(Pocket-lint) - At some point in the recent past, LG got caught up in the refresh cycle. Having had some exciting smartphones in the past - the LG G4, launched in 2015, came with a leather-clad back, while the LG G Flex from the year before pioneered a different kind of curved display, as examples - things just ended up getting a little stale.
It was probably the modular LG G5, in 2016, that was the beginning of the downward spiral, because since ditching that modular idea altogether its phones since have been okay but just lacking.
Right now LG Mobile is effectively churning out the same old thing. That might work for the biggest players - such as Apple and Samsung - but if you're producing an incrementally different version of a phone that wasn't popular before are you really making progress?
So is the LG Velvet different, or is now really the perfect opportunity for LG Mobile to step off the smartphone production line and stop altogether?
A sweet design
- Screen: 6.8-inch OLED display, 1080 x 2460 resolution (395ppi), 20:5:9 aspect ratio
- Finishes: Aurora White, Aurora Green, Aurora Grey, Illusion Sunset, Red, Pink
- Dimensions: 167.2 x 74.1 x 7.9mm / Weight: 180g
- Curved design, glass finish
- IP68 dust/water-resistant
Having had a run of fairly similar devices from the G and V series over the last couple of years, the LG Velvet has a refreshing feel about it. It's larger and more ambitious, while slimming down considerably over the LG G8X. It's thinner, with curves to the sides on the front and rear, and much lighter than the previous G phone.
With an expanding screen space, LG has stuck to a waterdrop notch for the front camera - which doesn't look quite as modern as the punch-hole that's appearing on various other devices - bringing a nice sense of balance to things.
In many ways LG is doing what others do - Huawei, Samsung, OnePlus - which have phones with a similar design; a premium sandwich of metal and glass. LG has added some nice finishes to the Velvet, with bold colours - although our Aurora White version is probably the safest of the lot, except for the black. There's a whole lot of colours available too, as you can see from our listing in the bullet points above - although which will be available where isn't clear.
There's also a proper IP68 rating on this phone, meaning protection and peace of mind from dust and water. That's exactly what you'd expect from a premium smartphone - and that's exactly what you get with the Velvet.
LG is also making pains to point out the delicate approach to the cameras on the rear. With most phones shouting about how many cameras there are and using bombastic highlighted design to verify that - think Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra - instead LG wants a subtle approach. The phone has flush-to-body lower cameras, with only the main top camera being slightly pronounced.
So in some ways this is a new approach for LG. Although there's conventionality and that does make the LG Velvet a little more attractive to those who might have seen the LG G8X as a little boring.
What's the unique part? The Dual Screen cover
- Cover dimensions: 174.4 x 84.6 x 14.4mm / Cover weight: 129g
- Second screen: 6.8-inch OLED display, 1080 x 2460 resolution
- 2.1-inch external display
Of course the LG Velvet isn't just a phone, it's a dual screen phone thanks to the Dual Screen case that's available for it. It's your choice whether or not you use this case, but it does add bulk, expanding it to a laptop-thick 14.4mm and adding more than 70 per cent to the phone's weight, bringing it in at a hefty 309g.
That's not quite pocket-busting, but does make for a phone that's a little more like a book - and a far cry from the sophistication of something like the Samsung Galaxy Fold. The Velvet clips into the case, the USB C connecting to the bottom and then requiring a magnetic charging adapter for in-case charging.
All power comes from the phone itself, powering the second 6.8-inch OLED display. The Dual Screen cover's screen is a mirror of the Velvet's display, bringing a second Full HD+ resolution, meaning you end up with two 6.8-inch displays. Yes, the mind boggles.
There's an additional exterior display on this model - yep, that's three displays now! - that will show your notifications and the time. It's handy in a retro sort of way.
Now the Dual Screen approach of LG's phones may divide opinion. For some it will be just too big. For some it will be seen as a cheap way of tackling the folding phone advantage (which it is), while for others it will be a refreshing new way to use your phone.
There's no device that's as easy to sign into all your apps in a hurry as one with two screens; it's great for multitasking or viewing information side by side. It's so many times better then fiddling around with split screen, or even resizing apps on a larger display. It's a two handed job, but at the same time it's glorious - even if it's a bit of an indulgence, because you end up with a massive phone.
Some apps can be forced across both displays, but with a major break in the middle it's hard to see who would want to do this. In some places it's a lot of fun - take a photo and then preview it on the second screen - but in reality we just love being able to be working in two places at the same time - such as working on Slack while browsing on Instagram.
Hardware: Sub-flagship confidence
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G 5G, 6GB RAM
- 128GB + microSD (up to 2TB)
There's something of a trend emerging in smartphones: not immediately opting for the highest possible specs. Five years ago, that would make a huge difference to the performance of a phone, but in 2020 that's no longer the case. Displays are more refined - and not just about resolution - while hardware is more powerful. The take-away is that the experience isn't completely defined by the spec sheet any more.
That sees LG opting for the Snapdragon 765G, Qualcomm's platform that offers integrated 5G, lots of power, but in a slightly lower position to the top-end Snapdragon 865. Fundamentally there's less power, but that doesn't impose great limitations on what the Velvet will do (heck it can run two apps on two different screens, which is clue enough). Fire up the latest games like Call of Duty Mobile and you'll find they run perfectly smoothly.
But the demands on the Snapdragon 765G will become apparent: it doesn't have the grunt to push those games for a long time and will become warm, at which point performance will start to drop off. The Velvet therefore is not a gamers phone, although it will play games.
The gaming experience is boosted by some great speakers, which you won't find on all phones, but LG is offering its take on 3D audio, which is surprisingly good - even when you're using the Dual Screen cover.
What LG doesn't do so well is animations around the phone's interface (UI). Things like folders are rather slow to open. They have a relaxed opening that we're sure comes from LG's customisations of Google's Android operating system (OS) rather than the hardware being slower. Some manufacturers aggressively target snap and speed - like OnePlus - whereas LG is a little slower and some might interpret that as being under powered.
The display itself is really nice, although despite the 6.8-inch size there's no step-up to higher resolutions. It's 2460 x 1080 pixels - Full HD+ - and there's no faster refresh rate, it's a conventional 60Hz. Some will take that as being a generation behind flagship devices, with other large screen devices offering a 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rate for notional smoother scrolling, and 1440p resolutions for greater detail.
On the spec sheet that might make the LG Velvet seem less attractive, but in daily use that's unlikely to be something that bothers you. Faster refresh rates are on-trend at the moment, but in many cases make little difference to the overall experience - although opinions differ on the matter, with some swearing by faster refresh rates.
What you do get is a nicely refined display - that's what LG does best, after all, as it is the maker of OLED panels - with plenty of punch and colour thanks to high dynamic range (HDR). It doesn't appear to have Netflix HDR support at the time of writing, but YouTube offered HDR content that looked crisp and brilliant. There's plenty of brightness to back this up, cutting through reflections to remain visible even in bright outdoor conditions. There also appears to be colour parity between the main display and that of the Dual Screen cover, which is great.
Battery and performance
- 4,300mAh battery
- Wireless charging
The battery capacity explains the light and slim build that this phone offers (well, when it's not in the Dual Screen cover). While the 4,300mAh cell is fairly capacious, it's perhaps a little smaller than average - the Samsung Galaxy S20+ offers 4,500mAh, for example - compared to other phones of this size.
Size doesn't inherently matter, it's performance that matters. The battery in the LG Velvet can have a lot of demands. If you choose to use the Dual Display you're obviously increasing the drain on it by having two displays. Pushing powerful games will also stress the Snapdragon 765G a little more, again increasing the drain.
Overall the LG Velvet has a battery life similar to most flagship smartphones, in that it will last through the day, but you'll likely be charging it most nights unless you're very conservative with your use. That's not a bad thing, it's just that in this instance the step-down from top-tier hardware doesn't bring with it greater battery savings of the kind we've seen in some more affordable devices, which is where the real endurance champions lie.
There's nothing especially fast about its charging either. However, there is support for wireless charging - but this doesn't work if you're using the Dual Screen case.
A triple camera experience
- Triple rear camera:
- Main: 48-megapixels, f.1/8 aperture, 0.8µm pixel size
- Ultra-wide: 8MP, f/2.2, 1.12µm
- Depth: 5MP, f/2.4, 1.12µm
- Front: 16MP, f/1.9, 1.0µm
When it comes to the camera you can really see the departure from the flagship position, with LG offering a rather simpler camera than some of the phones coming to market in 2020. There are three cameras on the Velvet's rear, although one of these cameras is a depth sensor - to bring bokeh background blur skills to the portrait mode.
We've always been rather critical of depth sensors, because of the outstanding results we've seen from single lens cameras using artificial intelligence (AI) to make those portraits work - like in Google's Pixel phones. In some ways that applies to the LG here - to use the portrait mode on the rear camera it captures data from both and makes a depth map and then applies the portrait mode you've selected.
While the portrait mode is pretty good at detecting edges - especially when it has a face to focus on - applying those effects is rather slow, which is perhaps a reflection of the lower-tier hardware in this phone. You can open the preview, but then you see the regular image and wait for processing to take place before you see the effect you selected.
The front camera offers some modes too, but from a single lens - natch - circling back to our original position of whether you need the second lens or not. You can also edit after the fact, but again there's a loading delay while you wait for things to get going, which dampens the experience. You can't take a photo with one of the fancy portrait modes and then immediately show it off, so you're likely to never bother using them.
There's no zoom lens on the LG Velvet. A tap in the finder will circle between 1.0x, 2.0x or 0.5x magnification, with the 2.0x a digital zoom from the main camera. There's 10x digital zoom overall, but once you're out to 10x it looks more like a painting than a photo, so it's not really a competitive offering.
LG has been loving the wide-angle for some time - and we like that this option is maintained as it gives some great creative options, easy to get a slightly different angle on a shot. However, there's noticeable blurring around the exterior of these shots which takes some of the shine off. It's not the best example of wide-angle we've seen, in fact it's rather poor.
Turning to the main camera, it's a 48-megapixel sensor, with LG using pixel combining to take you from that native resolution back to 12-megapixels. That's what's used in all the modes, unless you manually switch to "48MP 4:3" that's available in the aspect ratio selector. As is often the case, the 48-megapixel photos are a little darker than the 12-megapixel ones. Indeed, they can capture more detail, but there's not much you can do with that on the phone, except celebrate that you've got a larger photo. You can theoretically crop and zoom close preserving detail, but we can't see who would bother doing that on a phone.
LG has long pushed AI to boost its photography and that's still in the LG Velvet, although you need to turn it on by tapping what looks like some bubbles in one corner of the viewfinder. That will then attempt to identify the scene and give you the best results.
The results from the camera are good overall; given good conditions you'll get some nice shots, although in brighter conditions can be a little flat if you're not using the AI, which brings lushness to greens and pop to blues to lift your pictures.
There's an interesting night mode - sadly hidden off in the menu - which will allow you to adjust the brightness of the night shot you're taking. This is a great option, giving you a little more control over how bright that final image is, although this isn't the most accomplished night mode we've seen - and you can't use it on the front camera.
On the video front there's support for 4K video capture, but that disables the image stabilisation, which is otherwise very effective on the Full HD mode. There are also some interesting audio capture options, including the hyper-realistic ASMR and an voice bokeh option which focuses on voices above other background noise, with good results.
- Android 10 operating system
- Some LG bloat
The LG Velvet runs on a modified version of Android 10, with LG applying liberal reworkings across the device. It's not as over-the-top as some - and in many ways less intrusive than the likes of Xiaomi and Oppo - but it's not as refined as Samsung. But sitting on Android 10 it has the natural advantages of that platform with the system-wide dark mode, gesture controls and so on.
We've been reviewing a Korean version of the handset, so there are some software additions specifically for the Korean market that won't be in other versions of the phone - and you do get to opt not to install many of the LG apps if you don't want them.
There's a Google Assistant button for those who want it. Having access to Google Discover off the home screen gives a very Androidy feel to things too.
We've mentioned that in some cases there are parts of the UI that don't feel as fast as we'd like and that's a real shame, but at its heart there are a lot of small details that give you the power of customisation, making for a complete smartphone experience.
The LG Velvet has looks that makes it more attractive than many of LG's recent devices, while hanging on to some features that were highlights from previous phones. For us, what's really attractive about this phone is the Dual Screen. Sure, that's LG's gimmick to a certain extent, but it beats other approaches hands-down if you really want to spread onto a larger display and have two apps open side-by-side.
Overall the LG Velvet offers style wins, paired with ample power and a great display, making for a flagship device that will serve many people very well. But there are weaknesses in the camera and it could turn out to be a fairly expensive phone based on estimated prices: we're expecting it to cost around €650, $700 or £550, subject to local confirmations.
So LG does still offers moments of magic - it's not time to hang up the phone just yet - and the Velvet is well representative of that.
OnePlus 8 review
OnePlus brings speed and power, offering good value for money in its "non Pro" handset. It's a great performer.
The Motorola Edge offers much the same hardware experience as the LG, but offers cleaner software. It's not without it's own shortcomings though.