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OnePlus cash equals 5: Rebel flagship joins upmarket Android crew

All the details on the less cheap-as-chips device

By Andrew Orlowski, 27 Jul 2017

Review In a little over three years, the Chinese giant BBK Electronics has made a big impact on the market using OnePlus as a guerilla operation.

By throttling supply via an invitation scheme, and offering terrific value for money, the OnePlus brand built up an authentic word of mouth reputation: help yourself to flagship specs at a vastly lower price point. Just two years ago, the One Plus 2 went on sale for a mere £249.

(BBK, which also owns the Vivo and Oppo brands, is the sole shareholder and child and parent operate out of the same building.)

We coined the term “Shenzhen generic” to describe Chinese manufacturers selling zero-or-low margin high end phones, and it wasn’t intended as a pejorative. Shenzhen represents a manufacturing miracle and finally companies were beginning to pass on the value to customers in low prices and good design.

2017 finds OnePlus leaving this behind. It’s going upmarket. It is backed by professional marketing, available through mobile operators including O2, and you can just walk up to a web page and buy one, just like that.

For £499 you get a slimline phone with absurd specs, on paper: more powerful than many laptops (8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage). With flagship prices now well north of £600, there should be enough clear blue water between the OnePlus 5 and the rest of the pricey pack: the £700 Galaxy S8, the £650 LG G6, Huawei P10 Plus and HTC U11.

But it’s an awkward spot to be in, as we’ll discover. In place of the usual review format, I'll simply present the pros and cons. Bear in mind there are two OnePlus 5 models, both dual SIM with no expansion slot: the "Slate Grey" 6GB/64GB [RAM, storage] for £449 and the 8GB/128GB SKU for £499.

Why you should look at the One Plus 5

The big brand flagships are hiking their prices, in a bid to retain margin. But how much of that big brand cruft and clutter, and bleeding edge hardware do you really need? Do you need face recognition or will a speedy fingerprint sensor do? Do you really need that wraparound screen? How’s that Bixby button working out for you? Samsung acknowledges that the components it include far exceed the needs of the average user, by downscaling the 2960x1440 (WQHD+) display down to 2220x1080 (FHD+). The latter is good enough for anyone, and isn’t as power hungry.

With the 5, OnePlus offers a gimmick free, minimal interface that doesn’t slow you down. Right from the early Cyanogen Mod days with the OnePlus One, the UX tweaks and customisations have been thoughtful and practical.

The OnePlus 5 has real capacitive buttons, and you can long-press them to add actions. A notifications slider means you don’t have to fumble about in the quick settings to silence the phone.

It comes with a no frills launcher, but it practically begs you to get another. (It's the only manufacturer to make the default launcher setting so prominent.)

It’s also feather-light compared to the hefty, costlier rivals. Even if you strap on a OnePlus cover – such as the bamboo seen in the photos here, it’s still slimmer and lighter than say, the HTC U11. The OnePlus 5 is a world phone and you can rely on it supporting two SIMs. (There’s no way to restrict one SIM down to 2G, which is all you need to do with your home SIM when you’re travelling abroad and using a local SIM, as the preferred network band applies to both.)

The 5’s 5.5inch OLED display is good, a bright and perfectly adequate 1920x1080. It's basically the same as the one found in its predecessor, the OnePlus 3T. Unlike HTC, OnePlus retains a real headphone jack. I found the phone struggled to pick up an LTE signal in known notspots but the radio performance improved after an OTA update. During the review period, I received several OTA updates from OnePlus – a sign of attentiveness. Call quality was good.

The battery life, with the capacity up a fraction to 3300mAh, surprised me. You should get a day of moderate-to-heavy use from it. This year's story in the 'Droid world is being able to get a 50 per cent charge in half an hour: several manufacturers make this claim. OnePlus, however, excels, albeit using BKK's proprietary "DashCharge". The snag here is that you need to use a OnePlus charger and cable, much you need to use a proprietary Huawei charger and the right cable to take advantage of Huawei's charging method. The rest of the 'Droid world uses Qualcomm's rapid charging.

So the story is pretty good so far. What's the catch?

No, wait!

It seems churlish to complain. So what's the problem? Some long time fans are upset that BKK/OnePlus has moved into a pricier part of the market. But commercial organisations are not obliged to go broke just to make you happy, and a £249 flagship was not a sustainable long term proposition. Even at £499, there's still a clear £150 price difference between the OnePlus 5 and flagships from Samsung, LG and HTC.

Compared to those devices, the OnePlus' imaging falls short in some areas, particularly in low light shots. OnePlus uses two sensors for its primary imaging unit, a 20MP part and a 12MP part. In daylight the camera performs very well, but in low light it noticeably fell behind the U11 and S8, two phones I used for comparisons. This was a surprise, given the wide aperture f1/7 main sensor. The camera certainly focuses very rapidly, but now have a good look at the results.

The "gimmick" of a bokeh effect made possible by the dual sensor setup is not as well integrated as on other phones. In the camera app, you swipe left for the video, and right for the "depth effect". You can't leave it on a particular setting, and then choose what to keep in focus (or edit the focus later) as you can with Huawei's dual sensor unit.

The phone reproduced colours reasonably well, but the tree was horribly overexposed. Usually automatic HDR kicks in, so some work is needed here.

The main drawback is the removal of optical image stabilisation from the phone's predecessor, the 3T, resulting in lots of post-processing. This is evident from video capture. The viewfinder rocks all over the place while shooting a video, as you're taking it, but the results are smoother than you ever thought possible. Overall, the imaging story here is fine, but doesn't quite cut it.

(A longer shoot-out will follow this piece.)

Shortly after release, users complained about "jelly"-like scrolling anomalies, and one site discovered the 5 uses the 3T's panel, inverted, in what appears to be a deliberate design choice. I couldn't replicate the problem, but it's really a sign of more attentive and less forgiving users, now the price is knocking on £500.

OnePlus 5 and its place in the flagship Android market

All in all, the OnePlus 5 continues the brand's tradition of offering excellent value for money, albeit at a higher price point. My conclusion would be a lot more clear-cut had it not been for very recent developments.

Huawei is not taking the threat from BBK lying down. A few weeks ago its Honor 8 Pro appeared, using its flagship technology for at a price under £500. It's chunkier than the svelte OnePlus 5, but a better phone, with superior imaging. And even more surprisingly, Huawei has put much of its flagship technology into a phone priced at £399: the Honor 9. Few companies have ever dared do this to their high margin range just weeks after launching it. Without Huawei's moves, the conclusion would be much simpler: spend £150 more for a known brand and $YOURFAVOURITEFEATURE - or don't.

The result of Huawei's dramatic moves is that the OnePlus has a real struggle on its hands, both to define itself as a brand, and justify that price tag. Is it a value generic, or something special in its own right? That's for BKK/OnePlus to decide.®

OnePlus 5 Summary

OnePlus is no longer offering such stonking value in a hardware giveway, but it's a slim and capable high end phone with future-proof specs. Do look at Huawei's offering before plunking down your £500, though.
Key Specs: 5.5-inch Full HD display
Snapdragon 835 octocore
64GB of storage, 6GB of RAM or 128GB of storage and 8GB RAM; no microSD slot
Dual SIM
3200mAh battery
Dimensions: 154.2mm x 74.1mm x 7.25 mm
Weighs: 153g
Price: £449 or £499; O2 carries the device

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