Opinion: The OnePlus 5 Is A Tale Of Two Phones

June 22, 2017 - Written By John Anon

OnePlus announced the OnePlus 5 this week and to much fanfare. In typical OnePlus fashion, the smartphone was announced in a less than typical way and came with a number of bold OnePlus claims like “this is the best OnePlus device we have ever built,” this is “the biggest launch we have ever had” and “this is our fastest selling smartphone.” Which is great for the company and likely elements that are all true. However, they are not exactly quantifiable aspects for the public. They are not aspects that the public can use to base an informed decision on, and decide whether to buy what is also the company’s most expensive smartphone – a sentiment which OnePlus was less keen on vocalizing like it did the other aspects, best phone built, biggest launch, fastest selling.

A point that deserves some attention in its own right as OnePlus has become very good at beating its own drum, while ignoring comments, criticisms, or inconvenient truths. Adding to that, over the next few weeks and months, potential buyers will be exposed to multiple reviews and articles stating how good the OnePlus 5 is. Which although the positive reviews are helpful in their own right, they are unlikely to paint the full picture – while it is as important to know what you are getting with a smartphone, it is just as important to know what you are not getting.

What you are getting

If you ask OnePlus what are the main selling points of the OnePlus 5, the company will likely tell you it is the design, the cameras, and the performance. On the first aspect, the OnePlus 5 is a smartphone that the company claims is focused on the detail, with every little aspect taken into consideration to bring about a smartphone that is more than a sum of its pieces. Which although might be true, there is the inconvenient truth of how similar the OnePlus 5 appears, compared to the likes of the OPPO R11 and even the latest iPhone. So while the design is going to be one of the aspects that plays in favor with the 5, it is not exactly looking like a new, novel, or creative design. What is likely to be in effect though is a very decent built quality, as this has been one of the core aspects that OnePlus has focused on with all of its smartphones up until now. So while comparisons can (and should) be made, you will very likely be getting a decently built phone.

As for the second aspect, the cameras, this is more of an unknown right now. The OnePlus 5 is coming with a dual camera setup (a first for OnePlus phones) and does place a great deal of focus on its focal capabilities. Especially on its ability to identify a target aspect and highlight that target against the background. Which is a nice feature for those who spend a lot of time capturing images like this. However, such OTT features are OTT features for a reason. What is going to be more important for the average consumer is just how well the smartphone performs in general and with routine camera duties. Something that the jury currently remains out on right now. Depending on who you ask, cameras on OnePlus devices have always been a little hit or miss. While no OnePlus smartphone has ever had a bad camera, they have never been the best. Always good enough, but not leading the pack. This year, OnePlus is claiming a leadership role and the cameras are its main marketing aspect. So expect good pictures either way.

As for the performance, this smartphone runs a lightweight OS and it is likely to be very snappy. Especially as it comes equipped with up to 8GB RAM and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 – although neither of those actually matter according to OnePlus (more on this later). So performance will likely be very good out of the box – a point you will hear a lot from in reviews in the coming weeks. What will be less clear in the initial release period is just how fluid the performance will be over the long term. Many current and prior OnePlus owners will likely be able to tell you that they have encountered a fair amount of bugs with OnePlus devices and OxygenOS over the course of ownership. Likewise, OnePlus devices have been noted to sometimes be prone to a performance drop over time. So how it performs on day one should not really be the test anymore with a OnePlus device – more so, how it performs later on down the road. Something which is of increasing important with OnePlus in particular – as the company seems to be less keen on supporting previous models once a newer model emerges.

What you are not getting

So what are you not getting with a OnePlus 5? Well, you are not getting a lot of upgrades, at least not the number of upgrades you probably should be getting. For instance, while the RAM and the processor have been upgraded, the battery and the display have not. OnePlus does claim that the battery on the OnePlus 5 lasts longer than the one included with the 3T, but the reality is the capacity is actually less on the OnePlus 5 (3,300 mAh) compared to the OnePlus 3T (3,400 mAh). So if the battery life is improved, this is likely at the software level. As for the screen, OnePlus will tell you that you do not need a better display than what the OnePlus 5 offers. Although that seems hard to be justified when the display has not evolved over the past two generations. It was hardly ahead of its time to begin with two years ago, so it seems hardly justifiable to offer the same display now. Could you imagine Sony, Samsung, or LG trying to get away with selling TVs that do not offer some form of display improvement over generations? While phones are different to TVs, right now phones are at a time when they are being more often used for video and game consumption. Likewise, at a time when mobile VR is literally all the rage. So VR is going to be something that the OnPlus 5 is greatly missing out on. As even for more accommodating platforms like Daydream, the OnePlus 5 is at the lower end of the spectrum. While 1080p is the minimum requirement for Daydream, Google does clearly state that it is “STRONGLY RECOMMENDED TO BE be Quad HD (1440p) or higher” for an optimum experience. So it would seem unlikely that this will be classed as a Daydream-ready phone. If it had been, OnePlus would have confirmed it at launch.

Then there’s the what you are not getting with the design. More specifically, what you are getting when you should not be getting it – bezels. It is no secret that bezels are a thing of the past. Or at least, not a thing of the present. All manufacturers seem to be moving towards a bezel-free design of late, and it seems to be one that consumers are growing accustomed to. The OnePlus 5 however, is not. If anything its front-facing panel looks much the same as it did over the past few generational devices. Which is a point that OnePlus addressed just before the announcement of the OnePlus 5. Prior to the official launch, The Verge went out to Shenzhen and spoke to Pete Lau who made it clear that a bezel-free design was actually something the company would have liked to have included – although couldn’t for financial, operational, and time-restraint concerns. So if anything, you should expect the OnePlus 6 to come with a bezel-free display as it is already clear that the OnePlus 5 should have. Another aspect that you are not getting, is a waterproof body. This might not sound like a big deal, but it is representative of another feature that is quickly becoming a staple of smartphones in 2017. While OnePlus can argue that a QHD display is not something consumers need, waterproof protection is something that consumers want, and now expect. This feature is not just about being able to say a smartphone is waterproof, it is about protecting an investment.

Which brings us to the main point of what you are not getting with the OnePlus 5 – a forward-thinking smartphone. This is a smartphone that is built to get some aspects right, and just completely ignore the other aspects that it cannot afford to include. Of course, this approach is not necessarily any different to the previous OnePlus phones, although in the past, this has resulted in a smartphone priced considerably less than the rest. While that is still the case, the difference in price is no longer as apparent or justifiable as it used to be. The OnePlus 5 has now crept up to the $500 marker (above it if you want the 8GB version) which is significantly higher than the $349 price the OnePlus One originally launched for. While the OnePlus 5 is certainly a better phone, the OnePlus One was as good as everything else on the market at the time – and at half the price. Now, the OnePlus 5 offers half of what other flagship phones offer, at three-quarters of the price. The math has changed.

Does any of this matter?

Now, of course, OnePlus will inevitably and fundamentally disagree with everything that is said here. In fact, the company actually proactively disagreed with any criticism that could be made in advance – by making some very clear statements during the launch event. One came in the form of how OnePlus strives to “build a phone that we would want to use” and more importantly – “a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Which is very revealing. Not only is it strange for a tech company to refer to a literature quote from Lady Windermere’s Fan, but one that denounces the very basis of what a tech product offers.

To break down this quote in the way OnePlus is using is, OnePlus reckons that if you just focus on the specs, then you will not see the value on offer with the OnePlus 5. Could you imagine if Microsoft made the same argument? Don’t worry about the specs of the Surface Pro, they don’t matter. Instead just focus on the design of the Surface Pro or how it makes you feel when you are using it. This is the basis of that quote. The sentiment is that things that have meaning are worth more than their actual financial cost. A smile being an example. This same logic does not quite apply to a tech product such as a smartphone. In truth, a smartphone is exactly the sum of its price. By OnePlus logic, you should just buy it because it makes you feel good, and not because it has the building blocks of a good performing device.

OnePlus even took this notion to the next level by stating that the specs of a smartphone “is one of the least interesting parts of a product.” Which is convenient for OnePlus, as the specs are largely the only element of the OnePlus 5 that is comparable to other smartphones. It is difficult to compare design and if we were – would the OnePlus 5 really be credited with having a better design than the Galaxy S8? If we asked OnePlus that, the company would probably say that the two phones are different phones, with different design points, that cater to different customers – in other words, they are not comparable. Which means the specs unfortunately are the only aspect that can be compared. So OnePlus is essentially removing the importance of comparing the OnePlus 5 to the competition – another element of what seems to be a ‘just buy the phone’ mantra. Of course, you could turn to benchmarks for comparison. Although, it seems OnePlus has also altered the way the OnePlus 5 performs in such instances. OnePlus did respond to the claims that it has been manipulating benchmark results, with the sum of its response – the phone’s performance during benchmarks, is designed to reflect more natural use in similar real-world instances. Which is all very good if you buy that answer. Although, either way, it does once again remove another valid and comparable aspect.

Wrap up

To be clear, the OnePlus 5 is looking like a great phone and it probably is a great smartphone. But it is a long stretch to say that it is the best phone ever or the best phone currently available, or even one that you should ignore the specs with. It is missing such fundamental features and aspects that it just cannot be lumped in with the real cream of the crop smartphones of 2017. If you pick up a OnePlus 5 you will likely be happy with your purchase. However, you can, and will, find much better smartphones available. As much as the OnePlus 5 offers, it lacks just as much. So to take a cue from OnePlus and make use of a literary reference, the OnePlus 5 is certainly a Tale of Two Cities Phones.