LG’s new V20 phablet—5.7 inches and ready to make video magic—is boxed in by smartphone hullabaloo, fore and aft.
In its rear-view mirror, the V20 can see Samsung’s humbled Galaxy Note 7, another 5.7-inch phone that still reeks of exploding batteries. And in its view out the windshield, the V20 can see the iPhone 7 Plus. Apple will unveil this 5.5-inch phone in less than 24 hours, and when it does, the earth’s magnetic poles will flip, and every other conversation in the smartphone universe will come to a grinding halt. Dual rear cameras, y’all.
It’s a shame that LG isn’t getting a chance to reveal the V20 in a less crowded news cycle, because the phone looks like it really does have something fresh to add to the super-sized smartphone category. The V20 is also the first phone in the entire Android universe—Nexus phones included—to come with Android 7.0 Nougat right of the box.
But forget about the OS for a moment, because LG is pinning the entire premise of the V20 on content creation: audio recording and especially video capture. The idea that a mere smartphone could be someone’s one and only video production camera may seem like folly to serious auteurs, but legions of YouTubers may be interested in LG’s vision.
Last week I spent about an hour playing with a pre-production version of the V20, and I’m ready to share my first impressions. You can jump to the bottom of the article if you only want details on content creation. And if you want all the details on specs and features in one place, go here.
In with sophistication, out with grip
When I first picked up the V20, my immediate reaction was disappointment. LG dropped the grippy, textured-plastic surfacing on the back plate of the V10 (a phone with the same content-creation premise), and replaced it with a solid sheet of metal. In fact, save for polycarb bumpers on the top and bottom of the phone, the V20’s case is made of aluminum 6013. Finishes include Silver, Pink, and the Titan color shown here.
Ian Hwang, head of product planning for LG Mobile, said the company wanted to give the V20 a more up-market, less “rugged” look, adding, “If we had applied that type of finish on [the V20], it may look like a barbell or something.” The new phone does indeed look more expensive than the V10, but I still miss that plastic backing, which provided some reassuring grip when using the phone with only one hand. LG also dropped the vaguely lozenge-like shape of the V10, and now the V series design aligns much more closely to the company’s G5 flagship phone.
Is the V20 a sophisticated-looking phone? Sure. But its design is also rather anonymous-looking, whereas the V10 had its own loveable oddball character.
Flipping the phone over, I’m impressed by LG’s new “second screen,” which sits above the main 5.7-inch, 2560x1440 display. This thin, always-on screen can display notifications, music controls, a camera quick-launch button, and other shortcuts—and now it’s noticeably, palpably brighter in the V20, jumping from a claimed 35 nits to 68 nits. The second screen text renders in a larger font as well.
A new approach to battery swaps
Like any proud LG superphone, the V20 has a removable battery, and LG is now on its third battery extraction scheme since the V10 was released last year.
With the V10, you stuck a fingernail in the charging port, and pried off the back case to get to the battery. It was a fumbly, inelegant solution. Then, in its 5.3-inch G5 flagship, LG introduced an entirely new extraction system that stuffs the battery into an end-cap, or “chin.” In this scheme, you press a button on the edge of the phone to release the chin, and then you basically snap the battery off its mooring. Easier? Yes. But the G5’s scheme is still flawed, for a number of reasons I describe here.
Now, with the V20, LG has introduced an updated version of the V10 scheme. Instead of poking around in the charging port, you press a button on the side of chassis to disconnect the back panel from the rest of the phone. It’s easier than the V10’s approach, but I still found removing the 3,200 mAh battery to be a bit finicky, as it was difficult to tell when the two halves of the phone had disengaged. What’s more, the panel didn’t snap back in with absolute confidence. I heard only one barely audible click to signal the phone was whole again, but who knows, maybe this is an operation that becomes second-nature with practice.
During the demo, I asked Hwang if the new battery extraction approach in the V20 will be carried over to an evitable G6 flagship. His answer was most noteworthy because he didn’t categorically say the G5’s chin was a success and will continue for another generation: “I cannot comment about future products, but yeah, we’ll see, we’ll see,” Hwang said.
If nothing else, playing with the new extraction method gave me a great opportunity to test the strength and durability of the aluminum 6013 back panel. I didn’t try to bend the panel with all my strength, but I did torque the panel with way more pressure than I’d ever exert on a component that I personally paid for. And bend it did not.
High-definition audio recording
The V20 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, just like all the other flagship-caliber Android phones shipping today. The processor is mated to 4GB of memory, and 64GB of storage comes standard. You can also add up to 2TB of storage via a MicroSD slot. There’s a rear fingerprint scanner for security and authentication, and the V20 supports QuickCharge 3.0 for fast-charging. Add in Android 7.0 Nougat, and you have a phone that should interest any Android enthusiast who just can’t live with a display smaller than 5.7 inches.
But what if you actually want to record music and make videos to quasi-pro standards? For the content-creation enthusiast, LG has a bunch of answers.
Let’s start with audio recording. LG is pimping a high-def, 24-bit/192kHz audio recorder that promises 6.5x more accurate sound than 16-bit alternatives. To prove the claim, Hwang played two audio clips of bizarre forest sounds, one recorded at 16-bit, the other at 24-bit. The higher-def clip was definitely louder and more detailed. So there’s that.
LG also notes the V20 has three microphones that provide better capture of loud sounds in the 120dB to 132dB range. The upshot is that when you’re shooting video at concerts, your audio track should be higher-def with less clipping.
Fancy new video tricks
On the video front, the V20 introduces a number of interesting technical solutions, starting with Steady Record 2.0, a video stabilization technique that leverages new EIS (electronic image stabilization) technology from Qualcomm. LG says Qualcomm’s improved EIS is exclusive to the phone, and reduces latency in the interface between the phone’s gyroscope and the video image, helping to smooth out shaky video. The V20 also uses DIS (digital image stabilization) to improve smoothness further.
After you’ve shot your video, DIS analyzes every frame, comparing it to some 15 to 20 neighboring frames, both forward and back. Then the algorithm adjusts the frames to make objects appear in the same position. Frankly, I was impressed by just how well Steady Record 2.0 performed. Shooting a video in LG’s demo room, I rocked and swayed the V20 like a man possessed, but the resulting video was remarkably smooth with minimal “jello” effects. It was just a quick little experiment, and I only got to see the video output on the phone, but the results were impressive.
And there’s more. In addition to laser-detection autofocus (which helps the camera quickly find focus in low light conditions) and phase-detection autofocus (which helps speed up focus on moving objects), the V20 also features tracking focus. If I understand LG correctly, you can select a specific object when you’re shooting a video, and the camera will stay locked on that target as you record the action.
Finally, LG has added eight “film effects” to the V series’ already fine set of manual video controls. LG is quick to point out these aren’t mere filters. No, they’re effects that specifically mimic the look of various film stocks, like Fuji and Agfa. In the V10 they were only available for still images, but now you can apply them to moving pictures. In real-time. This feature is easy to use, and will certainly give smartphone videographers a rather subtle collection of effects to play with.
LG V20, Pixel XL or Galaxy Note 7?
I didn’t get a chance to test the audio output quality of the V20’s Quad DAC. It offers 32-bit fidelity, 75 individual volume increments, and support for a slew of lossless formats. Nor did I test still image capture with LG’s dual cameras, which now offer wide-angle support front and back.
For now, I’ll just kick back and wait, pondering which phablet will become my new daily driver. 5.7 inches is my ideal display size, so I’m looking forward to fully vetting the V20, as well as waiting for Samsung’s Note 7 smoke to clear, and seeing what Google has in store via its update to the Nexus 6P (presumably called the Pixel XL). Google has never done a lot with its Nexus camera experiences, so with Nougat already installed, the V20 could be a very compelling choice.