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LG V40 review — even 5 cameras can't spice up a boring phone

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The LG V40 ThinQ, the latest flagship from Korean electronics giant LG, is finally here. It packs Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845 system-on-chip, a bright and colorful OLED screen, and an ultra-loud speaker. Oh, and five cameras.

The rumors are indeed true: The V40 sports three rear-facing cameras and a two-sensor front-facing module. LG’s betting that those, in addition to carryover AI features from the rest of its ThinQ lineup (namely the LG G7 ThinQ), will help it stand out from the crowd.

So do they? We’ve spent the better part of a week running the V40 through its paces. Here are our thoughts.

Design

Let’s start with the aesthetics.

The V40 is cut from the same cloth as the V30S ThinQ, with thick layers of protective Gorilla Glass 5 on the back and front that slope at all four corners to meet its aluminum frame. (At 7.7mm and 169g, the phone’s a hair thicker and heavier than the V30S.) It’s an airtight construction that doesn’t exude the luxury of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 or the iPhones in Apple’s recently refreshed lineup, but still feels premium in its own minimalist, understated way.

The G7’s controversial notch makes a reappearance here, though it can be “hidden” within the settings menu by changing the color of the notification shade to match the phone’s black bezel. In better news, LG shrunk down the screen’s bottom bezel to 5.7mm, and it managed to squeeze in a 3.5mm headphone jack next to the USB Type-C port.

That glass belies the phone’s durability. Like the G7, the V40 is IP68-rated for water exposure (which means it can survive thirty minutes in a five-foot pool), and it’s MIL-STD 810G compliant (it’ll survive drops from a few feet).

But it’s not perfect. There’s a tactile hollowness on the rear of the phone that’s characteristic of LG’s Boombox Speaker tech, which uses the inner space between the V40’s rear cover and loudspeaker as a resonance chamber to “increase the base sound level by more than 6dB with twice the amount of bass.” That’s all well and fine (more on Boombox later), but there’s something about it that feels out of place in a flagship — almost like cheap plastic.

Cameras

One feature of the V40 that practically leaps off the spec sheet is its cameras: it’s got five. That gives it the dubious distinction of being first in North America with a penta-lens setup, beating Nokia and others to the punch.

It has three cameras on the back:

  • A 12MP standard sensor with a f/1.5 aperture, 78-degree field of view, 1.4-micron pixel size, and optical image stabilization
  • A 16MP wide-angle lens with a f/1.9 aperture and 107-degree field of view
  • A 12-megapixel telephoto lens with a f/2.4 aperture and 45-degree field of view, and 2x optical zoom

And two on the front:

  • A 8MP standard lens with a f/1.9 aperture and 80-degree field of view
  • A 12MP telephoto lens with a f/2.4 aperture and 45-degree field of view, and 2x optical zoom

So why the five-pronged approach? Versatility, LG claims.

“The three different [rear] lenses allow for creators to frame shots differently without changing one’s position relative to the subject,” the company wrote in a press release.

I’m not convinced a triple-camera setup is, or ever should be, a selling point (the Google Pixel 2’s single rear camera is widely regarded as the best on the market), but LG has a point — there’s something to be said for the added flexibility. I came to rely on Triple Shot mode, which takes three pics simultaneously — one per sensor.

LG says the high dynamic range (HDR) shooting mode has been enhanced with facial detection — its contrast adjustments take into account faces, “human posture,” backgrounds, and the scene’s overall sharpness. And it claims that the cameras’ dual phase detection autofocus (PDAF) locks onto subjects in as little as 130 milliseconds between shots.

It’s tough to judge those improvements on their merits, but my testing paints a mixed picture. On AI Cam mode (which automatically configures settings like white balance and ISO) in decent lighting, shots came out fairly crisp, clear, and mostly free of distortion (with the exception of some color banding). Dimmer environments were a different story — the three cameras (and particularly the telephoto lens) produced ultra-noisy shots that looked almost as if they’d been oversharpened. Wood grains on a table and wall paint textures became amorphous blobs, and shadows similarly lacked fine details.

I wasn’t terribly impressed by the dynamic range, either. Like the G7, the V40 tends toward the cooler end of the color spectrum. It’s a matter of taste, but I personally prefer the slightly punchier, more saturated look of photos from Samsung’s Galaxy S9.

Two-sensor front-facing cameras are becoming a bit more common than they used to be — Samsung recently jumped into the ring with the Galaxy S8. The idea is to create bokeh, that stylized effect produced by slightly blurring the background while maintaining lock focus on the foreground. Google achieves it with software on the Pixel, but some photographers insist there’s no substitute for physical sensors.

LG V40

Above: A ‘portrait mode’ selfie taken with the V40.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Me, I’m not so sure. LG’s front-facing cameras take usable, albeit washed-out, shots, and skin comes off a bit pasty — potentially as a result of excessive post-processing. And I didn’t see much of a difference between the lighting modes (Natural, Studio Contour, Stage, Stage Mono).

I’m no videographer. But in the interest of thoroughness, I captured three clips — one on each of the three rear sensors — at 4K at 30 frames per second (fps), the maximum supported resolution. (Other flavors are 1080p and a 1080p slow-motion mode that shoots 240fps.) They came out smooth and jitter-free, if a bit more compressed than I would have liked.

On the software side of things, the V40’s camera app ships with a nifty few features. One is Cine Shot, which LG previewed earlier this week. They’re basically still images with segments of looped motion: You snap a photo, highlight the portion you’d like animated, and get an animated GIF. It works with all three of the phone’s front-facing cameras.

LG V40

Above: AR Stickers on the LG V40.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Another is Google’s AR Stickers, which tap the search giant’s ARCore platform to overlay animated characters on real-world tabletops, couch cushions, and other flat surfaces.

LG V40

Above: A Cine Video captured with the LG V40.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Rounding out the selection is Cine Video, which lets you add professionally-created Look Up Tables (or LUTs) to shots captured in RAW or Log formatl additional shooting modes like Food, Panorama, and Flash Jum-Cut; filters that let you layer hues on top of pics and videos; and Snapchat Lens-like Stickers that map the motion of animated characters and accessories to your head, face, and upper body.

Display

LG V40

The V30S ThinQ, you might recall, had a 6-inch OLED FullVision display at 2880 x 1440 pixels even. The V40 bumps that up to 6.4 inches diagonally and 3120 x 1440 pixels (536.92 ppi), with an upgraded OLED panel that’s more vibrant and just as bright as before.

While the V30 got up to 606 nits (equal to 606 candelas, or the amount of light emitted by a common tallow candle per square meter), the V40 reaches between 500 to 600 nits. That might not approach the peak luminance the G7 can hit on a good day (1,000 nits in Super Bright Display mode), but considering it couldn’t safely maintain those levels for more than three minutes at a time, it’s not too disappointing. I’ll take stability over the bleeding edge every time.

So, how does it look? Compared to the Vivo Nex S I’ve been lugging around for the past month or three, the V40’s OLED is noticeably more saturated — mostly in a good way. Colors pop, particularly those on the warmer end of the color spectrum (think reds, yellows, and oranges), and I’m truly impressed by the viewing angles. Even when the phone’s sitting flat on its back, it’s distortion-free to my eyes.

LG V40

That said, the default color profile’s warmer hues aren’t for everyone. White backgrounds tend to look a bit grey next to more neutral OLEDs like that of the Nex S, and skin — particularly in selfies — comes off a bit flat.

Luckily, there are different palettes to choose from: Auto, Eco (an energy-saving mode), Cinema, Sports, Game, Photos, Web, and Expert. As with the G7, sliders in the display settings menu (Settings > Display > Screen color) let you tweak the color temperature and RGB levels to your liking.

On a more positive note, movie buffs will be pleased to know the LG V40 can display high dynamic range (HDR) videos, TV shows, and movies, which boast improved brightness, wider color gamuts, and better contrast than their non-HDR counterparts. The flavor here is HDR10, which covers 100 percent of DCI-P3 and Rec 2020 color spaces — the standard for digital cinema projectors and most 4K Ultra HD televisions and computer monitors — for a total of 1.07 billion colors (1024 shades of each primary color).

Sadly absent is compatibility with Dolby Vision, Dolby’s proprietary HDR specification, which has slightly more luminosity per square meter and 12-bit color instead of the standard ten. No word on whether it’ll come in a software upgrade.

Audio

LG V40

On the audio front, the V40 is virtually a carbon copy of the G7, which is to say it’s packing a 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC tuned by Meridian that leverages four digital-to-analog converters, an amplifier, and proprietary algorithms to widen the dynamic range and boost the bass of songs, videos, and podcasts played through the 3.5mm headphone jack.

On those rare occasions you opt to leave your earbuds behind, there’s the DTS-certified Boombox Speaker. The V40’s incarnation can reach sound levels in excess of 6gB, and it sure sounds like it — it easily carries sound across a room. Unfortunately, that sound isn’t anything to write home about.

I compared it side-by-side at maximum volume to the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the Vivo Nex S, and while it was noticeably clearer and crisper than the former, vocals sounded a bit muffled and bass was generally muddier.

It’s customizable to a degree, fortunately. Onboard is DTS X: 3D Surround app, a cornucopia of equalizer settings where you’ll find EQ profiles (Classic, Pop, Rock, and Hip Hop, to name a few) and a volume normalization option. Plugging in an external audio source unlocks headphone-specific settings like sound preset, digital filter, and balance adjustment.

Performance and Battery Life

LG V40

Whatever the V40’s other flaws, I can’t accuse it of being a slouch.

That’s largely thanks to the Snapdragon 845 system-on-chip under the hood, Qualcomm’s current flagship and the same chip inside devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Sony Xperia XZ3. It’s a bit old in the tooth (it debuted in February), and it’s been upstaged by chips like Apple’s A12 Bionic. But it’s more than capable of delivering a smooth, stutter-free experience — and that’s doubly true when it’s paired with 6GB of RAM, as it is in the V40.

In my week with the V40, I came to appreciate the touchscreen’s responsiveness — scrolling latency, the time between a finger gesture and an onscreen response, is practically nonexistent. Not once did I encounter lag, hitching, or home screen redraws (and an annoying phenomenon that occurs when Android’s memory manager kicks the launcher out of RAM). Moreover, apps launched quickly. Navigation was buttery smooth. And no matter how many Chrome tabs I threw its way, it chugged along unfazed.

To get a more objective measure of the V40’s performance, I loaded Geekbench 4, a popular benchmarking suite. It earned a multi-core score of 8,841, putting it slightly ahead of the Vivo Nex S, Galaxy S9, and G7, but behind the Note 9 (8,876).

The V40’s battery doesn’t reach the high mark set by its silicon, but it lasts longer than I expected. The 3,300mAh power pack (the same capacity as the V30S) gets about a day and a half with light usage (i.e., checking Slack messages, answering emails, placing phone calls, and browsing the web). That’s not quite the roughly two days I’m able to eke out of the Vivo Nex S (which has a 4,000mAh battery), but to be fair, the V40 is a good deal smaller. A larger battery would’ve necessitated a thicker frame, and I’m not sure the trade-off would’ve been worth it in the end.

The V40’s battery supports fast charging in the form of both Qi-based fast wireless charging and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology, the latter of which is a bit of a disappointment. I would have like to see the V40 ship with a newer version like Quick Charge 4.0, which can charge a phone to 50 percent in five minutes compared to Quick Charge 3.0’s 15 minutes charging time. (Oddly enough, the G7 works with Quick Charge 4.0 chargers.)

On the storage side of the equation, the V40 ships with a 64GB internal module that’s expandable up to 2TB via MicroSD card. That’s about on par with the G7, but half the internal storage in the base model Galaxy S9 and Note 9.

Software

LG V40

If you’ve test-driven the G7 or read up on its AI-centric app ecosystem, you’re already well-versed on the V40’s software. It’s nearly a carbon copy.

On tap is AI Cam, which automatically switches between 19 different color and contrast filters — including Person, Flower, Pet, Food, Sunset, Landscape, City, Animal, Beverage, and Snow, to name a few — based on ambient lighting conditions and objects in the frame. It also recommends optimal exposure and saturation settings, enables or disables high dynamic range (HDR), and switches between shooting modes.

It performed no worse in my testing than the G7, flipping to Person mode (which highlights skin tone) when it spotted a face and City mode when the New York skyline came into view. But it fared worse at nighttime, when Bright Mode — a low-light shooting mode that combines light information from adjacent pixels — kicked in. No matter which of the three lenses I selected, the camera app became almost unusably laggy and stuttery.

One feature hasn’t carried over from the V30S and the G7: QTag feature, a word cloud that fluttered around objects AI Cam vaguely recognized, like food, clothing, and landmarks. It’s been relegated to a block of text in the bottom-left corner of the screen, where it only appears when AI Cam’s highly confident in its prediction. (It correctly recognized a Diet Pepsi can as “beverage.”) QTag won’t be missed; the G7’s incarnation consistently miscategorized laptops as “musical instruments,” soda cans as “ham,” and backpacks as “cauliflower.”

Google Lens, Google’s object-detecting AI, fills in for it pretty nicely. It’s always a tap away from the top-level menu in the V40’s camera app, and recognizes a long and growing list of things.

In addition to phone numbers, dates, addresses, furniture, celebrities, clothing, books, movies, music albums, video games, landmarks, points of interest, and notable buildings, Google Lens can scan barcodes and QR codes, add events to calendars, and import contact information from business cards, extract network names and passwords from Wi-Fi labels, and recognize certain beverages such as wine and coffee. And recent updates have enabled it to do even more, like copy and paste text from printouts, business cards, and brochures and match clothes and “home decor items” with results from around the web.

For queries of a less visual nature, there’s the Google Assistant. Like the V30S and G7, the v40 has a dedicated key that launches the assistant from anywhere, including the lock screen (a double tap launches the Google Lens). Alternatively, the V40’s far-field microphones pick up sound at a distance of up to 17 feet.

LG worked closely with Google on more than 20 custom commands for ThinQ devices including the V40, like “OK Google, take a picture on a wide angle” and “OK Google, open camera on Cine Video.” Personally, I’m not convinced of the day-to-day usefulness of those voice commands, especially esoteric ones like “OK Google, take a romantic Cine Video.” But they certainly make the phone easier to use one-handed.

Availability

The LG G7 ThinQ goes on sale October 18, with preorders starting today. It’s available in two colors, Aurora Black and Moroccan Blue (which boasts a sandblasted tempered glass design) from every major U.S. carrier directly, including U.S. Cellular, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T.

Customers who preorder the LG V40ThinQ and get a DJI Osmo Mobile 2 gimbal and SanDisk 256 GB Micro SD Card with adapter (a $258.00 value). If you miss the preorder window, don’t fret — you’ll still get the SanDisk 256 GB Micro SD Card at no extra charge.

Conclusion

So is the V40 worth the money? That depends on your priorities.

Setting the five cameras aside for a moment, the V40 is largely iterative. LG played it safe with the internals, which are at best in line with what’s come before (the Snapdragon 845) and at worst slightly behind the competition (the 3,300mAh battery). Same goes for the software: with the exception Cine Shot and minor UI touchups, the experience is virtually indistinguishable from the G7.

But say that doesn’t bother you and you’re curious about the cameras. Is five better than four, three, or two? I’m inclined to say no, and not just because they’re on the noisier side. My untrained eye might have something to do with it, but I personally believe that software and AI can achieve with one or two lenses what LG did with three.

Without diving too deeply into UX 6.0, LG’s proprietary skin on top of Android, it’s worth noting that the V40 won’t ship running Android 9.0 Pie — it’s stuck with Android 8.1. In practical terms, that means it will miss out at launch on improvements like Adaptive Battery and Brightness, Digital Wellbeing, and gesture navigation. Even more troubling, LG’s not sharing a timeline of Android Pie updates for the V40 or the G7, which launched way back in May.

If you’re at all concerned about the V40’s software upgrade cycle, I’d suggest holding off for now.

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