OnePlus 5T Review: We Have a Winner

Posted on December 3, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 51 Comments

OnePlus 5T Review: We Have a Winner

The OnePlus 5T offers a modern design, a stunning 18:9 display, crazy-fast facial recognition, and more for about half the price of a typical smartphone flagship. What’s not to love?

Design

It all starts with the design, as it must. But the OnePlus 5T didn’t spring out of the ether: This design—which I find to be quite attractive—was informed by its predecessors, and by various competitors.

And as its name suggests, the OnePlus 5T is an evolution of the original OnePlus 5. That is, it is basically the same device internally, but with a few important changes—the display, the fingerprint reader, and the camera system—that make this rendition all the more desirable.

But there are detractors. With its iPhone-like rear camera bump and other familiar design notes, one might argue that the OnePlus 5T is no less derivative than that of its predecessor. But I’ve never been bothered by that sort of thing, and I still argue that one of the biggest strengths of this handset maker is its ability to bring the best flagship features to customers at far more affordable prices. And that extends, as it must, to the design.

On that note, I also wrote recently that the modern smartphone form factor has standardized around a tall and thin form factor with a 6-inch display, and OnePlus delivers on this recent design style in ways that I find more pleasing and attractive than Google’s take on this with the Pixel 2 XL.

These things are subjective, of course. But the OnePlus 5T is the better-looking of the two, despite their surface similarities. It’s thinner and a bit less tall and wide, and it has a tapered back and elegant curves, which gives the OnePlus 5T a more elegant and almost feminine look. I love the way it looks.

As important, the OnePlus 5T utilizes an anodized aluminum unibody design and it feels great in the hand. So good, in fact, that I don’t want to ruin the experience with a case. Thankfully, OnePlus was kind enough to supply reviewers with a selection of cases; in swapping them out, I’ve settled on the lowest profile version.

Curiously, OnePlus offers the 5T in just a single color, Midnight Black, right now. It’s gorgeous, but a few other choices would be nice. (Since writing this, I’ve learned that other color choices will be made available.)

Display

Anyone coming from a previous generation smartphone—OnePlus or otherwise—will immediately notice the OnePlus 5T’s stunning and tall edge-to-edge display. It’s 6-inches on the diagonal, but thanks to its 18:9 aspect ratio, it’s not unwieldy like a 6-inch display would be at 16:9.

The OnePlus 5T display is described as Full Optic AMOLED. To my eyes, it is perfectly tuned for color, meaning that it is delivers vibrant but realistic color with real whites, and not the slightly blue-tinged whites I see on the Pixel 2 XL display.

That said, some will gripe that the OnePlus 5T display offers a relatively paltry 1080p resolution, in this case, 2160 x 1080 (401 ppi), thanks to the 18:9 aspect ratio. We do live in an age of ever higher DPI smartphone displays, after all: By comparison, the Pixel 2 XL display is 2880 x 1440 (538 ppi) and the smaller (5.8-inch) Samsung Galaxy S8+ is 2960 x 1440 (570 ppi).

OnePlus says that the 1080p display was chosen to improve battery life, but I’d guess that the cost savings were enormous too. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter in the slightest: The OnePlus 5T display is gorgeous, whether you’re reading, enjoying a video, or playing a game. Looked at side-by-side with the Pixel 2 XL, I can’t detect any major differences.

Less successfully, the OnePlus 5T’s Sunlight Display mode is supposed to automatically overcome some of the limitations of AMOLED when used outside. I’m not seeing it: The OnePlus 5T display is just as washed-out as that of the Pixel 2 XL when used outside. My iPhone 7 Plus, with its IPS LCD display, is noticeably easier to see when used outside.

Hardware and specs

The OnePlus 5T matches or exceeds the specifications that we expect from a flagship smartphone. It includes an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 6 GB or 8 GB of RAM, and 64 or 128 GB of internal storage, albeit with no microSD expansion capabilities.

The RAM and storage choices are tied together, as OnePlus offers two models, one with 6 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage, and one with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. The review unit is the latter configuration, but I feel that either would be more than adequate for the two to three year lifetime of the device.

Connectivity is excellent, with broad worldwide LTE compatibility save CDMA networks like Verizon and Sprint. The device features MIMO 2×2 Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC capabilities.

One thing that is missing here is an IP rating for water resistance. I’m not personally very concerned about water, but that seems like a curious omission in a flagship-class smartphone and might worry some.

One thing that’s not missing, however, is the headphone jack: Unlike the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X, and the Google Pixel 2 XL, the OnePlus 5T somehow manages to retain this crucial feature despite its thinness.

Cameras

As is becoming increasingly common, OnePlus has outfitted the 5T with a dual rear camera system. It’s not the first time they’ve done so: The original OnePlus 5 also featured dual rear cameras too. But this version includes some major changes that OnePlus believes addresses evolving customer expectations.

From a specifications perspective, the OnePlus 5T features a 16 MP main sensor and a 20 MP secondary sensor. Both feature an f/1.7 aperture and a 27.22 mm focal length. The main sensor is identical to that from the original OnePlus 5, but that phone featured a telephoto secondary sensor.

So why the change? The new design aims to improve the camera’s performance in low-light conditions, a key strength of Google’s most recent Nexus and Pixel handsets. And it enables a dedicated Portrait Mode, as popularized by the iPhone, which combines the images from both cameras to create a nice bokeh effect in which the background is blurred, making the subject pop more.

The systems appears to work very well. The problem is that OnePlus is competing with some truly stunning smartphone cameras from Apple, Google, and Samsung. And “very well” doesn’t necessarily set it apart from some of the competition.

Photo comparison: OnePlus 5T (left) and Pixel 2 XL (right)

Put simply, the OnePlus 5T delivers excellent photos in ideal conditions, though it fails to match the stellar quality of, say, the Pixel 2 XL overall. On test shot after test shot, the OnePlus 5T photos look great until you compare them side-by-side with the same photos taken with the Pixel 2 XL. It’s particularly noticeable when you zoom into the shots.

Photo zoom comparison: OnePlus 5T (left) and Pixel 2 XL (right)

Likewise, low-light performance doesn’t match what Google accomplishes with the Pixel, though to be fair, most cameras don’t. It will be fine for most.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very decent smartphone camera. The issue is that I’ve experienced the best the market has to offer. And OnePlus doesn’t quite reach that quality level.

That said, there are some positive points too.

Like Portrait Mode. I’ve not been a fan of software-based Portait Modes in general, because edge detection is often hit-or-miss, and I find that even single camera systems—dating back to the Lumia 1020—can deliver excellent bokeh effects with no tricks. And I don’t have a 2017-era iPhone to compare this to the best that Apple has to offer.

But the OnePlus 5T Portait Mode works great, with great edge detection. It works well across a variety of subject types, from hard-edged objects like my podcasting microphone to plants, and, of course, people. The iPhone 7 Plus, by comparison, just can’t keep up. With that device, the edges of the foreground objects always suffer from blur in one or more areas. And you need to be much further from the subject when using Portrait Mode with the iPhone.

OnePlus delivers some other interesting camera features, too. There’s a real Pro Mode that lets you micromanage the ISO, white balance, shutter speed, focus, and exposure, and you can save to RAW if you’d like. The camera can also capture video at 4K using electronic image stabilization, which helps eliminates shakiness.

I don’t usually care too much about the front-facing selfie camera other than that it exist, but the OnePlus 5T offering is solid enough with a 16 MP sensor, HDR capabilities, and a fun screen-flashing feature that substitutes for a real flash.

Put simply, the cameras in the OnePlus 5T only narrowly fall short of the very best camera experiences that are available in today’s flagships. The quality and performance should be good enough for all but the most demanding of users.

Security

Thanks to its bigger, edge-to-edge display, the OnePlus 5T doesn’t have space for the front-facing fingerprint reader that graced previous devices. But that’s fine with me: The ceramic fingerprint reader—now ideally located on the middle back of the phone—is lightning-fast. It’s not anywhere near the camera—cough, Samsung—and your finger falls very naturally to it.

Some don’t like rear-mounted fingerprint readers, of course, and there are obvious complaints to be had about the awkwardness of unlocking a phone that is lying face-up on a table or desk. But OnePlus has an answer: You can enable an optional facial recognition feature that will unlock the phone when you turn on the display (and are looking at it).

No, it’s probably not as secure as the fingerprint reader. But it is scary-fast, and in testing it against other people in my family as a sort of parlor trick, we all came away really impressed at the accuracy and performance. Obviously, what I need to find is a doppelganger.

Unique hardware features

Like its predecessors, the OnePlus 5T includes two unique hardware features that have always differentiated OnePlus smartphones, Dash Charge fast-charging and an alert slider.

Dash Charge is interesting because there are competing pseudo-standards for fast-charging out there, but OnePlus has chosen to do its own thing. Normally, I would champion a more open approach, but Dash Charge really works, in that outperforms competing fast-charging solutions and the phone stays cool while doing so. In my tests, I was able to completely charge the device from 50 percent in about 25 minutes. OnePlus reports that a full charge will take about one hour, though I wasn’t able to test that.

The downside to any fast-charging solution, such as it is, is that you must use a proprietary charger to attain these speeds. OnePlus supplies that charger, and a color-matched USB-C cable, with the device, of course. And if you don’t have it with you, no worries: It will work normally with any USB-C charger.

The textured alert slider is so obviously wonderful and useful that I’m surprised other handset makers aren’t rushing to copy it. It’s basically a hardware front-end to the various notification modes in Android—silent, do not disturb, and ring—and you can customize each to your liking. Being able to quickly flip a switch to silence a phone, even when the display is off, and without having to dive into a settings interface somewhere, is wonderful, and an on-screen display appears so you know which setting you’ve selected. Nice.

Finally, the OnePlus 5T also includes a dual SIM slot, which lets you configure the device for two wireless carriers, or two different accounts on the same carrier, simultaneously. No, dual SIM capabilities are not unique to the OnePlus 5T, but this feature is still pretty unusual, despite its obvious usefulness. And it’s the type of thing that will put this phone over the top for some.

Software

The OnePlus 5T runs OxygenOS, which is a pure version of Android—version 7.1.1 for now, though support for Android 8.0 Oreo arrives soon—that I find quite appealing. In fact, OxygenOS is more “pure” than the versions of Android that Google modifies for its Pixel devices. And the software and features that OnePlus does add on top of Android are usually exceptional.

From a user experience standpoint, OxygenOS is a very customizable version of Android. But there are deeper changes occurring under the hood that are potentially game changing. With 6 or 8 GB of RAM, for example, a OnePlus 5T can theoretically outperform a similar Snapdragon 835-based flagship, and I’ve not experienced any slowdowns at all. OnePlus also optimizes the OS for multitasking and app launching performance, which help feel faster too.

And OnePlus packs OxygenOS full of useful additions to Android. There’s support for both light and dark themes, and multiple font and icon styles. Virtually everything is fully customizable, too: You can opt to take full advantage of the tall, gorgeous display by auto-hiding the Android navigation bar, for example, something I wish I could do with my Pixel 2 XL.

Default icon sets

A unique OnePlus feature called Parallel Apps lets you clone social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and Twitter so that you can use them with two different accounts. It’s a feature so obvious, in retrospect, that I wonder why it’s not just part of Android.

The OnePlus 5T also offers a wide range of optional gestures you can enable, like flip to mute, double-tap to wake, and a fingerprint reader-based swipe for displaying the system notification shade. Those are all available on some other Android phones, but OnePlus also lets you define custom actions tied to drawing the letters O, V, S, M, or W on the display with your finger. For example, if you drew an “O” on-screen, you might open the front camera or the flashlight. Fun.

A Reading Mode feature works a bit like the True Tone display on my iPad Pro by sensing the lighting conditions around the device and auto-tuning the display so that the reading app you’re using is optimally configured. For example, when I use the Kindle app, the display will subtly change to almost grayscale look, which is better for reading. When you switch out of the app, the display gradually colorizes, which is a surprisingly pleasant effect itself.

Reading Mode (emulated)

A feature called Gaming Do Not Disturb can be enabled to block notifications when you’re playing a game or any arbitrary app, which is amazing. The OnePlus 5T also supports expanded screenshots, which let you capture not just what you see on-screen, but the entire display of an app that extends past the screen’s edge.

To a one, these and other OnePlus applications and features are all great value-adds, and they together form yet another major differentiator for the device. This is the exact opposite of crapware, and each is truly useful or can simply be ignored by those who are not interested.

Pricing and availability

OnePlus sells two versions of the OnePlus 5T, and you can get them in any color as long as that color is Midnight Black. Again, that will change in the future, I’m told.

Both are exceptionally affordable.

The base OnePlus 5T—with 6 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage—costs just $499. For just $60 more, or $559, you can upgrade to a version with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. Competing flagships with similar specs typically sell for $850 to $1100, roughly double the price of the OnePlus 5T.

The OnePlus 5T is available throughout North America, Europe, and Asia via the OnePlus website. The device is only sold carrier unlocked, as God intended.

Recommendations and conclusions

The OnePlus 5T is that rarest of personal technology products, something I can recommend wholeheartedly and without caveat. At roughly half the price of a Google Pixel 2 XL, the OnePlus 5T is basically a no-brainer. It is the single greatest value in smartphones, and it delivers high-end specs and a gorgeous display that both meet or exceed the standards set by the market leaders. If you are looking for a new smartphone, the OnePlus 5T should make your short list. It’s a delightful phone, and is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Unrivaled value
  • Gorgeous display
  • Flagship specs
  • Solid camera
  • Truly unique and useful hardware features
  • Truly unique and useful software
  • Dual SIMs

Cons

  • No storage expansion
  • No Verizon compatibility
  • Camera doesn’t quite match that of the market leaders

 

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