The Samsung Galaxy Note9 with 512GB Storage was to date the best specified phone I've ever reviewed and with which I tried to live! I reviewed this in multiple parts last year as I tackled speakers, the S-Pen and finally the whole experience. I also enjoyed my time with and reviewed the OnePlus 6T which had 256GB Storage (and remains my most popular blog post). We've talked a lot on PSC about not having to pay £1000 for a phone when a £200 model will do 95% of the same jobs, but this unit is slightly different in that, if you don't want the mega-specs on display here, the phone can be bought (as I review) in a 128GB/6GB RAM version for £649, rather than the £799 on show here. You can also buy the non-Pro version for even less, but that's a very different phone indeed - more of a 6T update than this, which is treading new ground for OnePlus.
The Big Tour
Physically the phone is gorgeous in the hand. It looks and feels to me very much like a Galaxy phone - and maybe that's what they were after. The glass front and back curve around the edges to meet the aluminium surround - and the shimmering Nebula Blue back colour is a delight. Shame that there's no way it could be used without a case to protect! Fortunately OnePlus have not been tight-fisted and included a very good clear TPU in the case. It's very good quality and could easily be priced at £10-£15 out there if buying. I can just about meet my thumb and finger around the phone's waist but not with the case on. This is a big phone! On the right are the power button and knurled 'alert slider', on the left, volume rocker, bottom speaker, SIM Card Tray and USB-C port and up-top, the pop-up selfie camera. On the back there's various logos, an LED flash and triple-camera island arranged vertically and centrally. In the hand, naked, it feels amazingly premium and, as I say, very big! In comparison to the already-big Pixel 2XL, it's about the same width and thickness but a little taller. It's also heavy - you know you're carrying it with the weight up in the Razer Phone department, at over 200g. OnePlus don't seem to be claiming any official waterproof rating, but it seems like that's to save money on the certification, bizarrely, claiming that the phone is bucket-of-water-dunk safe, but not offering guarantees!
As I fire it up, it's clear that the 'fluid' AMOLED screen is just as gorgeous as any Samsung phone's screen, bright, vibrant colours, sharp and Gorilla Glass 5 (better get a protector). It's a giant 6.67" screen that defies the size of its frame by filling itself right out to the edges providing almost no bezel at all - no wonder they supplied a TPU for people to have somewhere to hold! This is quite a size when you think that it's only just shy of a 7" tablet, though I do accept that the shape/ratio is different of course. The ratio is 19.5:9 which accounts for the tall but disproportionately (for the size) narrow body. The screen has 1440 x 3120 pixels making 516ppi. What 'fluid' actually means is a bit of a mystery and maybe just marketing hype, the claim being it makes the most dynamic use of all hardware and software resources to keep things 'fluid' including HDR10+ content support and a 90Hz refresh rate...
Another first for OnePlus is having introduced a screen which has a 90Hz refresh rate. I've been using a Razer Phone here with a 120Hz refresh rate for a long time now and as reported elsewhere, I can't tell the difference! Gamers with much younger eyes than mine will no doubt disagree and those who say 'once experienced, no way back' - well, I just don't get it. But each to their own. Clearly OnePlus are having a go at attracting Gamers and keeping up with Asus/Razer with their offerings in this department. Fortunately for the likes of me, you can switch it back to the 'normal' 60Hz and save some battery into the bargain! OnePlus do say that when 90Hz is engaged, it is switched to and from dynamically, so not always engaged, depending on what you're doing. The resolution of the 1440p screen can also be switched to 1080p for, again, those who can't tell the difference and to save even more battery. There is an Auto setting which, again, adjusts depending on application.
Let Me In!
The Optical under-screen fingerprint scanner of the 6T started off in a very flaky manner. My Nokia 9 PureView is still pretty much a nightmare in that respect. The ultrasonic versions seem to just work better, but are more expensive to implement at this stage under the glass. So here we have the latest attempt by OnePlus to stick with Optical and actually, the tech seems to have evolved very nicely. It works very well indeed, I would give it 98% of the time. It's very close to perfect, even upside down and the target is nicely low-down on the screen where your thumb would naturally be placed. Maybe Nokia could borrow some of the tech! This is backed up by Face Unlock, which was really fussy to register. It got there in the end but clearly doesn't like full-face beards, nor glasses. When it eventually got with the programme, it gives options to either make you swipe the screen to invoke the face unlock, or to bypass that - however, both of these methods are only available once the power button is pressed on the side, not just the screen being on via double-tap or lifting, which means you might as well really just use your finger. The pop-up Selfie camera (which I'll come to later) slides up each time you want to unlock using this method, quickly up and very quickly down again.
I've mentioned the battery a couple of times now and this unit does come provided with a 4000mAh unit, OnePlus' biggest yet - over the 3700 of the 6T. I'm finding that the battery is getting me fine through a day plus a bit, for my average use. There are concerns out there in reviewland about the extra demands of the screen tech and size on power, some reporting poor results - however, that's not what I'm finding. The truth about that will only come, I guess from those who can use the phone longer-term and not via a short review period. Sadly, OnePlus have opted not to include Qi Charging in this unit, which is a great shame. At this price point I would have thought this should have been a given and suspect very strongly that there will be a 7 ProT along any minute to fix that! Fortunately, I have tested the phone with a USB-C Qi Charging Receiver and it works perfectly (unlike some phones) so Qi can be bolted on! Don't forget also that there's Warp Charging with the brick in the box for a quick fix. This is what used to be called Dash by OnePlus and the 30W (5V/6A) charging claims to get you 50% from flat in 20 minutes, 60% in 35 minutes and so on. We've come to be more cautious these days than routinely using such fast chargers, fearing for the long-term performance of our batteries, but it's certainly useful when needed.
The 7 Pro is powered by a Snapdragon 855, so top of the pile for now and here, with the absurd 12GB RAM, the speed around the UI is, as you might expect, flawless. It makes you realise how slow other phones are, even though they felt perfectly good at the time! One example of that is USB-OTG. With other phones, when I plug in my Samsung Extreme 2TB SSD, it chugs away reading the content - in some cases for minutes - before being available for use. Here, plug it in and within 10 seconds it's all been read and raring to go. Amazing difference. But for most people, for most uses, of course they probably won't notice. Nice to have that poke under the bonnet when needed. HDMI-Out also works perfectly, with an adapter and cable, whatever you're doing on the phone is echoed on the TV/Monitor and with my TV, the sound also makes it through to the set instead of staying with the phone.The SIM Card Tray is a Dual and they've placed a space on each side of it for the two cards. Neat.
Talking of Storage, the fast UFS 3.0 256GB here is not complemented by microSD expansion, but with OTG working perfectly and that amount onboard, even I am acknowledging that this really is more than good enough for the vast majority of people. Something else that, as it turns out, Apple got right. I have to admit that the Storage being built-in must be more robust, less complicated and system-set so that everything works together out of the factory - instead of hoping that microSD Cards will play ball (as the tech around those change too). I'm very pleased to see the survival of the Alert Slider, assuming as I was that sometime soon it'll be gone with the 3.5mm and shutter release and so on. Genuinely useful for sleeping/meetings and anywhere else where instant DND is needed without fiddling around in menus.
My favourite topic of course and I'm very impressed! Firstly there are two speakers, one at each end (downwards firing at base and front-firing at top) which do produce a stereo sound. I've tested it with all my normal methods and media and it's easily as good as the top-end Samsung devices, I might even say better - somewhere between them and Razer. The only negative thing I'd say following that appraisal is that it's a little bit tinny just for top-end frequencies at full volume, but this can be fixed nicely by using a dedicated Music app rather than Google Play Music or relying on the limited Dolby Atmos options of Dynamic, Film or Music. These don't make huge changes and are always-on, so you have to choose one of them. The stereo separation is not as good as some but certainly works, even though, unlike Razer, these are not true stereo speakers (depending on how you choose to define stereo). The left stereo channel stays on your left when the phone is turned upside down, which is rarer than you might think! The Equaliser setting has been stripped out of Google Play Music so you have to head for Settings and Sound to get to Dolby. There's not even a button in the drop-down Notifications Settings array.
There's also no 3.5mm audio-out socket which means that the user needs to rely on a USB-C to 3.5mm converter, but that's becoming pretty common these days anyway. There's not even an adapter in the box, so you're on your own finding a solution if you're not happy with bluetooth. Bluetooth does support aptX HD but it's clear that OnePlus are not prioritising sound here with no Quad DAC built-in, for example, which needs to be grabbed via an adapter too. I'm again surprised at this price-point that this isn't just a part of what's going on - a nod to the future of bluetooth dependence. Talking of which, the aptX sound over bluetooth via my Marshall Major II headset is fabulous as-is. There are some additional controls in Dolby Atmos which pop up with headphone use (by bluetooth or wired) which build on the Dynamic/Film/Music/None with a 'Style preference' providing further Balance/Warm/Nuanced/None. Switching between them makes little difference except, to my ears, the amount of bass. It's certainly loud though, but not so much when wired with a basic dongle/adapter. Switching to my AKG K701 reference headphones the sound is good, but nothing like it is via bluetooth. Plug in my Razer Phone dongle with all its power and the sound is transformed, as you might expect. Shame OnePlus didn't do like LG and, again, at this price-point, provide decent sound for wired output.
Tanked Up Android
The phone is supplied with Android 9 Pie and as I had it in my care, on 1st August, security updated to June 2019. Not far behind the cutting edge with an improving track record which OnePlus fans are pleased to be able to enjoy. OnePlus has, as usual, tanked up Android with their OxygenOS, now up at version 9.5.9. Again, OnePlus seem to pay close attention to timely updates and are forever pushing through tweaks and improvements to their software running the show. It bodes well for the future and confidence going forward. The phone feels so much more vanilla than others out there, particularly Samsung, and if only they'd left the Launcher as stock, I'd have not felt the need to even consider Nova. Unfortunately, they've stripped out the right-swipe vanilla Google App and replaced it with their own mess, called Shelf. A bit like HTC's Blink. So claustrophobic and limited with widgets and very few selected services like Parking Location, Memo, a Toolbox of limited shortcuts, recent apps, recent contacts, a control-panel dashboard, a travel-card replacement and a 'nanny state' Zen Mode which, when executed, locks down your phone so you can't use it for 20 minutes! Designed to make you take a break, but it'll still let you use the camera! Anyway, all of this, plus near infinite amounts more, are available via the right-swipe Google App cards and services, which they've stripped out for no purpose at all, that I can see. It doesn't sit with their usual approach to keeping things clean. Anyway, there is it. This alone invokes the need to add Nova with the Companion App - or at least to turn off the Shelf and keep a Google App shortcut on the desktop.
Enough negativity, though because Oxygen is generally fabulous to use. Full of useful features and additions to baseline Android. The Pie design language survives through to the Notification Panel with round buttons, greyed out when not in use, swipe-away Notification cards, full editing options for the first panel with left-swipes for more. Pull down Notification Panel from anywhere on the screen, pull up for App Drawer from anywhere on the screen. Options galore for Navigation at the foot, from full-gesture control with swipes from bottom, swipe-pause, swipe from left-bottom, swipe from right-bottom - the gesture controls work well and the only thing missing, now present in Q Beta is the 'back' swipes from right and left of screen. If you'd rather, you can have the standard Pie navigation or even legacy three-button, so choices all round. There are some limited layout options for the desktop but also access to Icon Packs via the Play Store. Long press the home screen for a bunch of other controls and options for look and feel of the general environment before heading into Settings proper!
Apart from all the standard Pie additions to settings, adaptive stuff et al, Reading Mode turns off colours (per-app if you want), there are loads of ways to adjust how the screen colours look including a manual slider, a video-enhancer function (though I can't see any difference in use), controls for the 'ambient display' - meaning AoD of course. There's a few choices for clock/date and content layout for the AoD but not as many as Samsung's, and switches for DTTW, nudge/pickup phone to wake - once again, at this price-point, I expect a proper AoD. One that stays on! If Samsung and others can do it, then so should OnePlus be able to. I hope this is switchable in software and enough OnePlus users hound the company to add it. Theme can be switched to 'dark' which survives across all settings and some apps, but not all - and you can even change the accent colour for your system dialogues' headings etc.
...and there's more...
Then there's the Motorola-style 3-finger screenshot option and a whole range of assignable gestures from the off-screen, like music controls with a > or opening camera with an O or torch with a V, or any other apps or functions you want to allocate to O, V, S, M and W. Neat idea and pleased that they're sticking with it. Supporting the 90Hz refresh rate screen there's also a Gaming Mode which can be switched on to enhance game-play in a whole bunch of ways including various aspects of DND controls and even a 'fnatic' Mode which, when selected, pretty much shuts down most other functions and apps on the phone in order to allocate absolute maximum hard/software resources to game-play. You can even auto-switch this on, when certain apps/games are launched! They seem to be making some effort in trying to attract Gamers here and challenging, as I say, other phone makers treading that path. Parallel Apps is still present, allowing double-installation and sign-in of various services as is the Locker, to hide those apps and services users don't want anyone to know they're using! Scheduled power on/off I think is a great function - I don't think it hurts to schedule a reboot a couple of times a week and this can be assigned to whatever time you like, so a good idea for 3am routinely. I'd like to see what Samsung have done here, also allowing a choice of days. Maybe it'll come in an update. Other additional apps are kept to a minimum and I really wouldn't call them bloat. A video screen recorder, voice recorder, weather, file manager, calculator and clock. Users can choose whether to use these or ignore them in lieu of the Google standard apps.
In my usual way, I'm going to invite you to join Steve Litchfield in The Phones Show 370 for a much more useful analysis of the camera setup on the phone as he puts it through its paces, testing functions and performance. There's a triple camera setup here with a 48MP/12MP pixel-binning f1.6 unit in the lead with OIS allowing for 2x lossless zoom, supported by a 3x hybrid-zoom in the 8MP f2.4 secondary camera, again with OIS and a 16MP f2.2 wide-angle shooter bringing up the rear! (Using UltraShot you can now shoot JPG images using the full 48MP of the sensor incidentally). There's a 16MP pop-up Selfie camera which pops out of the top of the camera, as I said earlier, on demand and ensures that there's no need to for cut-outs or notches on the screen. It's a solution - and OnePlus claim to have tested the robustness of the component exhaustively. I guess the average user will still be concerned about longevity. My favourite function is close-up shots with the secondary camera at 3x zoom. This combination gets me really close to subjects and heads towards feeling like real Macro, remaining sharp enough for me at minimum distance. I've had great fun with that, much more than any other functionality! Second favourite is the wide-angle, which I always wow about - and it's as excellent here as other phones' cameras which employ similar. Makes me want to go out (and stay in) and actually use it, like I would a proper camera. The camera app is fun to use and is full of modes and manual overrides galore, including optional AI, JPG/RAW and spirit level. Low light performance is very good and most of the bells and whistles make it through to the 16MP Selfie, which actually produces 16MP shots unlike some phones I've tested lately! Anyway, I'll leave you with Steve there.
This is a terrific smartphone and feels like a true flagship. It's as fast as lightning, is stuffed with the best hardware, has enough interesting stuff going on to make it less boring than a Nexus/Pixel. At the same time, there's enough 'vanilla' retained so as not to make the user feel as though they're off on some tangent from Android which would have to be learnt afresh (and probably hated). If only they would update the software to include an AoD - and had, at the outset, added Qi Charging, this could have been my perfect phone. It's not cheap for this model packed with the highest specs, but when you use it it somehow feels like it's worth the extra cash. I've never used a phone which works quite as fast and, as OnePlus might say, fluidly. Highly recommended if you can afford it. Thanks again to Jon Trimmer for the loan.