OnePlus 5 review: Keep doing what you do best
OnePlus once again manages to straddle the line between quality and price, carving out a unique niche and executing perfectly.
Since the launch of the original OnePlus One, the company has been aggressively refining its strategy. With each subsequent release the goals got a bit less ambitious, the marketing became less ostentatious, and the phones consistently improved. At the same time, the idea of getting more phone for less money, without all of the extra cruft of a big company behind it, remained constant. The mid-2016 launch of the OnePlus 3 — and subsequent bump to the OnePlus 3T — best exemplified the company's maturity.
Despite rumors indicating that OnePlus would shift its strategy and go all-out with a more expensive, top-end phone in 2017, it has stuck with what has worked. The OnePlus 5 is a high-end phone that doesn't have a typical flagship price, but gives you the core experience you expect out of one and all of the specs to back it up. It is once again a perfect example of OnePlus executing on the model that it built its name on, refreshed and improved upon for 2017.
About this review
I (Andrew Martonik) am writing this review after 12 days using a Midnight Black OnePlus 5 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, operating on the AT&T network in the greater Seattle, WA area. The phone was updated once at the beginning of the review period to version 23_170603 on the May 1, 2017 security patch. The phone was provided to Android Central for review by OnePlus.
OnePlus 5 Video review
Our written review gets into all of the gritty details of the OnePlus 5, but if you want the concise version be sure to watch our full video review above. After you're done, read on and get all of the information you need in the complete review!
OnePlus 5 Hardware
With the exception of the OnePlus X (RIP), none of the OnePlus phones have offered particularly striking or substantial hardware designs. Part of the value proposition of OnePlus phones, particularly in the 3 and 3T, was that you're giving up a bit on the design side in order to get a great spec sheet and fantastic overall experience — not unlike a Nexus or Pixel, you might say.
The story is the same again on the OnePlus 5, though I have to give it a bit more credit in design than its direct predecessor. Yes the OnePlus 5 looks very similar to the Oppo R11, but that's basically irrelevant here — solid design is solid design, even if we've seen it before from an affiliated company.
I think the best word to describe the design progression of the OnePlus 5 is "sleek." Even though it's roughly the same dimensions as the OnePlus 3, it's smoother, more rounded and more friendly than that phone. The sharper edges, big bevels and squared-off look of the OnePlus 3 felt a bit more generic and not as welcoming, whereas the OnePlus 5's rounded features are subdued and classy — particularly in the Midnight Black finish, which is exclusive to the 8GB RAM / 128GB storage model. It all makes the phone a bit slippery to hold, though, with even less texture to the metal than the OnePlus 3 — this is a phone that will benefit from a thin OnePlus case if you're at all inclined to fumble your phone in your hand.
Subtle design changes aside, this is the same basic hardware formula as before. We're looking at an anodized, barely-textured aluminum frame with 2.5D curved glass on the front flowing into the edges. It's a "standard" phone layout in that it's still a 5.5-inch 16:9 display with typical bezels and a fingerprint sensor underneath. All of the buttons are in the same spots — including the fantastic Alert Slider high on the left side — and all of the ports line up (literally, in an actual straight line) at the bottom.
OnePlus continues to ship phones with a distinct lack of extra flair — the entire back of the phone is blank and featureless save for a small shiny OnePlus logo and three cutouts for the cameras, microphone and flash. The antennas have been beautifully sculpted into the back of the phone and curved along the top and bottom to be less noticeable.
It isn't striking, and won't win any design awards, but the OnePlus 5 is a handsome phone that's built extremely well. The seams, finishes and execution of the design are on the same level as any other $650+ phone out there today, which is important if you're trying to convince people to buy this phone as a competitor to those in the next price bracket up.
A great little example of that improved quality is the vibration motor, which no longer rattles or gives a shallow feel but instead gives a full-phone force feedback as you'd expect from a top phone today. The one higher-end feature that's missing that you can't see is waterproofing; again despite rumors, OnePlus held off on an IP rating this year.
Display and speaker
For me, the one area I'm disappointed to see remain constant on the OnePlus 5 is its display. This is the same 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED panel as the OnePlus 3T, with improvements coming by way of new tuning (including a DCI-P3 calibration option) and Gorilla Glass 5 on top of it. The display remains solid, but unspectacular — colors are accurate, images are crisp enough and viewing angles are good. It gets bright, but not amazingly so like other leading displays out there — thankfully because it's AMOLED it has limited reflectivity in direct sunlight.
I'm obviously not disappointed in the display itself, but at $479 (and up to $539) the OnePlus 5 is right on the line of where we would expect a QHD display — or, at the very least, a noticeable improvement in brightness or contrast while staying at 1080p. With so much staying the same or being predictable upgrades from the OnePlus 3, it's a reasonable expectation to see an upgrade in display quality here. We didn't get it.
The single down-firing speaker on the phone is super strong, and hits an acceptable volume for anything I'd need it for when it reaches about two-thirds volume. Things get a bit distorted at those high levels considering it's a single speaker, but as far as a single driver goes it passes the test of being more than competent. But don't go using the speaker all that often, okay? There's a headphone jack, too.
OnePlus 5 Software and experience
OnePlus sees no value in adding tons of extra or duplicative features to Android, and I love its approach. The core experience of using OxygenOS on a OnePlus phone is just Android — 7.1.1 Nougat, in this case. Everything works here like it does on a Google Pixel: the home screen, notifications, settings, and core features remain unchanged. The launcher itself has even taken a step closer to the Pixel's, with a semi-transparent dock that slides up to reveal an app drawer. The "Shelf" area to the left of the main home screen remains, though, as a place where you can basically see a scrolling list of widgets and information — I would prefer the Google Now feed here, but I can also just install the Google Now Launcher (at least for now).
So instead of changing the basic interface paradigm of Android, OnePlus continues to add value by giving you customization options and just a handful of neat features. Offering simple things like themes, a customizable status bar, new gestures and a couple tweaks throughout the interface all enhance the experience without taking away from Google's vision of Android in any way. Most importantly, you can ignore them entirely and just use the phone as it comes out of the box, too.
The experience you get here isn't far removed from a OnePlus 3 or 3T running Nougat, but there are a handful of new features that are worth highlighting:
- Gaming Do Not Disturb Mode: Block notifications and lock the navigation buttons while playing certain games (or any other app) to keep you in the zone.
- Customizable screen-off gestures: The typical OxygenOS gestures you can perform on your phone before the screen turns on — drawing an O, V, S, M or W — can now be customized to perform various actions or just open an app.
- Reading Mode: Automatically changes the screen temperature and calibration for reading, adjusted to the current environment. Can be toggled on and off, or on a per-app basis automatically.
- Auto Night Mode: The same Night Mode you know that reduces the blue light you see on the screen, now automatically toggled from sunset to sunrise based on your current location.
- Customizable vibration feedback: Choose your vibration pattern and intensity for calls, notifications and interface interaction.
Aside from what Google ships on its own Pixel and Nexus devices, the OxygenOS has to be my favorite "customization" of Android. Subtle tweaks like this continue to be useful, thoughtful and genuinely enjoyable — and unlike many other phones they don't come with a whole heap of other crap on the phone that I don't want.
As we've come to expect from OnePlus, performance on the OnePlus 5 is fantastic. Leading up to the phone's launch OnePlus talked a lot about speed, fluidity and consistency ... but I never had any issue on these points with the OnePlus 3T to begin with. The one place where there's a truly noticeable improvement is in touch response, which was a point of emphasis for OnePlus. However it ended up being accomplished, that super-tough-to-explain "feel" of high-quality touch response is definitely here. It's noticeable in scrolling and typing in particular, and I'm glad OnePlus stepped up its game here.
The OnePlus 5 is fantastically fast and smooth in everything I use a smartphone for, right on par with my experience using a Google Pixel XL for several months now. And based on how smooth my OnePlus 3 and 3T have been over time, I don't expect this experience to slow down in the future.
Of course I'm using the model with 8GB of RAM, but this really doesn't factor into the performance at this point. The highest average memory usage I ever reached, according to the phone's settings, is 4.7GB — comfortably underneath the 5.5GB ceiling (500MB is reserved for the system) of even the standard 6GB RAM model. You may decide that you "need" the 8GB of RAM model to future proof your phone purchase, or you may just get it for free because you need 128GB of storage, but I have to say 8GB of RAM really feels unnecessary on a phone today.
You could easily say that a Snapdragon 835 is overkill for a phone that's still running just a 1080p display, but we have to also remember the benefits of its power efficiency. OnePlus is counting on that efficiency to make up for the 100mAh reduction in battery size from the OnePlus 3T — and in the end 3300mAh is still a very industry-standard battery for a phone of this size, besting the Galaxy S8 and HTC U11 (which have the same processor) but matching the LG G6 and coming up just short of the Google Pixel XL (which have older processors).
Battery life has been strong, but not phenomenal, on the OnePlus 5. It's a little step up from the likes of the Galaxy S8 and HTC U11, getting me to bed with 20-25% battery left in the tank on most days. But I still had a couple of days during my review period where I was able to get down to 15%, enabling Battery Saver, just after dinnertime. Understanding that I'm using a phone with pre-release software I know there's probably some room for improvement, but interestingly it feels like battery life is perhaps a slight step down from the OnePlus 3T. Although it is a clear step up from the longevity provided by the OnePlus 3's 3000mAh battery and Snapdragon 820.
That means the OnePlus 5 is still easily a full-day phone for all but the heaviest of users, but it isn't going to give you any indication it's ready last any longer than that.
OnePlus is using the exact same 5V/4A proprietary Dash Charge quick charging standard on the OnePlus 5, and that's just fine because it's still super fast. It's backwards compatible to previous Dash Charge chargers you may have, but still has the lingering issue (if you could call it that) of having no compatibility with the more widely used Quick Charge 2.0/3.0/4.0 standard you'll find just about everywhere.
OnePlus 5 Cameras
Considering the relatively pedestrian hardware and familiar software, it's understandable that OnePlus is putting marketing weight behind the camera setup on the OnePlus 5. As expected, OnePlus has made the move to dual cameras — and rather than going with a second monochrome sensor like Huawei has done recently or a wide-angle camera like LG, its second camera has a longer lens and higher resolution.
The primary camera is a new 16MP sensor behind a faster f/1.7 lens with improved auto focus speed when compared to the OnePlus 3, but has the same 1.12-micron pixel size and has lost OIS in the process. In exchange, you've gained a whole second camera sitting next to it: a 20MP sensor with 1-micron pixels and an f/2.6 aperture; its focal length is roughly 1.7-times the main camera. OnePlus is calling the longer lens "telephoto" but I'd argue that its ~40 mm focal length isn't quite long enough for that designation. (The iPhone 7 Plus, for example, has a focal length of 56 mm.)
The camera samples you see below are a mix of the main camera, secondary camera and Portrait Mode shots that use both cameras together. I'm not breaking them out because switching between the three experiences is very fluid. Just like my time using the LG G6's dual cameras, I found myself constantly switching between the main and long lenses for different scenes or just to try and get a fresh look.
The main camera is a solid step up from the OnePlus 3 and 3T overall, managing to provide clear, sharp and colorful images even with small pixels and no OIS. In low light it relies on higher ISOs, though, leading to some grain and occasional blur when the shutter speed also has to be slowed down — it's in these situations that you miss having that physical stabilization. OnePlus still makes the right decision overall to leave some grain in the photos rather than aggressively over-sharpen images artificially, which never looks good.
The secondary camera is fun to use in good lighting, but that's it. With an f/2.6 aperture and 1-micron pixels it's not worth using in even mixed lighting conditions or most indoor shots — there's just too much noise and blur far too often. When the light is good, it has a similar color profile to the main camera, and the longer focal length and narrower aperture give its photos a distinct look.
Portrait Mode, which is the OnePlus take on what Huawei, Apple and others have been doing, effectively uses both cameras in unison to get depth information from a scene, calculate a plane at the focal distance you choose and then aggressively artificially blur the "background" behind that plane. The effect is naturally most dramatic in scenes with big, open backgrounds that would normally be in focus in a regular smartphone camera shot, but it can also work to great effect in macro shots with a very specific foreground item that the camera can easily identify.
On the downside, there are many situations in which you can see the software's limitations. A lot of my Portrait Mode shots came out soft overall, as if the camera wasn't able to figure out where edges of certain features were or couldn't decide what was near and far. The calculation involved with creating this artificial background blur is difficult, and OnePlus will no doubt improve it over time — even as-is it's good fun to switch to Portrait Mode and try a shot. I just tend to follow that up with a regular shot from one of the two cameras alone when possible.
Measuring the OnePlus 5 on its main camera alone, it's a capable shooter that improves from last year but also doesn't perfectly match up to the top-end flagships out there today that can offer better, more consistent performance in a variety of shooting conditions. The secondary camera gives a small bump to the OnePlus 5's overall camera experience, enabling new shooting options and a fun-to-play-with Portrait Mode, but it really doesn't seem like adding this second camera was worth losing OIS (and perhaps larger pixels) and the potential for better photos out of the main camera.
OnePlus 5 Bottom line
There are several solid improvements in the OnePlus 5 worth mentioning, but the most standout aspect of the phone is its value. Just like the models preceding it, the OnePlus 5 gives you a near-flagship experience for $150-250 less than the competition. It does so by walking the line between putting money into the aspects that matter, while keeping costs low in other areas without making the phone feel cheap or substantially lacking.
You're getting a jam-packed and future-proof spec sheet, an above-average display, solid speaker, good battery life, fast charging and a well-built aluminum body. The software is slick, fast and consistent in ways that few phones can match, and doesn't include piles of features that get in your way. That combination is only going to set you back $479 — that's precisely what OnePlus is known for.
So what, then, are you missing out on by not going with the pricier competition? You're not getting groundbreaking hardware design, nor a top-notch display or waterproofing. The camera experience is good, but a step below the top-end cameras today. Those are just a few trade-offs, and ones that most people would happily take to save $200 on their phone purchase. And that's before you factor in the ways in which the OnePlus 5 actually beats the flagships from Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola and others.
Once again, OnePlus has delivered a phone that manages to offer a high-end experience, while also feeling like a great value for the money. The OnePlus 5 may have only brought predictable upgrades from its predecessor, but that's more than enough to make this a great phone and a great buy for so many people.
BY ANDREW MARTONIK