LG had few smartphone hits, but it will still be missed

0

If you’re reading this on a phone, chances are LG didn’t make it. The Korean tech giant has been losing money and market share with its smartphone division for years, so it was no surprise when it finally announced plans to pull the plug today. You could be forgiven if you shrug.

But LG deserves to be remembered as more than just a rider. Its phones were rarely big hits, much less often the kind of polished product we would ever recommend to most over its competitors. Despite this, LG has introduced several features and innovations that the phone world would be worse off without. The company was the first to put ultra-wide cameras on its phones, for example, and pioneered the kind of buttonless smartphone designs for all screens that dominate today’s market.

And especially in the US, where Android competition is extremely low, LG’s loss will only reinforce the Apple-Samsung duopoly on the high side. LG is the third largest phone vendor in the US, with a market share of about 10 percent, although many of them were mid-range prepaid devices sold through courier stores. LG may not have been at the top of your smartphone’s shopping list, but if you live in the US, that list just got a lot more boring.

The LG Velvet in its Dual Screen case.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

LG had indeed claimed to be a trendsetter in the world before the smartphone. The Chocolate and enV phones were stylish devices that helped LG expand its brand recognition around the world. But after the iPhone and Android changed everything, LG struggled to adapt. I’m obliged here to mention the original LG Prada, which had a capacitive touchscreen and was technically announced just for the iPhone, but the real legacy is mostly that people point out in online comments.

LG’s early Android phones weren’t impressive. The 2011 Nitro HD, for example, was the first smashing flagship in a long time, but it was saddled with outdated, clunky software and poor battery life. Its successor, the Optimus G, represented a degree of sophistication, and by the time the G2 came out in 2012, LG’s new G series was a fairly credible alternative to either Samsung or HTC. The G2 was one of the first flagship smartphones to attempt to reduce the bezel size, and LG made on-screen buttons a core part of its design long before most others.

It was also around this time that LG found a new partner in Google and released two Nexus phones in a row. Built around the guts of the Optimus G, the 2012 Nexus 4 had its fans despite its crippling lack of LTE, weak battery life, and unimpressive camera. Next year’s Nexus 5 found an even stronger cult following, despite also having a bad camera and poor battery life. (The red version looked great, and the $ 349 price point didn’t hurt.)

The modular LG G5.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

LG’s mobile division just kept going, delivering respectable phones like the G3 and G4 without ever really challenging Samsung. The software was still a heavy-handed Android tweak, and LG lagged its peers at the pace of updates, but the hardware was solid. It was the G5 of 2016 where things really started to fall apart. Designed around a series of interchangeable modular accessories called “Friends,” the phone flopped and LG soon acted like it never happened. Suffice to say, if you were to buy a camera grip or a DAC hi-fi audio accessory for your G5, it wouldn’t be able to befriend the 2017 G6.

It’s a shame LG focused on gimmicks with the G5, because that phone did introduce a new feature that would become ubiquitous in the smartphone market years later: the ultra-wide camera. Ultrawides on smartphones allows people to take photos previously limited to camera devices, and it’s hard to imagine buying a new phone today without buying one. But it took a long time for other phone manufacturers to figure out what the utility was; For example, Apple introduced its first in 2019.

Released the same year as the G5, the V20 had another unique feature that would become a hallmark of the company’s phones for years to come: a genuine headphone jack the year Apple decided to ditch it. And not just any headphone jack – one that worked with a built-in quad DAC designed to improve sound quality and appeal to audiophiles. Has this sold many phones? Well, no. But it has since become a hallmark of LG’s high-end devices, providing an option for wired headset enthusiasts desperate as other phone manufacturers followed Apple’s lead one by one.

The LG G6.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The G6 of 2017 put the G series back on track. It was the first major smartphone to be released with a now-known larger aspect ratio, with an even stronger focus on edge elimination than ever before. Of course, not many people noticed, as Samsung immediately followed suit with the similar but slimmer Galaxy S8 and its “Infinity Display”. Later that year, LG released the V30, which had a completely new (and very nice) design, but it will always be a hard sell if your most differentiated feature is your (also very nice) haptic system.

As of now, LG’s flagship phones usually fade to one. The G7 was a pretty good facsimile of an iPhone X, even winning an Editor’s Choice designation from it Verge editor Dan Seifert. The V40 pioneered the now common three-camera setup. The G8X came with a dual-screen case that, in hindsight, didn’t really improve Microsoft’s Surface Duo a year later. But all of these phones seemed essentially identical to each other, and none of their main features were seen as much more than gimmicks at the time.

For every good idea LG had, there would be something pointless like the G8’s vein-sensitive “Hand ID” unlock. Despite the company making a big announcement about a new Software Upgrade Center to speed up the pace of Android updates, nothing changed. And in light of Samsung’s unstoppable marketing machine, LG’s best effort to create a brand identity was to add “ThinQ” to the name of every flagship phone.

The LG Wing.
Photo by Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge

In the last year, LG’s mobile division has moved to address the issues. The Explorer project aimed to produce more innovative designs, such as the beautiful but undersized Velvet and the eccentric twin-screen wing. At CES this year, the company announced a rollable concept phone that it said it wanted to market.

That never will happen now, and it’s hard to say it’s a huge loss with companies like Oppo and TCL likely to pick up the slack with their own versions. But in the context of the US phone market, there will be fewer choices, and whoever explains LG’s lost market share is unlikely to be an equally creative substitute.

LG’s phones were rarely, if ever, the best out there, but the company did have a significant impact on the smartphone world in general. With the disappearance of the mobile division, the American market becomes even more homogeneous.