OnePlus 5 Review: The Well Balanced World Flagship

After much testing of the new OnePlus 5, this flagship is all about balance. Every manufacturer has to juggle specifications, hardware design constraints and component prices in order to bring the product home at just the right price yet without compromising performance. And OnePlus has proved itself something of a master at this in the past, with the ‘5’ fitting right into the same pattern. The headline omissions from the aforementioned juggling are the use of ‘only’ a 1080p screen, the lack of official waterproofing, and the single loudspeaker, plus there’s a dubiously specified dual camera. But more on these below in my full OnePlus 5 review…

But first, there are two ways to look at the OnePlus 5.

Positioning

With the front mounted fingerprint sensor and home control, with the dual camera optical zoom set-up on the back, and with overall design, it’s hard not to think of this as a ‘much cheaper iPhone 7 Plus, running Android, and on the fastest chipset on the planet’. Which is intriguing for many who have wanted exactly this – OnePlus is clearly aiming the ‘5’ at the same users, though this is ultimately less polished… or at least less mature. Mind you, the OnePlus ‘5’ does manage to pull off the Imitation Game in a significantly smaller form factor – 4mm shorter, 4mm narrower and a full 35g lighter, all with the same size display, so the comparison between that 7+ and the ‘5’ can switch both ways, depending on what you’re looking at. In terms of price, it’s £819 for the 128GB iPhone 7 Plus and £499 for the same capacity OnePlus 5, a whopping £320 difference, making the latter’s capabilities even more relevant and intriguing.

OnePlus 5 Review

The second way to look at the ‘5’ is as the spearhead of the world of Chinese flagships. These are always interesting and tempting – think the Oppo and Xiaomi phones, for example, with ultra-high specs and yet often with patchy software support, quirky Chinese-centric skins and tons of non-Google applications and general bloatware. My beloved Axon 7 was only made usable through first the use of custom firmware and then lately Lineage OS, of which more in a future feature.

I know there’s Huawei and the Honor handsets, often excellent in terms of specs and performance, and with good European support, but OnePlus trumps all of these with genuine worldwide support now and with a build of Android that’s close to stock, free of any bloat, and implemented on the fastest phone chip in the world.

OnePlus 5 front view

So this is a phone that arguably rivals the iPhone 7 Plus yet costs over £300 less. And also out performs everything in the Android world, and doesn’t have to be hacked around to make sense in the West. What’s not to love?

Hardware

The OnePlus 5 is impressive. We’re talking a Snapdragon 835 chipset, desktop-class, with 8GB, repeat 8GB of RAM, plus 128GB of onboard storage. There’s a 6GB/64GB variant too, though for an extra £50 I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t go for the larger capacity, given that there’s no microSD expansion.

I’ve hit issues with microSD cards recently and more and more manufacturers are now doubling down on optimised internal flash memory, with less to go wrong and no possibility of file system oddities caused by card swapping. OnePlus also uses the new UFS 2.1 file system rather than the old memory-card-emulating eMMC system, meaning far faster disk operation and simultaneous reading and writing. Good stuff.

The display’s almost the same 5.5” 1080p AMOLED affair as on the OnePlus 3 series, which is a little disappointing, ditto the chunkier-than-is-trendy bezels. On the other hand there’s really nothing wrong with this hardware – just don’t expect to use VR applications in a headset at this resolution. You do get Gorilla Glass 5, rather than 4 though, giving greater shatter protection when dropped.

OnePlus 5 button view

There’s nothing special about the casing here – it’s an archetypal 2017 smartphone form, with smooth and slippery aluminium and antenna lines top and bottom. The display uses 2.5D glass, i.e. with subtle curves at the edges, which is lovely, with the trademark OnePlus alert slider on the left – Silent/Priority/All, always a super quick way to manage things if you don’t want to be interrupted.

OnePlus 5 slider view

Volume buttons are also on the left, with power on the right, as you’d expect. Down the bottom, OnePlus trolled Apple in its launch keynote about the 3.5mm jack, which is here by popular demand – people do want to listen while they charge and not everyone wants to rely on Bluetooth headphones. Including me.

OnePlus 5 bottom view

The USB Type C data and charging port is interesting in that it can accept up to 4A at 5V, so a whopping 20W, though only via the proprietary Dash Charge charger, which effectively splits the 4A into two lots of 2A, directed through the Type C port to two charging channels to the battery internally. Charge this via a traditional Type C charger and it’s 2A, though this is still pretty decent.

The single speaker is almost loud enough and of good enough quality to make me forget about the ‘5’ not having twin units either end of the phone. I don’t think I’ve heard anything with a single speaker that’s louder and you can feel the sound being pumped out if you rest a finger over the speaker aperture while music is being played.

The final note about the external hardware is that there’s no official waterproofing. Now, previous OnePlus phones have been declared as splash proof, and I’d expect the ‘5’ to be OK if caught in the rain, for example. But you can’t let liquid linger on the frame or around the ports, plus this is still an expensive phone to replace.

Imaging

OnePlus 5 camera view

And so to the biggest bullet point in OnePlus’s marketing for the ‘5’ – the high megapixel dual camera, 36MP in all, split across two lenses, f/1.7 and f/2.6 telephoto, both backed by that Snapdragon 835 and its high performance ISP, enabling multi-frame shots (in theory) and all sorts of post-processing and noise reduction. OnePlus refers to all this as SmartCapture, but it’s similar (again, in theory) to Google’s excellent HDR+ software.

And I should interject at this point not to believe the early reviews too much here – I’m convinced that the pre-launch reviewers under NDA were too harsh on two counts – one of which was out of their control. The latter is that, a week or so after launch, OnePlus has now pushed out updates which improve things significantly and I’m reviewing the updated version here.

Secondly, I think everyone’s missed the point about the telephoto lens and its tight f/2.6 aperture. Complaints have been that it’s rubbish in low light – well, of course it is. You can’t have optical zoom and good low light performance in a phone camera. Even on the likes of the best Lumias or Samsung Galaxy K Zoom. It’s just physics. You can have good zoom or good low light shots – you can’t have both without a much bigger camera.

Having said that, OnePlus was a bit disingenuous about the second camera at the launch, implying 2x optical zoom, when in fact it’s 1.125x in terms of stepping up from 16MP to 20MP, another 1.35x in terms of genuine optical zoom and a further multiplication of 1.3x of multi-frame digital zoom and clever interpolation. So we stagger up to a 2x ‘lossless’ zoom, but it’s not nearly as elegant as doing this all in glass, as it were.

Still, results are generally good, away from that unrealistic zoomed low light case I just dismissed, and the OnePlus 5 is right up there with the best cameras in a smartphone today. Focussing is lightning fast with dual-pixel AF from both camera sensors and the overall experience is top notch.

Zooming can be done intuitively in the UI using multi-touch, and the software/chipset knows when to kick in each camera as you move in and out. There are no stutters and the zoom range is effectively continuous, up to 8x according to the interface, though everything beyond about 1.5x zoom is effectively processed or interpolated in some way, with the upsampling insisting on outputting 20MP photos still even when you’re ‘zoomed in’ by 8x, which is crazy and the results unusable.

See a range of photo examples, crops and comments below:

Photo example from the OnePlus 5, see below for zooms or crops, as appropriate
Zoomed photo (x2)
Zoomed photo (x2), using the on-screen zoom control. The zooming is very convincing at normal display resolutions….
1:1 crop from the x2 zoomed photo
1:1 crop from the x2 zoomed photo, note the artefacts in the sky and general image processing issues – this is the sort of thing that will be improved in future OS updates.
x1 photo from the OnePlus 5
x1 photo from the OnePlus 5
x2 zoomed version, using the 20MP telephoto camera
x2 zoomed version, using the 20MP telephoto camera
x3 zoomed version, using the 20MP telephoto camera and a healthy amount of digital zoom
x3 zoomed version, using the 20MP telephoto camera and a healthy amount of digital zoom
x4 zoomed version, about as far as you can push the secondary zoom camera
x4 zoomed version, about as far as you can push the secondary zoom camera even for use at web resolutions/sharing
1:1 crop from the 4x zoomed photo
1:1 crop from the 4x zoomed photo, showing that it’s a mess if you look too closely, as expected. Remember only 1.5x (or so) of this is genuine…
For comparison, 1:1 crop from the 2x zoomed version (i.e. the advertised 'clearer photos'....
For comparison, 1:1 crop from the 2x zoomed version (i.e. the advertised ‘clearer photos’….) There’s genuine detail here, but you already see the effects of processing…
Typical clean (unzoomed) photo, here in overcast conditions
Typical clean (unzoomed) photo, here in overcast conditions
Typical photo in indoor conditions, the colours are a bit 'off', with a slight blue cast, here muting the reds and greens...
Typical photo in indoor conditions, the colours are a bit ‘off’, with a slight cast, here muting the reds and pinks…
6x zoom experiment!
6x zoom experiment – the software lets you go up to 8x, which is clearly crazy, as who wants 20MP at this level of abstraction?
Low light HDR test shot
Low light HDR test shot
The same shot but with the 2x zoom enabled
The same shot but with the 2x zoom enabled
Ultra low light flower basket
Ultra low light flower basket
1:1 crop from the low light shot - the OnePlus 5 did very well here at capturing detail under tricky circumstances
1:1 crop from the low light shot – the OnePlus 5 did very well here at capturing detail under tricky circumstances
Night time test
Night time test
1:1 crop from the night shot
1:1 crop from the night shot, showing slightly disappointing results – OIS would have helped here a lot and the OnePlus 5 had to settle for a 1/17s exposure

Still, used at 2x or even 3x with care, and in good light (think festivals, family outdoor gatherings, and so on), the OnePlus 5 can genuinely get closer to subjects. It does lag a little behind Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus’s similar set-up overall, with image processing here that leaves artefacts where there should be none, for example in areas of sky – I’m sure OnePlus will improve this aspect in updates.

As on the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, the dual camera set-up is also used for a so-called ‘Portrait’ mode, with depth information taken from the super hi-res telephoto camera and used to map the main camera’s frame. The intended use case is a person between half a metre and 2 metres away, in which case the subject’s distance is identified and a shallow depth of field effect applied, with everything away from this distance faux-blurred to varying degrees. Just as on the iPhone 7 Plus, this works really, really well as long as there’s enough light and as long as you stick to the core use case. Yes, pixel-peep and you can see the soft boundaries at the edge of your subject, but in most cases you’ll be delighted with results.

Portrait test shot - it works very well as long as you stick to the rules!!
Portrait test shot – it works very well as long as you stick to the rules!!

In video mode, the lack of OIS means that stabilisation is restricted to a frame-based software approach and this only (currently) works at 1080p and 30fps – admittedly the most common and useful of the resolutions offered. (Apparently EIS will come to higher frame rates and resolutions in a future update.) It works well enough, using either of the OnePlus 5’s cameras – although you don’t get to see the software stabilisation at work in the viewfinder in real time, the MP4 movie capture is super smooth at all zoom factors. Again, that Snapdragon 835 helps a lot, I suspect.

Oxygen OS and Android 7.1.1

In terms of software, this is Android 7.1.1 and currently on the May 2017 security patches, so fairly up to date. The ‘skin’ is Oxygen, OnePlus’s own creation and very ‘stock’ and ‘clean’, but with quite a few genuinely useful extras. Plus a complete absence of bloat, refreshingly from an Android manufacturer, with just the OnePlus Community support utility in evidence. So you can just build up your application loadout at your own pace and there’s nothing to remove or disable.

Screenshot
OTA updates are coming thick and fast at the moment from OnePlus – one every other day during the review period! (right) OnePlus runs a community forum and this is integrated into an app prominently on the device – an excellent place for support and news.

Being based on 7.1.1, there are the long press actions on homescreen icons, plus the Pixel-style swipe up from the bottom of the homescreens to access the application drawer. Off to the left is a ‘shelf’, with current weather, any reminders or memos to ‘self’, shortcuts to recently accessed applications and some essential device stats.

Meanwhile, Oxygen’s gesture system for a powered off screen is here, and with additional options. Besides gestures for music control, you can now trace a S, M, W, O or V and assign them to a range of system actions or indeed to start any application, though don’t go too crazy, most still involve you unlocking the phone with a fingerprint unless you happen to be smart-unlocked to an accessory or location, of course.

Screenshot
A range of gestures for your turned off display on the OnePlus 5, with admirable flexibility, though anything that involves an app will still need you to unlock the phone in some cases, of course!

Capacitive controls are the default and they work extremely well, having large touch targets, though there’s only a very tiny and dim dot to show where to press, so you’ve still got to hit ‘back’ and ‘recent’ blind, as it were. It’s not an issue and does mean all the display is available all the time, though if you want the peace of mind of virtual controls then these are available in Settings too – and are reversible, according to taste.

Screenshot
Configuring the capacitive buttons and (right) picking the ‘Dark’ theme, for better power savings on the AMOLED screen and to look far, far cooler!

Gboard, the new Google keyboard is built-in from day one, which is a nice touch. Ditto a theme engine from the ground-up, so all those AMOLED-unfriendly white panes in stock Android can now run ‘dark’ – and are downright beautiful on the OnePlus 5’s glossy display.

There’s a built in file manager, something you don’t always get, especially on phones with no microSD card facility, and this one has a ‘secure box’, protected by a 6 digit PIN or your fingerprint. Set a file as ‘secure’ and it’ll be removed from general storage and protected from casual access in the secure box. Very handy.

Screenshot
File Manager is comprehensive, even including a secure, encrypted file store; (right) Reading mode turns out to be hard to capture in a screenshot, so here’s how it works and how you turn it on(!)

Also novel is a special Reading mode for the whole UI, in addition to the usual brightness options and three different screen calibration options. In Reading mode, which can be system wide or specific to named applications, the screen turns monochrome and with gentle contrast, simulating printed text on paper. This works brilliantly and is vastly easier on the eyes than retina-searing white when reading web articles, especially in the evening.

Battery and comms

Battery life is nothing special, the sealed 3300mAh battery does its job and gets you through a busy day, though without much to spare. Still, as long as your Dash charger isn’t far away, you can put in 50% charge in under half an hour, perhaps while you have a snack, so top-ups won’t take long.

Unusually, and coming back to my opening theme in terms of being a cut above the usual Chinese fare, the OnePlus 5 arrives worldwide with support for all LTE bands, whatever country you live in, and with dual SIM functionality. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smartphone so adaptable for travellers of all needs and in all locations. This is a true world phone.

SIM tray
Dual SIM tray, with helpful ‘this side up’ text!!

Bluetooth is superior too, with Bluetooth 5.0 supported, though without the Galaxy S8’s trick of connecting to two media accessories at the same time – yet. Apparently this could be coming in an OS update soon.

You’ll be wondering about the 8GB of RAM – it’s completely and utterly over the top, I couldn’t get the OnePlus 5 to use any more than 5GB even when I tried really hard to have hungry apps and games open. On the other hand, there seems to be little or no penalty in having too much RAM at the moment and more of this resource is always better when future proofing something. Somehow I suspect that OnePlus’s own update schedule for the ‘5’ will terminate long before Android 8 or 9 or whatever really needs 8GB of RAM, but hey, it’s a spec point that almost nothing else can match and it means that the 835 chipset can really go to town on image processing and the like without ever having to throw other stuff out of memory.

Verdict

OnePlus has become serious about the smartphone world with the ‘5’ – shipping in larger numbers, with bigger support resources thrown behind it, with OTA updates arriving almost daily (at the moment, at least), plus it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer power and capacity on offer here. Part of getting serious also means ramping up the price a little, but the OnePlus 5 still offers better value for money than almost any other phone out there in terms of bang per buck.

If you’re after a top end Android smartphone and don’t fancy anything with Samsung branding then this is perhaps the best choice. It offers all the gadgets and screaming specs of the best Chinese phones coupled with proper sales, marketing and support in all world markets. True, the lack of waterproofing, lack of OIS and lack of stereo speakers do stand out to the smartphone connoisseur, but they’re in each in turn forgiveable at this price point and with this degree of future proofing in terms of internals.

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  • Linked Devices

    I’d call this the pixel killer. Oxygen OS has a ways to go before it has a chance to compete with the hardware – software integration of LG HTC and Samsung.

  • Iceman89

    Horrible review, you can pickup the Galaxy S8 off Amazon Italy for the same price, sometimes less depending on thee exchange rate.

    Considering the Galaxy S8 has a better camera, water resistance, wireless charging, sdcard slot and much better display I do wonder how the reviewer even recommend it.

    Sadly reviewers are failing for the hype, you should never buy a phone on the premise issues will addressed in future software updates, especially when the company is OnePlus.

    • Hardware specs is only one part of the story. The OnePlus 5 wins in terms of pure software performance.

      • icemanchilled

        Coming from a OnePlus 3 which is stupidly fast anyway I don’t see this at all on a Galaxy S8 Plus, the interface is smooth and fast with no lag.

        The only place you’re going to see this difference is in speed tests on youtube which don’t represent normal usage at all, they never have.

        For that the OnePlus 5 definitely gets a nod but that’s the only advantage it has and it’s mostly worthless because nobody uses a phone in that way. We can’t compare benchmarks because OnePlus shamelessly keep cheating.

        I thought this was a UK site so hoped you guys would give an honest review but sadly you got on hype train and gave us BS pricing comparison based on the iPhone 7 Plus, this is Android beat? who gives a shit about iPhone pricing.

        Hello? Galaxy S8 from Amazon Italy (Yes, we are part of Europe and they deliver here) is only £500 and the Galaxy S8 Plus is £620 which only 20% increase which is pretty good considering what you get. Better display, camera, battery life, wireless charging, water resistance and sdcard slot???

        Also no real mention of how OnePlus increased the price from £309 to £499 or how that’s even justified, that’s a 61% price increase for a slightly better camera. (that’s still rubbish in low light).

        I like OnePlus which why I have a OnePlus 3 but your giving them a free pass here.

      • icemanchilled

        Wow, so you’re deleting reply’s now, thanks for that.

        Removing site from favourites, not wasting anymore time here.

        • Hey man, no reply was deleted. Your comment just ended up in spam for some reason.