LG keeps flirting with greatness, but refuses to commit
The LG V30 is a phone with soul.
And funk and punk. And rap and rock. And jazz and blues. This is the best-sounding smartphone that’s ever been made, and it also has LG’s finest industrial design to date. The V30 is distinctive, modern, and stacked with desirable features, a phone seemingly destined for inevitable stardom.
But the V30 is also imperfect, compromised in significant ways that don’t show up on a spec sheet or a feature checklist. I like this phone, and a big part of me really wanted to love it. However, after a month with it, I am coming away with the same conclusion I usually have about LG phones.
The $800 V30 was better as a promise on paper than a phone in real use.
Let’s start with the good stuff, because there’s plenty of it. From among the minimal-bezel phones that have proliferated in 2017, the LG V30 has my favorite design. It is a refinement and a streamlining of LG’s G6 flagship from earlier this year, and it makes the 6-inch OLED screen on the V30 feel incredibly compact. I’ve reviewed 6-inch phones in the past, such as 2013’s HTC One Max, and until recently I was confident that that size signaled an unwieldy two-handed behemoth. Instead, the V30 is a perfectly sculpted smartphone that’s easy, even pleasurable, to operate with one hand.
Compared to the 6.2-inch Galaxy S8 Plus from Samsung, LG’s V30 is shorter, wider, and a little thinner, and those differences add up to make LG’s phone more pleasant to handle. It also helps that LG has positioned its fingerprint reader on the back of the phone in a sanely central position, unlike Samsung’s off-center calamity. The V30’s ergonomics are so good, in fact, that I expect most people will find it as comfortable to use as smaller devices like the Google Pixel and Galaxy S8. It certainly makes bezel-laden phones like HTC’s U11 and Sony’s Xperia series feel desperately unoptimized in their design. Even the freshly introduced Google Pixel 2 XL, which has the same 6-inch screen, is tangibly larger than the radically minimalist LG V30.
With glass on the front and back, the V30 joins this year’s trend of flagship phones moving beyond plastic and metal to an all-glass finish. That makes for a striking look and allows for the V30’s wireless charging, however I’m not a huge fan of the move. Previous experience with Sony’s glass-back Xperia phones has shown me how easy it is to shatter any glass surface on a phone, front or back, and the everyday scratches accumulating on my regular phone are testament to the softness of the material. LG has waterproofed the V30 to an IP68 rating, and it put the device through a battery of drop tests, but glass is still glass. It will not age handsomely like, say, full-grain leather, and the scratches it picks up will make it structurally weaker rather than giving it the gritty, lived-in feel of a pair of well-worn jeans that you might get from an aluminum phone.
All things considered, I’m happy to crown this as LG’s best industrial design so far. The bezels are superbly minimal (unlike Apple and Essential notch lovers, I appreciate the symmetry of LG’s device), the ergonomic compromises are nonexistent, and the sheer amount of goodness inside this extra-thin phone almost defies logic.
There’s no set list of must-have features for a 2017 flagship phone, but here are some of the most desired ones: waterproofing, wireless charging, high-resolution display (preferably OLED), dual-camera system, a long-lasting battery, the latest processor, and a generous serving of storage. The V30 ticks all those boxes. LG ships it with 64GB of expandable storage, a 3,300mAh battery, the Snapdragon 835 processor that’s practically standard-issue at the high end of Android, and one of the most mature dual-camera systems on the market. The V30 is a spec sheet champion, just like practically every flagship phone from LG ever.
The thing that differentiates the V30 from its predecessor V10 and V20 devices from LG is its design refinement. The V10 was subtly the best cameraphone of its time, and the V20 was the undisputed headphone audio champion, but both were giant, clumsy things. Up until this point, the V series was defined by beastly power in a beastly body, but the V30 marks a turning point where LG truly has made its best phone its most beautiful one as well. Everything good about the predecessors, minus the obviously technological design.
The cherry atop the LG V30 spec cake is undeniably the phone’s Hi-Fi Quad-DAC audio system. It is insanely good. I’m talking “angels descended from heaven and plucked harps inside my ears” kind of good. It’s the sort of sound that makes me extend my walks and wish for my train to be delayed, just so I could listen for a little while longer. Listening with the 1More Quad Driver earphones, I find the V30’s bass so tight and pure that I just gorge on it. Everything sounds phenomenal coming out of this phone, whether it’s classical orchestra music, Ramin Djawadi movie soundtracks, 2Pac’s pathos-laden lyrics, or the latest electronic productions from the likes of Nightmares on Wax. The only thing I don’t like are the B&O Play buds that LG bundles with the V30 in most markets: they’re mediocre.
Apple and Google may be pushing the entire mobile industry toward wireless audio, but LG is proving that the headphone jack can still be a source of great delight on a smartphone. I rate the purity, faithfulness, and power of LG’s V30 output right up there with dedicated music players such as the Fiio X5 and X7. Given how my favorite music player is the $1,000 Astell & Kern Kann, it’s not entirely crazy to think of the V30 as a cheaper high-fidelity media player with a much more modern Android interface and a lot of other good things thrown in. It just depends on how important audio is to you and your daily life.
Over the past month, I’ve found that, as much as I adore the V30’s sound, it just isn’t that critical to my everyday activities. Bringing the V30 and a Google Pixel on my recent trip to Bulgaria, I spent a lot more time using the Pixel’s superior camera than I did the V30’s vastly superior audio. LG is the absolute best in one category of mobile performance, but that niche is narrow. It pains me to say it, but the V30’s greatest strength is a non-essential feature — just a (very) nice to have one.
As to that all-important camera on the V30, I find it good, sometimes great, but never exceptional. LG billed the V30 as a major leap forward in imaging, what with its f/1.6 aperture and real glass lens for enhanced image clarity (on the main camera), however the actual results don’t distinguish this phone from a class of very high performers near the V30’s lofty price point. A head-to-head comparison I did between the LG V30 and HTC U11 ended up evenly split. Both phones had a tendency to slightly overexpose images, and LG had the sharper shot more often than HTC, but that was due to the former company’s continued over-reliance on artificial sharpening. This is much more restrained than it was on the LG G6, but it still leaves pictures looking less photographic. LG’s camera designers told me last month that the V30 has to do less post-processing work to improve an image simply because the new camera has better optics.
Judging by the similarities in image output from LG and Samsung phones, I’d argue there’s an identifiable Korean style of mobile photography, which is defined by crisp edges and contours of objects and aggressive noise suppression in areas of consistent color. That leads to a precise, pristine, and clinical look. It might be awesome if you’re filing expenses or engaging in visual note-taking, but it kills intricate detail in photos and kind of sucks for capturing memories you’ll treasure for a long time. I’ve been put off by the digital, inorganic appearance of many of the photos I’ve captured with the LG V30, and I much prefer the HTC U11, which turns out richer, more nuanced colors. The V30’s images often feel muted and conservative in their saturation and contrast.
(All photos of the Jaguar E-type Zero were shot with the LG V30)
I give credit to LG for building out a comprehensive suite of options in its camera software. The big additions this year are cinematic video filters that were developed with the help of pro videographers. They are not bad! I especially like the Summer Blockbuster filter, which makes everything look blue-orange, just like all the action flicks clogging up your local cinema. It’s one of a number of well-executed video filters that really contribute a different vibe to the stuff I film. And LG backs this up with good video performance from the V30, which has impressively steady stabilization, records crystal-clear audio, and retains a nice amount of detail. LG’s gone the extra step of adding a point-zoom function: every other phone can only zoom toward the center of the screen, but with the V30 you can select any point in the frame and have the camera smoothly zoom in on it. It’s the sort of cool extra feature that leaves an impression.
My lack of enthusiasm for LG’s wide-angle second camera on the back can be intuited from the fact I’m mentioning it last. Even with the newest optimizations and improvements — which include reducing the fisheye distortion effect by a third relative to the V20 — LG’s dual camera just doesn’t excite me. The highest-quality shots still come from the main f/1.6 camera, and I rarely find myself needing the all-encompassing field of view of the wide-angle lens. I guess you can count me in the group of people that prefer the second lens to be either monochrome, as with Huawei and the Essential Phone, or a zoomed-in telephoto as with the iPhone, OnePlus 5, Galaxy Note 8, and a bunch of others.
Almost all the core elements of the LG V30 user experience are strong. Performance is consistently fast and fluid, and battery life is at the upper end of the spectrum for the V30’s class. I can comfortably get through an intensive day’s use, even while deploying the power-hungry quad-DAC audio system. Like the HTC U11, which has also impressed me in recent times, the V30 provides great peace of mind that no matter what I’m doing, I won’t suddenly be left with a powerless phone. Having Qi wireless charging also helps in that regard, and I’ve been gleefully charging the V30 using Samsung’s wireless charging pad for the Galaxy S8 (albeit at slower speeds than Samsung phones can wirelessly charge at). Interoperable standards are a beautiful thing!
LG’s Android build on the V30 is stable and pretty close to the default Android user experience, but that’s about as much good as I can say about it. The settings menu is still unnecessarily convoluted and fragmented into tabs, I can’t access the apps list with a swipe up from the bottom of the home screen (a surprisingly big annoyance compared to the Google Pixel and many other Android alternatives), and LG seriously weighs its phones down with carrier bloatware. The Korean version of the V30 that I tested came with no fewer than 54 preloaded carrier apps, and the US alternatives are no better. $800 and a ton of crap I have to disable and remove? What is this, a Windows laptop from 2007?
A cautionary note on the LG software front: the company has indicated that its Android 8.0 Oreo update for the V30 (which ships with the older Android 7.1 Nougat on board) isn’t due until the end of this year. When you think about the long-term investment for an expensive phone, it’s essential to consider the likelihood of facing similar delays with future Android updates down the line. Unfortunately, LG doesn’t provide the same timely update reassurance that Google’s Pixel phones or more adroit rivals like Samsung do.
Looking on the bright side, I do enjoy the always-on display that LG has implemented with the V30. It lets me glance at the time and basic notifications as well as control my music without activating the phone. And it doesn’t seem to consume a meaningful amount of extra power, so I have no worries about it draining my battery.
You may be wondering why I have left discussion of the LG V30’s display for last. Well, that’s because I wanted you to understand the essential strengths and weaknesses of this phone before I told you the ultimate deal-breaker for me. The OLED screen of the V30 is just bad. There’s no dodging this issue, and there’s no making excuses for it. This isn’t a good display, and if your phone doesn’t have a good display it might as well be a Nokia 5110.
Areas of the same color on the V30 appear blotchy: when I open up a Google Keep note, I don’t get a flat white canvas as I should, but instead I see streaks of gray, looking as if there’s an inconsistent backlight. This being an OLED display, there’s no backlight to speak of, so it’s just poor brightness uniformity across those light-emitting diodes. The same unhappy effect is even more pronounced with darker grays and colors like navy blue, and it’s amplified by the V30’s apparent inability to render color gradations smoothly. Gradients appear grainy and I see unpleasant color banding, exactly the same issues that Ars Technica encountered with a preproduction V30 device last month.
Every time I switched between the V30 and HTC’s U11 in my testing, the U11’s screen felt like a luxurious escape. It’s painfully apparent that LG’s so-called plastic OLED screens are multiple generations behind Samsung’s alternative — which graces the Galaxy S8, Galaxy Note 8, and the upcoming iPhone X — as well as significantly behind the best LCDs, as exhibited by the U11. If you’d asked me, before getting ahold of the V30, what most excited me about this phone, the bezel-deprived OLED screen would have been one of my top two or three features. I really do think LG nailed the dimensions of this phone, and I’m confident the screen technology contributes to the V30’s thinness (as well as making it compatible with Google’s budding Daydream VR ecosystem). But the V30’s desaturated, lifeless screen, addled with all of the foregoing issues, makes this a phone I find impossible to love, or even get along with on a daily basis.
Like its predecessors, the LG V30 is a phone designed to appeal to spec lovers first, though with its pretty aesthetic and great ergonomics it could have stood a chance of attracting a more mainstream audience as well. But the story of LG smartphones has always been a matter of “could have” and “should have.” It’s not that LG phones aren’t improving every year — they are, and they continue to offer cutting-edge spec sheets with each new iteration — but the improvements the company is making seem to always be accompanied by self-inflicted wounds. The LG G5 was a nice step up in design over the G4, but LG hamstrung it with a poorly conceived and quickly aborted modular accessory system. The G6 got better again, but it too lacked the final polishing touch to outshine Samsung’s more accomplished designs.
The V30 arrives half a year after the G6 and, at first blush, appears to rectify everything that ailed LG’s devices of the past. But LG rushed to put an imperfect OLED screen in its flagship phone, preferring to have the highlight spec over the superior user experience, and I can’t condone either the choice or the eventual product. This is a phone that has given me goosebumps with the astonishing quality of its headphone audio, and if I was reviewing it on the strength of music playback alone, I would say it’s one of the best media players on the market. But this is supposed to be a smartphone. And as a smartphone, the LG V30 fails to validate its high price and flagship status.