Don’t look now, but the best smartphone on the market is from – LG?
That may be overstating it, but the LG V20 – unveiled last week, a day before Apple took the wraps off the iPhone 7 – is looking good, at least compared to its chief competitors. At the very least it isn’t exploding, either on the inside or the outside.
Outward explosions are of course a reference to the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which is now in the second week of a global recall after several dozen incidents of battery meltdowns.
The situation continues to worsen for Samsung as the cost of the recall is now expected to surpass US$1 billion. Many of the 2.5 million consumers who bought the Note 7 since its August launch still do not know how to get it replaced. Meanwhile, airlines in a growing number of countries – including the UAE – are banning in-flight use of the phone.
The crux of the problem is poor quality control. Samsung, under pressure to deliver a new device in time to compete with the iPhone 7, simply didn’t test the phone’s battery properly. Reports of exploding phones setting a house on fire, burning a Jeep and exploding in the hands of a child are proliferating as a result.
In short, it’s an unmitigated disaster for the South Korean company. The damage to its brand will be huge and take years to recover from.
Apple, too, is facing its own challenges. While not nearly as serious as overheating batteries, the company encountered problems this week when it issued its latest iOS 10 software update. Some iPhone users who downloaded the update had their devices frozen up, forcing Apple to release another fix.
It’s not the first time the company has inadvertently bricked its own products, or even the first time this year. Apple pulled an update in May, for example, after it locked up certain iPads. The company’s relatively frequent problems with software updates also suggest quality control issues.
But software may not even be Apple’s biggest problem. The company is taking plenty of heat from reviewers and critics over its decision to remove the universal headphone jack in the iPhone 7.
For the first time, buyers will be forced to connect their headphones to the device through its Lightning port or an adapter, or use Bluetooth audio accessories.
Apple insists the future of audio is wireless – and the company is probably right – but for now Bluetooth earphones are generally considered to be finicky, problematic and inferior to their wired counterparts. The Lightning port, meanwhile, is proprietary technology controlled by Apple, which makes it harder for third parties to create accessories.
Removing the jack frees up space in the device for other features, such as waterproofing, but Apple failed to convincingly sell those benefits during its launch event last week. Instead, company executives arrogantly framed the move as “courage” to move forward. That marketing misstep is a veritable black eye on what is otherwise being considered a fine product.
Amid all these issues with the top two smartphone brands, LG is entering the fray with the V20 – a device with no comparative baggage. The phone will roll out worldwide over the next few months, and so far there’s no drama associated with it.
It doesn’t have an exploding battery, but it does have working software and – drum roll please – a headphone jack. It’s also scoring well with reviewers for the other features it delivers.
The V20 is getting praise for its double rear-camera system, which packs a wide-angle lens that allows users to capture more of their shots. It’s also getting accolades for its high-definition audio recording and playback, along with a built-in digital-to-analogue sound converter. LG is touting the V20 as the best phone for audio ever, and no one’s disputing the boast.
In the battle for market share, LG is a relative minnow. Samsung and Apple lay claim to about 37 per cent of the global market, followed by a number of Chinese brands in the single digits and then LG, according to the tracking firm IDC.
But in their haste to outdo each other, the two leaders are slipping up and creating opportunities for other manufacturers. Headphone jacks, glitchy software and exploding batteries couldn’t have been better timed for LG – many consumers may give the V20 a good hard look as a result.
Realistically, LG isn’t going to take over the smartphone market anytime soon – but then again, it wasn’t so long ago that BlackBerry and Motorola ruled the roost. Hubris, inertia and products that didn’t work well led to their downfalls, proving that positions are mutable and that continued success is not set in stone.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter