OnePlus 5 review: Making the leap from good to great

It's a powerhouse with a modest price tag.

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    We've been following OnePlus and its journey to build a better flagship phone for years. Along the way, it managed a feat that's difficult for even the biggest conglomerates: The company kept outdoing itself. I don't mean to spoil the fun here, but the team has done it again with the OnePlus 5. Really, what's most striking is just how much this tiny company managed to get right in a phone that costs less than $550 (more on that later). It might not have every single whiz-bang feature that you'll find in other flagship smartphones, but the thoughtful balance of style, power and price make it a star.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    from $549.99
    90
    Pros
    • Excellent performance
    • Good battery life
    • Dual camera works very well
    • The price!
    Cons
    • Design is starting to feel generic
    • Still no expandable memory
    • Dash charging is a closed standard

    Summary

    Building a great phone is hard enough, so building a great phone on a budget should be infinitely more difficult. With its fifth flagship, OnePlus makes it look easy. The OnePlus blazingly fast, with a surprisingly good dual camera and solid battery life. OxygenOS is a refreshingly light take on Android, too, and the phone's build quality seems top-notch. It's too bad that OnePlus's designs seem to be getting more generic as time goes on, and that the phone's screen doesn't pack the same punch as its competitors. Ultimately, despite some compromises, the OnePlus is both an excellent phone and an excellent value.

    Hardware and design

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    Before we go any further, a few notes: We're reviewing the top-of-the-line OnePlus 5, with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (available only in black). This model will set you back $540, but that's still highly reasonable for the specs you get. Fortunately, there's also a version with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (available only in gray) — that'll set you back $480, and should still give every other flagship a run for its money.

    Both versions of the phone are identical otherwise, from the Snapdragon 835 chipsets they share to their sealed, 3,300mAh batteries. (Yes, that's just a hair smaller than the battery we got in the 3T.) For better or worse, though, OnePlus still prefers giving its phones two nanoSIM slots instead of a spot for a SIM and a microSD card. While this flexibility (and support for loads of GSM and LTE bands) make OnePlus 5 an excellent travel device, you're better off getting the more expensive mode if you can afford it.

    Gallery: OnePlus 5 review | 23 Photos

    All of those components are wrapped in a sleek, anodized aluminum body that, yeah, kind of looks like an iPhone. Some of the cosmetic touches are similar, like the placement of the fingerprint sensor and the dual-camera. More bothersome is how the classic OnePlus design language has matured to a point where it's starting to feel a little generic. The original OnePlus One was an unmistakable device — you just can't say the same about the OnePlus 5.

    None of that takes away from how well-built this phone is, though. It's the thinnest flagship the startup has made, and at 153g, it's a just a bit lighter than the phone it replaces. All the usual OnePlus touches apply, too. High on the OP5's right side is a handy textured notification slider that lets you quickly jump between notification levels like Priority (where only some people get through) and Do Not Disturb.

    Meanwhile, you'll find capacitive keys on either side of the fingerprint-sensing home button that act as the Back and Recent buttons. You can swap their order or, if you're like me and accidentally hit them all the time with your hand-meat, ditch 'em in favor of some on-screen keys instead. It's this kind of flexibility that keeps OnePlus fans coming back for more.

    Display and sound

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    This year, we're working with another 5.5-inch AMOLED panel running at 1080p, with a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio and no curves. (It is, however, covered in a slightly curved plate of Gorilla Glass 5 that's already getting dinged up.) While I would've loved to see OnePlus embrace the no-bezel look that its rivals have, it's pretty clear why it hasn't: It'd be a financial nightmare. Personally, I'm just fine with the compromise OnePlus made here.

    It might not be quite as crisp as the Galaxy S8's screen but the pixel density on this 5.5-inch, 1080p screen works out to 401 PPI. During my testing, that's been more than enough for nitpicking details in photos and reading very small text. Brightness was also sufficient — I took the phone for several long walks and had no trouble seeing directions.

    The fact that we're getting a no-nonsense screen doesn't mean we're not getting any frills. After user feedback, OnePlus added an sRGB color mode to the 3 via software update — this time the team added support for the DCI-P3 color gamut, a move Apple embraced in its most recent iPhones. These are nice perks for display junkies, but most people will never touch these settings — the punchy default mode is already very pleasant. In fact, my only real complaint is that you'll see some mild color distortion if you look at the screen from a very oblique angle. That's less a problem for you than for the person snooping on your texts from the seat next to you.

    Meanwhile, the speaker situation hasn't changed much: There's still a single grille drilled into the phone's bottom edge, and it's a little louder than the 3T at maximum volume. I've mostly used the OnePlus to blast music and podcasts for a week, and both came out sounding bright if a little muddy at high volume. As always, you'll want to turn to headphones for the best possible audio quality. On the flip side, OnePlus baked three microphones into the phone for improved audio recording, and the difference was clear. I recorded a room full of chattering family members on Father's Day, and the 5 produced clearer, cleaner sound than the 3T.

    Software

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    As always, the OnePlus 5 runs a custom version of Android called OxygenOS (version 4.5 now). Think of it as "stock Android plus" — it's built atop a clean version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat and loaded with a host of helpful tweaks and options to give power users more control. You can, launch apps by drawing symbols on the screen or swipe into a "shelf" to the left of your home screen to quickly check the weather and leave yourself memos. Want to switch to a dark theme or inject some pink highlights into the interface like I did? Done and done.

    The settings app is rife with modifications that both expand Android's usefulness and make it feel more personal, but all of this stuff is hidden under the surface. If you just want a smooth Android experience, you could very easily ignore it all. These broad strokes will be all too familiar to OnePlus fans, but there are plenty of new touches as well.

    There's a Do Not Disturb mode specifically for gaming, which automatically blocks notifications from rolling in when you're midmatch. More useful for me was a reading mode that makes the screen go gray scale when you launch certain apps — say, Amazon's Kindle or The New York Times. It's certainly easier on the eyes, but I'm never going to give up my e-reader. There's also a "secure box" for storing sensitive files and apps from prying eyes (a la Samsung), which is always more useful than people are generally willing to admit. Beyond that, most of the changes are pretty subtle -- you can customize how the phone vibrates more specifically and night mode can be set to automatically activate with the sunset.

    Curiously, my OnePlus 5 was supposed to have Google's Assistant preloaded — emphasis on "supposed to." I've since been able to confirm that the Assistant works as well as expected on other OnePlus 5s, so hopefully, this is just a rare mistake that users will never have to deal with.

    Camera

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    Dual cameras in smartphones may have seemed like a flash in the pan at first, but it's clear they're not going anywhere except in our pockets. Most of the time you'll be using the 16-megapixel main camera, which stacks up well against devices like Samsung's Galaxy S8. Photos taken with the OnePlus 5 were generally a little darker and less saturated than their S8 counterparts, but the sensor's higher resolution kept things crisp and occasionally captured details Samsung's might have missed.

    It's also very quick to focus thanks to the way Sony has arranged the focus pixels on the sensor — long story short, you're probably not going to miss the moment unless your reflexes suck. The camera also has an f/1.7 aperture, which made shots taken in dim conditions come out brighter than expected, though grain became an issue when lighting was anything less than optimal. As light grew more scarce, edges softened and textures became more indistinct.

    Having another, separate 20-megapixel telephoto camera to switch into is very helpful, and it's a pleasant surprise to see OnePlus use a higher-resolution sensor for the zoom camera. (The G6, for example, uses a pair of 13-megapixel sensors.) Color saturation and detail seemed slightly better here as well, to the point where I sometimes preferred shooting in 2x mode. Thankfully, switching between the two takes a single tap, while a sideways slide brings the zoom level as high as 8x.

    Gallery: OnePlus 5 camera samples | 16 Photos

    Both of these cameras are used for the depth-effect mode, which adds a bunch of bokeh behind your subject. It's a crowd-pleaser, albeit a finicky one. You have to maintain the right distance from your subject and have enough light for the software to do its thing. The resulting shots are generally very good, and I've come to appreciate OnePlus's approach over the iPhone 7 Plus because it works surprisingly well on things besides faces. Beyond all that is a fairly spartan app for actually shooting these photos, which is just fine by me. There's no cruft here — the only other truly neat feature is a handy Pro mode, complete with a histogram to help experienced photographers expose their photos correctly.

    And what of the 16-megapixel front-facing camera? Well, selfies came out very crisp, and the new screen flash makes it easier to capture your duck-face in a dimly lit bar. Good enough for me.

    While I'd still give the photographic crown to Google's Pixel, OnePlus should be proud of its work. It's not perfect, but the dual camera here is well executed and raises the bar for a company that has struggled to get photography right.

    Performance and battery life

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    There was never any question that phone with specs like this would run well, but the OnePlus 5's performance took even me by surprise. I spent the past week as I always do — using the phone as my daily work multitasking machine, and then mixing things up with shootouts in Afterpulse or agonizing decisions in Telltale Games' Guardians of the Galaxy. Not once did I see the phone flinch, stutter or even drop a frame — it was almost weird how effortlessly the OnePlus 5 seemed to handle everything I threw at it. Based on my experience and the big, big numbers the phone put up in our suite of synthetic benchmarks, I have no doubt that this more expensive version of the OnePlus 5 will be overkill for most people.

    Don't get me wrong: Other flagship phones look and feel better, and pack so many exciting-sounding features that I'm surprised their marketing teams can keep up. Few other phones to date have felt this smooth, and hardly any have been able to offer up this level of performance. This, in short, is wild stuff for $540.

    OnePlus 5 Galaxy S8 Plus LG G6 Google Pixel XL OnePlus 3T
    AndEBench Pro 17,456 16,064 10,322 16,164 14,399
    3DMark IS Unlimited 40,081 35,626 30,346 29,360 31,691
    GFXBench 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 60 55 42 48 50
    CF-Bench 78,935 64,441 29,748 39,918 51,262

    The flip side to all this is that the OnePlus 5 actually has a slightly smaller battery than the model it replaces. OnePlus says that the sealed 3,300mAh battery is capable of lasting around 20 percent longer than last year's 3T, but I wasn't able to replicate those claims. That doesn't mean the battery sucks. In our standard rundown test, where we loop an HD video with Wi-Fi on and screen brightness set to half, the OnePlus 5 stuck around for fifteen hours and three minutes — that's better than any other flagship phone I've tested this year, but roughly an hour short of the bar set by the 3T in 2016.

    The OP5 fares better in daily use, though: while the OnePlus 3T generally lasted for just over a day on a single charge, the 5 routinely withstood a day and a half of mixed use. It doesn't take much to get that up to two days — the battery saver mode is off by default, after all — but the included Dash charger means you can go a long way on a momentary recharge. When I forgot to plug in the phone overnight, a 15-minute top-up was enough to last me most of a day. Just try (hard) not to lose the cable or the charger, because you'll need both to charge as quickly as possible.

    The competition

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    On one end of the price spectrum are the flagship contenders, like the Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and LG's G6. The base level Galaxy S8 costs about $100 more than this particular OnePlus 5, and it's an absolutely gorgeous device. While you get a drool-worthy screen, you'd have to put up with loads of Samsung-mandated apps that you may not want.

    The G6 is similarly laden with LG software you probably don't want, but its own dual camera setup offers more flexibility and media creation features. At $599, the unlocked G6 is still more expensive than the high-end OnePlus 5 and runs with a pokier chipset to boot. The price comparisons hurt when you look at iPhones, too. An iPhone 7 Plus with its dual camera and 128GB of storage costs $869 unlocked.

    If you're on a budget and looking for a great device in the same ballpark, there's always the Moto Z2 Play. In our initial testing, it proved to be an excellent modular midrange option with a lovely sense of style. That said, it costs $499 unlocked and offers a fraction of the power the OnePlus 5 does.

    Wrap-up

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    I've been using a Galaxy S8 as my daily driver since I started reviewing it, and I thought it was going to stay in my rotation indefinitely. Well, sorry, Samsung — I don't think I'm going to put the OnePlus 5 down anytime soon. The company built a phone that's very, very hard to dislike. It's blazingly fast, has a surprisingly good camera and excellent battery life. Its version of Android is surprisingly clean, and the price tag means true flagship power won't destroy your wallet.

    Is it perfect? No. But building a phone like this is always an exercise in compromise, and the balance that OnePlus struck among form, functionality and price is incredible. Whether this means OnePlus becomes a household name remains to be seen. For now though, it's, clear that anyone looking for a high-powered smartphone should have the OnePlus 5 on her shortlist.

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