OnePlus 6 Review: Fast, Future Proof and Cheap

Conventional wisdom says that smartphones in 2018 are little more than glass slabs with similar features and, while the discerning enthusiast knows that this is not true (there are plenty of differentiators), the new OnePlus 6 is a great example of a ubiquitous ‘slab’ with little real character or star quality. Other than value, since it retains the OnePlus tradition of offering flagship chipsets at a relatively affordable price.

The OnePlus 6 is, at the end of the day, utterly unremarkable. Which is, in part, why this review is so relatively brief – there’s simply not as much to talk about as on some of the genuine Android flagships (Galaxy S9++, HTC U12+, etc.) other than the price, starting as low as £469 including VAT in the UK (c.f. over £800 for the Galaxy S9+)

OnePlus 6 Review: Fast, Future Proof and Cheap

But don’t be totally lulled into sleep by the specs, since there are some genuine improvements over last year’s OnePlus 5T (and yes, there will be a 6T in five months time, you can bet on it):

  • The rear is now glass, rather than aluminium (though you don’t then get Qi wireless charging, which is a shame)
  • The addition of OIS to the main camera
  • The addition of a ‘notch’ to the display, effectively pushing status information either side of the front camera and sensors and giving more screen real estate
  • The inclusion of optional gestures for navigation, of which more later, and which also give dramatically more screen area for content.
  • Android 8.1 out of the box
  • A 256GB version is available (albeit at extra cost, £569 including VAT in the UK)

Add these up and the OnePlus 6 is a definite step up from last Autumn’s flagship. Perhaps not enough for a 5T owner to upgrade, but certainly enough for someone with the original ‘5’ or before. Or, of course, for someone coming from another marque and not wanting to pay £800+.

OnePlus 6

Hardware

Size wise, smartphones are now converging on this form factor – slightly too large for comfortable one-hand use, but with displays large enough for very satisfying browsing or media watching. And I had no complaints with the OnePlus 6. The all-glass design does mean that a case is de rigueur, at least when out and about, though OnePlus themselves do some excellent snap on cases, including one with the original OnePlus ‘sandstone’ finish – super grippy and durable.

Of note around the hardware is the ‘alert slider’, now on the phone’s right hand side (for ease of access when using a ‘folio’ case), letting you mute the phone and even turn vibrations off, for when in meetings – or bed, or church, or wherever you don’t want to be disturbed. Much more convenient than slamming down on the volume keys and then tapping the screen, as usual with Android.

Alert slider

There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack at the bottom, good to see that mainstream manufacturers haven’t abandoned this consumer favourite feature. The DAC behind the jack isn’t amazing (a la LG V30), but it’s demonstrably good enough and the whole is better than messing with Type C dongles and compromises.

Bottom edge

Also down the bottom, on the opposite side of the ubiquitous USB Type C jack, is the single speaker. Which is… OK. Fine for navigation and speakerphone calls, but harsh and pretty rubbish for media watching (e.g. Netflix, YouTube) and easy to block when gaming. I know the OnePlus 6 is trying to keep costs down, but I thought we were now in an era of stereo front facing speakers?

The display itself is 6.28” and AMOLED at 19:9 and 1080p – it’s perfectly fine and the notch is used sensibly, with the software option to black out the ‘ears’ and make sure status text is white – no complaints again.

Oblique view, showing screen protector and loss of contrast

Where I do have a beef with OnePlus, Honor and many other Chinese manufacturers is in their insistence on including plastic screen protectors out of the factory. Maybe these make sense for the man in the street, who won’t be careful with their phone, but given that underneath the plastic is (Corning) Gorilla Glass 5 and that the plastic reduces screen contrast outdoors, the very first thing I’d do is rip it off and enjoy the display the way Corning intended. (Note that I wasn’t allowed to do this on the review unit, so you can see the screen protector in the photos.)

OnePlus doesn’t quote an official ‘IP’ rating for water resistance, but teardowns have revealed some water-barrier measures, so you should be fine when caught in the rain – just don’t drop this in the washing up or toilet or sea!

Internals

Under the hood is a cutting edge Snapdragon 845 chipset and 6 or 8GB RAM, making the OnePlus 6 immensely future proof. Of course, the similar high specced internals of the OnePlus 3, 3T, 5 and 5T also mean that these older phones still work fine, so you could argue that OnePlus has a harder job than most companies of justifying upgrades to its customers!

Storage is 64GB, 128GB or 256GB, depending on how much you pay, with no microSD in sight, as usual for OnePlus. There are pros and cons for expandable storage, which I won’t go into again here, but there’s a storage tier here for everyone.

With no microSD card slot in the pop-out tray, there’s room for two nano-SIMs, worldwide – a very useful facility in many countries, sometimes even a must-have, so well done, OnePlus.

Fingerprint sensor

Below the camera island on the back is an oval-shaped fingerprint sensor – this is lightning fast and means you don’t even have to set up the face unlock capability (which also works well but doesn’t authenticate for Android Pay). In short, you’re kept private and yet with instant access.

The battery’s the same 3300mAh as in last year’s phones and adequate, though you’ll never see two days of life on a charge. Topping it up has to be done through USB Type C and there’s a proprietary ‘Dash Charge’ accessory in the box (though the trademark is about to be dropped for legal reasons, at least in the EU), putting up to 4A at 5V into the phone, so at least wired charges are quick – if you don’t lose the supplied charger.

Camera island

Imaging

The camera hardware is similar to that on last year’s OnePlus models, i.e. 16MP plus 20MP sensors, with f/1.7 apertures, but the first (and main) camera now has OIS, making short work of low light scenes in the same way as competing phones.

I was blown away by how good the OnePlus 6 camera was in stills – the company has sorted out the image processing and enhancement in the Oxygen OS Camera app and results were right up there with the best of the phone world, even under the indistinct lighting for my test period. Yes, images are still sharpened and yes, there’s some artificial colour boosting going on, but it’s all restrained and sensible.

And the results are evident in the 16MP snaps shown here. I was comparing directly against the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S9+ and only the optical zoom in the latter showed any real advantage. Yes, there’s a trendy ‘2x’ button in the Camera interface, but it’s digital zoom and results are blocky, so I’d advise against using it.

Below each example photo is a 1:1 crop, with comments.

Sample photo from the OnePlus 6
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above. I was limited in lighting during the review, so there’s no ‘sunny’ colours! Considering that this is a massive ‘crop’ into a 16MP image, I was really impressed.
Sample photo from the OnePlus 6
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – again clean detail, with sharpening present, but under control.
Sample photo from the OnePlus 6
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing admirable detail and restraint, even of a macro subject like this. Warm colours – slightly artificial, but I’m not complaining!
Sample photo from the OnePlus 6
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – the moving ducks were acceptably captured under such indifferent light – the artifacts on the ground are off-putting, but again, remember that this is a TINY part of a 16MP image.
Sample photo from the OnePlus 6
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, great detail and subtle enhancement.
Sample photo from the OnePlus 6
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, taken in really low light and with LED flash. Here you CAN see sharpening artifacts, but – honestly – again all under control. Not bad at all.

Video capture is up to 4K, of course, though I was utterly underwhelmed by the lack of any stabilization, either using OIS or software (EIS). Reading up on this, it seems that this is a problem with this particular Oxygen OS version and that an update will fix it. In the meantime, I had to halt video tests, since results were so bad.

Oxygen OS and software notes

As most readers will know, Oxygen OS is built on top of AOSP and is comparatively lightweight and nimble. This means that there’s not a lot to sort out when setting the phone up and it means that OnePlus can get OS updates out quickly (the review handset was on the May 2018 security patch). Android 8.1 is here out of the box and you can immediately dive into the Android P beta if you want too – it’s pretty stable.

There are the usual theme options to play around with, achieving the look and feel of your choice, hiding the ‘notch’, choosing your navigation method, and so on. This last is interesting because OnePlus has implemented an iPhone-like full-screen gesture system. In fact, it goes further, since you don’t have to live with a white ‘bar’ to swipe up from (on the iPhone) – here, you swipe up from full-screen content to go home. Swipe up and hold for ‘recent apps’, or swipe up from the left of the screen to go ‘back’. It only takes seconds to learn and works really, really well. Combined with the ‘notch’ allowing status data to move up, we’ve never had such a large screen for content on this form factor!

Notch removal

Oxygen OS hasn’t changed much in the last few versions. You still get ‘Gaming mode’, suppressing notifications and keeping brightness ‘locked’, etc. The only significant app duplication was Google Photos versus Gallery and, as someone who uses both on a daily basis, it’s fair to say that I’m torn here. The former is great for cloud backup, while the latter is great for local editing and generally fiddling without using up tons of cellular bandwidth.

Photos vs Gallery

Curiously, early builds of Oxygen OS for the OnePlus 6 had an always-on display mode, but this has now been removed after reports that it was too much of a battery killer. I do wonder whether things can be optimized enough for this feature to make a reappearance. Along with video stabilization!

Verdict

As a regular user of the Samsung Galaxy S9+, which shares the exact same form factor and feel in the hand, reviewing the OnePlus 6 was fascinating. The S9+ has superior display, camera, microphones, (stereo) speakers, waterproofing, health sensors, DAC, always on display – a pretty compelling list. But then the OnePlus 6 is exactly £310 cheaper at today’s prices in the UK. That’s a pretty damned big saving if money is short, enough to pick up a good mid-ranger for another family member as well – perhaps even a second-hand 5T for the complete OnePlus family?

Like previous OnePlus flagships, you’re not getting flagship features across the board – just where it matters for power and future proofing. If you want a fast and capable Android handset at a sensible price then look no further. Just don’t expect all the finesse of the market leaders.

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