LG Velvet Review: A competent phone with a different look

LG Velvet has few shortcomings in terms of core features and sports a different, polished look, but it also leaves lots of open questions for the future of LG's smartphone business.

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Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

LG Electronics began the global launch of its latest flagship smartphone, the LG Velvet, this month, after first launching the phone in South Korea in May. The South Korean tech giant has touted Velvet as a do-over -- forget the G, V, and also forget ThinQ. Instead, say hello to the brightly coloured Velvet.

So how does it hold up?

Design

LG has talked up the new design of the Velvet more than anything else for its launch in South Korea. I can't say whether the design is better than an iPhone or a Galaxy, but it definitely looks different and peculiar.

The colour scheme of the back cover isn't as gaudy as picture renderings or advertisements would suggest, but rather, it is smooth and natural-looking. I chose the Illusion Sunset version of the device to review. It glimmers between yellow to orange to pink -- a literal mixture of aurora and sunset colours -- depending on the angle of lighting. 

The cover glass is also polished and subtle, which is great. Along with Aurora Green, Illusion Sunset is a colour that will be attractive to those looking for something different than the rest. The shiny cover and glass combo is nowadays pretty standard among flagship phones so what LG did here isn't original, but how they did it definitely shows effort on their part. Most people I ran into asked about what phone I was holding, so it seems to be enough of a design difference to pique people's interest.  

The "raindrop" design rear triple camera also looks uniform. The primary camera, which sits at the top, does protrude out, albeit only slightly, and the rim around it glimmers just like the back cover does which is a nice touch. The flash LED at the bottom isn't covered in glass like the two cameras above it, but it actually accentuates the raindrop aesthetic that LG went for.

Overall, the camera design is smooth and simple, and succeeds in giving Velvet its own look without going overboard. It's a simple but well thought out design by LG compared to other vendors in recent years that have basically taken the iPhone's camera design as theirs.

There are some odd design choices, however. The phone is particularly long which causes it to have a 20.5:9 ratio screen. The bezel is quite thick, too, especially at the top and bottom and the top notch where the front camera sits isn't great to look at, especially with other brands offering punch-in-hole designs.

These design choices seem like compromises rather than conscious decisions made by LG to accommodate for a larger screen with edged sides. And while LG's past phones have never been known for their thin bezels, its a shame, because a near bezel-less and full-screened design would have accentuated Velvet's polished look even further.

Putting aside the somewhat thick bezel, the symmetrically curved sides are well done. Dubbed 3D Arc by the company, the curve gives the illusion that the phone is thinner than its already thin 7.9-millimetres. The phone also feels very light for its size and sits comfortably in my hands when gripped. 

A minor but well-done detail are the volume buttons and Google Assistant button on the phone's left side and the on and off button being placed on the right. The buttons are also surprisingly sturdy. I rarely pressed them by accident while gripping the phone.

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Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet  

Everyday experience

Performance-wise, in terms of hardware and software, LG Velvet checks all the boxes. There is nothing groundbreaking here, but no big flaws either.

Much has been made about the use of the Snapdragon 765 5G on the LG Velvet and how it falls behind the processors of other flagship phones. And even more so when you take pricing into consideration, which could be a problem for LG, but I'll get more into that later.

Honestly though, most smartphone specs right now are overkill. There aren't enough cutting-edge applications such as 8K or virtual reality that are able to push CPUs to their limits. In choosing the Snapdragon 765 5G, which is the industry's first chipset that integrates an application processor with a 5G modem, the Velvet consumes less power when using the data-intensive 5G network. I expect those who choose a 5G data plan in the US can expect their Velvet to stay relatively manageable in terms of battery life so that it is comparable with devices that only use 4G LTE.

LG has said, however, that the chipset may vary depending on the market and carrier. US carriers launching the phone in July will have the Snapdragon 765G 5G like the European version, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told ZDNet. The 765G processes graphics better compared to the 765 so this will be a notch-up in terms of gaming compared to its South Korean counterpart, they said.

If you are tech-oriented and all-in for that future-proofing, however, the Velvet just isn't the phone for you.

Nonetheless, I never felt that the Velvet smartphone lacked in performance or was slow in any way during my two weeks of using it. For basic functions like browsing, emails, streaming, and even games, it worked fine and fast without any problems. The interface isn't particularly interesting, but functional. Remembering how clunky the software was on the Optimus G, LG has come a long way and it's an improvement over predecessors but is also not something worth bragging about compared to the devices of its rivals.

The Velvet is also IP68 dust and water resistant: It was fine to carry around in South Korea's humid summer weather and the moisture on rainy days never got in the way of using the phone.

The 6.8-inch OLED screen is great. It's bright enough and experienced no light-reflection problems on sunny days. It doesn't support 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rates like Samsung's devices do but it's a great display nonetheless. Pictures are clear, colours are accurate, and the display never feels overly saturated. The smartphone packs a 4,300mAh battery and it was good for a full day of use with just the occasional extra charging session when I did use more data-intensive functions like streaming. 

The optical fingerprint scanner is excellent. It's sensitive, accurate, and responds fast enough most of the time. There is a nice, crazy copper coil animation when you put your fingertip on the sensor to let you know it is doing the job.

It also packs a dual stereo, each one placed at the bottom and top of the phone, respectively, and they are surprisingly voluminous, which I liked, though it is pitched slightly higher than what I was used to in other phones. Users can further tune the sound in the equaliser settings and LG offers a 3D Surround Sound feature for further sound optimisation, which does offer a more measured sound, but I can't say if it really is that much better.

The smartphone also has a headphone jack at the bottom. LG has always been slow to move away from legacy features but it's not a bad thing that the jack is still here. Oddly though, the Velvet 's headphone jack doesn't have Quad DAC this time around, which will be a disappointment for those who were loyal to LG due to this feature. The smartphone also supports wireless charging support up to 9W.

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Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

Cameras

The phone has a triple main camera set-up: A 48MP F1.8 primary, an 8MP F2.2 ultra-wide, and a 5MP F2.4 depth camera. It also has a 16MP F1.9 front camera for selfies.

Photos with the primary camera are great. There is little to complain about in terms of picture quality. There is a pop-up delay after you take a photo with the max resolution of 48MP 4:3 ratio, but it lasts less than a second most of the time. The standard 12MP photos are fine too. 

Meanwhile, photos taken at night were surprisingly good -- LG says the camera packs a pixel beaming feature where pixels are grouped together to absorb more light in the dark. The 16MP selfie shooter also gets the job done. LG offers blur, 3D photo effect, colour focus among other choices for its portrait mode which are great to use together.

The ultra-wide shots are the camera's weakest point. It's constantly blurry on the sides. While the 48MP primary camera is fine, given that wide-angle cameras have been around nearly as long as smartphones, I feel LG should have stepped up here and put in a better camera than an 8MP one. 

The phone's cameras do not have optical image stabilisation (OIS) and there isn't a macro lens, which has been a popular addition for flagship smartphones and even a lot of mid-range phones. I don't think this is a problem though, especially f you are casual smartphone user like myself. The Velvet does have digital zoom, which is clunky as expected, but I feel the whole zoom trend is overrated anyway.   

There is also the miscellaneous ASMR recording feature as well as 3D AR Sticker and 3D Photo Effect features that you can use for fun. There is also a time lapse feature for video recording, which lets you slow down time at certain moments during filming that can keep it interesting. Overall, the LG Velvet's camera doesn't wow but it offers good photos and enough extra features to make it mildly interesting for the casual photographer.

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A photo taken with the LG Velvet at the standard 12MP.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

Price

This is tricky.

In South Korea, the LG Velvet has a retail price of 899,800 won (around $750). In practice though, the actual price for consumers in South Korea is more in the range of 600,000 won (around $500) due to discounts, depending on data plans and subsidies offered by carriers. LG also offers a half-price program if consumers agree to buy another LG phone in the future afterwards.

LG Velvet's Europe price tag sits at £650, which matches those of South Korea, but it includes a LG Dual Screen accessory, the LG Tone Free earbuds, and a silicon clear case for pre-ordering customers. In South Korea, none of the accessories were offered for free when the phone launched.

But Oppo's Find X2 Neo, which sports an OLED screen and has specs comparable to the Velvet, currently costs £599 in the UK. It also has double the internal memory of the Velvet, at 256GB.  

So what would be the appropriate price in the US? I don't know how much of a premium someone would put onto design, which in the Velvet's case is admittedly unique, but purely in terms of specs, the LG Velvet is a mid-range phone.

It doesn't take an expert to notice the cost-cutting effort that went into the Velvet. The absence of a Quad DAC and OIS as well as the decision to use the Snapdragon 765G (for Europe and US) and 128GB internal memory all points to a company putting in only the absolutely necessary features in their phone so they can call it a "flagship" or a "premium" without losing face.

Don't get me wrong, the Velvet is a competent phone, but there are just too many options for consumers these days. After 2 weeks with the phone, I think LG knows that the Velvet is a mid-range phone -- they just don't want to say it aloud themselves. Their claim that the Velvet is a "mass premium" device should be translated to a "great mid-tier" one.

I suspect that LG will want to keep the retail price in the US similar to those in South Korea and Europe, to protect its brand image, but US carriers will likely offer some massive discounts or a pre-ordering event so that early buyers can get the device for much less -- preferably below $500. 

The truth is it would have to be much, much less if LG wants to grow its market share. The US is arguably LG's most important market for smartphones, so I feel there needs to be a little bit more on offer than it has done for South Korea and Europe. 

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LG Velvet's fingerprint sensor is accurate and works fast.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet  

What's next?

At this point, it's hard not to give LG some credit for perseverance, at least when it comes to its smartphone operations.

As of the first quarter of 2020, it has posted 20 straight quarters of losses. Its second-quarter earnings are yet to be announced, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, which the company warned in its conference call for the first quarter would hurt earnings across the board, has all but guaranteed that the business will yet be again, in the red.

So screw it, right? There is a certain bliss in hopelessness. Why not try something different?

Following that spirit, I tried out the LG Velvet with an open mind, as much as I was able to. My conclusion is that it is a competent phone that offers a peculiar design. It has no shortcomings in terms of core features, but there isn't anything amazing here either.

The phone feels more like a work-in-progress to test the waters and leaves many questions open for the future of LG smartphones.

Will the Velvet be a "series" that launches every year as a phone focused on design? LG has said it plans to offer different branding for each flagship phone it launches. Does that mean there will be another brand that launches a couple of months down the line that doesn't focus on design but specs instead? 

This would make sense since the model name of the LG Velvet is LG-G900N, indicating it could have been a G9, the successor to the G series. And in terms of specs, its predecessor V60 is even better in some aspects, so a late year launch of a successor brand to the V with powered-up specs would make sense. An LG Velvet Pro model perhaps? And now that Velvet is a design-oriented phone, shouldn't the dual-screen have a make-over too?

I'm not sure if there will be an answer anytime soon.

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