Sunday, 2 December 2018

OnePlus 6T (256GB)

One of the questions here is for OnePlus 6 owners potentially upgrading to the 6T. And another is for those without, but seeking fabulous value for money in a world gone mad with thousand-pound phones. I don't have a 6 so that rules me out of one of the questions - but for those who have, it's likely to be a dilemma. Or maybe not! Read on...

The OnePlus 6T is staggeringly attractive as a proposition. Not only because of the cost, aligned with storage options and specs, but because it genuinely does have unique functions which some might prefer over the offerings of so-called flagships for loads more cash. At time of writing, we're talking about a 256GB 8GB RAM version for £579 in the UK whereas a similar (in many ways) Samsung offering in their lineup is £1,029, so we're talking getting on for half the price. But yes, there's stuff missing...

Hyperstore
The huge attraction for me - and only reason really that I'm considering this (now that I no longer need HDMI-out in a phone) is the 256GB storage. Yes, I know, my situation is fairly unusual in that I don't have ready access to a broadband router and have to pay for cellular, but even so - am I the only one who actually, regardless of that, gains enjoyment from freedom from connectivity and wanting to carry a large library of media without having to trust a potentially flaky microSD Card? I know I'm not! So yes, no microSD Card slot, but at this size, who needs it! There's also USB-OTG for those even more magpie-like than me! Incidentally, there's a dual Nano-SIM tray as standard, which is good for those who insist on having that facility.

Sizing
Anyway, back to the device itself and first impressions out of the box. It's a big glass-aluminium sandwich device. Very slightly smaller in each direction than the Nokia 7 Plus, slightly bigger than the OnePlus 6 and pretty much the same size as a Pixel 2XL (which I found to seem strangely bigger than it was). There's not much to choose between these classes of device though - there seems to be a footprint that many manufacturers are aligning sizing to - and it then becomes a case how they've used that mass to differentiate their offering. It's substantial in weight, too, at 185g not far short of the Razer Phone! It feels premium in the hand and although I can just about meet my finger and thumb around the edges, it's certainly not a comfortable phone to use in one hand. However, some software tweaks, which I'll come to, have tried to address that.

Optic AMOLED
For the OnePlus 6T, the size is certainly very much about getting the screen to cover as much of the front as possible over the others I mention above. The 6.41 inch Optic AMOLED 1080p tall-ratio panel is what fills that front. Bigger than the OnePlus 6, which was size enough, and the Optic bit is apparently a Super AMOLED Samsung-sourced screen to which they've added their tweaks. It makes it even more colourful, vibrant and bright (apparently) and into the bargain saves battery power. Not sure about the real-world benefit of all that, but we'll see! The screen is indeed very bright, much like a Samsung phone would be and placed up against the Nokia 8 for reference, it's not quite as bright, but not far off.

All in the Mind
There must be some psychology at work here because, maybe the shape of the device, the design, the curves - it just doesn't seem/feel as big as any of the devices listed above - even though technically it's about the same. I shrug my shoulders. It's beautifully made with cold metal and glass, the buttons feel firm and solid and it has a real premium feel. The Alert Slider is present on the right-side at the top, for which the positions can be assigned for actions in Settings. This is a great feature which will, no doubt at all, be disappearing sometime soon - along with any other physical buttons and switches - but for now, kudos to them for keeping it going. In the box there's a 'smoked' TPU case. Which is good for protection, but actually it's very slippery. I got another. There's also one of those nasty screen protectors in place from the factory, which can be ripped off (with all speed) and leave the owner musing about why they bother with Gorilla Glass. But that's another topic which seems to divide opinion!

Powerhouse
The OnePlus 6T comes armed with a Snapdragon 845 chipset, 8GB RAM and 256GB storage (in this case) though there are variations on the storage and RAM available, 128GB and 8/6GB down the line. Those who've been hangin' around this Manor for some years might know that the last time I even held a OnePlus device, it was the OnePlus X and I was very much in love with the hardware but horribly let down by the company (along with all the other X owners) over software updates. Promises of OS updates and Security Updates, that just never came, then eventually they wrote it off and made the devices all but useless. Well, it seems that the modern OnePlus company are specifically applying themselves to ensuring purchasers of their devices are not in that situation again and so far, so good. Updates are coming and promises kept. The 6T comes with Android Pie 9.0 out of the box and September 2018 Google Security Update, and as I write on 30th November, now updated also to November. So we'll see how long December takes to arrive.

Breathing Easy
OxygenOS, the child of Cyanogen, kind of, is the very thin layer applied over Vanilla Android and the additional software and tweaks they add, so far, seem to be genuine enhancements to the experience - in a Motorola type way - keeping things clean and more straight-forward, presumably, for them to update. The OnePlus Switch App, which can be downloaded on your old device (iOS too) and invoked in the 6T pulls across all the data and apps from the old to new and seems to work really well over Wifi, though it doesn't reallocate screen-layout and folders etc. The App looks very pretty and reminiscent of Google's own tool in action, using a cable. One small problem is that you can't get it going until you get through the setup procedure - and by then you've signed into your Google account and decided if you want to restore from the cloud, another device or not - which brings this software in too late! But it can be invoked afterwards without any apparent doubling up of data and over this home broadband connection it seems to run at about 1GB per minute.

Biometrics
I suppose we'd better get the elephant out of the way first - the under-glass fingerprint scanner which seems to have got some bad press as not working very well. The setup procedure is cumbersome, long-winded and fussy. Once it's done, it seems to work OK. It sometimes misses if I don't place my finger firmly on the target and I quite often have to do it twice. But it gets there. Fortunately, there's also Face Unlock which works really well. By the time the phone is lifted from sleeping or double-tapped to wake up the screen, lifted in front of the face for action, it's unlocked. There's also the pattern/pin/code if you really get stuck, but the combination of the methods seems to work fine.

Not Always On
Sadly, there's no always-on screen. There's an ambient screen setting where clocks and info can be chosen but the screen does turn off - and you have to move it, lift or double-tap it to see the information, except for when a Notification is incoming, when it can be set to light up too. Moving it works quite well, but I'd rather have it always on - and with this big battery and AMOLED screen, I can't see why that can't be so. Maybe they'll add it later. So, if you nudge the phone you get to see clock, day, date, battery state, unread Notification icons (though not active) and any on-screen message you have set it to show via Settings. Oh yes, and there's no Notification LED either!

Early Learning Centre
Speaking of which, neither does the ambient screen give access to music playing controls, though you can assign a series of Gestures to control music, and other stuff. Draw a > and it skips forward a track, < for back, drag two fingers down to Pause, then again Play. Actually, when you Pause it in this way, it does seem to then display the track name that is paused for a few seconds. When you dive into Settings and Quick Gestures, you can also assign the drawing of an O, V, S, M and W to pretty much whatever you like, so very customisable - and they always seem to work for me, first time, every time.

Homescreen
Now we're faced with the OxygenOS Homescreen setup, which is pretty basic but does allow for some customisation. Swipe-right and you get 'Shelf' which is an adjustable collection of widgets, really. Nothing that you can't put on your homescreen by just adding widgets in the usual way - the only difference is that it's got its own special area/page. I can't help feeling that this has been put in to make Apple migrators feel at home. Fortunately, long-pressing the Homescreen gives the user Settings in which you can turn the whole page off.

Settings Galore
That same Menu provides for another bunch of stuff, useful stuff, this Vanilla lover will admit! Swipe-down from anywhere on the screen to get the Notification shade instead of having to reach up to the top, double-tap anywhere on the homescreen to lock the device, change grid size and icon size on Homescreen, notification dots on homescreen icons and even access to changing the Icon set by changing installed (or supplied by OnePlus) packs. I did try to install a 3rd party pack, but it seems that some (maybe the free ones) don't seem to work often. Perhaps a paid one would be better - in fact one PSC Community Member did confirm that this is the case and successfully changed their icons into Pixel-style ones. The Notification Panel is almost pure Android Pie as far as I can see with all those blue-on-grey iOS-style big round buttons, editable with all the quick-switches you'd expect to see. When Notifications come in, they're just the same interactive type that you'd see anywhere with Pie and it all works very well, just as you'd expect.

Teardrop Explodes (well, it can!)
Staying at the top of the screen, there's what's been called a 'teardrop' notch. Whatever your view on Notches at the top of phones, this is a very small one, a rounded version of the Essential Phone implementation, sat in the middle. It's tiny - and it doesn't really matter. You can draw a line under it if it annoys you in Settings and so the screen ends just before it and the icons then appear above it as if it's not there. To be honest, I've been going full-screen on YouTube content, stretching it out, and the consciousness of its presence dwindles as you engage with the media. Storm in a teacup. Unless it's Pixel 3XL sized of course! You can also choose a few aspects of what appears and doesn't appear in the Status bar via Settings again, tweaking the look of the battery and clock information and even removing icons if you don't want to see them. I removed the NFC one, for example. I know it's always on for Google Pay, so I don't need to see it there all the time. Again, useful additions to Vanilla, not bloat and fluff.

More Choices
The Navigation bar elements can be changed between 'traditional' Back/Home/Recents, Pixel-style Pie implementation with Pill and context-sensitive Back on the left or get rid of them altogether, maximising screen space and using gestures to control all actions. Choosing which one you use may indeed present something of a learning curve, but at least there's a choice, unlike the current Pixel experience.

Launcher
I've covered a fair bit above about how the OxygenOS Launcher and Homescreen looks, behaves and for what the user has options, but I have ultimately decided to install Nova Prime. There's nothing wrong with the Oxygen experience and most users would be very happy with it. I just happen to like Nova and have my Homescreen layout and folders saved as I want them, ready to download. At the end of the day, Nova is more flexible and powerful, with more options and for the few quid it costs, it should be on everyone's list. Little things like the inevitable doubling-up of apps for no reason by OnePlus - Calendar, Calculator and Clock - yes, they are installed, but Nova lets me hide them from the App Drawer whereas Oxygen does not. I don't want to look at them, but as I say, most people wouldn't be bothered. We'll come back to Settings and options later, but for now a sound break!

Speaker
Yes, singular. It fires out of the bottom of the device, as do most these days, but the question is about the overall quality and volume. First thing to say is that OnePlus have stripped out the equaliser function from Google Play Music and assume people will us their central control. Trouble with their central control is that it doesn't control the speaker output, only headphones. Grrrr. So it's a case of installing a third party Music App which does have an equaliser that OnePlus can't strip out! There's no supplied Music App from OnePlus - which would be OK if they'd left Google Play Music alone! Anyway, fortunately, the default sound coming out of the single speaker is certainly very loud indeed, like Razer Phone loud, with a quality which is really isn't at all bad. As usual, it depends what you're listening to, but I really had thought that this was going to be one of the sacrifice points when I ordered the phone. But no! It's actually very good and loud - not quite party music loud, but certainly lounge-sized room filling and no evidence of horrible-tinny even at maximum volume. According to XDA, "The Swedish audio outfit Dirac [whom OnePlus have partnered with here] specialises in sound optimizations. Their Power Sound technology aims to give small speakers a more full-sized audio experience. Music sounds more natural even at high volumes. Bass is tighter and more powerful. Sound quality, in general, is improved for vocal, music, and video." I have no complaints really. It's not Razer, but it's perfectly good and amongst the best of the following bunch.

Solitaire
I suppose I had better continue to say that there's no 3.5mm audio-out socket (can I stop soon?) which seems to be the main topic of users feeling let down, particularly after the company lampooned Apple for having done it. Anyway, as you might know, I don't really care. There's a dongle in the box with a passive DAC inside, which I'm happy to slip into my wallet. I have to admit to being confused about dongles and DAC and output and what dongle you use for what and whether or not the phone itself has DAC, so I'll just report what my ears hear in testing! OnePlus released a new set of USB-C (revolting, claustrophobic in-ear) buds (bullets) with the 6T, but none in the box - they want another £16. According to XDA again, Dirac "also worked with OnePlus on the Bullet earphones to improve the embedded speaker." Anyway, back to my ears and armed with a bunch of dongles from Moto, Razer, Sony, OnePlus, Nokia, these are my findings. The bottom line is that they all sound pretty much the same - really good quality, rich and loud - except the Razer dongle, which lifts it to a different level of bass, richness, depth and volume. The Audio Controls then become available via the central Settings Sound Menu and the output can be tweaked, some of which really does make a difference. So I guess that armed with a decent dongle with an active DAC inside it's much more boosted and powerful. However, I'm fairly sure that most people will be very happy with the great sound even without that.

Camera
I found the camera to be surprisingly basic when I fired it up. Then I discovered the pull-up menu! There is a 2x zoom facility and a Portrait mode, which appears to work as well as any, Google lens installed (and actually seems to work better than most I've tried) and a Night mode which encourages the user to hold the device still for a dark scene, seems to take a series of them, processes the shots in software then presents the best result it can. You can certainly get a decent shot from it in dark conditions from my testing so better to have than not, even if there are image quality payoffs. It also seems to create a massive file/files, so watch out with auto-backup to Google Photos over cellular! The slo-mo 720p video at 480fps is good fun to play with, the close focus is pretty good at about 2 inches, there's a horizon leveler built-in, smile detection and a range of useful options without resorting to Japanese teen culture Sony daftness! The main camera is a 16MP f1.7 unit with OIS alongside a secondary 20MP f1.7 one and the selfie is a 16MP f2. It's a nice simple camera compared to many and the results are certainly good enough for the purposes the vast majority of users will want for them.

Battery Life
The battery has been increased from the OnePlus 6's 3300mAh to 3700mAh. Now, I never had a 6, so I can't speak from personal experience, but others I have read seemed to be saying that it wasn't great. I've been pounding this OnePlus 6T for the last 48 hours and my general, short-term impression is that yes, there's generally no danger of anyone not making it through to bedtime unless they are just watching video all day! The normal user would get well into Day 2 before hunting a charger. And the charger in the box is a Fast Charger (used to be Dash) and provides 20W which in practice means 50% charge in half an hour and a full one in an hour. Smashing! Kind of makes up for the lack of Qi charging.

More Settings
OK, now back to the plethora of settings - deep breath! Starting with Reading Mode, which you can turn on to turn the display mono, for reading. Or you can assign it to come on automatically with only certain apps - like Kindle, I guess. You can assign a Dark Theme (and accents) across the UI, Light or Colourful - which seems to be just the Light Theme with coloured icons for items in Settings. This Theme doesn't make it out to apps of course, but with Google hot on the trail of doing this themselves, a true dark themed device can't be fair away, assisting battery with the AMOLED screen. Talking of which, there is, of course, here under Pie, the Adaptive brightness which is supposed to learn from your manual corrections to what it thinks the level should be, over time. There are a couple of options to use for the system font, along with the usual sizing adjustments for both font and display. Similar to Adaptive Brightness there's Adaptive Battery which learns from your usage pattern, guesses when you're likely to charge it, works out how to hold back power etc. Again, a time investment is needed here if the user is to benefit fully from these adaptive functions. There are 'utilities' such as a Gaming Mode which allows the user to tell the phone exactly how to behave whilst the person is gaming, whether to be interrupted with calls, override auto-brightness, blocking notifications and so on. There's a quick-launch addition to the on-screen fingerprint scanner allowing the user to long-press the scanner and a bunch of assignable apps pop up for quick-access. Scheduled power of/on, which I personally love and have set to turn off at 1am and back on at 8am as I can't be bothered with DND! This list goes on and on - and, as I said at the outset, it doesn't feel like it's completely taken over the device, like it does in a Samsung, Huawei, Honor or LG - it feels like it's additional and part of the package, not meandering off from Vanilla but enhancing it productively.

Oodles to Love
There's loads to love here for those who are going to cash in on the very competitive price in terms of raw hardware and turn a blind eye to the handful of items that have been ditched to make it so. There will be those to whom those super-premium features are worth paying £400 more for, but the rest of us will be pragmatic about that and live without Qi, live without a 3.5mm audio-out socket, live without an IP rating, less than perfect camera results etc. whilst making the best use of and enjoying the massive (here) storage capacity, good battery, blazingly fast operation, fast charging, excellent screen and up-to-date biometrics. Yes, there's compromise here, but you can't get away from the value for money argument and what you get for the price being a cracking proposition. Available in Thunder Purple, Mirror Black, Midnight Black, it's highly recommended here.

3 comments:

  1. Great review!

    Just a small point - there's no such thing as a 'passive DAC'. You can have a DAC or a passive adapter. The former is 'active' (as in powered) and takes digital signals and converts them to analog. The latter takes passthrough analog and routes it to the right wires etc.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Yes, I knew I didn't understand all that which is why I tried to just report what I heard. Maybe you can try and drill it into my brain when we chat next. Cheers.

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