Despite the Controversies, the OnePlus 5 is a Proper Successor in an Increasingly Disappointing 2017
Earlier this year, I came to the realization that the OnePlus 5 was looking to be my most anticipated release of 2017. Despite having owned and reviewed the predecessors of this years’ U11, Galaxy Note 8, Pixel XL 2 and other flagships, it was the successor to the OnePlus 3 & 3T – my daily drivers for most of 2016 – that had me truly excited.
In retrospect, I probably should have measured my expectations a tad more — the OnePlus 5 ended up being slightly disappointing once I got my hands on it, given the experience was ultimately too familiar and while its upgrades were thorough, they were mostly unimpressive. I owe a large part of this assessment to the fact that the OnePlus 3T was already a really solid device, and one that addressed a few small shortcomings the OnePlus 3 had. The actual user experience difference between the OnePlus 3 and OnePlus 5, though, is relatively minor — and the gap is closed even further if you consider the OxygenOS betas, and their features. It’s true that some features present on the OnePlus 5 cannot make it in their entirety to older devices, such as “Reading Mode”, which required a special RGB sensor. Supposedly, DCI-P3 calibration is on the same boat, though we’ve found traces of such a color profile on the OnePlus 3T. But beyond that digression, my point remains the same: there is not much that changes in a OnePlus 3 or 3T owner’s user experience when upgrading to the OnePlus 5. Yet, at the same time, those upgrades managed to make the newer flagship better in almost every way, and turned it into my favorite release of the year so far.
In this article, I intend to take a deep look at the OnePlus 5’s virtues as well as the issues that impair its user experience and the company’s decisions that detract possible customers. I’ll summarize my experience and findings with the phone thus far, the prospects of its software support (official and unofficial) and how I think this phone fits in the 2017 flagship space.
Small Improvements Across the Board
The OnePlus 5 managed to address many of the quirks and shortcomings I found on the OnePlus 3T. Immediately after booting up the phone and while entering my WiFi password, for example, I noticed that the vibration motor had improved — this was actually one of the things that annoyed me the most when reviewing the OnePlus 3, as I found that phone’s vibration weak, inconsistent, and just substandard in general. The vibration motor is one of the smaller changes that really won’t make it to most spec sheets, yet it’s something that permeates the entire user experience for those that leave haptic feedback on. Through the last month I pleasantly discovered that it’s small changes and improvements like this that make the OnePlus 5 such a comfortable phone to use.
Just about every aspect that OnePlus has changed with the 5 has been for the better, with the exception of the phone’s battery size – at 3,300mAh, it’s smaller than the 3T’s 3,400mAh, but larger than the regular OnePlus 3’s 3,000mAh. So, it can either be an improvement or a slight decrease, depending on your frame of reference and which phone you are upgrading from. That said, the phone does sport better, more power-efficient components in the form of the Snapdragon 835 and the LPDDR4X RAM (though OnePlus proudly claims it’s 17% more efficient than previous generations in this regard, I’m sure the resulting savings are far, far less significant in the grand scheme of things). I’ve been managing to get slightly better battery life on the OnePlus 5 than I have on the 3T, and this increase is further amplified when considering custom ROMs and kernels (more on this later).
Other elements of the phone have stayed the same — the display remains at an unimpressive 1080p resolution, the same they’ve been using for the past four years. One could even make the argument that their first two devices (OPO and OP2) had a higher effective resolution, given they sported LCD panels that didn’t lose definition from a Pentile subpixel arrangement. But with the same exact panel they’ve used for the OnePlus 3T, the OnePlus 5 stayed largely constant in this regard and others, still being suboptimal for usecases like VR. In terms of the design housing that display, the actual screen to body ratio is nearly identical to last year’s though the top and bottom bezels are larger, and the phone is slightly thinner as well (0.1 mm difference).
The camera is definitely an improvement, though not in every regard and not by too much — OnePlus definitely overplayed and overhyped its capabilities, and continues to do so in their ongoing advertising campaign. To their credit, they have improved it through software updates since, including the addition of EIS for 4K video recording. Then there’s the faster WiFi – OnePlus claimed it’d be twice as capable as the OnePlus 3T’s, which really just states the OnePlus 3T’s was half as capable as it should have been. In reality, I’ve had more issues with WiFi on my OnePlus 5 than on my OnePlus 3 and 3T, thanks to its propensity to cutting off entirely when the top of the phone is covered in a certain way — it doesn’t happen to me daily, though it’s definitely annoying when it does occur.
More of the Same, Now Radically Important
If you were to go over the paragraphs I’ve written above and assess how good of an upgrade the OnePlus 5 is based merely on the items listed there, you’d probably sum it up with a resounding “meh”. There’s certainly no gimmick to entice customers, it’s more of the same with its core benefits – fast Dash charging, excellent performance, great software & developer community – largely untouched or slightly improved. Yet something I’ve been noticing in 2017 flagships is that a number of them are actually changing many of the aspects that customers loved previous devices for, or sacrificing specifications they love to have. A few examples include HTC’s change of heart in regards to design with the U series, LG reportedly abandoning the signature secondary display, the trend towards moving away from headphone jacks, and drastically smaller battery capacities in some instances.
We recently talked about this in an article by Daniel Marchena, who managed to capture many of the frustrations we’ve seen voiced in our comments sections, forums, and social media. While many OEMs are moving away from the designs, features or outstanding specifications that lured customers and fans, OnePlus essentially built the OnePlus 5 based on feedback from their user base, improving upon most of the aspects that needed it, and addressing the shortcomings that have been frustrating fans. Other than the design of the phone resembling an iPhone (something that brought widespread criticism their way), the OnePlus 5 is essentially a better OnePlus 3T, which was essentially a better OnePlus 3. This is likely a lesson learned from the OnePlus 2, in which a swift deviation from what their base expected resulted in an utterly disappointing product. Put simply, that device packed a sleight of compromises and multiple decisions that overall made the still-excellent OnePlus One (at the time) a great alternative, with similar performance (thanks to the Snapdragon 810 blunder), a sleek design and consistent battery life. The OnePlus 5 was, as I mentioned in my introduction, disappointing to me – but only slightly, and the more I get acquainted with the phone and used to its user experience, the less I care about that.
The OnePlus 3T was already my daily driver leading up to the OnePlus 5, and the transition was quite smooth. Other than improvements in overall latency and speed, there was almost no immediate discernibly difference in the user experience within the screen. The enhanced vibration, outer design and new grip, and other orbiting hardware factors were easy enough to get accustomed to. The fact that my transition was so smooth is testament to OnePlus’ focus on improving upon their previous product – with no risks taken, but with no unexpected flaws. Well, excluding the scrolling jello effect which is an issue to some, but surprisingly not to me. This approach to design, though, is what I think will give the OnePlus 5 plenty of legs, and allow the product to last through the entire cycle (with or without a OnePlus 5T). The company is already releasing new color variants, and focusing on updates (perhaps at the expense of previous products), but given OnePlus focuses on only one device a year, their model is structurally dependent on their main release being something that can actually be marketed and sold competitively throughout that time.
Disappointing Update Support Without Precedent
One of the main issues I see holding back the OnePlus 5 is the fact that the OnePlus 3 & 3T are already confirmed not to receive updates beyond Android O. This is, in my opinion, a large problem, because the 3 & 3T are extremely popular devices and the ones that helped rebuild the company’s reputation and fanbase after their second device. Not only is this move a slap to the face to existing customers, but it also means that they still have set no precedent for outstanding and longstanding support for any of their products (and I think the OnePlus 3 was the perfect opportunity). Far from it, they abandoned the OnePlus 2 Nougat update after promising it, and while their strategy now is to not make promises that can’t be certifiably fulfilled, the OnePlus 3 and 3T will effectively receive one year of support. The 3T in particular will see “two” major Android updates, though in reality it should have shipped with Nougat, which came to it just a short couple of months after the phone’s release anyway. OnePlus should evaluate their commitment to their products if they want people to be able to trust and invest in their devices, especially when they are increasingly targeting emerging markets. A customer buying a OnePlus 5 really has no idea whether it’ll see updates beyond Android P, and this remains an aspect where OnePlus lags behind many (though not all) of its major flagship competitors.
Luckily, the OnePlus 5 has so far proven that it can grow a developer community, in great part due to OnePlus commitment to their devices’ customization potential. Just like XDA recommended devices for OnePlus to “seed” to developers last year, the OnePlus 5 is also being sent to developers that go on to bring their ROMs and kernels to the newer flagship. Through this we’ve seen the rapid emergence of fan favorites among new modifications, and there’s no shortage of options to pick from. For example, I tend to opt for FrancoKernel, as I’ve been nothing short of impressed by his work in the past, and the OnePlus 5 is no different. I’m able to squeeze out great battery life, while retaining many of the benefits of the devices’ improved app opening speeds and slight increase in general fluidity. Multiple ROMs are working on or have added support for the OnePlus 5, and as is the case with other OnePlus devices, some of the phone’s exclusive functionality (like the Alert Slider) are incorporated as well. While OnePlus 3 and 3T users might not see OnePlus bring Android O, they can rest easy knowing that their phone is likely to receive longstanding support from the XDA community for years to come, and something similar can most probably be said about the newer OnePlus 5.
OnePlus 5 Beyond the Controversies
In this article I’ve tried to explain some of my thoughts regarding my transition with the OnePlus 5, the improvements over the OnePlus 3T, the company’s support for the device and the community’s adoption. All of these opinions converge into the following: the OnePlus 5 is my favorite phone of 2017 so far, in great part because it’s so similar to the OnePlus 3T. The hardware has improved in key areas that affect and benefit my user experience, and the phone is showing a healthy level of choice for modification and customization. I am able to get better battery life, quantifiably better performance, an overall better (though unspectacular) camera experience, and the same fast charging that I’ve grown to love. With the dedication of developers in our forums, and enthusiasts continuously coming up with and sharing new ways to make the overall experience better, I see great potential in this device and I see it becoming my daily driver for the rest of the year as well. While I am extremely excited for the new Pixel XL coming this year, I am not sure that it’ll be able to give me the same flexibility and customization potential (based on my experience with my 2016 Pixel XL), and that’s ultimately a big part of why I choose a phone.
I still have many concerns about OnePlus’ strategy for the OnePlus 5 (and other products) moving forward. I understand that the company is saving newer variants (either color revisions, or hardware upgrades like the last year’s 3T) in order to keep their base product relevant throughout another year, but they should learn from the backlash they received when the OnePlus 3T was launched last year, or when they released new colors (and “limited editions”) months after customers had to choose from a limited set of options. Their Soft Gold release marked a step forward, and a step backwards; they added an 8GB variant for the Slate Gray model, but also released a 6GB-only, limited-supply gold color variant that’s actually quite attractive, and no doubt appealing to many people who have already bought a OnePlus 5. Then there’s the fact that there is really no way for customers to judge whether they will get proper update support. There is an argument in favor of the current OxygenOS update model, which see rapid iteration through multiple monthly updates (across beta and stable channels) that add new features and quick fixes, but people also really appreciate major OS updates on top of swift security patches.
Finally, there are (what I consider) “smaller” issues, such as the jello display, and I’ve had annoying issues surrounding connectivity across two units. None of those are enough to detract from the fact that, ultimately, I see the OnePlus 5 as an improved OnePlus 3T (a 3TT?). The experience across both devices is so similar that it almost seems that it could be damaging to OnePlus, especially given the 3T has been out for longer and is less expensive. There’s certainly less of a reason to upgrade from a 3T to a 5 than what many users would want. But at the same time, many flagships in 2017 have shown that perhaps the upgrade proposition of the OnePlus 5 is not all that bad — because in contrast, it hasn’t removed key features, it hasn’t largely regressed in relevant specifications, and it didn’t sacrifice any of those to an unproven gimmick. It did opt for a safe and uninspired design, though that’s something easier to overlook for those who care primarily about inner hardware… specially considering the OnePlus 3 had an uninspiring design as well. It’s a conservative improvement, I’d say, but one that’s comfortable enough to attract new customers — in matters like speed and future proofing, its hardware certainly ticks the right boxes.
Now that “the dust has settled”, and the controversies of benchmark cheating, the jello display, and so on have mostly died down, I think we’ll start seeing a slight change in predisposition towards the OnePlus 5. I’ve said it in my initial impressions, and I’ll say it again: it really is a very nice phone that also tackles what many OnePlus customers, in particular, look for in a new device. It’s got its issues, and the way OnePlus manages and maintains this device throughout its life cycle will finally determine and cement people’s opinions and trust in the company. But, right now, the OnePlus 5 is a great phone to have — specially if you are interested in customization and tweaking, and if you value performance and endurance above other improvements like camera quality, and if you want a fast phone with a close-to-Stock UX.