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OnePlus 6 review: new phone, same compromises

OnePlus’ latest is still a great value, but still has the same old problems

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales. Video by Becca Farsace, Alix Diaconis, and Phil Esposito. Sound by Andru Marino.

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For several years now, OnePlus has been releasing phones with a variation on the same promise: get all the best, flagship smartphone features without paying flagship prices. Combined with some savvy marketing, the strategy has created a cadre of devoted fans. And those fans aren’t just getting bamboozled, either: OnePlus phones have always done a great job of outperforming their price point in both quality and functionality.

The latest chapter in that story is the new OnePlus 6, which is available to order starting on May 22nd and starts at $529. It is hands down the nicest OnePlus phone ever released. And yet, every time we hear this story, I end up having some variation of the same conversation. This time it was with Dieter Bohn, but honestly it could have (and has) been with a lot of people:

Me: OnePlus has a new phone coming out. It’s even nicer than the last model.

Dieter: Oh yeah, how’s the camera?

M: It has the latest processor, a bigger screen, and a nicer design. Nice software, too.

D: Tell me about the camera.

M: The design and battery life have improved.

D: Has image quality improved?

M: Well, it’s a lot cheaper than a phone from Google, Apple, or Samsung.

D: I see you dodging the camera question. Okay. Well, can I use it on Verizon?

M: No.

D: Ok.

And round and round we go.

Here’s what the OnePlus 6 has going for it: a bigger screen, a refreshed and modernized design, the latest processor from Qualcomm, upgraded cellular capabilities, an improved camera system, and the best version of Android outside of Google’s own Pixel line — all for $529. But there are still compromises — and they’re the same compromises we keep talking about. It still can’t compete with Samsung, Google, Apple, or even Huawei when it comes to cameras, it doesn’t have proper water resistance, doesn’t work on half the carriers in the US, and only comes in one size: pretty big.

The OnePlus 6 is still a great value, perhaps even more so now that every other flagship phone has ballooned in price.

But it doesn’t change the conversation.

The most striking thing about the OnePlus 6 is its new design, which swaps out a full aluminum chassis for glass panels on both the front and the back. That makes the phone look basically like every other high-end phone released in 2018, but it’s an attractive design without any weird quirks.

OnePlus claims the move to an all-glass design allows for better wireless reception and that the phone’s durability is just as good as prior models with metal bodies. But glass is glass, and even though the OnePlus 6 has hardened glass like every other phone (it uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5 on both sides), it’s still prone to scratches and if you drop it enough times, it will certainly shatter. In the couple of weeks that I’ve been using the OnePlus 6, it’s picked up annoying scratches on both the front and back. (OnePlus does ship the 6 with a screen protector preinstalled on it, but I removed that because it’s gross.)

The 6 is available in two finishes: glossy and matte The glossy version is stunning to look at… until you touch it and it instantly becomes covered in fingerprints. The matte model is much better at repelling those fingerprints (and has a very cool iridescent shimmer in the light), but its bead-blasted surface is so smooth that it practically slides out of my hand on its own volition. The finish on the matte phone, which OnePlus calls “Midnight Black,” reminds me of the surface of the glass trackpad on a MacBook Pro, so you can imagine how little friction there is to it.

The other major update here is a new, 6.3-inch display that’s even bigger than the 6-inch screen found on last year’s OnePlus 5T. Handling the OnePlus 6 is a lot like handling other big, mostly glass phones. It often just feels too cumbersome to use when I’m on the go and only have one hand free. The slippery glass finish, which is surprisingly worse for the matte model, only makes matters worse. Many other premium phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S9, the iPhone 8, or Google’s Pixel 2, come in either a small or large size, so you can choose between having a larger display or an easier phone to hold. The OnePlus 6 comes in one size.

But OnePlus is doing the same thing everybody else is to get a bigger screen without making the phone even bigger than it already is. That’s right, it’s got a notch for the earpiece, front camera, notification light, and proximity sensor.

Notches may be 2018’s most polarizing smartphone design quirk, but I don’t find them to be a problem at all. The bigger screen gives me more vertical space to read email, articles, tweets, and messages, or use split-screen multitasking or whatever I want to do. The clock and notification icons are pushed right to the top and out of the way. A cutout for a notch in the middle of the top is a tradeoff I’d make for more screen in the same size phone any day of the week.

I’ll gladly accept a notch as a tradeoff if it gives me more screen space

There are a couple of things to be aware of with the notch, but none of them are problematic enough for me to go back to the old design. I’ve yet to encounter any app that didn’t work as I expected because of the notch being there, and the notch doesn’t cut into the side of video like on the iPhone X, but the battery percentage is hidden until the full notification shade is revealed. Also, if you have a lot of icons for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, NFC, or whatever, it can get pretty crowded pretty quickly up there. But OnePlus does let you toggle a lot of these off if you don’t want them to display.

If you really hate the full-bleed look, you can opt to “black out” the sides next to the notch so all of your apps just fill out below it. (The clock and status bar icons will remain in the “notch” area either way.) I think this mode looks worse and I’ve never felt the need to obscure the notch’s existence.

Other than its larger size, the OnePlus 6 display isn’t much different to last year’s model: it’s a 1080-pixel wide OLED panel with vibrant colors and deep blacks. It doesn’t get as bright and doesn’t have as many pixels as a Galaxy S9 screen, but it’s still easy to read outdoors and doesn’t have the major color-shifting problems or issues that plagued Google’s Pixel 2 XL.

When it comes to performance, the OnePlus 6 is very fast, which isn’t a huge surprise given its processor and copious amounts of RAM. But OnePlus does a lot of things to make it feel even faster than other Android phones, such as speeding up animations so everything happens a millisecond or two quicker. It seems that OnePlus has adjusted its tuning from prior years, because the 6’s animations don’t seem as reckless as before, and feel less l like I’m using the phone in “fast-forward mode.” That could just be my perception, but it’s a great experience either way.

The OnePlus 6 is the company’s first phone to support gigabit LTE speeds, and it supports 25 different LTE bands (in the North American model), including T-Mobile’s new Band 71 and AT&T’s Band 30. In my testing using the T-Mobile network, the OnePlus 6 has had solid reception, in line with what I’ve experienced from other high-end, modern smartphones. It also supports Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE on T-Mobile. But it doesn’t support CDMA-based networks at all, and it won’t work on Verizon or Sprint at all. That means that half of the wireless customers in the US can’t even consider the OnePlus 6 as their next phone.

The OnePlus 6 supports gigabit LTE, but not Verizon or Sprint

For stamina, the 3,300mAh battery in the OnePlus 6 keeps it going through a full day of use for me without issue. It doesn’t have wireless charging, even though it now has the glass back, but OnePlus’ Dash Charger is the fastest wired charging option you can get, which makes topping up the battery very easy, provided you’re using the cable and charger that come in the box.

There are some other hardware features worth mentioning, too. The OnePlus 6 has something that you won’t find on any other Android phone: a physical switch to move between ring, vibrate, and fully silent modes. If you’ve used a OnePlus phone in the past, you’ll find it has a different behavior now. Instead of controlling the Do Not Disturb modes, it just toggles the volume output, which makes a lot more sense in use. Annoyingly, OnePlus still isn’t giving users options to automatically turn on DND mode at night or in meetings.

The OnePlus 6 has two ways to unlock it: your finger or your face. The face unlock is not as secure as Face ID on the iPhone X, but it’s super convenient and fast. For some reason, OnePlus removed the swipe gestures on the fingerprint scanner to reveal the notification shade, which seems like a minor thing but has annoyed me the entire time I’ve used the phone. It’s one of those things that make handling a very large phone easier and its removal is confounding and frustrating.

The OnePlus 6 also still has a headphone jack, which is great if you don’t want to deal with wireless headphones or Bluetooth in your car. If you do want to go wireless, there’s support for Bluetooth 5 and AptX and AptX HD audio streaming. For speakers, the 6 has a loud and clear single speaker at the bottom, but it doesn’t have the even better dual speaker setups that many other phones offer at this point.

And while OnePlus claims the 6 is splash resistant, it doesn’t have any proper water resistance ratings, so it’s not safe to submerge or really get soaked. It’s okay in the rain, but don’t drop it in the pool.

The OnePlus 6 has a dual camera system on the back, basically the standard now. It uses a 16-megapixel main sensor for most of the heavy lifting, and a secondary 20-megapixel sensor to add more detail and enable portrait mode blurring effects. The main sensor has been upgraded with larger pixels and optical image stabilization for better low-light performance and it is now capable of shooting 4K video at 60 frames per second and slow-motion video at 240 frames per second (1080p resolution) or 480 frames per second (720p resolution).

The OnePlus 6 camera doesn’t hold up to the best phones available

Compared to last year’s OnePlus 5 or 5T, the OnePlus 6’s camera is a step up: images are sharper and have more detail, especially in low light. The camera app opens quickly and has a logical, easy-to-follow interface. But the portrait mode is just as gimmicky as before, and while the new slow-motion video modes are nice to have, I don’t really see myself ever using them.

But if you compare it to something like Google’s Pixel 2, a Samsung S9, or a Huawei P20 Pro, the OnePlus 6 images don’t hold up. Colors are nice and exposure is generally accurate, but the pictures have a gritty, over-sharpened look to them, especially when you zoom in. Even though the OnePlus 6 has both automatic and manual HDR modes, it doesn’t do as a good of a job pulling detail out of shadows or replicating what my eye can see as Google’s Pixel, and it can’t touch the Huawei for low-light image capture. The pictures just lack the “wow” factor that the best smartphone cameras all have.


The 16-megapixel front camera is similar: it’s good at exposure and color, but it oversharpens images in an unpleasant way. There’s a “beautification” mode slider that will turn your face into a watercolor painting if you want, but I left that off. The front camera doesn’t have the portrait mode effects the rear camera has, but OnePlus tells me it is planning to add them in a forthcoming software update.

None of this is to say the camera is bad — it’s actually quite good, especially for the OnePlus 6’s price — but it’s where you’ll see the biggest gap between the OnePlus 6 and more expensive smartphones.

For software, the OnePlus 6 is running Oxygen OS, which is OnePlus’ take on Android — 8.1 Oreo (including the May 1st security patches, at the time of review), in this case. Mostly, it looks very similar to what you find on a Google Pixel phone — it’s clean and easy to use without a bunch of gimmicky things that get in the way.

There are a couple of unique things worth pointing out in OnePlus’ software.

OnePlus’ gesture controls are a good idea, but need polish

First is a gesture control system that you can opt to use in place of the standard Android onscreen buttons. I really like the idea of this, as it lets content make full use of the OnePlus 6’s expansive screen and fill it out all the way to the bottom. Sadly, the gestures aren’t yet as smooth or easy to use as the iPhone X’s. As it stands right now, there’s no way to launch the Google Assistant from the gesture interface and it lacks the ability to quickly switch back to the last app I was using, both of which are possible if you have the standard Back, Home, and Recent Apps buttons enabled. I hope OnePlus keeps working on this. (When I asked if OnePlus would be adopting the new gesture control system Google has announced for the next version of Android, the company said it had no official stance yet, but noted the Android P gestures are still in beta and subject to change.)

Second is a “Reading Mode”, which shifts the display to a monochrome appearance that mimics an e-reader. It makes reading long articles or ebooks much nicer, and you can even have it turn on and off automatically depending on what app you’re using.

The OnePlus 6 is an evolution of what OnePlus has been doing since its beginning, without really breaking from that mold. There’s certainly a lot to like here — attractive design, great display, reliable battery life, fast performance, and great software — and there aren’t any silly, trend-chasing things such as gimmicky AI features, dedicated hardware buttons for virtual assistants, or weird squeezing interfaces that just get in the way. There are even a couple of legitimately great things that can’t be found on any other smartphone. The OnePlus 6’s bang for buck is still about the best you can get in the smartphone world.

But for the most part, all of the critiques that might have been levied against OnePlus’ phones in 2016 and 2017 will still apply here. The OnePlus 6 doesn’t have the best camera, it doesn’t work on Verizon, it’s not truly water-resistant, and it is big, with no option for a smaller size version. Those things matter to a lot of people, and no amount of a discount compared to a Samsung, Apple, or Google device can fix those issues.

No amount of a discount can fix many of the standard OnePlus complaints

A lot of the improvements over the company’s prior phones are predictable, as well. The faster processor aligns with Qualcomm’s release cycle, the improved camera is a standard year-over-year upgrade, and the larger display, complete with a notch, is in-step with 2018’s smartphone trends. I don’t think the OnePlus 6 regresses in any way — it’s a better phone than the OnePlus 5T in every respect — but some may lament the change from a full metal body to a glass sandwich design.

The OnePlus 6 will surely make a lot of OnePlus fans happy, and it will likely continue to fuel the company’s steady growth. But next time, I’d like to see OnePlus tackle those headline complaints head on and produce a device that appeals to a broader crowd, not just smartphone enthusiasts looking to save a buck.

Congrats to Ernesto Alonso, who won the wallpaper submission contest we recently ran on Instagram! You can follow him on Instagram here and download the wallpaper you see on the phone in this review here.

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