OnePlus 5T Review Part 1: A solid all-rounder

This post is part of the series In-Depth

Other posts in this series:

  1. In-Depth: Understanding the Cortex A53 on Mobile SoCs
  2. In-Depth: Why phone manufacturers continue to eliminate the headphone jack despite all the backlash
  3. In-Depth: How Google talks to you and what WaveNet is all about

Silently setting their own trend of taking the holidays by a storm, OnePlus refreshed its flagship lineup with the OnePlus 5T. While last year’s T model brought us slightly upgraded internals, OnePlus has decided to change the phone’s looks this time around. And that’s for a very good reason – the OnePlus 5 looked too 2016-ish for a lot of the discerning customers. In a world where companies almost literally cut the corners to trim the screen bezels as much as possible, the OnePlus 5 touted chunky chins and an outdated design. Not to mention the camera woes in low light conditions.  

Sliding off the top lid of the box, we are greeted with the phone itself with a quality plastic screen protector installed. There’s no getting away from this, the phone’s front looks very attractive. Minimal bezels with nothing cluttering the front aside from the front-facing camera and the ear speaker. Aside from the phone, we get the Dash charger brick and proprietary cable and, rather surprisingly, a clear TPU case. Other contents include some OnePlus Never-Settle stickers and the usual quick start guides and the SIM ejection tool. Sadly there are no bundled earbuds in the box, but still, you can plug in yours through that headphone jack. Sometimes, settling is a good thing.

Build and design: Clean front, cluttered back

As you would expect from an incremental upgrade, the OnePlus 5T looks quite similar to its discontinued predecessor, sharing the same aluminum chassis as well as the buttons and ports placement and the front camera positioning. While the dual-camera cutout is in the same place, the lenses glass is now subtly surrounded by a small seamless curved aluminum outline, which makes the camera a bit more protruding. Of course, one of the most noticeable changes to the phone’s design is the new 18:9 aspect ratio AMOLED display and the trimmed chins, the main reason behind moving the ceramic fingerprint scanner to the back of the phone, below the OnePlus insignia. Thankfully, it is aligned with the central axis of the phone and is easily reachable by your index (cough cough…Samsung…cough cough). Needless to say, Alert Slider is still on board in the same spot as on the OnePlus 5.

During my usage, I have come to recognize that the OnePlus 5T’s buttons are a tad more satisfyingly clicky than the OnePlus 5’s when I first bought it, especially the volume rocker. The aluminum back still has a slightly slippery finish though, which makes fitting a case highly recommended. Fortunately, OnePlus ships a fairly thin TPU clear case in the box, which does the job just fine. It may be a bit too much of a fingerprint magnet though, but certainly, it will improve the phone’s grip. Unfortunately, there is no IP rating still. But with this being an aluminum constructed device, it could withstand a little bit of rain, but nothing beyond that.

Display: Keeping up the pace

One of the areas where the outgoing model was criticised the most is the display, often for having sizeable bezels all around the screen, which made the phone’s front look too much 2016-ish. Predictably, OnePlus stuck to their slogan and decided to give their latest flagship a more modern look, by relocating the fingerprint scanner to the back and further trimming the top and bottom bezels, as well as adopting the 18:9 aspect ratio to retain the same form factor of the previous model. This results in a much cleaner and more appealing front, and considerably increased screen-to-body ratio. Unfortunately, the OnePlus 5T still sports the same 1080p resolution, which may leave some people a bit disappointed.

Out of the box, colors are appealingly punchy, though whites are a bit on the cooler side of the spectrum. Thankfully, you can change the color calibration of the screen in the Display settings to your liking, where you have the choice of sRGB, DCI-P3, Adaptive and custom calibration modes. I personally preferred the DCI-P3 option which cured that issue of cool slightly blue-ish whites and rendered colors more accurately. Sunlight legibility hasn’t been an issue for me, the screen gets bright enough. Of course, it was not as bright as Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, those are in a league of their own.

Camera

Despite having the same looks, the OnePlus 5T does introduce a quite notable change to the camera config, as an attempt to address some issues the older OnePlus 5 used to suffer from. While the 16MP + 20MP dual camera setup is still preserved, OnePlus has decided to replace the Telephoto lens of the secondary camera with a more regular one that shares the same focal length and aperture with the primary camera. That means that all the zooming now will be done digitally, rather than a mixture of optical and digital zooming, should the phone ever decides to squint with its right eyeball in ample daylight. There’s no getting away from it, it all sounds quite weird, especially when the second lens is not of any special sort – no fancy monochrome or wide lenses in the play.  However, OnePlus insists that the secondary lens is not only there for portrait mode, rather bearing some interesting software trickery to enhance the camera’s low light capabilities – an issue that was very evident in the older OnePlus 5.

Quoting OnePlus themselves, the secondary 20MP camera gets automatically triggered when the phone detects low lighting conditions. The phone then uses a clever algorithm dubbed as “Intelligent Pixel Technology”, which essentially combines every 4 pixels into one big pixel to eliminate excessive noise, yielding clearer photos in low light situations. On paper – or rather on stage – it sounds brilliant though a bit baffling. If you acknowledge that bigger pixel size practically translates to clearer low light shots, then why opt for a sensor with small pixels and then bin them into larger pixels? While that made me scratch my head a little, I went ahead to find out how well this unconventional dual camera configuration fares. Could the secondary camera right the sinking ship, or is it all about fancy technology naming to justify a rather poor decision?

But before we get started with examining the camera samples, I would like to take a moment and appreciate OnePlus’ fairly intuitive and easy-to-use camera app. Instead of swiping from the leftmost side of the screen, you can now switch between modes by tapping on that tiny arrow, right below the 2x [digital] zoom button, or swipe it up. This massively boosts one-hand usability since all different camera modes are more reachable. Swiping right/left will switch to Portrait mode and Video mode respectively. One could argue that it is not the most intuitive layout though, but improving one-hand usability is a nice treat for sure. Weirdly enough there is no button for accessing further settings. The rest is all the same. Panorama mode is still there and only works in portrait mode, though it manages to produce relatively seamless panorama shots. Pro mode is still the best place for photography geeks, having all different sorts of knobs to tweak the ISO level, focus plane, shutter speed and exposure compensation, as well as a very useful histogram. I would be lying if I said I know how any of this works, but I am certain that photography enthusiasts will appreciate pro mode more than I do.

Daylight: A capable shooter

Taking out the OnePlus 5T’s cameras to shoot some photos in daylight is like taking out your 6-year-old children to the park – they just can’t get happier. Colour reproduction is among the areas this camera configuration excels in – images come out quite lively with a tiny notch of saturation. Dynamic range is good too, though nothing extraordinary like Google’s HDR+ sorcery. However, fine details are often smeared away with rather aggressive noise reduction and/or sharpening algorithms, causing a weird Van Gogh effect that is very evident when taking pictures of foliage. Sadly there is no lossless zoom this time around since both lenses share the same focal length (and aperture). The cameras continue to impress when shooting in HDR-specific scenes, delivering images with great color reproduction and decent dynamic range. However, on some occasions, Auto mode refused to trigger HDR mode where the photo came out a bit lacking. It’s not wise to force enable HDR all the time though, sometimes it does more harm than good and overly brightens up some proportions of the picture. Overall, you will have a hard time coming up with a bad landscape shot in the day.

Low light: Only decent, nothing more

As the sun goes down, and the lights start getting dimmer, things start to get a bit trickier, and motion blur starts to rear its ugly head since there is no OIS on either of the two sensors present. Still, OnePlus claims that the OnePlus 5T should fare better in such situations, compared to its older sibling, thanks to some clever software trickery taming a dedicated shooter. Well, that holds true for the most part, but unfortunately, differences aren’t that drastic. Photos come out a bit sharper and preserve a little bit more details, but the struggle with backlit objects remains. Highlights are often blown out, and fine details tend to get smudged in the process of reducing noise levels, further intensifying the deadly so-called watercolor-painting effect. It’s true, the OnePlus 5T’s camera does indeed fare better than the OnePlus 5 and produce some decent photos sometimes, but not enough to put it along with the top dogs. Further to the bewildering truth, most of the time I end up capturing a 16MP image despite the low light conditions, where the secondary camera should have lent a hand. I had to shoot pictures of distant objects only lit by moonlight to get the second camera triggered, which isn’t really practical, to say the least. And when the secondary camera is used, the images are then upscaled back to the original 20MP resolution, which doesn’t do much good either and leaves some grain behind. So while it may be a decent indoor shooter for some, it does not go anywhere beyond that. Oh, and don’t gamble any money on HQ mode either, since it is barely effective. The only difference I can see is that the camera opts for lower ISO level and slightly longer exposure time, but this results in motion blur offsetting HQ’s advantage. Presence of OIS would have certainly helped here.

Portrait mode: The real trophy

While Portrait shots weren’t that much of a problem to deal with on the OnePlus 5, it certainly left something to be desired. Most notably was the narrow field of view behind the foreground subject, and the subject separation being far from ideal. With the 5T, the company has entirely done away with the Telephoto lens and opted for a more regular lens that bears the same f/1.7 aperture and focal length as the primary camera. While OnePlus hasn’t made a big deal of how that setup impacts portrait mode, the results unveil an uncanny improvement. Subject separation has improved dramatically – very rarely would I notice the blur effect bleeding on the foreground object, even with complex edge patterns. And since both lenses share the same focal length, portrait images now have a noticeably wider field of view and don’t feel that terribly zoomed in as in the case of the OnePlus 5. As an extra treat, you can flip the phone around and enjoy some Pixel-esque portrait selfies at an arm’s length.

Selfies: 16MP goodness

The OnePlus 5T bears the same selfie shooter as its older slain sibling. In fact, this very setup goes all the way back to its predecessor – the OnePlus 3T. That sounds like a bit of settling here, which is a bit weird coming from a company that strives for never settling – heck you had to smash your previous flagship to get your OnePlus-branded one not that long ago. When looking at the selfies, however, you could probably see why. Selfies come out pleasantly sharp with no weird skin color rendering. No fancy selfie portrait effects here, unfortunately, but hey, it’s not like every other phone has it either. Snapping a group selfie in a cafe shouldn’t be a hardship as well, the phone does just fine indoors. Beauty filter at max tends to aggressively smear away some facial details though, sliding it halfway would be enough. In low light, however, the phone will inevitably struggle a bit, as expected from a tiny-pixel-size 16MP sensor behind a not-so-wide f/2.0 aperture. Those are the moments when you get to admire that Screen Flash enough. Video Recording is capped at only 1080p, which is good enough for the majority of the people at this price range at least. Recordings are of the same quality you would expect and have no major issues. They are decently stabilized too.

Video recording: EIS at its best

The absence of OIS might have been a huge bummer to a lot of people, especially those with shaky hands might have feared to end up with some unusable footages. And while relying solely on EIS sounds a tad old-fashioned, OnePlus did work hard on improving their electronic stabilization algorithms, mitigating a lot of the people’s worst fears. Thankfully, the OnePlus 5T ships with EIS support for 1080p and 4k recordings out of the box – no need to wait for an OTA update to enable EIS for 4k recordings like the OnePlus 5. It was a bit too gloomy over here, but eventually, there was a tiny bit of sunshine, enough to round up a sample footage. The recorded footage is quite stable and the video came out quite pleasantly lively with no muted colors. Ample details were well preserved in the 4k recording, but not in the 1080p 30fps ones. The phone does a good job of handling the exposure while panning. Perhaps my only complaint in this aspect would be that sometimes there is a tiny bit of jerkiness in that instant when I start panning – stabilization feels a little bit too unnatural. You may consider me being a bit on the nitpicking side. It’s worth noting, however, that 1080p, 60fps recordings don’t have EIS support.

To view the camera samples I have gathered in full resolution, check out my album on Flickr here.

There is still a lot to talk about. Next, I’ll have my deep dive into the OnePlus 5T’s performance. Stay tuned!

Featured-image: Digital Trends

Continue reading this series: