Last year, LG tried something different with its flagship phone. The G5‘s selling point was its modularity, the swappable battery and attachable camera “Friends” LG hoped would create a whole new smartphone ecosystem. Long story short, it didn’t go great.
With the G6, which LG announced today at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Korean conglomerate went the other way. The G6 is the exact phone you’d get if you asked a bunch of people what they wanted in a smartphone, threw all their answers in a cauldron, and stirred mightily. LG has an answer for everything that ails smartphone users, but no new ideas about what those users might want going forward. Venture capitalist Benedict Evans recently called Facebook and Google “index companies,” meaning they don’t have opinions but rather try to reflect their users at all times. The LG G6, for better and for worse, is an Index Smartphone.
Smartphone User Feedback Item One was apparently that people want big screens but tiny phones. LG’s solution to this paradox was to give the G6 a 5.7-inch screen, but surround it with such tiny bezels that the phone feels smaller than, say, an iPhone 7 Plus or a Google Pixel XL. It’s a big phone, certainly, but in my brief time using it I was shocked by how usable it is in one hand. The screen’s 18:9 aspect ratio (which I’d like to point out is 2:1, and that all these numbers are nonsense) also makes the screen a touch taller. The logic behind 18:9 is mostly long-winded explanations about mathematical averages of major cinematic formats, but basically it’s so that video will look great on your phone. Which it definitely does, though the slightly rounded corners look a little odd.
One consequence of the aspect ratio: the screen becomes perfectly divisible into two squares. LG redesigned its entire interface around that fact. In Contacts, the top half of the screen is a photo and the bottom’s the info; same in the Phone app. I’ve always wished LG would just leave Android well enough alone, and I still do, but at least this time LG seems to have a reason for its meddling. One bit of good software news: the G6 is the first non-Pixel phone to have Google’s Assistant right there on the home button. It surely won’t have that title for long, but it counts for something.
LG gets particularly square-crazy in the camera app. The camera’s been upgraded in a big way (Smartphone User Feedback Item Two), with two different 13-megapixel sensors on the back that offer the same sort of optical zoom you get on the iPhone 7 Plus. If you use the Grid mode, you can take four square pictures in a single grid, seeing your viewfinder at the top and your unfinished grid at the bottom. Guide shot shows you an old photo, to help you stage a new one the same way. The idea across the board seems to be that having more space doesn’t just mean you make everything bigger; instead you add more stuff. It looks like chaos but it seems genuinely useful.
The G6 is IP68-rated waterproof, so you can take it to the beach or in the shower (Item Three), and its metal body is sturdy enough to withstand lots and lots of drops (Item Four). It has a big battery (Item Five) that LG swears won’t get worse over time (Item Six), and charges wirelessly on any pad you can find (Item Seven). It also has a power button on the back, which I guarantee nobody asked for.
I’ve only spent a few minutes with the G6 so far, but it appears to be a very nice phone—the best and most universally appealing LG’s made in a while. The camera didn’t have much detail, and the camera app kept crashing, but those are likely pre-production problems. In general it’s a very thoughtful phone that does a bunch of things people really want and absolutely nothing else whatsoever. In that way it feels like LG may have swung the pendulum a bit too far back from the G5—that phone lived in left field, but now LG’s competing in the cluttered middle with a lot of phones just as good and a lot less expensive. Samsung at least has curved screens and exploding batteries to remember it by. (Too soon?)
What LG’s doing points to the conundrum facing every smartphone maker right now. In this unprecedentedly large smartphone market, there’s too much money at stake to take risks. But making a good, middle-of-the-road phone is trivially easy, so you have to try new things. Or you don’t, and you just take all that R&D money and pour it into out-marketing everyone you can. That last approach is winning, and it’s leaving us with the best and most boring smartphones ever made.