OnePlus 5 review: the me-too phone

OnePlus 5 review: the me-too phone

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In its four years of existence, OnePlus has fashioned itself as the flagship phone killer jumping out of the midrange bushes. Every OnePlus device to date has been defined by premium specs at bargain prices, but that changes with today’s OnePlus 5. Starting at $479 with 64GB of storage, this new flagship can no longer be mistaken for a super-specced midrange handset. And even though it doesn’t cost quite as much as a mainstream mainstay like the Galaxy S8, that’s exactly the sort of phone it will be compared against. This is the priciest OnePlus device yet, and it’s falling in line with its more traditional competition: you pay more to get more.

There’s no questioning the specs of this phone: it’s powered by the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 processor; comes with a combo of either 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage or a laptop-rivaling 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage; and it has a total of 52 megapixels of image-taking prowess between its three cameras.

What I see when I look at the 2017 edition of the OnePlus flagship is a necessary maturation and refinement. The ruthless cost cutting of the past was never going to be sustainable, and now that the company is facing the exigencies of being a global operation with costs that go beyond basic distribution and marketing, OnePlus is growing up in both price and quality.

But as it develops into a new kind of phone, the OnePlus 5 is also starting to feel divorced from its predecessors, inheriting only the physical switch for alert modes and the Dash Charge rapid-charging technology. It now looks like a OnePlus 3 that’s put on an iPhone 7 Plus costume: still roughly the same proportions as before, but now with more rounded edges, curved antenna lines, and the same dual-camera setup as the iPhone. It’s more than a passing resemblance, and it frankly makes me uneasy.

Until today, OnePlus could confidently say it was different from all the other Chinese upstarts that, consciously or not, aped the iPhone to a point of losing their own identity. OnePlus phones always had character, rooted in no small part in their market-breaking low prices. But the 128GB Midnight Black phone I’m reviewing today costs $539, which is a stone’s throw away from Samsung’s Galaxy S prices. Without the unique selling point of massively undercutting everyone, and with the baggage of looking like a cynical iPhone rip-off, can the OnePlus 5 retain the small-company charm that’s made its maker popular all around the world? I’m not so sure.

How do you feel about plagiarism? Your answer to this question will be essential to deciding how you feel about the OnePlus 5’s design. This is basically a slightly smaller iPhone 7 Plus that runs Android. Every physical feature of this phone will be instantly familiar to iPhone users: the curved antenna lines are the same; the dual-camera module, microphone, and LED flash on the back are in the exact same positions; and the power button and volume rocker are also placed as they are on the iPhone. Around the front, the selfie camera is in the same position as the iPhone, the bezels are almost identical, and the home button serves as the fingerprint scanner. The cheaper version of the OnePlus 5 also comes in Space Slate Gray. The only way the OnePlus 5 could be more “inspired” by the iPhone is if it lacked a headphone jack, which, mercifully, it does not.

In OnePlus’ defense, those smart antenna lines were first introduced by Meizu, not Apple; the iPhone’s button placement is universal because it works, not strictly because it’s on the iPhone; and bezel size is rarely a choice for phone designers. But where you put the cameras and flash is a choice, and xeroxing the rear of the iPhone does trouble me: I don’t want to be seen carrying an iPhone-wannabe phone. I did enough of that as a kid having to wear Reebuk sneakers. The look of the OnePlus 5 is, in a word, inauthentic.

The feel of this phone, though, is quite unharmed by its lack of originality. I appreciate the softened sides and slimmer profile (7.25mm if you discount the slight camera bump), and I still find this a manageable large phone. The bezel-deprived Galaxy S8 and LG G6 have raised the bar for the ergonomics of large-screen devices, but absent the same advanced display technology as them, the OnePlus 5 still holds up pretty well. I can use it one-handed under most circumstances, and the only thing I’d really ask for is a more grippy texture on the matte rear cover.

This might seem like a small thing, but OnePlus has always had really responsive power buttons and that’s still true with the OnePlus 5. I never screw up the double tap of the power button to launch the camera on this phone. The fingerprint sensor is also exceedingly fast at 0.2 seconds, and it’s unerringly accurate. It’s attention to these little details that sets the best devices apart from the rest. I also enjoy the call quality and clarity I get from this phone, though I’m not a fan of its loudspeaker, which tends to become sharp and piercing at moderately high volumes.

OnePlus demonstrates its upgraded meticulousness in a couple of subtler ways: the fingerprint reader now has a ceramic cover, the camera lenses are protected by sapphire glass, and the notification LED and the capacitive key backlights are perfectly disguised so as to be totally invisible when not active. Mix that in with the midnight-black paint job of the pricier model and the perfect blacks of an AMOLED display, and the OnePlus 5 starts to look every bit the high-end flagship smartphone that it aspires to be. Even the USB-C port at the bottom has been filed down to a smooth finish (unlike, say, the Google Pixel, which has an annoyingly sharp edge around the port) and painted black on the inside.

Reading Mode on the OnePlus 5

Honestly, if the price was still $399 as with the OnePlus 3, I could let the derivative looks of this year’s model slide and just celebrate it for being really nice. But OnePlus is competing in a higher price bracket with the 5, which compels me to judge it by a higher standard. This is also the reason why I’m not entirely content with the same 1080p OLED screen that OnePlus has been using for a couple generations. It’s perfectly okay, but if I were to spend only a little more, I could have the ridiculous, logic- and bezel-defying Galaxy S8 display, which is a lot more than okay. The narrower S8 offers much better ergonomics and is easier to read and use under direct sunlight. The OnePlus still works fine, but its Samsung rival is consistently better.

One thing the Galaxy S8 and the majority of other Android phones don’t have is a dual-camera system like the iPhone’s. The OnePlus 5 re-creates Apple’s entire setup using higher-resolution Sony sensors: a 16-megapixel IMX398 (the same one that Sony developed especially for OnePlus’ sort-of sibling company Oppo) with a wide-angle f/1.7 lens, and, closer to the middle of the phone, a 20-megapixel IMX350 with an f/2.6 telephoto lens. And yes, the 5 also has a portrait mode that simulates bokeh around the subject of the picture, re-creating the shallow depth-of-field effect of large-sensor DSLR cameras.

On paper and in OnePlus’ marketing materials, this dual camera is the OnePlus 5’s big differentiator. In reality, it’s a major letdown. Firstly, the main camera lacks optical image stabilization (OIS) and produces soft images as a result. OnePlus will tell you that its extra-wide aperture and electronic stabilization make OIS superfluous, but the only phone I’ve yet used in which that’s true is the Google Pixel. The Pixel has raised my expectations of mobile cameras to a very high standard, and right now I only see the Galaxy S8, HTC U11, and, to a lesser degree, LG G6 coming close to it. Everyone else, the iPhone included, feels like a generation behind.

The more zoomed-in second camera of the OnePlus 5 also lacks OIS, but it doesn’t get the benefit of a wide aperture. So its results are dramatically, sometimes horrifically, worse than the main camera. The amount of graininess and color noise I get from the telephoto shooter in low light reminds me of mobile cameras from half a decade ago. Images appear flat, losing all the subtle detail and color gradations that go into making a photo feel realistic. With this added camera, you might get an extra bit of creative flexibility while shooting castles and lakes on a sunny day, but this advantage is frankly too limited to be commendable, primarily because of the poor image quality.

There was a reason why Apple, the company that has a religious commitment to shipping products as soon as they’re announced, delayed its portrait mode for the iPhone 7 Plus by a few months to finesse the depth-detection algorithms necessary to make it work well. This stuff is hard. Even today, the iPhone system is prone to misjudging fine details like hair strands and low-contrast edges, and it doesn’t work at all in low light. The OnePlus 5 portrait mode has all of these issues, but benefits from none of Apple’s work to refine and ameliorate them. The rule with the OnePlus 5 portrait mode is that it will get the outline of the person wrong — most often keeping chunks of the background in focus where it shouldn’t — and the exception is when it gets things right.

I’m aware that no phone maker has yet figured out a perfect simulated portrait, but companies like Huawei and Apple are light-years ahead of where OnePlus is today. It’s not enough to just claim the same feature set as others, the company has to deliver at least comparable quality, and that’s where OnePlus unambiguously fails. An okay camera is no longer okay, and OnePlus’ addition of a new Pro shooting mode does little to overcome its imaging weaknesses.

The one consistent strength of the OnePlus camera is its speed, and that’s true of the phone as a whole. I might not be satisfied with the imaging output of this device, but I am awed by the speed at which it fails. Photos are captured instantaneously and there’s zero processing delay.

Jumping in and out of apps on the OnePlus 5 is lightning-quick, and coming from the Galaxy S8, I almost feel like someone’s lifted an invisible speed limit. The S8 is not a slow phone, but it has some added animations and small delays that the OnePlus does not: this new phone was deliberately stripped to the barest Android essentials and designed with speed as the priority. It’s a little jarring to exit Samsung’s beautifully designed new TouchWiz interface and come into the spartan OnePlus environment — the OnePlus 5 almost feels like it’s on fast-forward — but I appreciate the smaller company’s minimalist ethos. Even app installs are noticeably faster on the OnePlus 5 than on any other Android phone, which is probably down to the upgraded UFS 2.1 storage.

I was prepared to declare the 8GB of RAM on the more expensive OnePlus 5 model an example of total overkill, but now I’m not so certain. This phone’s responsiveness is so impressive that I’m looking for an explanation beyond simple software optimizations. Other phones with the same Snapdragon 835 processor, like the Galaxy S8 and Sony Xperia XZ Premium, don’t scream speed and swiftness in the same way, and it’s not like OnePlus’ software is perfect, anyway. I encountered a few bugs, mostly around the camera app and Google Photos, which show that the OS could still do with some polishing. While I haven’t had the opportunity to test how the 6GB OnePlus 5 compares, it might just be the case that 8GB of RAM is what Android needs to feel super fast and fluid. In any event, the OnePlus 5 earns top marks for performance.

The theme of speed with the OnePlus 5 is extended by the Dash Charge charger in the box. Dash Charge is OnePlus’ proprietary fast-charging system that debuted with the OnePlus 3 last year, and it wows: I clocked the OnePlus 5 going from a 9 percent charge to 74 percent in the exact half hour it took me to have breakfast one day. The only downside of Dash Charge is that it’s not cross-compatible with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge, and you have to have both the charger and cable that OnePlus provides — so it’s not as much of a boon if you’re someone like me who prefers to carry just one USB-C charger for both laptop and phone. Still, it’s a very practical advantage and it tops up the 3,300mAh battery as fast as any charger I know. (OnePlus claims it’s the fastest on the global market.)

Efficiency savings from the new Snapdragon 835 processor and some software optimizations have led OnePlus to claim a 20 percent improvement in battery life on the 5 relative to its predecessor OnePlus 3T. I can’t say I’m finding anything close to such a major change, probably because the 3T was already quite good in this regard. A day’s use with the OnePlus 5 is not a problem for me, and the instant nature of Dash Charge alleviates any lingering power worries. This is not a long-endurance champion like the Moto Z2 Play, but it’s perfectly in line with current expectations from flagship Android phones.

That being said, I’m sure many will be disappointed not to see things like wireless charging or, more pressingly, waterproofing on this OnePlus device. I can’t tell you how long the Galaxy S8’s battery lasts because Samsung’s wireless charging cradle is so stupidly convenient that I always have the phone sitting in it while at home. And waterproofing is the sort of thing that doesn’t matter at all until that one calamitous moment when it’s the only thing that matters. Personally, I still consider those two things nice extras, not necessarily deal-breakers, but at the top tier of smartphones they are what makes the difference for a lot of people.

For OnePlus, the extras are about perfecting the exterior design and maxing out the interior spec of the 5. Besides having the latest and greatest Snapdragon chip, as much RAM as most laptops, and a ton of storage, the OnePlus 5 also brings Bluetooth 5 with AptX HD support, and compatibility with the vast majority of LTE bands around the world (though no luck for Sprint or Verizon customers in the US as CDMA remains unsupported). I’ve racked my brain to give you a good usage scenario for Bluetooth 5, but it doesn’t exist yet. It’s just a nice future-facing feature to have on your phone, and once compatible devices start surfacing on the market, the OnePlus 5 is well positioned to capitalize on them. Gigabit LTE, which is likely to matter sooner than Bluetooth 5, would have been another good inclusion here, and it’s a little disappointing not to see it topping off the generous spec sheet.

The way I feel about the OnePlus 5 is not dissimilar to the way I felt about its predecessors. If you’re not too fussed about the camera, it’s one of the better choices I can recommend out there. It’s ridiculously fast, handles every task and app I throw at it, and it’s got the ergonomics and aesthetics of a true premium device. I imagine most people are going to shrug off its resemblance to the iPhone and just enjoy the speed and responsiveness. But the one thing OnePlus has consistently failed to achieve top-tier status on was the camera — and that, more than anything, was the big opportunity for the OnePlus 5 to prove its worth.

OnePlus contends that this is the best camera it’s ever shipped on a phone. I’m willing to believe that, however I’m not willing to accept the OnePlus 5 as a competitive entry in a contest that has advanced considerably with the introduction of the Google Pixel and the upgrade of the Galaxy S8 camera. Photography is now the biggest differentiator among Android phones, especially given how many companies have figured out how to do good design, big batteries, and (mostly) bezel-less screens. For OnePlus to stand out without its disruptive pricing, it needed to deliver something truly unique with its new camera system. On the evidence of my experience with the OnePlus 5, it has failed.

The OnePlus 5 is good when it needed to be great.

7.9 Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Screaming fast
  • Cutting-edge spec sheet
  • Dash Charge makes up for lack of wireless charging
  • Reading Mode

Bad Stuff

  • Dual-camera system is a failure
  • Unoriginal design
  • Not waterproof
  • Large screen bezels are so 2016

#gadgetbingo

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