LG V20 Review

Everyone has their pick for the ultimate Galaxy Note 7 replacement and I eventually settled on the LG V20 after bouncing between the HTC 10, Pixel XL, S7 Edge, and Xperia XZ. Chinese OEMs like Huawei, LeEco, Xiaomi, and ZTE offer much better value for money from a hardware perspective but I find that most of their Android skins are still a few steps short. After a good three weeks with the V20 as my daily driver I do think it’s the one that best fits my current needs and wish I had pulled the trigger on one sooner.

 Initial Configuration

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LG Backup

One thing that I absolutely love about Google’s platform is the way to seamlessly sync everything either locally or over the cloud. With a potent enough WiFi connection you simply select the types of apps and their data that you want to sync from previous devices and let the phone do its thing. That hasn’t stopped OEMs from implementing their own solutions though and that’s where LG Back Up comes in.

It’s essentially a clunkier version of Titanium Backup that doesn’t require root. Apps and app data can be selected on the source device and uploaded over WiFi, where it can be downloaded by the V20. While it’s not a particularly painful procedure the packing and unpacking on each end do add quite a bit of time. Going through Google’s cloud is going to be the preferred approach in a majority of realistic scenarios.

The picture above was actually taken with the V20’s camera and you might notice a weird green distortion towards the upper half of the screen. That’s one of several quirks that exist and I’ll cover them in more detail down below.

General Use

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All set up with Nova Launcher

Coming from a two year old device on a stock rom the biggest improvement to hit me is the huge improvement in touch latency. With the Exynos Note 4 actions would be registered instantly but there would always be a slight pause before those instructions would be carried out. This low touch latency is one of many benefits found in Nougat and really improves the overall experience. LG might boast that it’s the first OEM to have 7.0 on the market but it’s only a matter of time before the others roll out their own variants.

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Multi-window at work

Multi-window is something that Samsung has implemented long before it’s been on anyone else’s radar and it’s something that I’m happy to have with Nougat. Dragging the split screen size and app selection are seamless and the only thing currently missing is the ability to have floating windows. The feature is in the official 7.0 documentation so it’s only a matter of time before Google decide to roll it out with a future version of Android. The ability to have a floating window to reference things mid-chat is incredibly helpful given that multi-window isn’t available for all apps out of the box.

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Resizing on the go

 

While floating windows aren’t quite ready yet it’s good to see that the home screen itself can be resized and dragged around to allow for single hand use on either hand. The ability to do this is comforting as it shows that it’s only a matter of time before the more robust multi-window is included.

Similar to the edges found on Samsung’s premium line of devices I have found that the second screen on the V20 feels mostly like a gimmick. It’s certainly a more useful gimmick than curved edges at this point in time but I’m struggling to find ways to use it well outside of checking the time. Most genuinely useful functions are gated behind the lock screen as they should be, but if I’m going to unlock the device I may as well just use the regular icons since they’re better laid out.

If I were to scroll to the Whatsapp shortcut on the second screen I would have to unlock the phone with my index finger, climb my way to the top of the device to select quick reply, then drop my thumb back down to the bottom portion of the screen for the keyboard. On the other hand, simply relying on the shortcut bar at the bottom with any modern launcher allows me to access Whatsapp and starting typing without adjusting my grip. The second screen is a cool step forward but I think it will take a bit of tweaking before we get full utility out of it.

Audio

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Everyone has added their two cents about the audio prowess of the V20 but most of them haven’t gone much further than simply praising it for its crisp sound. It doesn’t help that there is conflicting literature on the market concerning just how the quad-DAC works. Even after diving in and doing multiple hours of research I still haven’t been able to find anything definitive, even the oft referenced deep dive from Android Authority is an estimation.

There’s also a bit of confusion out there with regards to impedance ratings in general. Earphones or headphones that have low impedance rating may be easier to drive overall but models that are less efficient will still benefit from a more potent source device. We’ll see this distinction at play when I do some testing with my personal collection.

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Quad-DAC Settings

When the HiFi mode is enabled the phone switches to the ES9218 which is where the fantastic clean sound comes from. For a vast majority of headphones on the market the regular audio device or low impedance mode will suffice, but for particularly restrictive models a high impedance mode can be activated. Literature on the device thus far indicates that in low impedance modes only a single processor is used to conserve battery, and some users have interpreted this to indicate that the quad-DAC mode actually opens up the sound a lot. There are even threads on XDA where users are trying to force high impedance mode in order to get the best audio experience possible at all times.

There’s also a bit of nuance in terms of inconsistency across different apps used for music playback as tracked by this thread on XDA. For a vast majority of listeners anything above 24-bit 48khz is pointless given that the entire spectrum of human hearing is already covered. It’s a different story for those who are mastering and mixing music though.

When the HiFi mode is disabled the phone will default to Qualcomm’s DAC which offers a very different listening experience. In exchange for a slight loss of clarity and transparency you get a bit more bass and a bit more emphasis in the mids. It could very well be placebo but I feel that sound in general is quite a bit softer without the quad-DAC as well.

Audio Tracks used for reference:

  • Avishai Cohen – Structures in Motion
  • High and Mighty Color – Rosier
  • IU – Lost Child
  • Led Zepplin – Stairway to Heaven
  • Sawano Hiroyuki – KRONE
  • Rain Man & Krysta Youngs – Habit (T-Mass Remix)

B&O Play H3

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B&O Play H3 (left) and ATH-IM03 with custom cable (right)

The B&O headphones are a logical accessory to help drive home the audio story that LG have been pushing heavily. B&O have the mainstream credentials and the price tag to prove that they are indeed capable of delivering top notch sound to the masses. The model looks the part as well with a neatly braided cable to go with the microphone component. Using the default buds the H3 provide a surprisingly good fit and isolation for my ears. Unfortunately that’s where the good news ends.

The mids are the most prominent as you would expect from most of the lifestyle type offerings on the market, but the top and bottom ends are really disappointing. This is one of those rare instances where the bass falls off far to quickly while also lacking significant impact. Soundstage sounds cramped and it feels as though there’s been an artificial EQ applied that’s very unpleasant.

If you’re used to the traditional earphones that are bundled with phones these might sound a bit better to you, but anybody who has tried any $100 IEM will certainly have heard infinitely better.

ATH-IM03

The IM03 are typically recommended because you can plug them into virtually anything and they’ll sound pretty good. BA drivers typically thrive with low impedance output and that’s a huge reason why they sound so damn good with the V20. If output impedance is too high then the IM03 lose their crystal clear sound and start to take on characteristics of a much darker and hollow experience instead.

When pairing the earphones with the stock LG music player volume can be left as low as 10 or 15 while still hearing everything. I genuinely get the same musical sound that I get when plugging them in to the JDS Element at home and I’m not confident I could pass a double blind test consistently. Out of my entire collection of audio equipment I think the IM03 is easily the best sounding option of the group.

Sony EX-600

The EX-600 were my first pair of expensive higher end earphones (I don’t count my Klipsch S4) and I will always have a special place for them in my heart. There’s something amazing about the way the intimate presentation where the sound stage is smaller without feeling cramped. Bass is in abundance but controlled in a way that it won’t sound bloated like old school Beats headphones.

Similar to the IM03 these are incredibly easy to drive headphones and don’t require much oomph to really flex its prowess. 10-15 is once again a comfortable listening level although I feel that 20 allows me to hear a bit more detail more clearly. The same fun sound I fell in love with is still present but it feels like it’s been reigned in just a little bit.

Fidelio X1

The stock cable on the X1 is known to have high impedance rating and many users have recommended either replacing the cable or pairing it with a more potent source device. Using the X1s with stock cable I do have to boost the volume knob up to the 40 mark to really hear everything, but listening at this volume is pretty fatiguing. The effects seem to be accelerated on particularly hard hitting songs like Rosier by Luna Sea / High and Mighty Color.

Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00

Like the X1 these headphones require a bit more oomph to get their full potential and I’m not really hearing it with the V20 on the low impedance mode. I can try to compensate by boosting volume but it again gets uncomfortable very quickly at the higher volumes. Thankfully both of these headphones are full sized offerings so there’s little chance I’d be bringing them to use while I’m out to begin with.

The X1 and TH-X00 might be instances where forcing the high impedance mode would be beneficial, as the two sound fantastic when plugged into the JDS Element on the high gain setting at lower volumes.

Camera

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Delicious sashimi in Elements

One of the aforementioned quirks lies in the V20’s auto camera. Under the right circumstances the pictures captured by the V20’s 16MP rear camera can be simply stunning. The only drawback is that it will usually take several attempts to get the right focus and white lighting. Even if you zoom in closely on the above picture you can continue to see fine details on each piece of sashimi.

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Dessert from Joel Robuchon

Here’s an example of the V20 flexing its prowess in a rather dimly lit environment, the correction is pretty much spot on as this picture has not been tampered with in post processing at all. Looking through my album of pictures thus far it is very difficult to find a close range shot that doesn’t look incredible. It’s only when we start adding a bit of distance that we start to see some flaws starting to appear in each image.

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Causeway Bay markets in the evening

This was a picture taken the evening I got my V20 as I was on the way to dinner and there are many more imperfections present here. The biggest is the gentleman in blue’s face on the right, it is noticeably blurrier than surrounding objects even though the entire area is quite well lit.

In the manual mode users are given lots of freedom to control their camera with settings for ISO, white balance, and a nifty focus scroller with a green hue that highlights the current point of focus. Maybe it’s just that my skills as a photographer are too poor but I haven’t been able to take any decent shots of things at a moderate to far distance. Anything that’s in front of me like food, or a quick snapshot of someone posing in front of a landmark comes out quite well, but the second I start taking a picture across the street things go south very quickly.

Pricing and Value

Priced at $5,398 HKD ($694 USD) the LG V20 is currently one of the most expensive offerings on the market, edging out Samsung’s S7E  and Sony’s Xperia XZ, both of which are currently priced at ($4,998 HKD/$642 USD). With such a daring move you’d expect retailers to add a lot of bonus items to raise the perceived value of the V20, and I’m not quite sure LG can really justify the premium here.

The B&O H3 earphones are supposed to have an MSRP of $150 USD but they can be found for roughly $1,100 HKD ($140 USD) from official sources locally and about $650 HKD ($85 USD) from grey market sources. Like most other lifestyle type offerings from companies like Bose, Harman, etc I really don’t think they’re worth the money. Using the same $150 USD budget a listener could pick up a pair of ATH-IM02, 1MORE Triple Drivers, Vsonic GR-07, or Westone UM Pro 10, and all of these would be a marked upgrade over the H3.

The rubber case, microSD, and screen protector thrown in by Fortress are basically inconsequential as all the other flagship devices come with similar extras. If you do end up buying from Fortress then please refrain from using the screen protector they provide. The stock screen protector from the factory is infinitely superior and you’ll have to spend an extra $40-80 HKD to replace that ‘free’ offering. All in all it’s not looking too good from a value stand point.

Things get a little worse when you realize that the included power adapter is only capable of Quick Charge 2.0 rather than the QC 3.0 that every OEM and reviewer has been hyping up with capable devices. Then you’re reminded that the phone doesn’t have wireless charging (cover sold separately), no IP68 certification, and that LG has a history of flagships experiencing boot loops at the 14-16 month mark over the last few generations. I take solace in the fact that most problematic shipments, whatever the OEM, seem to be prevalent with NA stock, but this is hardly reassuring given that the V20 is the most expensive of the bunch.

Conclusion

There are some pitfalls with making the jump to USB-C though as plenty of accessories currently available on the market aren’t actually up to spec. Some brave souls like Benson Leung from Google have taken it upon themselves to test the seemingly endless options on the market, and the results aren’t always good. It’s something to be expected of any transition period though and we just might get a bit closer after another year or two.

I have similar thoughts about a universal one size fits all phone, we have a very good core performance now but different flagships will have their own areas of focus. It always boils down to individual use case and preferences which makes it difficult to quantify objectively in reviews.

My primary concerns revolve around audio, a large 5.5″+ screen, and the option to use microSD as well as removable batteries, and the V20 fits this to a T. Time will tell whether this is a good investment or not but I can’t help being optimistic for the time being.

 

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