struggles in and it even goes toe-to-toe with the Nexus 5x/6p in this area, which is impressive considering that phone has a sensor that’s not only a generation newer but features larger pixels too.  LG has put together an amazing software package here and it really shows in the results.

Video is likely some of the finest video ever seen from a smartphone, and that’s just as much to do with software as it is hardware.  LG has built an advanced optical image stabilization (OIS) sensor into this phone that works overtime to deliver the most steady video possible.  4K 30FPS video is here and looks great, although it only features regular OIS, not the advanced steady video mode that 1080p and 720p modes offer.  Those looking to give resolution up for that steady camera will be incredibly happy here, and there’s even 120FPS mode at 720p for slow-motion fun.  Check out the camera and video samples below to see just how good this camera is for yourself!

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The Good

Solid build that’s military grade

Amazing camera

32-bit DAC for high-resolution audio

Great battery life

Oodles of features

Second screen for advanced multi-tasking

Liquid smooth performance

The Bad

LG’s skin is just feeling bloated and confusing at this point

Single bottom-facing speaker

Some phone colors are downright ugly

Poor black levels on the screen

Fingerprint reader is mediocre and can be slow if not pressed exactly right

Final Thoughts

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The LG V10 is certainly one of the best phones this year, there’s absolutely no doubt.  It’s got a hardened build, great specs, incredible high-res audio and a camera that could make some professional photographers really happy.  Those looking for a more simplified experience can be happy too, so long as you don’t try to venture too deep into the settings menu, where things tend to be nested and hidden from plain sight.  Outside of the slightly convoluted skin LG has here there’s tons of features to enjoy and plenty to learn, meaning you’ll be finding out new things the V10 does probably even months after owning it.  If you’re looking for an amazingly fast and fluid experience, a top-class camera with more manual modes than any other on the market or even just a place to play high-resolution 32-bit audio without spending thousands of dollars this is the right place to look.  It’s a big phone with a pretty big price tag, but the payoff is well worth it!