$1,000 is a lot of money to spend on a smartphone. That’s as much as a good laptop. It’s rent money. It’s more than what some people have in their savings account.
For Chinese phone startup OnePlus, this is precisely the perfect moment for its new flagship Android phone, the OnePlus 5T, to shine. The phone starts at $499 — half as much as the iPhone X — but still gives you a premium metal design, huge 18:9 edge-to-edge screen with thin bezels and facial recognition unlock.
And it would have been a killer phone for the money, if only its cameras weren’t so mediocre.
$499 gets you in the door with 64GB of storage and 6GB of RAM and $559 doubles the storage to 128GB with 8GB of RAM.
Still feels phenomenal
Every flagship phone this year seems to have moved to a metal and glass sandwich design to squeeze in wireless charging.
The 5T sticks to a unibody aluminum body in Midnight Black and I don’t hate it. A metal body is one less thing to worry about shattering as opposed to glass.
OnePlus has smartly kept the 5T’s subtle curves at a minimum and the thickness down to 7.3mm.
I also like that the phone doesn’t feel as dense as the iPhone X, Essential Phone, or Galaxy Note 8. But it also doesn’t feel cheap like a Pixel 2 XL. The 5T is just light and thin enough to comfortable pick up and use hundreds of times a day without any hand fatigue (something I’ve started noticing using my iPhone X and Pixel 2XL, which are thicker at 7.7mm and 7.9mm, respectively). These thicker phones get worse when you add a case that further adds extra thickness.
More immersive display
Despite having roughly the same dimensions as the now-discontinued 5, the 5T comes rocking with a 6.01-inch AMOLED display with 18:9 aspect ratio and 2,160 x 1,080 resolution with 401 pixels per inch (ppi) and an 80.5 percent screen-to-body ratio. That’s a big jump from the 5’s 5.5-inch display that only covers about 73 percent of the front.
I know some people are going to be upset the screen’s only 1080p, but I want to dispel those concerns.
You simply can’t see the difference between the 5T and phones like the LG V30, which has a 6-inch screen and a higher 2,880 x 1,440 resolution at 537 ppi, unless you use your phone under a microscope, at which point you probably have other problems to worry about.
When I first saw the 5T, I couldn’t even tell it was 1080p. It may seem inferior to other phones, but the resolution and ppi has been fine on all Plus-sized iPhones for years and I’ve never heard anyone complain about it.
The only case where higher resolution and greater ppi makes sense is for mobile VR. If you really care about that, you’re gonna get a Samsung phone that works with the Gear VR, not this device.
• 6.01-inch AMOLED display (2,160 x 1,080)
• Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor
• 6GB RAM/8GB RAM
• 64GB/128GB storage
• 3,300 mAh battery
• Dual SIM
• Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, Wi-Fi 802.11 ac
• 16-megapixel f/1.7 camera + 20-megapixel f/1.7 camera
• 16-megapixel f/2.0 selfie camera
There is one really nice benefit to the display OnePlus chose: really great battery life. I got anywhere from 5-7 hours of screen-on time daily, which is really excellent. It’ll last you a full day and more depending on how heavy you use it.
And that wasn’t even with the battery saver mode turned on or the screen dialed down to 50 percent or less. That’s at 75 percent brightness and LTE, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth switched on all day.
There are other aspects of the screen that are fantastic. Like that it’s really bright and very visible outdoors.
OnePlus says the screen has a “Sunlight Display,” which increases contrast when you’re doing one of four things: viewing photos/videos, capturing photos/videos, and gaming outside. I didn’t really notice much of a difference, but maybe that’s because the screen’s already really bright to begin with.
There’s none of the weird warm-to-blue color shifting that the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL suffers from. Which is good, but it’s not a perfect screen, either. If you turn the phone 90 degrees from face-on, you do see a chromatic tint. But who’s looking at their phone from that extreme of an angle? No OLED screen is without its own flaws, however minor they are, and that’s just a byproduct until the screen technology gets better.
Unlock with your face
The second big addition to the 5T isn’t immediately visible, but you’ll appreciate using it a lot, and that’s Face Unlock.
As its name implies, you can use your face to unlock the phone after registering it. Setting the feature is easy and not dissimilar to the face unlock features that have been included on some Android phones for years.
Once it’s turned on, unlocking the phone is as fast and easy as pressing the power button and looking at the screen. It all happens in a flash and brings you directly to your home screen.
It’s so fast there’s no way to see your notifications unless you have the phone placed on a table and look at it from a slight distance. I love the speed, but it would be nice if you could set how fast it unlocks. I’d slow it down just a tad.
The 5T’s Face Unlock reminds me a lot of the Galaxy S8’s own facial unlock. It’s fast, but not as secure as the fingerprint sensor, which is now located on the back (in the center, where it should be unlike on the S8 an Note 8, which is stupidly next to the rear camera) and is also the only way to authenticate Android Pay transactions.
Face Unlock also works in the dark. In my pitch-black bedroom, Face Unlock worked without issues so long as the screen brightness was not set to zero. It needed at least 10 percent of screen luminance to recognize my face. OnePlus says a future update will add an feature that’ll automatically brighten the screen (even if it’s set to zero) temporarily for Face Unlock.
OnePlus says it’s using “over 100 identifiers to securely unlock the OnePlus 5T,” but wouldn’t elaborate beyond that when I sat down with the company’s CEO Pete Lau during a roundtable post product launch.
Naturally, I tried to trick it.
I used several phones including the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL and took photos and videos from both the front and back cameras and held them up in front of the 5T’s selfie camera. But none of them could fool its Face Unlock feature, which only relies on the front-facing camera and doesn’t use any kind of infrared or 3D depth sensor like the iPhone X. I also printed color and black-and-white photos of my face and held them up, but none worked.
That’s good news for anyone worried about being easily hacked with just photos and videos of their face that might be available online, but you should still turn on the fingerprint sensor and set up a passcode for maximum security. I’d also like to see a physical button shortcut (like on iPhone X) that lets you quickly disable the Face Unlock feature and default to the passcode.
Dual camera downgrade
The OnePlus 5 sported a dual camera system that was similar to the iPhone 7 Plus’. One camera was a regular wide-angle with better low-light performance and the other was a 2x — which wasn’t fully optical zoom, but really a 1.6x optical zoom + 0.4x digital zoom assist — lens.
The phone even straight out cloned the iPhone’s Portrait mode. Photos looked good, except when they over-processed them until they resembled graphics from a comic book.
On the 5T, OnePlus has changed the camera setup on the back. There’s still dual lenses, the primary camera with 16-megapixels and the secondary with 20-megapixels, but they both have the same field of view (called focal length in photography terms) and the same f/1.7 lens aperture for same low-light performance.
I actually overlooked this change at first when I brought the phone to the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York. But could you blame me when there’s a “2x” button on the camera screen that merely adjusts the digital zoom from 1x to 2x? It wasn’t until I looked over my “2x” digitally-zoomed photos that I noticed something wasn’t right and the image quality couldn’t have been 2x optical zoom.
OnePlus says the cameras are supposed to take better photos, but all my shots seemed to be worse than on the 5. They looked good at first, but reviewing them later on my computer revealed extremely soft photos and overly extreme image processing that smeared images and destroyed dynamic range and details.
I was able to take a few crisp photos, but I got more dud shots than is acceptable. Good photos were a hit-or-miss.
The 5T still has a “Portrait” mode that blurs out the background. Again, here they looked worse than on the 5. Without a doubt, the iPhone X and Pixel 2 take way better portrait-style photos.
Selfies also go overboard with the airbrushing. And sometimes the selfie camera simply gets confused and takes horrid shots with strange shadows.
I really wish the photos weren’t so bad, but they are. It’s possible that OnePlus could fix these problems with a software update — increase sharpness, reduce over-processing, improve dynamic range, etc. — but that would be quite a turnaround.
Even companies like Essential, who promised best-in-class cameras on its PH-1, have failed to fix the bad photos that it takes. I can’t say I’m hopeful that OnePlus will fix the 5T’s bad cameras.
Now, I understand most people will never share their photos beyond the walls of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. And if you’re confining yourself to that, then the photos don’t look like total potatoes since details will be less visible. But if you want to look at photos on a tablet or computer screen, you’ll be appalled by the lackluster image quality.
Almost a slam dunk
There was little to complain about the OnePlus 5. It hit all the right selling points: premium design, flagship specs, and killer pricing. And there’s almost nothing major to complain about on the 5T, except for the cameras.
Performance is just as speedy and smooth as on the 5 since the underlying specs are the same. And while I wish the phone shipped with Android Oreo, I’d much rather have the fluid and stable Nougat than buggy software.
OxygenOS, the company’s lightly customized version of stock Android Nougat, is still wicked fast, clean, and bloatware-free. There’s a cool “Parallel Apps” feature that lets you duplicate an app (great for logging into a separate user account), but they’re woefully limited to just a few apps. I could only clone Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and Twitter. And of course, you still get all of the handy previously introduced features like the black-and-white “Reading Mode” and “Gaming Do Not Disturb”.
Bad cameras are unacceptable.
It’s still disappointing that the phone doesn’t come with any kind of IP-rated water or dust-resistance — it’s only splash-resistant — and there’s no wireless charging (a feature every other phone has added now). But neither of these omissions is a deal-breaker.
The headphone jack lets me live a dongle-free life and the Dash Charging remains the fastest quick-charging technology I’ve yet to see on a phone (0-60 percent in 30 minutes and 100 percent in 1 hour, 10 minutes).
Besides the camera, the only thing holding the the 5T back is its lack of Verizon and Sprint support in the U.S. Like all of OnePlus’ phones, the 5T is GSM-only, meaning it’ll only work on AT*T and T-Mobile in America. The rest of the world uses GSM so this isn’t a problem, but for customers who are on the CDMA-based Verizon and Sprint, they’re completely shut out from the value the 5T offers.
OnePlus is aware of this, but its CEO Lau says getting its devices approved to work on these networks has been challenging and requires a lot more regulatory certifications and would mean compromises to the software (like adding in bloatware and carrier crap) they aren’t willing to budge on.
I like almost everything there is about the 5T. But bad cameras that take inconsistent photos are unacceptable and, unfortunately, drag down what is otherwise a great phone.
Bigger display with slimmer bezels • Lightweight premium aluminum design • Comes with a headphone jack • Fingerprint sensor still one of the fastest • Insanely quick Face Unlock
No setting to slow Face Unlock down • No wireless charging • No IP-rated water and dust-resistance, only splash-resistance • Cameras take mediocre photos
The Bottom Line
The OnePlus 5T could have been one of the year’s best phones if not for its mediocre cameras.