ONEPLUS 7 PRO REVIEW: PROOF THAT OTHER BIG PHONES COST TOO MUCH

ONEPLUS 7 PRO REVIEW: PROOF THAT OTHER BIG PHONES COST TOO MUCH

ONEPLUS 7 PRO REVIEW: PROOF THAT OTHER BIG PHONES COST TOO MUCH

ots of companies make big phones, but in the US only two companies have sold the best big phones: Apple and Samsung. If you want a phone with a huge, near perfect screen, top-end performance, and great build quality, those were your choices. Sure, the Pixel XL line is pretty good and Huawei makes great big phones, but the former hasn’t sold well and the latter isn’t sold in the US.

ONEPLUS 7 PRO REVIEW PROOF THAT OTHER BIG PHONES COST TOO MUCH
ONEPLUS 7 PRO REVIEW PROOF THAT OTHER BIG PHONES COST TOO MUCH

Now, OnePlus is throwing its hat into the ring with a phone that purports to be just as good and high-quality as a Galaxy S10 Plus or iPhone XS Max, but it costs hundreds less. That’s the pitch for the OnePlus 7 Pro, which is launching on T-Mobile for $699 and will also be available unlocked in three different configurations ranging from $669 to $749. If you’re familiar with OnePlus, you might know it as a company that portrays itself as a scrappy underdog that makes midrange phones that punch above their weight class.

With the 7 Pro, OnePlus is declaring that it’s no longer just a middle-weight boxer. It wants to challenge Apple and Samsung in the heavyweight class. It has created a phone that — on paper, at least — has certainly earned a chance to take on the champions.

ne of the things that distinguishes the top-flight, expensive phones from regular phones is overall build quality. The phone has to feel like it deserves to cost as much as it does. The 7 Pro does, though perhaps because it borrows much of its basic design from Samsung’s Galaxy phones. The glass on the front and back curves in toward a metal rail that runs all around the frame. Where OnePlus (barely) differentiates itself is the back of the phone. It has a matte finish and iridescent colors, plus a vertical array of cameras.

THE SCREEN IS THE STAR OF THE SHOW
The OnePlus 7 Pro is also a large phone; it’s just a little bigger and heavier than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9. It has a screen that’s about 6.5 inches diagonally (depending on how you count the curved edges) in a fairly tall 19.5:9 aspect ratio. If you’re used to big phones, none of this will put you off. If you’re not used to big phones, you might be tempted to give this one a try anyway because the screen is so nice.

The thing that you’ll likely show off to your friends is the motorized pop-up selfie camera. It’s a neat trick and a relative rarity in the US, but the whole point of it is to allow OnePlus to stretch the display edge to edge without any notches or camera cutouts. The bezels are tiny all the way around, and on the left and right edges, the screen curves into the body just like on a Samsung Galaxy phone.

I hate to use the word “immersive” because it’s been over-marketed into meaninglessness, but that’s the word for the screen. It is so large and so expansive you hardly notice there’s a phone behind it when you look at it. (Though you will feel it, as the OnePlus 7 Pro is heavy.)

Still, big screens are nothing special anymore. What really matters at this tier of phones is the quality of the screen. OnePlus nailed it on several important fronts.

First, the screen hits the basics: It’s high resolution, gets really bright, and has vibrant colors. It’s an OLED screen, of course, just like you should expect on a high-end phone. OnePlus offers a few different color calibration presets, or there are sliders to customize color profiles like sRGB or P3 even further. If you want a more neutral look for better color accuracy, you can do that, but I left it at the default “Vivid” setting most of the time and was quite pleased with it.

OnePlus has gone a little further than that, though, by giving this screen a higher refresh rate: 90Hz instead of 60Hz. It makes everything from scrolling to animations look much smoother. As on the iPad Pro, a faster refresh rate is the sort of thing you don’t really think you’ll care about until you use it and somehow everything else feels a little stuttery. It means you can read as you scroll, and touch responses feel much more in tune with your finger’s placement.

The 7 Pro will dynamically change either the refresh rate or the resolution on the fly, depending on whether the app you’re using might be better off with something slower or lower resolution (e.g. watching a 1080p video). It’s not the first phone to offer a high refresh rate screen, but the others so far have been esoteric gaming phones with other significant compromises.

The screen has one more trick — well, technically it’s what’s under the screen: a fingerprint sensor. An in-screen fingerprint sensor is also nothing new anymore, even for OnePlus, but the 7 Pro has a better performing scanner than anything I’ve tried, including last year’s OnePlus 6T or this year’s Galaxy S10 line.

OnePlus went with an optical sensor as opposed to Samsung’s ultrasonic one. That means that the screen has to light up a bright green circle to read your thumb and it might not work well if your fingers are wet or dirty. But those potential drawbacks are minor compared to the upsides. The 7 Pro has a larger sensor so you don’t have to be especially careful about where you set your thumb. It’s also super fast, nearly as fast as a more traditional fingerprint sensor on the back of other Android phones.

Within a day, I was blindly and unthinkingly slapping my thumb down on the right spot to unlock the 7 Pro. I am still working on hitting the right spot on my Galaxy S10, months after I bought it. I think the fingerprint scanner is good enough that you can just use it without trying to find another solution, but if you do really want to unlock the 7 Pro with your face, you can. The front camera will pop up and read your image in less than a second before unlocking the phone and hiding away again. But just know that like the Galaxy S10’s face unlock feature, this method is far less secure and can be easily spoofed.

If there’s one place where I would argue that OnePlus cut corners on the hardware, it would be water resistance. Specifically, I have no idea how water resistant it is because the company opted not to get an IP rating for it. Perhaps it’s because the motorized selfie camera is a danger? OnePlus dropped the phone in a water bucket as a publicity stunt, claiming that IP ratings are a waste of money. They’re not: IP ratings provide consumers useful guidance on how durable their phones are.

op-tier build quality and screen? Check and gigantic check. But potential flagship (and even midrange) phones always break up on the same shoals: camera quality. It was the main downfall of the OnePlus 6T, and despite the company’s lofty claims that the 7 Pro is much better, I started with a healthy dose of skepticism.

That skepticism was multiplied when I saw that OnePlus was lading on lots of cameras here. In addition to the main sensor, there’s that pop-up selfie cam, a wide-angle camera, and a 3x telephoto camera, which has slightly more reach than the 2x telephotos that are on the iPhone or Samsung devices.

Surprise! I’ve been mostly pleased with the shots I’m getting out of the 7 Pro. The main 48-megapixel sensor outputs 12-megapixel images by default and those images are quite good — often good enough to hang with the Galaxy S10, iPhone XS, and even occasionally the Pixel 3.

Like every phone manufacturer, OnePlus has to make aesthetic decisions in addition to the technical ones. The 7 Pro’s images tend to be a little less contrasty and a lot warmer than what you’ll get on the Pixel 3. It’s closer to what the Galaxy S10 or the iPhone XS do in that regard, but I prefer the Pixel’s more photographic images.

The 7 Pro does struggle a little more in tricky situations — like when your subject is heavily backlit. And when you really get in and pixel peep, you’ll find something to complain about on a technical level, but that’s true of any smartphone. Zoom back out and overall the 7 Pro’s images all look like they could belong in the top tier of smartphone cameras.

That’s the story with the main camera: it’s respectable in a way previous OnePlus cameras haven’t been. Unfortunately, I’m less impressed with all of the other cameras. When they have plenty of light to work with, both the telephoto and wide-angle cameras produce nice images. But indoors, they tend to look washed out and foggy. I still have a blast using them, but I found myself falling back to the main sensor more often than not.

As for video, the 7 Pro certainly has all the resolution, frame rates, and slo-mo options you could want. I’ve only done a little testing, but so far I’d say it bests the Pixel 3 — but it’s not quite as dependable as Samsung or the iPhone. It doesn’t push the envelope, but I haven’t seen anything significant to complain about.

That pop-up selfie camera isn’t as good as on other phones at this level, but it’s passable. You just have to remember to change the default away from mirrored selfies so you’re not looking at your evil twin all the time.

It’s also reasonable to be worried about the motor. Moving parts can break. OnePlus says it’s rated for 300,000 uses, so I guess we’ll see. It does auto-retract if it detects sudden movement like a drop, and a pop-up warning chastises you if you try to push it in manually. I can’t promise you that it won’t break, but it seems fine to me. It also extends and retracts fairly quickly, which was something I didn’t expect.

Lastly, OnePlus offers the usual suite of camera features. There’s a pro mode with lots of manual controls, a time-lapse mode, and a slow-motion video mode. The auto HDR purports to be faster than the Pixel because it takes advantage of the 48-megapixel sensor to combine images all at once (I didn’t really notice a big difference in processing time). There’s a “Nightscape” mode that makes people look like wraiths, but does work well for landscapes (the name was probably a hint). But even then, it isn’t nearly as impressive as what you get on a Huawei P30 Pro or a Pixel 3. OnePlus also has portrait modes for both front and back, but the cutouts are really obvious if you zoom in even a little.

To fight in the heavyweight flagship ring, OnePlus needed to step up its camera performance. It has. I don’t think it’s better than other top-end phones, but, to me, the bottom line is that the camera should not keep you from buying the OnePlus 7 Pro unless having the absolute best camera is at the very top of your priority list.he OnePlus 7 Pro is very, very fast. It should be: it has top-tier specs for an Android phone. There’s the requisite Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, but it’s paired with both fast RAM and capacious storage. You have a choice of 6, 8, or 12GB of RAM and either 128 or 256GB of storage, depending on your model. The RAM is LPDDR4X and the storage is UFS 3.0 — both the top of the line for what you can get in a phone at this point.

If all those numbers are gibberish to you, don’t worry about it: just know it’s equal to or better than any other Android phone I’ve tested for speed and responsiveness, the latter of which is likely enhanced by the 7 Pro’s unique high-refresh display. I am reviewing the $749 12GB / 256GB model here and it flies. More importantly, all that RAM means that apps can stay active in memory for longer. I suspect OnePlus has optimized the software some — if only by trimming down the length of common animations.

I’m also really pleased with the 4,000mAh battery — or, more specifically, with the battery life I’m getting on the 7 Pro. I’m running beyond a full day and well into the second with moderate use and easily pulling a full day even with heavy usage. Standby time is also better than I’ve grown used to on Android phones, probably because OnePlus’ software is more aggressive at shutting radios and processes down when the phone sits idle.

Unfortunately, OnePlus continues to insist on using its own custom charging technology over USB-C instead of going with the more standard Power Delivery system or offering wireless charging. The company isn’t wrong when it says its adapter can charge up the phone super fast and keep it cool while doing so, but I’d rather it just work better with all the power accessories and cables I already have. Every other phone at the premium level offers wireless charging, OnePlus really should have included it here.

On the audio side, it’s mostly good news. There’s no headphone jack (were you really expecting one?) and no adapter in the box, but I haven’t had any problems with Bluetooth performance. The stereo speakers sound fine at normal volumes. They also get quite loud — but you’ll quickly learn that turning the volume to the max is a terrible idea because the sound gets super chippy.

PERFORMANCE IS GREAT, AS ARE THE ONEPLUS SOFTWARE CUSTOMIZATIONS

I love that OnePlus is hanging on to its signature physical ringer switch, which has three stages: ring, vibrate, and silent. You can customize all of those settings, but the defaults worked really well for me. (The switch is also really satisfying to fiddle with.)

I also really like OnePlus’ custom version of Android, OxygenOS. It’s based on Android 9 Pie, and it’s filled with nice little touches without being overbearing and gives you a ton of customization options. OnePlus also has a good history of updating its devices quickly after Google releases new Android versions, something that can’t be said for many of its Android competitors.

You can set up gestures to get around (you swipe up to go home, swipe up on either side to go back). You can turn on a “Zen mode” that locks you out of your phone for 20 minutes so you can look at a damn tree or something. There are simple theming options. There’s a game mode that’s less annoying than Samsung’s. I also used Reading Mode more than I thought I would; it automatically turns the screen monochrome in apps that you select to mimic an e-reader. There’s also a screen recorder, something that Google itself seems incapable of building directly into Android.

There’s another thing I just wish everybody would do: the “minus one” screen to the left of the home screen lets you put Android widgets in a vertically scrolling list, just like the iPhone does with its widgets. It’s so much more useful than the Google or Bixby feed of news that other Android phones foist on you.

The 7 Pro is a spec monster. And with Android phones, I usually get a little nervous when I see spec monsters. It’s often a sign that the fit and finish are going to be an afterthought. But in a week or so of using the 7 Pro, I didn’t feel like any corners were really cut. The screen is incredible, the cameras are respectable, and the software is clean and fast.

I started this review with a heavyweight boxing metaphor because it’s fun, but the reality is that every phone comes with trade-offs, even the gigantic ones. Whatever OnePlus’ marketing department may tell you, there’s no such thing as a no-compromise phone, even when you are spending more than a thousand dollars.

ONEPLUS MADE COMPROMISES, JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE, BUT THEY’RE THE RIGHT ONES
OnePlus is an interesting phone maker because it makes different choices for those compromises. With the OnePlus 7 Pro, it compromised on something it hadn’t before: price — $699 is more than its phones used to cost, but it means it has a more legitimate claim to compete with the likes of the Galaxy S10 Plus, Pixel 3 XL, and even the iPhone XS Max.

It might be more than previous OnePlus phones, but it’s still a lot less than comparable big-screened phones: a Galaxy S10 Plus is $300 more and comes with half the storage, for example. If the OnePlus 7 Pro has a haymaker in this fight, it is the price.

Some of those competitors will have must-have features for many customers — the Pixel’s camera and iOS on the iPhone come to mind. But if you don’t have a compelling need for a feature on one of those other big phones, I can’t think of a compelling reason to not buy this one.

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