Remembering LG’s finest (and strangest) phones

Well, that’s that. After years of diligent — if sometimes misguided — work to carve out a niche for its smartphones, LG confirmed on Sunday that it’s officially giving up on the mobile phone business.

Here’s what we know so far: Existing LG phones will continue to receive support and software updates for a while, though exactly how long depends on where you live. Meanwhile, retailers and carriers that still have LG phones in stock will keep selling them. All told, the company plans to finish winding down its mobile division by the end of July.

“The LG brand’s departure from the mobile space may be disappointing to some but we’re in an industry where pivoting and doing what’s in the best interest of employees and shareholders is also critically important,” LG head of global communications Ken Hong told me after the announcement went live. “As other beloved phone brands have demonstrated before us, it’s a numbers game, not a popularity contest.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how much people like a brand if they never buy the brand’s products, and Hong was obliquely referring to companies like Nokia and HTC. Still, I’m not sure those examples work. After the disastrous sale of its mobile assets to Microsoft, Nokia started focusing purely on selling networking equipment, but it granted HMD a license to develop and sell Nokia-branded smartphones. And HTC, which sold most of its smartphone business to Google and now spends its days working on VR headsets, still finds time to churn out a phone or two in its native Taiwan.

Unless there are some super-secret backroom negotiations still in the works, I don’t think we can expect the same from LG, and that’s honestly a shame. LG has never been the biggest, most important smartphone maker, but consumers always benefit from more competition — it drives smartphone makers to innovate faster, and to make those innovations more affordable. But nothing lasts forever.

Rather than sit around all glum, though, I think our time is better spent remembering some of the truly great — and truly wild — phones LG has made over the years.

The pre-smartphone years

Before Engadget, I worked at TechCrunch, and before that, I spent my college years selling phones at Best Buy. And in those days, just before smartphones started taking over the industry, LG made some of the finest feature phones you could find.

When I was training to, you know, professionally interact with other humans, the very first phone I showed off was the LG Fusic, a largely unremarkable flip phone with a twist. At the time, people were just starting to think of their phones as music players, so the Fusic had a circular cluster of track controls right under its external screen. I don’t remember selling many of them, but LG was right in one respect: In time, people really would ditch their iPods, Zunes and Creative Zens and lean almost exclusively on their phones for entertainment.

Plenty of other models remain stuck in my head after all these years. There were days when I would sell nothing but the LG Shine, an AT&T-exclusive, all-metal slider phone with a little track nubbin for navigation. Like the Fusic, it didn’t stand out beyond its design, but you have to remember that in those days, all you could ever really do on your phone was call people, send text messages, or putz around on comparatively glacial mobile data networks. When feature sets were that limited, style arguably counted for a lot more than it does now.

And then there were LG’s messaging phones. Engadget’s head of social, Mike Morris, frequently brings up the oddly named LG The V in random conversations, and for good reason. It was one of LG’s first phones with a full — albeit tiny — physical QWERTY keyboard, and he spent hours using it to message his friends on AOL Instant Messenger.

“For people who weren’t on T-Mobile or couldn’t afford a Sidekick, this was the next best thing in my 14-year-old mind,” he says.

LG’s enV 2 introduced a generation of mid-2000s teens to the joys of texting on a keyboard.

After the success of The V, LG and Verizon (Engadget’s current parent company) doubled down on the messaging trend with a slew of enVs, more capable models with support for EV-DO data, and improved flip-open keyboards. Engadget senior editor Karissa Bell tells me she’s “never been able to text as quickly” as she could on her wine-red enV 2, and considering how many of those I sold in those days, I doubt she’s alone.

Eventually, the enV line gave way to what in my mind was the pinnacle of LG’s US non-smartphones: the Voyager, which took the idea of a flip-open messaging phone and married it with an external touchscreen and a 2-megapixel camera. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine it being one of 2007’s most anticipated phones, but there were at least a few people camped outside my store waiting to plunk down $300 with a two-year contract.

Of course, anyone in the know understood that LG’s finest wares could only be found overseas. The same year the Voyager was released, LG started selling its all-touch Prada, also known as the KE850. Despite packing a 2MP camera with Schneider-Kreuznach optics and the very first capacitive touchscreen in a phone, the Prada failed to live up to its luxury namesake. No Wi-Fi, and a paltry 8MB (yes, megabytes) of storage, all packed in a tiny, piano black plastic body meant the Prada was all flash and little substance. It wouldn’t be until the debut of the stunningly beautiful Chocolate BL40 in 2009 that LG’s feature phones truly peaked. But by then, it was clear that smartphones were here to stay.

Embracing Android

LG’s first wave of Android phones wasn’t much to write home about. 2009’s Arena was basically one of the company’s messaging phones with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, just with souped-up specs to help it run Android 1.0. It took a few more years for LG engineers to hit their stride with devices like the LG Optimus G Pro in 2013. Reviews at the time praised its performance and its 5.5-inch, 1080p IPS screen, making it one of the first truly great big phones.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the Optimus G Pro kicked off LG’s longest-running smartphone family, the G series. And I’d argue that the company’s next G phone — the LG G2 — was what made it a serious contender in the flagship smartphone market. The great screen and potent specs aside, the thing that still sticks with me about the G2 was LG’s ingenious decision to stick the phone’s power and volume buttons on the back. That didn’t just mean LG could slim down the bezels, but the way the positioning of the buttons ensured that lefties and right-handers alike could reach the controls. (It’s 2021, and I still want more smartphone makers to do this.)

The Nexus 5 was a fan-favorite, but it had its share of quality control issues.

Right around the time the Optimus G Pro was making waves, Google tapped LG for what would turn out to be a multi-year arrangement. LG’s mission: to build a series of affordable Nexus smartphones to show off what pure, unfettered Android could do on the right hardware. That deal started with the Nexus 4, a phone that will remain etched into my memory for a long time. That’s not because I was head-over-heels for this thing, mind you — it’s because I worked on my review while stranded in San Francisco while my home state was being battered by Hurricane Sandy. Those were among my most depressing days on the job, but I had work to do, and thankfully there was plenty to like.

“The thing that sticks out about my Nexus 4 is that it might have been the last time I was extremely excited about a new phone,” said Engadget senior editor Richard Lawler. “It had a funky wireless charger when that was still exciting, and even Photo Sphere was a cool feature then. Best of all, it lived up to the hype.”

LG’s partnership with Google ultimately yielded two more smartphones, the Nexus 5 and 5X, both of which debuted to critical acclaim but ultimately left most of us at Engadget pretty dissatisfied in the long run. I distinctly remember loving my Nexus 5 and using it right up until the moment got stuck in a boot-loop like so many LG phones of that generation did. And a quick straw poll in our team Slack confirmed that nearly every Engadget employee who bought a Nexus 5X saw it sputter to a premature death.

Let’s get weird

I’ve always believed LG was at its best when it was weird. And as the smartphone era wore on, the company started to lean into its oddball tendencies. 2014 saw the release of the LG G Flex, one of the first phones with s curved screen. Samsung beat it to the punch by releasing the Galaxy Round a year earlier, but in my book at least, LG’s approach was better. Instead of curving the phone’s left and right edges toward you the way the Galaxy Round did, the G Flex had curved top and bottom edges, which made for surprisingly comfortable phone calls.

The most ambitious device LG ever built, though, was definitely 2016’s modular G5. If you wanted physical controls for the camera, or a dedicated digital to analog converter for better music quality, you could add them. You just had to remove the battery, snap off the chin, plug in the accessory you needed, and turn the whole thing on again. It wasn’t the most elegant process, but for a while at least, that kind of modularity seemed like it might represent the future of smartphones. Google had been talking up its Project Ara phones for years by then, and just months after the G5 hit store shelves, Motorola started selling the Moto Z and its magnetic Moto Mods.

Unfortunately, all of those initiatives were flops, but the G5 did offer one other reason to remember it: It was one of the first phones to ever use multiple rear cameras, and you don’t need me to tell you how well that idea worked out.

The LG G5 was the world’s first commercially available modular phone.

The G5 probably represented LG at its most weird, but the years that followed saw LG continue to try some wild stuff. The LG G8 was largely unremarkablesave for a time-of-light camera wedged into its forehead. You could try to control your music or fiddle with the phone’s volume by making some difficult-to-nail claw gestures in front of it. (Google would later try something similar with a tiny Soli radar array in the Pixel 4.) While we’re talking about G8s, I’ll never forget strapping the LG G8x into a dual-screen case for the first time to play a game with controls on the second display, and wondering if LG’s team was onto something. Turns out, they weren’t, but you’ve gotta give them credit for trying.

And then there’s the LG Wing, the swiveling dual-screen phone LG released just last year. It was the first — and the last — device to emerge from the company’s Explorer program, an initiative meant to keep LG trying new things while its competitors stuck to making the same old glass-and-metal slabs. To this day, I’m still not quite sure what LG’s engineers were smoking when they cooked this thing up, but the sheer chutzpah they demonstrated by actually putting the Wing up for sale is admirable. Frankly, I can’t think of a more appropriate swan song: It’s kooky, ambitious, and more than a little charming, much like LG itself.

All Rights Reserved for C. Velazco

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