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July 11, 2017

OnePlus 5 review: A second opinion

by John_A

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OnePlus’s latest is the fastest phone out there right now. And despite some reservations around its highly finicky camera setup, it’s hard not to recommend for the price.

Contrary to its marketing mantra, picking up a OnePlus phone has always involved “settling” in some way or other. When the very highest of the high-end sell for almost twice the price of the company’s latest, something’s got to give.

What’s more important is the question of whether the OnePlus makes the right compromises: Whether corners are cut and savings are made in a way that makes sense, or whether vanity specs are pushed at the expense of the day-to-day user experience.

The OnePlus 5 is a mix of both good and bad compromises. It’s not a home run, and there’s still room for improvement on the software side, particularly when it comes to the (somewhat controversial) camera setup. Overall, though, this is still a fantastic phone, and one I’m going to be sticking with for a while.

Read on to find out why.

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I don’t completely buy into the idea that the OnePlus 5 is a straight iPhone 7 Plus rip-off. Sure, it’s similar. And OnePlus does itself no favors when it publishes side-by-side images like this on its own Instagram account, but the reality of using and holding a OnePlus 5 is nothing like the feel of an iPhone.

If anything, the OnePlus 5 is better described as a slightly nicer OnePlus 3T. That’s not the most flowery description you’ll hear of a phone. But let’s face it, this isn’t the most interesting-looking phone out there. Countless other Chinese handsets — including the R11 from OnePlus’s sister company Oppo — have been pushing this “almost an iPhone but not quite” look over the past year.

What the OnePlus 5 lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in ergonomics and svelte proportions.

What the OnePlus 5 lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in ergonomics and svelte proportions. The overall footprint is slightly smaller than the 3T, and the chassis more curvy. Despite the presence of actual bezels sandwiching in the 5.5-inch display, it’s still pretty compact for a 5.5-incher.

That panel itself hasn’t changed from last year — same 1080p Optic AMOLED, and it still works pretty well in most conditions, though auto-brightness tends towards darker levels than I’d like indoors. Daylight visibility is fine, but not exceptional, and you have to imagine if a mid-cycle refresh is coming later in the year (OnePlus isn’t saying, for what it’s worth), the screen would be one obvious area to upgrade.

For now, though, it’s fine. It’s no GS8, but I’m not about to gouge my eyes out anytime soon.

The one major area of controversy around the display — the so-called jelly scrolling is something that hasn’t bothered me at all during my time with the phone. I don’t notice the effect unless I really, really go looking for it. And even when I do, it’s so subtle as to not be bothersome at all. For some people it’ll be a deal-breaker; I’m one of the few who can notice it occasionally, but have a hard time caring about it.

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The same mixed praise applies to the loudspeaker — plenty loud, but also tinny as a can of digestives, and certainly no HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi. For what it’s worth, the Snapdragon 835’s integrated DAC ensures the OnePlus 5’s output sounds great when paired with a decent set of studio headphones, providing more than sufficient oomph. Bluetooth audio support was also flawless, and for what it’s worth the 5 also supports Bluetooth 5 for additional future-proofing.

8GB of RAM won’t help you out — but 128GB of storage might.

On the subject of future-proofing, how about those eight gigabytes of RAM? This is what I’ll call a pure vanity spec. In 2017, there’s no practical utility for this much memory — especially when there’s also a 6GB version which runs just as fast. OnePlus is doing it to show off, and that’s fine. But if you opt for the higher-specced, higher-priced OnePlus 5, do so because of the extra storage — 128GB in total — and not because you expect a DVD and a half’s worth of RAM to get you anywhere.

Qualcomm’s very latest Snapdragon 835 is running the show here, powering an incredibly fast software experience in OxygenOS 4.5. The OnePlus 5’s absolutely screaming performance is a team effort of hardware and software, of course, but it strikes me that it’s software tuning more than anything that makes this the fastest smartphone I’ve ever used. (And I’ve used every major smartphone for the past six years.) Everything from the flawless scrolling speed (jelly jokes aside), superior app load times and top-class gaming performance is industry-leading.

And OnePlus’s software continues to play host to dozens of useful little tweaks and customizations atop a clean, near-stock Android 7.1.1 interface. You’ll have to go digging in the settings to find them all, but there’s a mess of different gestures you can enable to launch the camera, take a screenshot or control your music. The alert slider makes a welcome return too, giving you an easy way to silence distractions while you sleep, or take in a movie.

OxygenOS 4.5 is the fastest smartphone software I’ve ever used.

I also want to single out OnePlus’s ambient display and tap-to-wake features for praise. These features combine the best parts of Android 7.0 and 8.0’s ambient notification features to provide glanceable info when you want it, but without the accidental triggers I’ve come to hate on the Google Pixel.

Speaking of Google’s phones, OnePlus’s launcher has inherited some Pixel traits, keeping around the (marginally useful) widget deck, but implementing a swipe-up app drawer, in addition to the hefty loadout of customization features that debuted on the OnePlus 3 and 3T.

Bottom line: If you value raw speed and appreciate the look and feel of stock Android, you’ll absolutely love OxygenOS on the OnePlus 5.

The OnePlus 5’s dual camera setup is also lightning-quick — fast to launch, with instant captures and zero shutter lag to boot. But image quality is kind of a mixed bag right now, and my working theory is that there’s still some work to be done on the software side.

The 5’s camera is identical to those of the Oppo R11, combining a 16-megapixel f/1.7 standard camera with a 20-megapixel telephoto camera with f/2.6 aperture. Neither has OIS, which in my view is the most problematic thing about this camera setup.

Even after a handful of software updates, the OnePlus 5’s camera feels a little half-baked.

For the most part, I’ve been pleased with the photos the OnePlus 5 has been able to capture. In particular, the telephoto lens is a fun way to re-frame outdoor shots without relying on digital zoom. (Though the portrait mode, I’ve discovered, is rather useless at detecting depth, with the fake bokeh effect often overlapping with the subject.) In darker conditions, the phone automatically switches to a digitally zoomed crop from the main sensor, with its brighter lens.

Low-light performance is decent, with ample color detail being retained and photos appearing less noisy than contemporaries like the Honor 9. But the OnePlus 5’s aggressive noise reduction can cause fine detail in night shots to be totally obliterated.

That’s par for the course in a smartphone camera at this price point.

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However the most problematic thing about the OnePlus 5’s camera performance is how much subtle hand motion will affect daylight shots. Even in photos taken on bright sunny days, there’ll be noticeable loss of detail and even occasional ghosting in handheld photos, regardless of whether you’re using Auto HDR mode, or HQ mode, which is designed to improve fine detail capture.

This is exactly the reason why most high-end phone cameras now include optical stabilization, and it’s a real shame that this feature didn’t make the cut on the OnePlus 5. The more sensible decision, I feel, would have been to just put that camera budget into one really good shooter. Instead, we have two cameras that, right now, feel a bit half-assed.

Of course software should also be able to mitigate this issue, by taking faster exposures at higher ISO levels — which is one of the reasons why I think some extra software tuning needs to be done here. For what it’s worth, AC India Editor Harish Jonnalagadda tells me the OnePlus 5’s sister phone, the Oppo R11, often takes better photos than the 5. That’s significant considering the weaker internal hardware of the R11, and suggests OnePlus may be able to make up some ground with future software updates.

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Rounding out the spec sheet is a 3,300mAh battery, which has served me well over the past couple of weeks, routinely getting me through a full day’s use with between four and five hours of screen-on time throughout heavier days of around 14 hours.

I’ve quickly fallen back in love with Dash Charge.

The OnePlus 5 isn’t really a multi-day phone, but with Dash Charge at its disposal it doesn’t need to be. The fast, fast, fast fast-charging tech makes a return, unchanged from the OnePlus 3 and 3T, refilling to around the halfway mark in around half an hour. (That’s markedly faster than just about everything right now, with the exception of Huawei’s SuperCharge.)

One minor side note on battery performance: On a couple of occasions I noticed the Android OS process would wakelock the phone overnight, leading to quicker battery drain than expected. I haven’t been able to track down the cause of the problem, but a reboot seemed to set things right.

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Overall, then, I’m generally pleased with the OnePlus 5, though I’d question the focus on vanity specs like 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage over features increasingly seen as table stakes in the high-end world, like water resistance and a bright 2K display. (Hell, I’d trade that extra 2GB of RAM for OIS in the camera any day.)

You can’t do everything when you’re selling a phone for less than $500, though. And I feel that despite these price constraints, OnePlus has done a fantastic job, creating a phone that’s worthy of praise, your money and — for the foreseeable future — my SIM card.

OnePlus 5

  • Complete OnePlus 5 review
  • OnePlus 5 specs
  • Which OnePlus 5 model should you buy?
  • Camera comparison: OnePlus 5 vs. Galaxy S8
  • The latest OnePlus 5 news
  • Join the discussion in the forums

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