Let's be 'Friends': LG wants you to get 'excited' about the G5

Tyler Eyre, special to
LG G5 smart phones
Source: LG

LG has a feeling you might need more friends.

Last week, the South Korean-based electronics company released the LG G5, the latest model of its flagship smartphone. With its latest phone, LG is also trying to navigate the relatively uncharted waters of modularity with a new feature called Friends. The slim, aluminum-bodied G5 — which LG first unveiled at the Mobile World Congress — has a feature that uses add-ons to enhance a phone's functionality, rather than trying to entice consumers into shelling out for regular upgrades. The new design will let users turn their phones into digital single-lens cameras, virtual viewers and more.

"We noticed the excitement that people once had for their smartphone has waned a bit, and there's this unmet need you have for something that is new, yet original and interesting," said Frank Lee, LG's director of communications and account marketing, told CNBC in a recent interview.

The plug-in feature is fairly user friendly, and is similar in function to a Nintendo Game Boy — formerly ubiquitous devices whose primary appeal were the many game cartridges that were sold separately.

"Think about it. When was the last time you truly got excited about a smartphone?" he asked. "We have something that's going to give you what you want and yet still be very unexpected."

With the G5, LG has bragging rights as the first major smartphone maker to feature a working modular device. It's a gamble by LG, which analysts say is hungry to appear relevant and innovative as it fends off fierce competitive pressures from the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei. So are modular smartphones the next big thing, and can they help reverse LG's market share, which recent comScore data show is under 10 percent?

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Modularity itself is not an entirely new concept. At least one smartphone maker, Phonebloks, has been trying to bring a prototype to market for at least a few years. The company is currently partnered with Google's Project Ara, but their modular efforts haven't yet achieved liftoff.

Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, explained that "modularity is one way smartphone vendors are trying to show more value in premium smartphones."

In order to use the LG device's accessories, the user presses an embedded button on the side of the phone. That releases a hidden module at the bottom of the phone, which slides out and can be replaced with one of your new "Friends," like LG's point and shoot camera called the CAM Plus. The whole process only takes a matter of seconds, and lets the user experience the G5's new features in a more immersive way.

In addition, it's an innovation that makes the phone less cluttered and gives it a sleeker, functional feel.

"LG's traditional modus operandi is to cram every possible feature it can think of into the phone, leading to overladen, unrefined devices," said Vlad Savov, senior editor at tech website The Verge, which gave the G5 a 7.7 rating out of a possible 10.

"The new system of plug-in accessories turns much of LG's excess into an optional extra, resulting in a cleaner design and a more appealing smartphone," Savov added.

For the moment, LG is offering five new add-on friends, with plans to make more in the future. These include two high-resolution cameras, an enhanced audio headset, a virtual reality headset and a Roomba-like companion bot. The high-tech modules aren't central to the phone's operation, and will be available only to those who want the additional features.

"The Friends system is intended to be an ecosystem of accessories that plug into the bottom of the G5," Savov explained. "You can carry these around with you, or you can swap them at home, or you can completely disregard them. They're entirely optional."

For now, the G5 is the first mainstream smartphone to put an emphasis on taking an add-on approach to the mobile experience. Will other smartphone companies follow? Some have their doubts.

"I doubt other manufacturers would try this anytime soon," said Savov. "The trend in mobile design has always been toward convergence, miniaturization and refinement. LG is going against the tide, which is part of what's given it the boost of public approval."

Aside from Friends, the LG G5 also features a 5.3-inch Quad HD display with an "always-on" feature, a faster processor with the new Snapdragon 820 from Qualcomm and an extended battery life. The smartphone's capture ability is completely revamped with two cameras on the back of the phone, with the 135-degree-wide lens being the largest in any smartphone to date.

LG also has included additional effects in this model with various film filters, pop-out picture taking and an automatic selfie shot.