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.
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.
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.)
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.