Ever since handling the super-thin Finder and the beautiful Find 5, we've grown quite confident in Oppo's build quality. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that Oppo is one of the best Chinese mobile manufacturers when it comes to craftsmanship. Unsurprisingly, then, the N1 doesn't disappoint. The new phone currently comes in white only for the global version (there's a blue option as well for China), and its 9mm-thick body is mainly fashioned out of solid plastic with a smooth ceramic finish to deter fingerprints. It's also surrounded by an aluminum alloy frame, which sticks out by about a millimeter to produce a double chamfer. The result is a good-looking phone with added grip and rigidity.
At 82.6mm wide, the N1 is clearly not designed for full-time single-hand use, but it's narrow enough for a comfortable grip in portrait mode. The gently curved back and rounded edges help the ergonomics as well. Depending on the depth of your front pockets, they might just fit this 170.7mm-tall phone. For example, my Levi's 505 jeans managed to conceal the N1 just fine, but my Uniqlo S003's pockets expose about an inch of the phone, at which point there's less leeway for when I'm walking upstairs.
On paper, the N1 has a decent set of specs, including a pretty 5.9-inch 1080p IPS screen (with Gorilla Glass 3), a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 SoC and 2GB of RAM. These are also featured on the HTC One Max, but the N1 edges it out with a larger 3,610mAh fixed battery. On paper, then, the N1 should have a longer battery life. Still, both phones weigh a little over 210g, which will take some getting used to. For your reference, lighter alternatives with the same or similar screen size include the 168g Samsung Galaxy Note 3, the 177.6g Alcatel OneTouch Hero and the 170g Coolpad Magview 4. Then again, you'd have to fork out a lot more money for one of these. That or move to a different country. And of course, none of them offer a swivel camera.
Other specs on the N1 include 16GB or 32GB of built-in storage ($599/$649), 13-megapixel f/2.0 camera, penta-band WCDMA radio (works on AT&T and T-Mobile), 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. The lack of LTE is a given since this Chinese phone predates the upcoming dual-mode LTE lot, but we are slightly disappointed by the missing microSD slot, especially for the 16GB model -- it won't take long before you run out of room for your music, 13MP photos and full HD videos. On the bright side, the 32GB model is now available, but having an expandable storage option wouldn't hurt, either -- at least for the sake of easier content transfer from another device. We'll change our mind when Oppo follows in Meizu's footsteps and releases a 128GB version.
Like most Android phones these days, you get the usual three capacitive Android buttons below the screen, along with a power button and volume keys on the right-hand side of the device. The 3.5mm headphone jack, micro-USB port and loud mono speaker are located along the bottom side. The unusual bit -- and the main selling point -- is the hinged module at the top, which houses the earpiece, proximity sensor, camera and LED flash. With the ability to flip the camera from back to front at 206 degrees, you're getting 13 megapixels of selfie goodness here, as well as the versatility of shooting at all sorts of angles without having to hold the phone awkwardly -- just be careful with whom you're doing this in front of, naturally. As a bonus, this feature doubles as a multi-angle LED flashlight.
Oppo claims to have tested the rotation 100,000 times, and assuming one flips the camera about 40 times a day, the mechanism is guaranteed to last for up to seven years. We haven't had any problems with it so far -- the hinge is still tight, and we also like how the camera snaps back into its default position at about five degrees in. We'll go over the camera performance later on in this review.
We'd much prefer having the trackpad positioned farther up on the phone.
There's one more hardware feature on the phone: Oppo's thrown in a 12-square-centimeter "O-Touch" trackpad on the back, which is for scrolling and capturing photos with one hand. Alas, it's far from perfect. We'd much prefer having the trackpad positioned farther up on the phone -- preferably where the Oppo logo is. With its current position, I often swipe the trackpad by mistake while holding the phone; and when I do want to use it, I have to shift my hand farther down the phone in order to reach the pad with my index finger. This way, I end up with an awkward hand grip, with the phone's bottom-right corner digging into the base of my right thumb. I've let several people try this feature and they, too, found it awkward due to the position. Another problem is that even with the trackpad fenced in, I still often have to flip the phone around to get my finger within the right area. The small glossy logo in the middle only helps to an extent; the phone would need something like a texturized surface across the entire trackpad to make a significant improvement.
As for O-Touch gestures, I've had different experiences between my CyanogenMod N1 and my Color OS N1. Simply put, the Color OS implementation is more advanced, allowing real-time scrolling in many apps like Photos, Google Maps, Gmail, Play Store and Chrome. What's been bugging me here is the delay between an initial touch and response (which is likely an intended condition for the gesture's activation), so hopefully Oppo can reduce this. Oddly, you don't get real-time scrolling for the home screens -- as in you only jump from one home screen to another after you've done a swipe, not while you're swiping. Some popular apps like Kindle and Baidu Map lack O-Touch scrolling altogether, but Oppo should be able to add support if there's a demand.
On the other hand, O-Touch on CyanogenMod is still stuck with gesture-based input at the moment, meaning you only get a single scroll once a swipe gesture is complete, and it's a page jump instead of a smooth scroll. This obviously becomes a nightmare when browsing continuous content like text and maps. Oppo told us that the CyanogenMod ROM will eventually receive the same O-Touch update as featured on Color OS, but there was no date given at the time of writing this review.
The O-Touch camera shutter tap gesture on CyanogenMod is also bizarre, as it requires a double-tap to capture a photo, which often resulted in blurry shots for us. The Color OS version has a slightly better implementation: You tap and hold until the phone acknowledges with a vibration, and then let go to take a photo. Still, you'd be better off using the countdown timer, volume keys or the bundled O-Click remote control for the sake of stability.
Speaking of which, the O-Click is a minimalistic Bluetooth LE key fob that serves three roles: a remote camera shutter button, a phone locator and a proximity alarm. It's really just a prettier version of the HTC Fetch. We found it a bit tricky to rip the battery cover open at first, but once the CR2016 button cell was inserted, it was just a matter of following the pairing instructions -- either in CyanogenMod's settings menu or in Color OS' O-Click app.
As a phone locator or a remote shutter (a handy feature for group selfies), the O-Click works from up to 15 meters, as advertised. The proximity alert feature, however, only worked well with my Color OS N1 and not with my CyanogenMod N1; the alarm goes off even when the phone and the fob are relatively close to each other. Specifically, I occasionally got the beep on the O-Click in my pocket, when I was merely holding the phone while walking, so it was well within the 5-meter limit. We've also seen similar complaints on the internet. At any rate, Oppo told us that there's a fix on its way.
The N1 comes with a pair of surprisingly good metallic in-ear headphones, but for some reason, Oppo's earlier batch of N1s only provides medium-sized noise-isolating tips. If you need other sizes, you'll have to make a request through either the online or offline stores. Unsurprisingly, the earphones are hardly top-of-the-range, but the audio performance is still satisfactory -- just a slight bias to the treble range, whereas the bass is just right for the likes of jazz and classical music. If you don't mind losing the hands-free feature, you'll want to plug in some more decent headphones (we've been using the KEF M200, for instance), as the N1 really deserves better equipment to justify its great audio output capability.
As for call quality, we haven't had any issues with the bundled hands-free headphones or the phone alone, and the dual-mic noise cancellation has been working quite well. All we ask of Oppo is that it bumps the phone's earpiece volume up slightly, as we've struggled to hear the other side in noisy environments.
While the N1 boasts the title of being the first CyanogenMod-supported phone approved by Google, the regular edition is preloaded with Oppo's own Color OS, which is skinned with optional online themes and laid out differently than stock Android. (Our review unit is based on Android 4.2.2.) We've been able to use the N1 extensively on both Color OS (above left) and CyanogenMod 10.2 (above right), and as much as we like the latter's cleaner, more original experience, we ended up preferring the Color OS version for its bigger feature set.
Let's start off with Color OS' general layout. The ROM offers three home screen panels by default, but you can add up to nine and rearrange them in the home screen portal, which is accessible by pinching any of your home screens. Nothing unique here. The portal is also a quick way to jump from one home screen to another, or you can quickly slide between them by scrolling along the dots just above the five-icon dock. As for the usual swiping between home screens, you have the ability to toggle between three animation effects: the default scrolling, tilting mode (the entire home screen panel tilts) and vivid mode (each icon and widget tilts). You can set this by hitting the menu button on any home screen, and then hitting "Effects." You can also change the ROM's theme in the same menu or in the Theme app, with the latter offering more than 90 online themes for free.
Our favorite visual feature on the home screen is the live weather effect. In the home screen menu, hit the middle round button and you'll see the "Live weather" option. Here you can choose to activate it according to real-time weather (which is tied to the location last displayed by your weather widget or app), or you can manually pick an effect from this list: dandelion (windy), sunny, rain, snow, fog, cloudy and thundershowers. The results are pretty cool, including how the raindrops bounce off icons, how the snow settles on them (you can also shake it off), how they reflect lightning and how the fog steams up your screen (you can wipe it clean with your finger). The virtual precipitations and dandelion seeds also sway in the direction you're scrolling. Most of the time these don't affect the UI's smoothness, but the rain effect often suffers from a stuttering frame rate. Overall, this is a fun feature to have, not to mention show off to others.
In addition to these home screens, Color OS offers "exclusive space" panels that work like full-screen widgets, but they still offer a few essential shortcuts at the bottom. Sadly, you can't move these around as they are always placed in the farthest right of the panels. At the moment, you only get "photo space" and "music space," but Oppo plans to add more spaces at some point. You can toggle these by hitting the menu button on any home screen, tapping on the middle yin-yang-like round button and hitting "exclusive space."
Photo space is a photo diary timeline with a little camera app at the top, and you can add a 30-character caption to each framed and date-stamped photo. Girls might enjoy this feature more than guys would. As for music space, it's essentially a simplified version of Oppo's own music app, showing you just a slowly rotating vinyl record (with the album art in the middle). If you're on a home screen, music space loads up automatically when you plug in your headphones, and you can start playing music by dragging the tonearm onto the record. To switch to the next song, just flick down on the record. Between these two, we don't mind using photo space, but we wouldn't miss music space if it were taken away.
For Android traditionalists, the one common problem with Chinese Android ROMs is the lack of an app drawer, meaning your entire app collection is spread across home screens. Fortunately, Color OS isn't in this category. And unlike stock Android (and CyanogenMod, for that matter), Oppo's ROM also lets you group apps into folders in the drawer, as well as sort the apps alphabetically only when you want to (the option pops up when you hold down on any icon in the drawer).
The pull-down notification tray in Color OS consists of both setting-shortcut buttons and notifications on the same page, as opposed to having separate tabs for each group. We like it this way, especially since we have plenty of screen space to play with. You can also toggle between the full shortcuts panel (showing all 15 buttons plus the brightness slider), and a smaller version with just a row of five common buttons (WiFi, mobile data, ring, O-Touch and screen rotation) and the brightness slider. The only thing missing here is the ability to rearrange these buttons by the user.
We're most impressed by the gesture panel feature in Color OS, which lets you toggle an app, launch a website or call a contact with custom gestures. By default, you toggle this mode by swiping down from the left-most section of the status bar, but you can also change this to launch from the right edge of the bar. You're given two gestures to start off with: a circle for camera, and a "V" for flashlight. Adding a custom gesture is just a matter of drawing your desired pattern on the panel, and then clicking "Apply the gesture to" at the bottom-left corner. You can also hit the "Settings" button to see your list of active gestures, but if you do end up trying to add an assigned gesture, you'll be prompted by the system about that to avoid a clash.
Conveniently, you can also use the camera and flashlight gestures when the screen is turned off. These work alongside the music-control gestures (">" or "<" to switch songs, and two fingers down to play or pause) and the double-tap wake gesture. But just to be clear, these music-control gestures aren't available in the gesture panel, which makes sense as you're better off using the music widget in the notification tray. On a related note, your custom gestures for the gesture panel don't work when the screen is off, but if Oppo can work around the technical difficulties, we'd love to have more versatility here.
Color OS offers more gesture-based features beyond the aforementioned gesture panel, and these can be toggled in the system settings. At any instance (as long as the screen is turned on), you can activate the camera by pinching the screen with three or more fingers; likewise with volume control by swiping with two fingers up or down, as well as taking a screenshot by swiping with three. There are also motion-based features, such as camera activation when you flip the camera around (even when the screen is off or password protected). You can also flip the phone to mute and turn off speaker mode when you lift the phone mid-call. Plus, there are a few gestures that use the proximity sensor: Auto call the contact you're looking at (when the phone is placed near the ear), auto-answer a call and lock the touchscreen while in a pocket. Some of these features already exist in other modern phones from the likes of HTC, Samsung and Nokia, but not all of them have a portfolio as complete or as flexible as Oppo's.
Color OS comes with a set of customized essential apps, including Calendar (it took us a while to discover that a vertical swipe cycles through different view modes), Compass, Email, Gallery, Files, Music, Notes (with image and camera support, but no voice memo), Sound Recorder, Weather and even a user manual. Needless to say, if you'd rather stick with what you're used to, you can head over to Google Play -- which is included in the global version of Color OS, but not on the China version -- and grab your apps from there.
Oppo's also thrown in some handy extras, namely Data Monitor, Data Saving (for preventing your chosen apps from connecting in the background), App Encryption and Holiday Mode (the phone alerts you of calls and messages only from whitelisted contacts, as well as a third consecutive call from the same contact in the space of three minutes). You also get 5GB of Amazon-powered cloud storage with backup service using the O-Cloud app.
For those who care, the N1's Color OS comes with three Gameloft games: Green Farm 3, Little Big City and Wonder Zoo. The good news is you can uninstall these if they're not your cup of tea, but there is one third-party app that we're more than happy to keep: Swype. This keyboard is a very recent addition to Color OS (since build N1_12_140124), replacing the GO Keyboard that brought us more frustration than productivity. While it's true that you can install other keyboard apps, Oppo deserves credit for drastically improving the N1's out-of-the-box experience.
Now, the CyanogenMod side of the Oppo N1. For the majority of N1 users, you can download this ROM -- essentially stock Android 4.3 with CyanogenMod enhancements -- and then flash it in recovery mode. It's pretty straightforward; anyone can do it. Alternatively, you can just buy the CyanogenMod Edition N1 to save the hassle, plus it comes with a cool limited edition silicone case. As you'd expect, this alternative firmware has at least basic support for the N1's unique hardware features, and as it stands, CyanogenMod delivers a more up-to-date Android core than its Color OS counterpart. But that doesn't necessarily mean you should ignore Color OS entirely.
This is the true beauty of CyanogenMod ROMs -- it's a dream come true for OCD smartphone users.
You see, as we mentioned in the hardware section earlier, CyanogenMod is slightly behind when it comes to O-Touch and O-Click support. And while CyanogenMod also supports the same set of screen-off gestures (double-tap to wake, circle for camera, arrows or pause sign for music control and "V" for flashlight), it's still missing out on the pull-down gesture panel and weather effects. But what you get in return is greater flexibility when it comes to tweaking the interface. For example, you can rearrange the quick settings tiles, adjust the home screen grid size (up to 7 x 7, but labels are cropped), change the status bar indicators, add a quick settings ribbon to the notification drawer, reorient volume buttons when the screen is rotated and toggle each of the four orientation angles for screen rotation. That's the beauty of CyanogenMod ROMs: It's a dream come true for OCD smartphone users.
So in summary, stick to Color OS for all the bells and whistles (and likely quicker updates), and use CyanogenMod if you want a smooth and native Android experience, total control over the UI and better overall performance. It's also worth mentioning that CyanogenMod is likely to get Android 4.4 sooner, as the CM 11.0 M3 release came out not long ago.
Before this review, we wondered whether the N1's swivel camera would end up being a gimmick. After all, most of us have been putting up with our phones' lesser front-facing cameras just fine. Plus, until now, the swivel camera hadn't made an appearance since the days of feature phones. But over time, we grew fond of the N1's swivel camera more and more. Two things: One is that the 13-megapixel f/2.0 camera easily beats all existing front-facing cameras on phones, and the other is the attention one indulges in when showing off this huge and weird device. For the latter, it's usually the sheer size that wows people first (a TSA officer at McCarran International Airport once asked this author, "Damn! Is that a TV you got there?"), and then jaws drop when they see the camera flip around ("I need one!").
Ultimately, it's all about the camera performance, and we're happy to say that in most cases, the image quality is top-notch. But first, let's get one thing out of the way: Going back to the issue of the two ROMs' performance being out of sync, Color OS appears to have better camera software. For instance, when we compared the two ROMs side by side, the focus speed and accuracy were slightly better on Color OS. Also, while the camera apps from both ROMs share a near-identical set of features, the minimally designed CyanogenMod version lacks manual-exposure time setting for the slow-shutter mode, though it does gain a few extra scene modes and numerical choices (like resolutions, burst-mode limit and timer countdown). We'll focus on the Color OS version for this section.
The Color OS' camera UI is pretty straightforward, with the button at the bottom-right corner of the viewfinder offering five camera modes: normal, HDR, panorama, beautify and slow shutter. The normal and beautify options are further supported by six scene modes at the top-right corner: auto, smart scene, portrait, landscape, sports and night. The settings are at the top-left button, where you can toggle the image resolution (13MP at 4:3, 10MP at 16:9, 3MP at 4:3 and 2MP at 16:9), video mode (1080p, 720p, 480p, HDR and slow motion at 480p), tap shutter, timer (5-second countdown; but you may as well just use the O-Click remote), shutter sound, location and O-Touch shutter. The flash settings are simply on, off, auto and fill light; but what's less obvious is how the dual LEDs work: The bottom one is for a normal flash, and the top one is for a diffused, softer light that's activated in fill light mode. The latter LED also switches to a lower intensity when you flip the camera around, and our selfies turned out pretty well using this flash mode.
Speed-wise, Oppo claims the N1's camera boots up in just 0.6 second. In reality, it's closer to somewhere between 0.8 and one second, which is still satisfactory. Burst mode is enabled by default: Simply hold down the capture button and you'll get up to 20 full-resolution shots in about four seconds -- so yes, make that 5 fps. These numbers may sound impressive, but it's the image quality that counts, and we regret to say that the latter has been a hit-or-miss affair even for single shots.
The main culprit appears to be the slower-than-usual shutter speed, which often produces slightly blurry shots in any lighting environment other than outdoors in the daytime. As such, we've conditioned ourselves to keep the steadiest possible hands, and also to always take multiple shots (but not burst shots) just in case. This becomes frustrating after a while, especially when you have to ask your friends to pose again after several blurry shots. Oppo needs to set HTC's UltraPixel as its benchmark for shutter speed, and at where it is now, it has some catching up to do. Even if this is due to Oppo intentionally lowering the CMOS sensor's sensitivity for the sake of cleaner images, we think there's still some leeway for a speed boost. At least let the users experiment with different ISO settings, which aren't available on either Color OS or CyanogenMod version at the moment.