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OnePlus 5 Review: David Gets into Goliath Mode

Moving into the big league?

One of the most well-known stories of the Bible is that featuring David and Goliath. David is a shepherd while Goliath is a giant of a man, a mighty warrior. And yet, David slays him, armed with nothing but a slingshot. The moral of the story: an underdog who uses his resources cleverly can defeat a much more powerful enemy, who does not do so. Now, since 2014, OnePlus has been playing the role of the smaller but more agile and clever David, taking on the Goliaths of the smartphone world (read Apple, Samsung, HTC, et al., this). The script has almost always been the same: we are smaller, so we do not have the resources of the big guys, but hey, because we are smaller, we can move faster and innovate faster and can offer you something that is very good at a remarkably lower price.

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Officially, the “small guy trying to beat the big one with speedy innovation” script remains unaltered with the OnePlus 5. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the device is also perhaps the first that sees OnePlus try to step away from its identity of David and actually be a bit more like, well, a mini-Goliath if you will, if not a full-fledged one. If that sounds harsh, consider the evidence. The massive price edge that the initial devices of the company enjoyed over the competition is slowly being eroded. The first OnePlus device was priced at USD 299 (Rs 21,999 in India) in 2014. Fast forward to today and the OnePlus 5 has been released at USD 479 for the 6 GB RAM /64 GB storage version (Rs 32,999 in India) and USD 539 for the 8 GB RAM/ 128 GB storage (Rs 37,999 in India). And this is happening even as the “established” brands are actually bringing down the prices of their flagships – you can today get the LG G6 and even the iPhone 7 from retailers for a price that is slightly more than the 8 GB/ 128 GB edition of the OnePlus 5. And we are not even talking about competition from the Chinese brigade (Honor is rumored to be readying a device, the 8 Pro, which will offer comparative specs at a lower price, even as this is being written).

All of which gives the OnePlus 5 one heck of a mountain to climb. The garb remains that of an underdog, but make no mistake; this one is more Superman than Clark Kent.

Camera Superman…with Kryptonite

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And aiding it in its ambition to be a superhero rather than a working class one, is the dual camera set up on the back. OnePlus never had any problem standing up to the best Android flagships in terms of processor, RAM, storage, and software. One area, however, where it was perceived to be good rather than great was the camera. Yes, OnePlus devices always have had good cameras but they have never really been considered to be in the same league as those from Apple, Samsung, and in recent times, Google. The dual camera setup of the OnePlus 5 is aimed at curing this Achilles Heel and putting OnePlus right up there with the big boys in every sense of the word.

And on paper, it certainly has the wherewithal to do so. The dual camera setup comprises a 16.0-megapixel camera with f/1.7 aperture and a 20.0-megapixel f/2.6 aperture. The latter is also a telephoto lens of sorts, allowing you to zoom up to 2x without loss of detail. Shades of the iPhone 7 Plus? Wait, there is also a “portrait” mode which uses the dual lens setup to blur out the background. There is a dual LED flash, but rather strangely, OnePlus has opted to leave out optical image stabilization. That said, there’s no denying that on paper, this is a formidable dual camera set up.

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The big question, of course, is, does it deliver? We will be publishing a detailed camera review in the coming days (the latest camera software update landed just a day or so ago), but in our experience with the device so far, we have to confess that it has shades of both Harvey Dent and Two-Face. There is no doubting its turn of speed – it is blisteringly fast, especially when compared to its predecessor on the OnePlus 3T – and when in its elements, it can deliver fantastic detail and very good (if a trifle oversaturated) colors. We have taken some landscape photographs which are breathtaking, with different layers of colors in the sky being captured beautifully, and even some close ups have been staggeringly good (an ice cube in a cup of iced coffee looked like something from the Antarctic rather than the refrigerator). Similarly, Portrait mode at its best is a great option for those shots when you want the background blurred out and an object in sharp focus. The front-facing selfie camera is pretty similar to the one in the OnePlus 3T – 16.0-megapixels and capable of taking good selfies, but is not really going to give the Oppo/Vivo brigade sleepless nights.

Note the presence of the “at its best” and “when in its elements” phrases, though. For, while there is no doubting the ability of the camera of the OnePlus 5, it does not always deliver on it. There were times when we felt detail drop off, especially as the evening descended, and even sometimes in Portrait mode. There were also inconsistencies in color reproduction, with the same object looking slightly different in terms of shades in pictures taken barely a few seconds apart. The Portrait mode itself was often guilty of over aggressively blurring the background or sometimes just not doing enough. The absence of OIS was especially noticeable when we tried to capture moving objects in the evening, with blurs sneaking in. That said, for the most part, the cameras seemed to handle glare well enough.

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All in all the experience was akin to seeing a very talented athlete who does not always turn in their best performance. Perhaps a few software updates will help matters – we certainly hope that OnePlus works on the camera because when it does perform to potential, it can be brilliant. But as of now, it is a bit like Superman but with Kryptonite in the vicinity – you never know when it will turn painfully mortal!

Eye candy, with a familiar flavor

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Apart from the cameras, perhaps the most striking feature of the OnePlus 5 has been its design. It has been hailed as one of the thinnest flagships, and at 7.3 mm, it certainly is slim, although not at the insane levels of some others. OnePlus has also made the phone a whole lot more curve-y than its predecessors – the metal back curves in from the sides to plateau out in the middle. No, it does not come with the zero bezel look that some flagships are sporting but is compact enough to fit most normal hands, even though it does feel rather slippery – it is marginally longer than the OnePlus 3T, but is less wide and is slightly slimmer.

The fingerprint scanner remains in front below the 5.5-inch display, flanked by touch buttons, which for some reason light up only when you touch them. They can be customized and well, if you find scrabbling around in the dark, you can also opt for on-screen navigation buttons. The volume rocker is on the left with the Alert Slider that is pretty much a OnePlus trademark now (allowing you to switch modes from Silent to Ring to Do Not Disturb), and on the right is the dual SIM card slot and the power/display button. The top is totally bare and on the base are the speaker grille, USB Type-C port and hooray, a 3.5 mm audio jack. The back, of course, is all about the cameras, which jut out slightly from an otherwise smooth surface. All said and done, the phone looks premium and in style terms, is perhaps the best-looking device we have seen from OnePlus. That said, we can see some people preferring the OnePlus 3T, which just had a more substantial and reassuring feel to it – the OnePlus 5 has a slippery and slightly fragile element about it. Mind you; it can take some punishment – the back is metal, and the front is Gorilla Glass 5. Water resistance would have been a nice touch, though – it is not a deal breaker for us (not yet), but is rapidly becoming an almost hygiene feature for high-end devices.

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A lot has already been written about the design of the OnePlus 5 right from the very time the first leaks about the product came out. There have been accusations that the phone bears more than a passing resemblance to the iPhone 7 Plus and the Oppo R11. And well, there is more than a grain of truth to this. From the back, the top of the OnePlus 5 does look a lot like Cupertino’s big phone baby, and overall, it does seem cut from the same cloth that made the R11. That said, in these days of relatively uniform design (something about which we have complained in the past), a totally stand-out phone in terms of sheer appearance is very rare. Almost every phone bears some semblance to another from some angle or the other – even the mind-bogglingly beautiful Galaxy S8 owed a fair bit in terms of design language to the Galaxy S7 Edge. We are not going to get into the whole “copycat” debate here and will confine ourselves to saying that the OnePlus 5 is a very good looking device, although it does look rather familiar. A word of caution, though: do not let the OnePlus 5 mix too much with objects like keys in your pockets or bags. There have been cases of the paint chipping off a little.

Performance – the REAL Plus!

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Get rid of the debate over camera and design (alas, the two aspects that have garnered the most attention, thanks partly to the company’s own efforts), and you come to the strongest suit of the OnePlus 5 – sheer performance. Oxygen OS is very close to stock Android, which means you get a device with minimum clutter and a lot of Google goodness (including the Assistant). There are a few neat touches like a translucent slide up app drawer (from anywhere on the home screen), the option to take scrolling screenshots and also a do not disturb mode for gaming where you can lock capacitive buttons and block notifications for those intense gaming sessions. And then, of course, there is the well-publicised reading mode which tries to take the strain off your eyes by going grayscale.

At times, it does get a little too plain for comfort (especially in the camera UI, which is a poor shadow of what the competition has), but whatever it lacks, it is not speed and simplicity. And it runs on some very powerful specs!

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The phone, like its predecessors, comes with terrific hardware, and while we do wish the company had taken the leap and gone with a quad HD display, the full HD Optic AMOLED one delivers very good results indeed, and even comes with a reading mode that does not stress the eyes as much (it is a feature we have seen in other devices too, but hey, we are not complaining as we read a lot on our phones). No, it is not in the league of the displays we have seen on the Galaxy S8 and the LG G6 but it is not too far off – watching videos and reading on it is a delight.

Then there is the little matter of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (arguably the most powerful chip out there in the mobile land) allied with 6 GB and 8 GB of RAM, depending on the model you opt for. Either way, you get a very fast device. OnePlus claims to have fixed some of the touch latency issues which bugged earlier phones and based on our experience so far, it certainly seems to have succeeded – performance was buttery smooth, whether we were running multiple apps, playing high-end games, browsing the Web, or browsing a dozen websites at the same time. Yes, the benchmark scores are impressive too, but forget the controversy over them (yes, there’s one!), the OnePlus 5 is as good as any Android flagship out there in most routine and high-end phone functions. And while some will quibble about the absence of expandable memory, we think 64 GB and 128 GB more than suffice for most users. The fingerprint scanner works smoothly, and call quality on the device was very good as was audio on headphones. And yes, all connectivity options have been ticked – 4G, Bluetooth (5.0), Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC.

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There are a few quibbles though. Although the loudspeaker has improved, we do wish the brand had considered going in with dual stereo speakers. And while Dash Charge still charges the phone in a jiffy (the entire phone recharges in around 80-90 minutes) and gives you close to 60 percent charge in half an hour, we found the 3300 mAh battery tending to last about a day at best and even lesser if we really pushed the camera or got into high-end gaming (and we often did – that camera, those specs, come on!). A day of battery usage is pretty good by most flagship standards, but we are just getting a little spoilt by the performance of the LG G6 in this regard (and it had a quad HD display too). It is not a deal breaker, but it could have been better, truth be told, especially in an era when big batteries are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Similarly, perhaps having an infra-red port would have been a good idea.

How much Plus, actually?

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All of which leads us actually to the big question: just how good is the OnePlus 5? Well, we will paraphrase Neil Armstrong and say that it a giant leap for the company and a relatively small one for phonekind. With the OnePlus 5, OnePlus essentially is slowly shedding the fur of the underdog and is looking to mix it with the best. Yes, it is still far more affordable than many other flagships, but the price difference is becoming smaller, so small that you can actually see the sails of the competition in the distance. And while the design and the camera will inspire debate for some time, there is no doubting that in terms of sheer hardware and performance, the OnePlus 5 is a terrific phone, and even at its higher price, is excellent value for smartphone money. The challenge for it, however, is that it is no longer quite in a zone of its own, as its predecessors were. For the first time in OnePlusland for a while, there are formidable alternatives. But that is another story for another time (yes, it is. Stay tuned). No matter how often the brand uses the “we are a small company” line, the fact is that with the OnePlus 5, it is now mixing it up with the heavyweights. The very fact that OnePlus has got into that zone, however, tells you how competitive the OnePlus 5 is.

David has laid down his slingshot and picked up a sword.
Only time will tell how well he wields it.
David did become the king of Israel, remember.
And his son became perhaps one of the greatest rulers of his era. His name was Solomon.

Hmm…going by that, we are already looking ahead to the OnePlus 6.

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OnePlus 5

Rs 32999
OnePlus 5
8.4

Build & Design

9/10

Performance

9/10

Camera

8/10

Software

9/10

Price

8/10

Pros

  • Great Hardware
  • Smooth Performance
  • Clean Interface

Cons

  • Inconsistent Camera
  • Seen the design before
  • Battery life (in spite of Dash Charge)