It’s January 2017 and reports claiming that Samsung is hoarding Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors are everywhere. Early indicators show chip production only scaling up to meet the demands of other Android manufacturers by April, at the earliest.
This is a cunning move because the smartphone manufacturer in desperate need of a win five months after its Galaxy Note7 caught literal fire. Kneecapping your competitors is a great way to win a marketing fight.
Fast-forward a month and I’m in a crowded auditorium next to the Estadi Lluís Companys in Barcelona, LG’s chosen venue for the G6 unveiling. The Korean manufacturer announces the device and kicks off the 2:1 elongated screen aspect ratio trend, but the phone is powered by 2016-era silicon.
Sony announces the Xperia XZ and its Premium sibling with a 4K screen the next morning, but the phone will only ship in June of that year because of processor supply constraints.
We had to wait until the end of March for Samsung to steal the show and all the tall screen marketing hype with its “unboxed” Galaxy S8. Tech media was across the globe – me included – were gifted device packages and advertising spend was cranked up to historic levels. Samsung was determined to kill the Note7 demons.
Snap 820 – Samsung March 2016, LG April 2016. Snap 835 – Samsung April 2017, LG oh wait Snap 821 on LG in 2017… Snap 845 – Samsung March 2018, LG June 2018. It's one thing having innovations like ultra wide, but when the processor driving it is old or outdated the hype is gone
— Byron Trent (@byrontrent) April 5, 2021
I was reminded this week (we’re back to the present, btw) on Twitter how this incident sparked a chain of events where we saw LG release a string of stellar devices, but without the same fanfare as its Korean rivals received. The V30 from August 2017 carried the up-to-date Snapdragon 835 silicon and, at least in the South African market, outperformed the Galaxy Note8 in every category except stylus support and low light photography.
You see, Samsung uses its own Exynos processors in our market and those models differ wildly from the Qualcomm-powered devices the US tech YouTubers review. Historically Exynos processors generate more heat and throttle power output sooner, have inferior image processing and graphics performance (because it uses ARM’s Mali GPU and not Qualcomm’s Adreno), and the high-performance cores are clocked higher, so the power draw under load is greater, which results in poorer battery life.
But that’s only the South African side of the story. As my Twitter critic rightly pointed out, our market isn’t big enough to float the entire business. LG had its faults
Did LG cling to the tiny 1/3.1-inch, 16MP image sensor for its primary cameras a little too long? Yes. I believe that if they switched to a bigger 12MP sensor, along with the lens-quality improvements on the V30, premium LG devices would have competitive cameras far earlier.
Did LG market its phones like white appliances? Yes. MKBHD was accurate in his uncharacteristically defensive eulogy. But marketing is a different game in the influencer economy. These products live and die by the narrative of the embargo day reviews.
The LG G8 is a perfect example. A highly competent and competitive camera system, the best audio output on a smartphone (wired and wireless), and three separate biometric security options. Secure face recognition, powered by the front-facing time of flight sensor is a rare feature among Android devices, but the reviewers decided to fixate on the gesture gimmick.
Along came a global pandemic and when all iPhone-using reviewers were decrying the failures of Face ID in a world where we have to wear masks to slow the spread of a deadly virus, the G8 curiously never entered the conversation as an option for those consumers who wanted the best of both face and fingerprint recognition.
Tech media has reduced the smartphone conversation to a binary battle between the iPhone and whichever brand can run it closest.
I’m part of that problem because I value the superior user experience of the iPhone and the effortlessness of the Apple device ecosystem. I can then only recommend devices that offer similar or better overall experiences at the same price. When user needs become more niche, though, then the conversation becomes more nuanced.
For a long time if you wanted granular control over your camera capture, LG was the only game in town that offered it in the default camera app – it still is if you care about audio adjustment as well.
If you want the best possible headphone output (wired or wireless), LG is the only game in town because its premium devices (G- and V-series) stand alone in offering a HiFi Quad Dac and powerful amplifier to drive high-impedance speakers, aptX and LDAC on Bluetooth, alongside support for high-res audio and MQA files.
This was the only smartphone brand that concentrated equal effort on both mobile content creation and consumption, while still trying to push the envelope on hardware innovation. In South Africa LG was the best way to get your hands on the latest Qualcomm-powered innovations since the company course-corrected on the V30.
I’m going to miss LG smartphones dearly and have learnt a great deal about how the media can project a distorted view of reality because of the pace of online reporting and market manipulation by outside forces.
It is no longer enough to put out a competitive product when a large competitor can buy its way to success and media coverage is determined by algorithm and SEO benefits – which in turn is paid for through advertising. In the end those with the biggest budgets win.