Weirdly, it was a bit of shock to discover that LG are pulling out of the mobile phone market. On the one hand, I don't really follow phone trends, so industry news is normally a bit meh, but on the other, I am an owner (and big proponent) of the LG V20. Sure, that phone is almost half a decade old, but I've yet to see anything that matches it for functionality. Asa a result, I've always watched the V-series lineup announcements from LG in the hope that they might someday bring out another serious competitor, but I guess that hope is no longer valid 😔
Since I heard about the decision, my thoughts have been running over exactly what I like about the V20 and why I feel LG deserved much more success than they found. Plus, somehow, I've never actually written anything about the V20 on this site, so today I'm going to change that.
I was late to the LG game, buying my V20 several years after it released on the second-hand market. Part of the reasoning behind that purchase was the fact that the V20 had a whole bunch of interesting features, but I'd be lying to say I would have picked it up for full price. The cost of smartphones exceeded what I felt was "good value" years ago, which has left me increasingly at the whims of second-hand sellers. At the time that my previous phone unceremoniously died, the V20 was in that sweet spot of price-to-performance that made it feel like a particularly attractive offer.
But what features had particularly caught my eye? The big two were the camera and the inbuilt mini-DAC. I've actually since picked up Bluetooth headphones, making the amp a little bit pointless, but man is it great when you do go wired. It genuinely gives your audio a bump in quality and clarity, regardless of how it's being sent. Crappy streaming quality from apps like YouTube or Castbox still sound good, whilst native files (not that I ever really use those any more) sound great. In particular, offline 320kbps files from Spotify were a treat to listen to, which is ideal for my personal listening habits. Even after switching to wireless headphones, the quality delivered was still good enough, too, so overall the V20 has absolutely lived up to expectations in that area.
The camera has been less of a success story, to a degree. The actual photo quality is solid and I have enjoyed having the wide-angle option far more than I thought I would. LG's own camera software is well designed as well, with plenty of customisation options and an intuitive interface. However, video is a bit fiddly to get right, particularly 4K, so I've probably screwed up as many clips as I've managed to capture over the years of use. The very clever sounding HD audio is another area where the V20 was excellent on paper, but in practice I've never seen that much benefit. Don't get me wrong, it's a cool trick, and particularly for concerts it does help isolate the music from the crowd, but it feels like it needs a bit of polish and ultimately my videos still end up sounding clipped most of the time. As a result, it's a real shame this is one of LG's many ideas that seems to have had one outing and then been dropped; with a bit more R&D this could have been a killer feature, for clubbers and music lovers in particular.
Still, my big issue with the camera has been condensation crystals. I don't know why, but this seems to happen on every phone I own, and it cropped up on the V20 pretty immediately. First the front lens fogged up completely, then crystallised, and more recently both back lenses have done the same. It's a shame, because I really like the camera, but the selfie lens and wide-angle are now utterly useless.
My biggest surprises with the phone, though, have been which of the secondary features I've come to love and which I've never used. I had been excited to be able to record proper 120fps video for the first time, but I don't think I've ever used it. It turns out that unless you're a YouTuber capturing B-roll, slow-motion footage has very limited use cases. Some of that is the 720p limitation, as I'd rather capture something in 1080p or even 4K than in slow-motion most of the time, but honestly I just never even think about reaching for that option.
I was also a little excited to (finally) get a phone with an IR blaster. This once-common feature was basically extinct by the time the V20 came out, and honestly I've never found a use for it, so I can see why. Similarly, the inbuilt FM radio and NFC chips? Yeah, might as well be disabled. Even once-required features like an SD card slot feel like nice-to-haves now I've gotten used to a phone with a competent amount of internal memory.
On the other hand, I don't think I could imagine living without the fingerprint reader, fast charging, type-C connector, or second "screen" at the top of the main display. Some of those probably won't surprise many people; after all, they're pretty much standard features these days. The outlier is definitely the second display, an always-on touchscreen that shows the date, time, battery life, notifications, and quick access settings such as torch, WiFi, and recent apps. I thought it would be a gimmick that I rarely used, but it's actually a massive time saver and deeply intuitive UI that I absolutely love. I have it customised so that the settings I use most are a swipe and tap away at all times, as are the 5 apps I launch most frequently, and it's just great. Sadly another innovation that never made it past the V20 and into other phones, though 😢
After price, the second main attraction to the V20 was the fact that you could actually pop it open. At the time, I was struggling with a phone that worked fine, except the battery had died. Replacing it would have been expensive, left me without a phone for a period of time, and just deeply annoying. That phone also had a partially cracked back and a few other war wounds that I simply had no option but to live with. The V20 promised a much smoother long-term experience, and on that front, it delivered perfectly.
Because it has a removable battery cover I've been able to swap the battery out for replacements probably half a dozen times already. That sounds like a lot (and it is), but one of the downsides of buying a phone that was already out of production is that I'm having to rely on after-market batteries, which are of increasingly hit or miss construction quality. This is why I feel phones moving towards non-replaceable batteries is just horribly shortsighted. If all phones had hot-swappable battery compartments, then the market could be standardised and after-market products from reputable manufacturers would become profitable. As it stands, that is but a pipedream and those of us who prefer to swap out a battery rather than buy an entirely new phone (for ethical, environmental, or just plain convenience reasons) have well and truly lost the fight.
But it isn't just the battery that has benefitted from the way the V20 was built. Pop the back cover off, and suddenly you can work on the rear camera pretty safely and easily. Take out a few small screws (which are easily accessible) and you can get to the front of the phone, too. As a result, when I tripped into a table corner and smashed the glass panel over my rear camera, I was able to order a replacement online, get it shipped overnight, and within a couple of days had a fully working phone again. I'll be repeating the process in the near future to remove the aforementioned fog from the lenses as well, which I just wouldn't be able to do with most smartphones.
Ditto the time I stupidly flipped my phone three meters across the room whilst making the bed and smashed the front screen. That time, I chose to get help from someone with the right tools, but there are plenty of tutorials online if you did want to go the DIY route. In fact, considering both the phone's age and relative obscurity, the amount of after-market parts available even today is impressive, and means you can replace just about every piece of hardware if it fails, ensuring all the other perfectly useable parts remain out of landfill.
On top of which – and this is definitely anecdotal – but it just feels like a detachable back makes the phone more fall resistant. I've been incredibly impressed by the strength and durability of the entire chassis and screen, but if it does slip out of your hand or off a table, it seems like most of the impact gets transferred into the back panel and sends that flying, rather than deforming the phone or cracking any glass.
Now, there is a downside to all of this: the phone isn't waterproof, and that's quite possibly the reason why the cameras have fogged up. That said, my previous Sony was waterproof and that still didn't prevent crystals obscuring the camera lenses, whilst the V20 has survived plenty of sudden downpours in my pocket without any complaints, so who really knows.
Despite all of that, the increasing lack of reliable batteries, the camera issues, and the fact that my phone is running increasingly outdated software are all reminders that, at some point, my beloved V20 will bite the dust permanently. I hope that's still a way off, but as I burn through my second battery of 2021 I can't help but feel it will be sooner rather than later. This is why LG's sudden exit from the market feels like a major loss. I don't know whether my next phone would have been an LG or not, but I imagine they would have been in the running. At the very least, when you take a look at the innovative features that they have brought to the market, there's a clear argument that LG have been a driving force behind a lot of now-standard functionality. Sure, many of these ideas didn't take (even if I think they should have, like the second display or HD audio recording), but those that did include multi-lens cameras, IPS displays, 16:9 aspect ratios, tap to wake (a feature I didn't mention above, but I absolutely use every day), and many more. (MKBHD has a good round-up)
Like every phone before it, the V20 has reset my baseline for what I consider "must-have" features. Unfortunately, many of the items now on that list simply aren't catered for by anyone else on the market. Whilst I feel that I'll be able to find a large screen with a multicamera setup, fingerprint reader, and fast charging, I would miss a notification/quick access display immensely and frankly need a headphone jack. Plus, returning to a replaceable battery has been so nice, I don't want to lose it again. I guess I can only hope that some other manufacturer takes up LG's mantle and begins trying some weird and wonderful feature sets moving forward.
Or, who knows? Maybe LG will discover a batch of mint-condition V20s in some warehouse somewhere and I can just swap like-for-like indefinitely 🤞😂