OnePlus 5T review: polished to a T

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OnePlus is one of those beguiling companies that seem to promise impossibly wonderful things. Flagship products at budget prices. The assiduous elegance of an iPhone at the attainable cost of a midrange Motorola. It’s a company that constantly flirts with the “too good to be true” label, sometimes delivering on its lofty claims and at other times failing to live up to its own hype.

I like the new OnePlus 5T for many of the same reasons that I like OnePlus itself. This device is full of all the right ideas — hardware design, software responsiveness, and overall usability — and if I were tasked with the job of assembling a phone, my specification would read a lot like the OnePlus 5T does on paper. In practice, this phone isn’t the total fulfillment of every objective that OnePlus set for itself, nor every promise the company has made. But it’s damn close. It takes the imperfect OnePlus 5 from five months ago and fixes much of what ailed it. This is the most refined OnePlus phone yet.

At a starting price of $499, the OnePlus 5T combines many of the most sought-after flagship features and specs of 2017 inside a design that’s as handsome and high-end as any Galaxy S or iPhone competitor. The cost is more than any OnePlus phone before it, but in the current era of $1,000 flagships from Samsung and Apple, it seems a very fair price.

One Plus phone

If you know me, you’ll know how long I’ve been writing phone reviews and how difficult it is for any new product to impress me. The OnePlus 5T is that rare device that made me pause and appreciate its premium feel as I was unboxing it. The packaging is perfectly standard for OnePlus — that’s not what did it — but the phone itself is so beautifully dominated by the 6-inch OLED display, with neatly symmetrical bezels at top and bottom just holding the thing together.

The sense evoked by the 5T’s design is one of efficiency and optimization, and comparing this new device against anything previous from OnePlus, even the five-month-old OnePlus 5, makes the older model feel inadequate. You’re free to disagree, and you might think I’m overreacting to the thin-bezel craze that OnePlus is now participating in, but I challenge you to think forward a few months. Thin-bezel phones are quickly going to take over the market, and anyone stuck with a fat-bezel device will feel behind the curve. This OnePlus 5T looks lovely today and I can be confident in saying it will still look modern and fresh a year from now.

One Plus phone
One Plus phone

The move of the fingerprint sensor from the front to the back of the phone has been a total triumph. Covered by a smooth ceramic, the reader sits exactly where you’d find it on Google’s Pixels and LG’s G6 and V30: horizontally centered and a third of the way down. I find it perfectly usable and reliable, but for those situations where you might still want to access the phone without lifting it off a table to ID yourself, OnePlus has also added a new Face Unlock feature to the 5T. I’ve found Face Unlock both delightful and frustrating, like most other face-identification systems thus far. (More on that later.) The important thing is that OnePlus has preempted a complaint, while at the same time feature-matching The iPhone X’s Face ID.

After the LG V30, which I reviewed last month, the OnePlus 5T is the second phone I’ve had the pleasure of handling with a 6-inch screen crammed inside the frame of a 5.5-inch handset. The 5T is scarcely any larger than its predecessor OnePlus 5, which means it’s big, but not overwhelmingly so. Single-handed use of a 6-inch phone still sounds futuristic to me, but the V30, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 Plus, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2, and now the OnePlus 5T have all accomplished it (even if the 18:9 aspect ratio breaks the screen size math a little bit).

One Plus phone

I have been using a Google Pixel 2 XL most recently, and coming from that hulking device to the leaner and smoother 5T makes a tangible difference. The 2 XL feels blocky without the tapered sides of the 5T, and the difference in heft seems bigger than it is — 175g on the Pixel, 162g on the 5T — because of the better weight distribution of the OnePlus device. Am I saying OnePlus has done a better design job than Google? Yes, absolutely.

My sole complaint about the OnePlus 5T’s industrial design is the camera bump. It’s taller than it was on the OnePlus 5, which the company explains as having been caused by the screen occupying more space inside the phone. The 5’s camera module was built into the space that sat behind bezel on the front, whereas the new camera system resides behind the screen, and so it protrudes a couple of millimeters more. I now find the bump just large enough to be noticeable and to irritate me, though I’m conscious that most people won’t be as nitpicky as I am, and many will put a case on the phone anyway. One thing I do know from the earlier OnePlus 5, though: the camera protrusion ends up collecting a ton of scratches and scuffs, so if you’re not a case person, prepare yourself mentally for some very rapid wear and tear there.

One Plus phone

Beside punching above its weight in design, the OnePlus 5T also happens to have one of the better displays on the market today. My initial reaction upon hearing that this device has a 6-inch 18:9 OLED screen was to fear it was another of those poor LG OLED panels that has plagued the V30 and Google’s Pixel 2 XL. It was an unfounded fear, however, as OnePlus wisely waited until it could secure a Samsung OLED screen, and I’ve been super satisfied with that choice.

On your first look, you might not even recognize this as an OLED display: it exhibits none of the telltale signs like lurid over-saturation or color-shifting (at anything but extreme viewing angles). It’s just a very good and reliable screen, and OnePlus has gone to the trouble of providing sRGB and DCI-P3 color calibration options for those among us who care. Knowing the company’s geeky target audience, there’ll be plenty of us who do make use of that facility, and I myself have opted for the sRGB option.

The biggest advantage of this display over the majority of others is the slimness of its bezels, which OnePlus enhances with a thoughtful software tweak. The on-screen Android buttons, which are typically pervasive across all apps that don’t take over in full-screen mode, can be “minimized” on the 5T. You can choose to have them hidden until you want to use them, at which point you can bring them back with a swipe up from the bottom. That gives you the entire 6-inch screen to read tweets and compose emails on, freeing up yet more space. The OnePlus 5T can feel downright luxurious compared to other Android phones in an information-dense app like Gmail, Slack, or Kindle. That being said, I do find myself needing those Android keys a little too often in my daily use to keep them hidden; so this new change is beneficial, but only in circumstances where you don’t have to do much multitasking.

Another improvement from OnePlus with the 5T is a so-called Sunlight Display mode. It’s part of the company’s adaptive mode, and it kicks in when it detects you’re out in bright sunlight. Contrast and other screen parameters are automatically boosted when you set up to compose a photo or video, go into your gallery, or start a game. November in the Northern Hemisphere doesn’t provide the ideal conditions for testing outdoor visibility, and I’ve been highly satisfied with the 5T’s performance outside even without Sunlight Display on. Still, it’s good to know that automatic adjustment exists: trying to take photos in the summer with an OLED screen has often been a challenge, and OnePlus is ironing out that kink and showing it’s thinking about the ways its devices are used.

Reading Mode on the OnePlus 5.

Marking a welcome return from the OnePlus 5 is the desaturated Reading Mode that I’ve enjoyed very much. True to its name, it makes reading on this phone a much easier and more pleasant task than on most. It is another novel departure from the typical smartphone experience that I very much appreciate. Plus, in typical OnePlus tradition, there’s a nice dark theme that flips all the menus and the app drawer into blackness.

The 2160 x 1080 resolution of the 5T isn’t the highest available, however with 401-ppi pixel density, it’s ample for most people’s needs. The most apparent imperfection to this display is actually how it looks when it’s off: the 5T’s Samsung OLED panel isn’t quite as black as the bezels, it reflects a little more light, and so I can perceive its edges. Why does this matter? Well, a phone like the Pixel 2 XL, iPhone X, LG V30, or any of Samsung’s most recent flagships tends to look like a monolithic block of black awesomeness when off. Part of the charm of OLED screens is in that their blacks are pure and perfect, and thus anything displayed on the screen seems to float atop that darkness. The OnePlus 5T spoils the illusion that the entire front is a display.

One Plus phone

My OnePlus 5 review read a lot like this OnePlus 5T review up to this point: good design, good display, with a couple of small critiques. Then things unraveled with the camera. Well, let me say that the 5T has better design, a better display, and now a definitively better camera, too. But it’s still mediocre by the standards of the wider phone market.

It’s arguably unfair that I keep comparing the OnePlus 5T to Samsung, Google, and LG flagships that cost dramatically more than the 5T. But OnePlus invites that comparison itself: the company actively wants to be considered alongside the giants of the Android world, and it definitely wants you to believe it has the best product. When it comes to the camera, I have to say that OnePlus flat out doesn’t have it. Yes, the 5T wins on design and display, but its biggest limitations are apparent with the quality of its images.

Having tried an iPhone-like dual-camera system with the 5 — one wide-angle lens and one telephoto — OnePlus is now switching things up again with an entirely new idea. Instead of different zoom levels, the two rear cameras on the 5T have different intended uses: the main one is unchanged from the OnePlus 5, but the secondary is now a dedicated low-light shooter. Both have a wide f/1.7 aperture, meaning they get plenty of light in, with the main sensor offering a 16-megapixel resolution (with 1.12μm pixels) and the secondary one coming in at 20 megapixels (with pixels measuring 1μm).

How can the second camera can be an improvement for low light when it has smaller pixels? Well, it uses pixel binning: combining the information of four pixels into one, and then re-interpolating back up to its full resolution. The trade-off is that you lose fine detail for the sake of lower image noise. OnePlus says that the system automatically switches to that second cam, but only in situations of less than 10 lux of light, which are quite rare. I’ve had a couple of reasonably good images in challenging lighting conditions with this phone, so I guess things are working as intended. I do like that these architectural changes are invisible to the end user: you still just point the camera at stuff and tap to shoot.

Two neat things about the OnePlus 5T’s camera interface: One is the ability to shoot by holding your finger on the fingerprint sensor on the back, ideal for people (like me) who prefer to shoot selfies with the rear camera. The other is the Pro Mode, which displays a histogram and gives access to manual ISO, white balance, and shutter speed adjustments. I’d be more enthusiastic about this latter part if I felt the camera had the potential to shoot photos that merit such finessing.

Ultimately, the OnePlus 5T’s camera lands in the territory of being serviceable. Decent, even. If you’re only looking at your photos on the phone itself, using them to Instagram a few sights or share moments with friends in a casual and unobsessive fashion, you’ll probably be just fine with the 5T. I have grown used to the higher standard of Google’s Pixel 2 camera, but that phone costs substantially more than this OnePlus device.

Portrait mode marks a return after a very poor debut on the OnePlus 5 and it’s much improved. OnePlus has scaled back the background-blurring effect, which helps to hide the errors when the camera miscalculates whether to blur or keep something in focus. But the system is a lot more robust now too: even in imperfect lighting, it usually identifies the face or object I’m trying to isolate from the background and it generally does the thing I want it to. As with all portrait modes, it’s still a work in progress that misses more than would be ideal, but at least now OnePlus has a respectable competitor, rather than a poorly executed feature. Bonus points for not needing to zoom in to capture a portrait shot — as the iPhone does and the OnePlus 5 used to — with the new camera setup on the 5T.

A note of caution about the front-facing camera: it has the beautification filter on by default — which results in flattening and lightening of skin tone and softening of detail to the point of obliteration — and if you want to take even semi-realistic selfies, you’ll have to tone that stuff down. For a while, I didn’t realize where to disable the (supposed) beautification and my selfies were taken in a world where there are no skin pores, no wrinkles, and absolutely no photographic detail.

Internally, the OnePlus 5T is almost painfully familiar: a Snapdragon 835 system-on-chip with Adreno 540 graphics is flanked by either 6GB (good) or 8GB (entirely excessive) of RAM, with a corresponding 64GB or 128GB of storage. No expansion options available, but you get two nano-SIM card slots. I like that OnePlus is among the first to support Bluetooth 5, which together with support for AptX HD makes this phone a good candidate to serve as your source for wireless music listening. That being said, OnePlus is staying faithful to its users by also continuing to include a headphone jack.

One Plus phone
One Plus phone
One Plus phone

The battery hasn’t changed from the OnePlus 5, it still measures in at 3,300mAh, and the 5T’s highlight power technology is still Dash Charge, the rapid-charging solution that OnePlus says its users are delighted with. That’s all well and good, but you need to use the particular OnePlus charging cable and charger to get the benefit. If you’re like me and you travel a lot, have a billion cables, and prefer the convenience of charging both your laptop and phone with the same charger, all this Dash Charge action is kind of for naught. More to the point, people are starting to expect wireless charging from their flagship phones, and OnePlus, a company that prides itself on “only making flagships” is starting to fall behind on expectations. The right answer here is to just include both fast wired charging and wireless charging, as many of OnePlus’ competitors now do.

My experience with the OnePlus 5T extends the positive impression I’ve traditionally had of the battery life of OnePlus phones. The company makes a point of optimizing its software down to a lean and efficient state that’s not too demanding on system resources and power. The time that Samsung might spend thinking of spots to add more Bixby bloat, OnePlus uses to file away an extra layer of clutter. The 5T has impressed me with its endurance, comparing favorably to the Google Pixel 2 XL, LG V30, and HTC U11. I can’t give you a precise ranking of each of those phones — because of how varied the “typical” day’s smartphone usage is — but I can tell you that all of them will get you through a full day and usually deep into the next one on a single charge. No worries on this front.

OnePlus 5T

The best thing about the OnePlus 5T’s software is that the majority of its deviations from Google’s default Android settings are for the better. I’ve articulated a few of them already, including the more sophisticated and adjustment-rich camera software and the display enhancements. In terms of the Android UI, you can swipe down on the fingerprint reader to see your notifications, you can flip the order of your Android keys (or hide them entirely, as already mentioned), and you can double-tap the sleeping screen to activate it.

Face Unlock is the big discrete new feature in the latest software from OnePlus, using more than 100 identifiers to distinguish you from another person. (The company says it is different from the facial unlock features that have been in Android since version 4.0.) In all my testing, it never once gave a false positive of another person being able to log in to my phone with it. So that’s good. But it also let someone unlock the phone by merely flashing it at my face for a split second. That’s less good.

OnePlus warns that Face Unlock is not really a secure method to keep your phone locked down, and indeed the company only offers it for unlocking and doesn’t seek to exploit it for other things like payment authorization. In the constant struggle between convenience and security, this feature is firmly in the convenience section.

I find that Face Unlock usually works well, identifying me even in a perfectly dark room — the lock screen turns on, illuminates my face, and less than a second after that, I’m in — however it also has its struggles. In a club one night, the only way I could unlock the phone with my face was by having a friend point the flash on their phone at me. The 5T can handle the total lack of light, but it seems to be confounded by the cycling lights of an entertainment venue. Of course, unlike Apple’s “FaceID or bust” offering, the OnePlus 5T still has the fingerprint reader on its rear as a fallback biometric ID option.

One Plus phone

When it works, Face Unlock is stupidly fast and it combines nicely with the double-tap-to-wake gesture. I think a lot of people will use it, enjoy it, and feel like they’re losing out on nothing relative to iPhone X users with their vastly more sophisticated FaceID technology. My opinion of this tech would probably be warmer if I didn’t have to maintain a tighter grip on security than Face Unlock would allow. I think the people who find other forms of security too fiddly might well be attracted by the ease of use here. To an authorized user, a phone with Face Unlock is (almost) the same as an unlocked phone. Room for improvement definitely remains, but this isn’t just some cynical Apple-chasing gimmick.

I am also a fan of the new Parallel Apps feature that OnePlus has implemented. It lets you clone social apps so that you can run a second instance of, say, Twitter or Telegram. This is a nice convenience for anyone looking to keep private and professional messages separate. This, together with the aforementioned Reading Mode, a Gaming Mode that disables all visual notifications, an Extended Screenshot facility, and a few other tiny tweaks to how Android works makes using the OnePlus 5T feel like a better, more complete experience.

Having laid out all the things I like about OnePlus’ gentle alterations of Android, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bemoan the fact that the OnePlus 5T doesn’t run the latest Android. Instead of Android 8 Oreo, which has been officially available for more than three months, buyers of the 5T will get Android 7.1.1 Nougat. I’ve written more extensively on the subject of why this is a problem, but here it’s sufficient to say that it just doesn’t breathe confidence in me if a manufacturer isn’t able to implement a new version of the OS within the space of three months. It doesn’t bode for future updates down the line.

One Plus phone

The OnePlus 5T is a slightly great phone. In today’s world of superb mobile cameras, no phone can be truly great without having a great camera on board, and I don’t think the 5T has one of those. But pretty much everything else about this phone lives up to the aspiration of premium, flagship-tier quality. The 5T is a $499 phone doing admirable battle with devices sometimes twice its price. For anyone whose budget extends no further than this phone, I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

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Good Stuff

  • Minimalist, elegant design
  • Fits 6-inch display within the dimensions of a one-handed phone
  • Thoughtfully optimized software
  • Reading Mode

Bad Stuff

  • The main camera is still mediocre, while the selfie cam is a disaster
  • Shipping without the latest version of Android is not encouraging
  • Face Unlock grows frustratingly inconsistent in challenging light
  • Still not waterproof

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