OnePlus 5T Review: Bargain of the Year – Why Are OTHER Flagships Are So Expensive?

Right up front I have to tell you, there’s nothing special to see here, nothing unique. Move right along. Unless you want a bargain Android flagship. You see, the USP here is the price. By taking imaging and durability down just one small notch from the top end, the OnePlus 5T manages to shave off many hundreds of pounds. While keeping the flagship internals and traditional OnePlus attributes and popular features. In short, it’s a hit!

OnePlus 5T

Now, you may remember the OnePlus 5, only six months ago, and this is clearly an iteration, given the similarity in form factor and chipset. Yet the switch to a 2:1 screen and the moving of the fingerprint sensor to the back of the phone gives the 5T a very different identity, which is why this is a whole new review and not a ‘oh they added some RAM and changed the colour’ news story.

OnePlus 5T

Screen matters

The move to larger but slimmer phones is a trend that Samsung started, certainly in the mainstream, and it’s a move that has paid off, both for manufacturers – who get to sell brand new phones – and for users, who get more display in the same (or smaller) form factor. And any minor issues to do with aspect ratio are either easily dealt with or will be addressed in software updates across the board.

So this is OnePlus getting involved too, and a fine job it has done of it, while keeping the ‘vertical’ screen resolution at 1080p, which makes for lower power consumption than QHD (1440p) and thus longer battery life. And this is borne out in practice, with the OnePlus 5T easily making it through the day on its 3300mAh battery in my tests.

OnePlus 5T

Screen quality and contrast are both excellent, thanks to the use of a Samsung AMOLED panel, so no ‘blue shift’ issues when seen at an angle. OnePlus goes the extra mile here too, with both sRGB and DCI-P3 colour calibration options, so you can dial back the AMOLED punchiness in favour of 100% accurate colours if so desired.

There’s a ‘Sunlight display’ mode, which is supposed to kick in with improved contrast in very bright light – even though this is the UK in winter, I found some sun and… nothing changed. Though in fairness, I could still see the screen very clearly so maybe that just means that it’s working really, really well?

Screenshots
Calibrating the display and (right) hiding the navigation controls. There’s just SO much to customise on the OnePlus 5T…

In a novel and really rather useful fashion, OnePlus has also taken a leaf from Windows 10 Mobile and has made the virtual navigation buttons optional. Once set this way, within an application the controls disappear, making way for more content, so you get to use the whole 6” screen. When you need the controls back, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen and they’re back temporarily.

How useful you find this will depend on how long you stay within each application and on how you use them – I found the extra content more than valuable enough to make up for the extra swipe and tap needed to go back or to return to the home screen, but your mileage may vary. The default for this feature is to have the controls on-screen permanently, but it’s an easy thing to turn on in order to experiment.

OnePlus is deadly serious about keeping your phone pristine. Not only do you get a free (and rather excellent) TPU case in the box, but they fit a good screen protector from the factory. Most users will leave this on, as intended, but I’m OCD and need to feel glass under my fingers, so I removed it. Underneath, the screen has a light oleophobic coating, but not as effectively as some other flagships, so you’ll need to wipe it of fingerprints each day.

Screen protector

Form and design

The OnePlus 5T is the archetypal 2017 smartphone form factor – unibody aluminium, super slim, with gently rounded back and antenna lines moulded around the top corners. The top and bottom bezels are symmetrical, avoiding a common complaint about modern phones – they have to look ‘right’.

The front Gorilla Glass 5 is gently curved at the edges, ‘2.5D’ if you will. Volume buttons on the left and power on the right are smooth, while the trademark OnePlus three-stage ‘mute’ switch (Normal/DND/Silent) is nicely textured for ease of access ‘blind’, such as when silencing the phone in your pocket at the start of a meeting.

Mute switch

Down the bottom are the speaker grille (of which more later), the USB Type C data and charging port (ditto) and the headphone jack (ditto again!).

Bottom of 5T

While on the back are the dual camera island (around 2mm proud of the phone’s back, but including a metal rim to prevent scratches to the camera glass) and ceramic fingerprint sensor (really tough, and impossible to scratch).

Camera island and flash

Up top on the front is a popular feature from past OnePlus devices – the multi-colour notification LED. This can be assigned any of the eight colours for various alerts and states, even per-app colours if you want to be super LED-nerdy.

Although the metal and cushioned 2.5D Gorilla Glass (plus the case and screen protector) approach makes the OnePlus 5 pretty tough out of the box, there’s no official waterproofing. However, anecdotal video tests online have shown that a quick accidental dunk in a basin or getting caught in a shower won’t necessarily break the phone – just don’t try shooting video underwater!

Internals

OnePlus made the decision some time ago to switch to a ‘sealed’ storage model (as on the iPhone and Google Nexus/Pixel devices). It’s a perfectly valid model and does mean simpler operation and management for the user, though you do have to pick the right capacity up front rather than adding in a microSD later on.

In this case, 64GB and 128GB variants, though it’s a no-brainer to go for the latter for £50 more, given that you also get an extra 2GB of RAM. It’s true that almost nothing on Android needs 8GB RAM yet, but hey, games are getting bigger and come the end of 2018 you may find your phone OS and software starting to use this RAM figure rather more fully. It’s called future-proofing!

The chipset is a Snapdragon 835 and is as lightning fast as you’d expect. Nothing slows this down, as users of (for example) the Google Pixel 2 devices are finding out.

There’s NFC too, not always a given with Chinese phones, but necessary for Android Pay and the antenna for this is embedded in the camera island, so up top where you’d need it when paying for something.

All OnePlus 5T models are dual SIM, always a useful feature to have if you’re juggling work and personal calls, or perhaps if you’re in an area where you need two cell networks for full coverage?

Do note though that the SIM tray doesn’t allow for a microSD instead of the second SIM – you really are stuck with the phone capacity you bought. Still, 128GB should be enough for even the geekiest users in 2017 and in well-connected countries (i.e. more streaming, less local media) the 64GB version will also be just fine.

Imaging

On the face of it, OnePlus’s camera configuration for the 5T makes no sense whatsoever. Two f/1.7 lenses with the same field of view, and 16MP and 20MP resolutions being remarkably similar – so what’s going on?

The theory is that the 16MP shooter is used almost all the time and then in very low light (<10 Lux is quoted) the second lens is used, with a Nokia PureView-like oversampling system used to average out noise from every group of four pixels into one ‘purer’ pixel in the image. However, where Nokia used to output this pure image as-is, i.e. at 5MP, OnePlus presumably wants to keep the numbers high and so it then uses this noise-less image as the basis for interpolating detail back up to 20MP and this is the JPG that gets saved. So effectively digital zoom into a purer image. And the software doesn’t quite pull this trick off – yet.

OnePlus introducing their low light sensor pixel combination system
OnePlus introducing their low light sensor pixel combination system

I’d have liked to have seen the option to save the lower resolution version – so that’s an easy fix for OnePlus to implement. What I suspect they’re doing as I write this though, is investigating using computational photography to combine the output from the 16MP lens (noisy, but detailed) with the 5MP intermediate results from the 20MP lens (noise-less, but low-res). In theory, and powered by that Snapdragon 835 chipset and ISP, night time shots could be pretty good with the OnePlus 5T.  You will need to brace the phone on something for low light arty shots though, since there’s no OIS present here, probably a casualty of the phone’s price point.

Results are mixed, though again I want to emphasise that OnePlus hasn’t finished fiddling with the software yet – by a long way. Can it match what Google did with a single lens and a less powerful chipset on the original Pixels?

Focusing is slow for 2017, with no laser or dual-pixel auto-focus. See below for photo samples (all shot handheld), crops and comments:

Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above,
1:1 crop from the photo above, a great balance of natural detail and sharpening….
Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop
The same scene, but using the inviting ‘2x’ control in the camera UI….
1:1 crop from the photo above,
1:1 crop from the photo above, as expected showing typical digital zoom artefacts. Best not zoom then – though with 16MP to play with you can always crop down later to good effect!
Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above,
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing (again) incredible detail from the main 16MP sensor.
Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop
Shot in standard mode, no need for the Portrait mode here, there’s already too little depth of field to encompass the whole florets!
1:1 crop from the photo above,
1:1 crop from the photo above, delicate detail from the parts that were able to be focussed on. Yes, a touch artificially sharpened, but tastefully so.
Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above,
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing good and accurate detail here in low light indoors…
Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop
Shot at night, the 20MP secondary sensor kicks in…
1:1 crop from the photo above,
1:1 crop from the photo above, the oversample-and-then-interpolate system results in noise-free but indistinct results. Mind you, there’s no OIS, so arguably I shouldn’t be trying to shoot at night in the first place?!

Of particular note is the supplied Pro Mode, which has an exposure histogram and gives access to manual ISO, white balance and shutter speed adjustments. All very impressive, though bear in mind again the need for bracing or a tripod for anything really tricky.

Modes
The various modes – Pro is the most interesting, but remember to bring a tripod!

Video capture is at up to 4K, of course, and at 30fps, with basic accelerometer-derived stabilisation – again at least a step behind the very best in phone-shot video, but still decent if you have a steady hand.

Happily, audio capture is in stereo, unlike on (for example) the iPhone and Pixel devices. Well done, OnePlus. The microphones are good too, I tried them with live music (though admittedly not Motorhead-level rock volumes!) and fidelity was good.

Face unlock

It’s somewhat ironic that Apple spent untold billions of dollars on its Face ID system, laser projector and all, necessitating (among things) the inclusion of the famous ‘notch’ on the front of the iPhone X and the removal of the fingerprint (Touch ID) sensor. Because OnePlus just gave users the same convenience with no extra hardware at all – the Face Unlock system on the 5T is instant and effective in all light conditions except complete darkness.

Face Unlock

OnePlus claims to be using ‘more than 100 identifiers’ to tell you apart from another person and the system works well using nothing more than the standard front facing camera. Now, Samsung and others have been doing this for years as a low security access system, but OnePlus has pulled out some serious software magic here, perhaps enabled by the super-fast chipset, to improve accuracy and speed dramatically. In most cases you tap the power button and look at the phone and it’s unlocked before you’ve even registered that there’s authentication going on.

Apple’s system is ultimately more secure, of course, plus it works in the dark, which is why OnePlus has sensibly not enabled the Face Unlock system for anything secure, such as Android Pay. For this, the standard rear fingerprint sensor is used – or a PIN, of course.

Still, Apple must have been somewhat appalled when they saw the speed and simplicity of OnePlus’s new software tech here – and you can bet that other Android manufacturers are scurrying to rewrite their own face-matching algorithms as we speak.

Media/audio

OnePlus does listen to its users, it seems, which is why the 3.5mm audio jack is still present and correct – it’s down the bottom of the phone, iPhone-style. Giving the end user plenty of options. Plug the phone into a car’s Aux port, for example, or use some studio quality ‘cans’.

Or, if you want to go wireless, then Bluetooth here is at the 5.0 spec level, which is great to see, along with support for the aptX HD codec – with compatible headphones, wireless music is stunning from the OnePlus 5T. You do have to pick the codec manually in Settings, but as long as you’re not switching wireless headphones often then this won’t be a problem.

Screenshots
Choosing a Bluetooth audio codec and (right) setting up the alert slider for some peace and quiet!

Or use the speaker, since the OnePlus 5T’s bottom-firing speaker is very decent indeed – there’s some bass and some top end and it’s pleasant to listen to. True, ‘stereo’ speakers are coming more into vogue these days and I’d have liked to have seen something of an iPhone-esque attempt at this using the earpiece as a tweeter. You certainly couldn’t fit in a full speaker component, Marshall London or Axon 7 style, since there just isn’t room in this tightly packed top section.

Overall, speaker output isn’t an issue here, though. It’s full and loud. Some people have pointed out that you might block the speaker grille when holding the phone in landscape mode, but the sound outputs ‘bottom right’ (in landscape) and this is well away from a typical media watching grip.

OS and bundled software

Screenshots
Note the optional dark theme is enabled. The apps drawer is one of the elements directly darkened. Very power efficient on AMOLED screens.

At its heart, the OnePlus 5T runs Android 7.1.1 (destined to get 8.0 in the New Year) with Oxygen OS 4.7.2 on top. The company has been criticised for not shipping this with Oreo out of the box, but it really doesn’t matter. The 5T comes with fairly current security fixes (‘October 2017’ as I write this) and Google Play Services plus regular Oxygen OS updates cover the rest. And with Nougat (7.x) being a thousand times more stable than Oreo (8.x) at the time of writing, I think OnePlus made the right call here.

Google Assistant – this is becoming more and more useful – is baked in via a (by default) long press on the home icon, though you can change this and other shortcuts, thanks to Oxygen OS’s enhancements. Oxygen OS doesn’t add bloat though – the only preloaded application of note is Android Pay – and you’d have installed that anyway.

In typical OnePlus tradition, there’s a nice dark theme that toggles the app drawer into an AMOLED friendly black background. This also applies to many of the standard (AOSP) Android applications, plus the OnePlus code, so think Gallery, Contacts, Phone, Settings, but note that the core Google applications like Chrome, Gmail and Calendar all still run with glaring white – there’s not much OnePlus can do about these!

Also helping readability – literally – is a monochromatic ‘Reading Mode’. This can be turned on for specific apps or even system wide if needed. This lowers brightness and contrast and aims to make reading plain text on a plain background as eye-friendly as possible. Switch to an appropriate app (e.g. EBook Reader) and watch the display morph into the new mode with a slow and steady transition from a world of colour to a world of monochrome. Ditto when you leave the app – see the colours return in a smooth animation, it’s beautifully done.

Screen
Setting up Reading mode for this ebook application – unfortunately, the screen tinting and effects don’t come across in a plain screenshot here!

Another experimental idea is Parallel Apps, which lets you ‘clone’ specific social applications. So, for example, you can run a second instance of Twitter or Facebook, with different login and totally different context. If you’ve ever maintained multiple accounts on these systems and had to use two different phones or tablets to keep things separate then this feature will be welcomed.

Screen
Toggling on installed social apps as ‘parallel’, and (right) turning on the ambient display and ‘lift up display’ (raise to wake), shown also below…

Ambient display is present, though not to the same always-on status as on the likes of the Galaxy S8 range. Here, incoming notifications pop up and stay for a few seconds. And ‘Lift-up display’ (as OnePlus calls it) or ‘Raise to wake’ (as everyone else calls it) is also present, though disabled by default, presumably to help save battery power. This shows time, date and any relevant notification icons.

Lift to wake

With both options on, and with the lightning fast Face Unlock, I never felt that the 5T was hiding important information from me.

Charging

In the box is a 4A ‘Dash Charge’ power plug, with a special (red) USB Type C cable for the phone. Dash Charge is a proprietary system and the 5T only charges ‘fast’ with the original plug and cable. So mislay either and you’re back to traditional (e.g.) 2A charging via a generic Type C cable. Not the end of the world, but worth noting – and you might want to budget for a spare Dash Charge plug and cable for the office, for example.

With the Dash Charge equipment though (and it’s great to see it in the box, unlike with some other competitors), I was getting 50% charge in under half an hour, anecdotally slightly faster than with other fast charge systems on the market – though admittedly less standard.

OnePlus 5T

Verdict

It’s almost impossible to find things to complain about on the 5T – it’s the result of four years of design iteration and paying attention to the community by OnePlus – and it shows. Official waterproofing and stereo speakers would have been the icing on the cake, but most people will be happy to take these hits in exchange for a sub-£500, 2:1-displayed Snapdragon 835 flagship.

I’ve yet to find anyone with a bad word to say about the OnePlus 5T, it’s a natural phone to investigate for anyone who likes the idea of buying SIM-free. Of course, the OnePlus 6 is only six months away, by definition, and I’d predict a Snapdragon 845 and an IP67 waterproofing rating. But the 5T will not only do until then, it’ll do just fine for another couple of years for the Android enthusiast on a budget.

PS. Competitors HTC, Google, LG and others are also iterating on their various designs, of course, and making some progress. But none of them have managed to keep all the best bits of previous designs along the way and none of them have managed to keep the price affordable. So OnePlus’s real competition is from other Chinese manufacturers like Xiaomi and Huawei, though only the latter’s Honor brand is really comparable in Western markets.

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