Imagine you could build your own Android phone from scratch, with the ability to bend a Chinese manufacturing colossus to your whims. What would you make?
That is more or less the story of OnePlus, the Chinese company founded in 2013 to produce premium smartphones. But don’t call it a startup: OnePlus is a subsidiary of BBK Electronics, the world’s second-largest smartphone manufacturer (it also owns Oppo and Vivo.) That means OnePlus can tap a vast supply chain and manufacturing operation. Yet while Oppo and Vivo produce handsets for every consumer, OnePlus offers just one device, targeted squarely at the high-end.
Class-leading specs will please power users. OnePlus finally made a great-looking phone.
Photos are unimpressive, even with souped-up camera hardware. Nothing else about the phone stands out from the competition.
The new OnePlus 5 is power-user catnip. OnePlus packed all the best components into this phone: Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 835 processor, 6 or 8 gigs of LPDDR4X RAM, a 3,300 mAh battery with super-fast charging, 64 or 128 gigs of storage, dual-sim support, Bluetooth 5.0, a two-camera array on the rear that lets you take cool portraits, and an absurdly high-res 16-megapixel selfie cam. A dark-gray model with 6 gigs of RAM and 64 gigs of storage costs $479; 8 gigs of RAM, 128 gigs of storage, and a gorgeous black case runs $539. By comparison, a 128GB iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel XL costs a hefty $869, and you’ll drop $825 on a Galaxy S8 Plus with only 64GB of storage.
OnePlus didn’t do anything outrageous or eye-catching, like shave the bezel to a sliver or build in a modular ecosystem. It simply made all the stuff in its fourth flagship phone (it skipped the OnePlus 4, because the Chinese consider the number four unlucky) better. And in doing so, it made a pretty good phone.
Build It Better
OnePlus got just about everything right with the look of the 5. It’s slimmer and more sharply beveled than previous handsets, with the black logo on the black back and a slight edge on the otherwise rounded side. It looks a lot like an iPhone 7 Plus, which I say as a compliment. Earlier models looked like they were created by ransacking a parts bin and throwing it all together with someone’s discarded tooling.
The phone runs on OnePlus’s Oxygen OS, which is really just Android with a couple of tiny customizations. Useful ones, too, like a reading mode that automatically filters out blue light and adjusts the screen properties to make the AMOLED display look and feel more like a Kindle screen. You also get a system-wide night mode, a one-touch setting for turning off all notifications while you play games, and a handful of hidden gestures and features.
As you might expect from the specs, the OnePlus 5 screams like a French metal band. I played games, watched movies, shot high-res video, opened every app on the phone simultaneously, and then made a video call. Nothing slowed it down. The fingerprint reader below the screen works so insanely fast I almost wonder if it actually reads my print. (OnePlus assured me it does.) My review unit, with 8 gigs of RAM, offers way more power than most people need. And even with all that juice, the battery still lasts a full day. With OnePlus’s much-touted quick charge tech, a quick top-off while getting dressed will last through the evening.
That smoothness and longevity comes at the expense of the 5.5-inch screen, which offers 1080p resolution. On a phone so otherwise spec-heavy, that feels like a weird oversight. But unless you plan to strap a OnePlus 5 to your face, it won’t matter. Samsung runs the S8’s screen at 1080p by default, and nobody complains about the iPhone 7 Plus’s 5.5-inch screen being low-res. Frankly, the screen looks great, even if 1080p won’t excite many power users.
That Camera, Though
Two camera lenses poke out the back of the OnePlus 5, working in tandem to improve your photos. A 16-megapixel rig captures the wide shots most phones handle. And a 20-megapixel sensor captures your zoomed-in photos. When you hit the shutter, both lenses capture light and the 5’s post-processing does the rest. The app offers an impressive array of manual control, including ISO, shutter speed, and more.
The two-camera array looks and works just like the iPhone 7 Plus, including the soft-background portrait mode. With a subject near the camera, the two lenses can sense depth to blur the background and make your subject pop. The effect works well, though it’s slightly overdramatic and obviously software-created, as on the iPhone.
Despite the great hardware, the photos don’t impress. For every awesome shot of my jittery dog, the 5 botches a still shot of a basketball hoop. Even in great light, photos featured softer edges and less detail than I’d expect. I found the autofocus lightning fast, but not always accurate. In low light, photos are often noisy to the point of mushiness. Luckily, OnePlus can fix a lot of this in software; the company recently pushed a big update to the image processing. But it still has a lot of work to do, given that cameras separate good Android phones from great ones.
Camera imperfections aside, the OnePlus 5 hits nearly every mark. It doesn’t try to replace Google’s excellent software with a weird interface and bad virtual assistant. (Lookin’ at you, Samsung.) Instead of reinventing the wheel or evolving the wheel or however Steve Jobs would have put it, OnePlus simply built a very nice wheel. The OnePlus 5 is a budget phone that doesn’t feel or act like a budget phone.
I do wonder how long this can work for OnePlus. Every phone is good now, even much cheaper models. Nobody needs the latest and greatest in Snapdragon power, or a million gigs of RAM—at least until AI and VR make specs matter again. OnePlus found success by diligently avoiding bloatware and pointless customization, but other companies do this now, too. Meanwhile, buyers have shown they’re willing to spend more to get the phone they want. That means you’ll continue getting better phones at better prices. And as the pace of competition continues to accelerate, OnePlus and everyone else will have to get better, faster.
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