LG’s new Velvet phone and raindrop camera won’t save LG

The company is basically giving up and making a Samsung Galaxy.

Once a dominant smartphone player, LG has seen its share of the mobile market shrink so much over the last few years that it's now essentially giving up and making a Samsung Galaxy.

The company has shared a video for its upcoming "Velvet" series phones, which will reportedly replace its long-standing G-series devices. Shown off in several flashy finishes, it's clear the Velvet phone takes design inspiration from Samsung phones.

A screen with curved glass edges that spill over the sides into the metal frame? Yeah, Samsung popularized the look back in 2015 with the Galaxy S6 Edge and now every Android phone, including the OnePlus 8 Pro, has stolen the look. The irony is that Samsung's Galaxy S20 series actually have less screen curvature than previous phones, which suggests even Samsung is aware the aesthetic is looking dated.

Sure, the Velvet has some differences going for it like the "raindrop" camera array, a tiny notch, and a headphone jack, but these features aren't going to going to save LG and restore it to its glory days. And the things that LG could do to make its phones attractive again? Probably not going to happen.

A modular mistake — LG's downfall can be traced back to the G5, the company's first and last stab at a modular smartphone. The idea was unique — a phone with a removable battery and swappable modules like a grip that could turn it into a DSLR-like camera. In reality, the G5 was a far-flung idea that couldn't compete with rival phones that were trading plastic for metal and glass.

Rise of Chinese brands — LG has never recovered since fumbling with the G5. Its global market share is now so minuscule, it's literally fallen off of Statista's global smartphone charts. In 2019, LG's mobile division posted a $860 million loss due to sluggish phone sales.

It's not just that the G6 and G7 and G8 weren't interesting — the Dual Screen accessory for the G8X ThinQ and recently released V60 ThinQ think outside the box for sure — but LG's lunch was quickly eaten by Chinese phone makers. As LG (and Sony and HTC) were in free fall, Chinese tech brands like Huawei, Xiaomi, and OnePlus swooped in to fill the void.

LG being LG, the company continued to crank out G-series phones with flagship specs at premium prices. This proved to be a losing strategy against Samsung and Apple. Losing traction outside of Asia, Chinese companies saw the opening and took it.

Using their close access to supply chains, Chinese brands released phones with Samsung-quality design, flagship specs, and did the one thing LG refused to do: sell them at lower prices. The result: people switched to Huawei and Xiaomi and OnePlus. Because why pay more when someone else is offering the same (if not better) industrial design and performance for hundreds less?

Too late? — Though LG hasn't shown all of its cards for the Velvet, it's unlikely the phone will turn things around. There are a few constants for all LG phones:

  • The cameras aren't as good as Samsung Galaxy or iPhone or Pixel
  • The software is a convoluted mess and still packed with bloatware
  • The prices are too high

LG phones used to have great cameras — they had an ultra-wide camera years before everyone else did. But then Samsung and Apple leapfrogged them after the G4. Unless LG has some kind of killer image processing or night mode, the Velvet's camera system won't be able to compete. When the camera is the main selling point of phones, you need to really bring it.

Historically, LG also sucks at skinning Android. It tends to add a lot of superfluous digital gloss on top of Android and slow things down with its own duplicate apps and bloatware. This is a major turnoff and one reason why people appreciate OnePlus and Pixel phones — the software is just cleaner and less cluttered. LG could score points with the Velvet if it let go of its pride and dumped some of its own second-rate apps and just stuck with stock Google apps. I've been making this request for years and nothing's changed so I'm not optimistic.

And lastly, pricing. People pay top dollar for an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy because they know they're getting the best there is to offer. LG's phones are not the best and therefore shouldn't command premium prices. With everyone now scaling back on spending because of COVID-19, a more affordable phone could generate more interest than usual. And there's hope LG could make this happen. The Velvet uses a Snapdragon 765 chip, which means it won't be as fast as phones with the Snapdragon 865 chip. However, the cheaper chip could mean lower prices passed on to customers.

That said, Apple's new iPhone SE, starting at $399 is an undeniable value. How do you compete with a phone at that price that has the same class-leading A13 Bionic chip and main camera as at $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro?

No room for LG — I am all for rooting for the underdog. I watched as OnePlus blossomed from being a no-name brand to becoming the God Emperor of Android with its phones now carried by T-Mobile and Verizon (an unthinkable feat a few years ago).

But LG has its work cut out for it. The Velvet alone won't reverse its troubles in mobile. Shoehorning its ThinQ AI into devices isn't going to make people switch from Samsung or iPhone. I don't even think fixing all three major issues I outlined above can save LG.

Mobile is cutthroat. A single misstep could mean another brand jumping right over you. For LG, I fear its chance to do a 180 is long gone. Like Sony and HTC, it might be time to toss in the towel and admit defeat. Maybe sell to someone (hey Google?) to beef up their mobile aspirations.