With the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 going up in smoke, there’s a little more room for other jumbo phones to get some attention. The LG V20 is one of those mammoths, a 5.7-inch display with top-line internals and a handful of distinguishing features. Most of all, it’s one of the last smartphones to make a direct plea to the power user—an endangered genus, if ever there was one.
Monster specs should appeal to power users. Audio features (both listening and recording) are a major step up. The second display could be a gimmick, but it’s actually useful.
The design lacks some polish, especially for the price. Verizon bloatware and LG skin are crummy. It’s not waterproof. The fingerprint reader as power button drove me bananas.
Saying that the LG V20 is always powerful, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always good. There’s plenty to like here, some to not, and most of all a sense that while it may not be your dream phone, it’ll do until your dream phone comes along.
Specs can be boring, but let’s tick them off here, mostly because if you care about the V20 in the first place, you care about the guts inside. It’s got a Snapdragon 820 processor, a 5.7-inch display with more pixels that it could possibly need, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. It’s strong like a bull, and it shows. The V20 never choked, never stuttered, never hiccuped, no matter how many rounds of Contest of Champions I played or how much Last Chance U I streamed.
More importantly, the V20 also makes the kind of Android-fan accommodations that are increasingly hard to find. There’s a microSD slot, for expandable storage up to 2TB (!). The aluminum back shell pops off to reveal a removable battery. There’s even a thin “second screen” at the top of the display that persistently shows the time, notification icons, battery level, and so on, and can be customized for quick access to your favorite apps.
Much of that list comprises things Android manufacturers used to do but don’t anymore. They’re also, frankly things I personally don’t need or use or value much, but I recognize that many folks do, and that those same people feel rightly abandoned by the move toward one monolithic, iPhone-inspired smartphone design upon which HTC and Google and Motorola and others have converged. The V20 wants you to know that you are not forgotten.
There’s even a setting that will snap a photo whenever someone says ‘cheese.’
It also has a few pleasant forward-looking features. There’s quick-charging USB-C here, which works for me because I already made that jump with my Nexus 5X, but know that you’ll never be able to bum someone’s charger in a bar. The camera borrows the two-lens system that LG deployed in this year’s modular G5, which really just means it adds a wide-angle shooter that trades fish-eye perspective for fishy quality (though it still looks fine). Usually I’d break out an entire section for the camera, since that’s mostly what smartphones are today, but the V20 doesn’t distinguish itself as particularly good or bad. Photos are a little washed out sometimes, and I wish low-light shots turned out a little crisper, but what else is new?
Besides, the most interesting thing to note about the camera isn’t quality, really, is how it lets you fiddle. Oh mercy, can you tool around in there. There are settings for ISO and white balance and lots of filters and more, there’s so much more, there’s even a setting that will snap a photo whenever someone says “cheese.” I’m more comfortable with auto modes and not bossing my smartphone’s shutter around verbally, but again, the V20 is for the tinkerers, through and through.
There’s even a shout out to audiophiles, at least as much of one as can be accomplished in a device that’s just over six inches tall by three inches wide. The V20 has a Quad DAC system inside, which really did make Frightened Rabbit sound as frightened as intended through my headphones. (In fairness, I also could have imagined this, the same way a $50 bottle of wine will always taste better than my beloved Bota Box.) It also takes care of the recording end, with three high AOP microphones that capture lossless, hi-res 24-bit clips. I only used it for a couple of trial voice memos (“Remember to listen back to this before you write your V20 review”), but it came back crisp and clear enough that I’d trust it with instrumentals as well.
All of which is to say that if you’re looking for bells and whistles, the V20 has them. It even launches with Android 7.0—not that you’d recognize it. And that’s where the quibbles come in.
Fit and Finish
That there are so many nods to the Android superfan in the V20 make the experience of actually using it all the more frustrating. Our review model came loaded down with Verizon apps that you won’t want or use, while LG’s thick skin over stock Android does away with, most notably, the app drawer, opting instead for endless side-swiping to access apps. You can retrieve the app drawer (or something like it) from deep in the settings, but why bury one of the definitive advantages Android has over iOS?
The V20 doesn’t quite come together in other places as well, sometimes literally. Having a detachable back plate is the best way to access the removable battery, but it also makes the V20 feel less finished than other flagships, which really means less premium, which is not how you want to think of an $820 smartphone. You’d also want a smartphone for that price to offer some waterproofing assurance, which the V20 doesn’t. Blame the back plate, again; parts that can come off necessitate seams, and seams let water in.
And I acknowledge may be an entirely personal hang-up, there’s no way to awaken the V20 from the front or the sides, other than to activate the camera. LG doubles up the fingerprint scanner and power button here, both on the back. The clinical term for how I feel having to pick up a phone all the way to turn it on is, I believe, “bonkers.” That may say more about me than the V20, but there you have it.[Update: You can double-tap the display to wake the phone as well.]
It makes using the V20 a sometimes confusing experience. Its internal hardware is rock solid, but the outside feels a little flimsy. It’s built for power users, but I don’t always enjoy using it.
If the things that bother me don’t bother you, and you yearn for a smartphone that caters to heavy-duty usage, and especially if you take recording and listening to music on a smartphone seriously, the V20 could fit you just right. I wonder, though, how many Android power users are left, or rather if devices like the Pixel XL and Moto Z are already plenty powerful enough. They’re certainly more pleasant to use. Some people are addicted to horsepower. I prefer a smooth ride.