OnePlus 7 review: Overshadowed but not outdone

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The OnePlus 7 Pro and its 5G equivalent might be stealing all the headlines this year, but for those on a stricter budget, the regular OnePlus 7 is still worth considering.

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Mercifully, OnePlus has chosen not to bump up the price on this year’s model, yet it’s still managed to squeeze in some significant upgrades to ensure the phone stays relevant in 2019. OnePlus’ mid-range territory might have become overrun, but its seventh-generation handset looks to be an attractive buy to consumers, even with more choice than ever in this price bracket.

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OnePlus 7 review: What you need to know

First, let’s address the fact that the OnePlus 7 isn’t quite in the same league as its Pro-branded stablemate. It costs £149 less than its flashier sibling but lacks the buttery-smooth 90Hz QHD+ screen, the innovative pop-up selfie camera and the expansive RAM and storage configuration options.

What it does provide, however, is an identical Snapdragon 855 chipset under the bonnet. This is the first time OnePlus has included Qualcomm’s most up-to-date silicon, which promises vastly improved processing speeds and greater power efficiency. The 48-megapixel camera makes an appearance, too, and the OnePlus 7 runs Google’s latest version of its mobile operating system, Android 9 Pie, from the get-go.

OnePlus 7 review: Price and competition

Despite all this, the OnePlus 7 remains miraculously affordable. Launching in the UK for £499, the OnePlus 7 comes in at precisely the same price as its predecessor, which launched a mere six months ago.

This makes it one of the cheapest Snapdragon 855-toting smartphones on the market, going toe-to-toe with the Xiaomi Mi 9 in that regard. Both offer flagship features at much more palatable prices, and the Honor View 20 is a worthy option, too.

OnePlus 7 review: Design and key features

The first thing to note is that, physically, there’s no difference between the OnePlus 7 and its predecessor, the OnePlus 6T. The screen is the same size and resolution (6.4in and 1,080 x 2,340) and it has the same size and shape of notch housing the front-facing camera. The chassis is identical, too, as is the positioning of all the buttons and SIM card slot. Even the battery is the same size as the 6T’s (3,700mAh). As ever, OnePlus hasn’t given this phone an IP rating for dust and water resistance.

This news isn’t necessarily all bad – the 6T wasn’t exactly ugly or impractical – but it does mean the screen is flat all the way to the edges, lacking the dramatic curve of the OnePlus 7 Pro. And purchasers of the OnePlus 7 might well experience some degree of phone envy when they see the new Pro’s “indigo blue” and “almond” colours, as those tones aren’t coming to the smaller phone. Alas, the OnePlus 7 is only available in mirror grey.

Love it or loathe it, the in-display fingerprint sensor reappears, which sits about three-quarters of the way down the screen. Successfully unlocking the phone is still a bit of a faff, however, and I much preferred using the speedy facial recognition instead. On a similar note, if you were hoping for a 3.5mm audio jack, then I’m afraid you’re either going to have to take your wallet elsewhere or make do with the supplied USB Type-C adapter.

OnePlus 7 review: Display

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to the quality of the OnePlus 7’s screen. Since it’s an AMOLED panel, the contrast ratio is effectively perfect and colour reproduction is top-notch too, no matter which of the five display profiles you enable in the phone’s settings.

The screen is capable of covering 96.9% of the sRGB colour gamut in the phone’s ‘Nature’ display mode, with a total recorded volume of 99%. This is jolly good, although if we’re being particularly picky, our display calibrator managed to identify that black and greyscale tones were ever-so-slightly undersaturated. That’s a very minor criticism of course, but this does serve as a reminder that despite its well-priced prowess, there’s a lot to be said about paying a smidgen more for Samsung and Apple’s superb-looking phone screens.

Elsewhere, you can also choose to target the Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 colour spaces, as well as boost the phone’s colour saturation if you prefer a more vibrant viewing experience. Brightness could be a little better, however, with a peak luminance of 428cd/m2.

OnePlus 7 review: Performance and battery life

Secretly, anyone who decides to stick with the OnePlus 7 will be feeling smug that they’ve scored the better bargain of the two phones. That’s mainly because it’s £150 cheaper but also because, inside, the 7 employs exactly the same core hardware as the OnePlus 7 Pro: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 with Adreno 640 graphics and either 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage or 8GB with 256GB.

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Now that I’ve had the chance to properly put it through its paces, this setup performs just as well as the Xiaomi Mi 9; a phone that not only has the Snapdragon 855 chipset inside but a display of the same size and resolution. The Geekbench 4 single- and multi-core CPU benchmark returned scores of 3,531 and 11,214, showing that the OnePlus 7 provides a significant performance boost of up to 48% when compared with last year’s phone under identical conditions.

The OnePlus 7’s gaming capabilities aren’t to be ignored either, reaching a perfect 60fps average in the on-screen GFXBench Manhattan 3.0 test. Even the GPU-straining Car Chase benchmark returned a score of 37fps, which isn’t too shabby at all.

By some miracle, this serious boost in performance hasn’t decreased the OnePlus 7’s stamina by a wide margin. Playing a looped video with data connections switched off and display brightness set to our standardised 170cd/m2, the OnePlus 7 managed to last an impressive 21hrs 11mins before the screen went blank. That’s roughly 30mins less than last year’s phone, of course, but taking into account the major processing gains I think this is a worthy trade-off.

OnePlus 7 review: Camera

OnePlus hasn’t left the camera out of the equation, either, with exactly the same 48-megapixel primary camera as the OnePlus 7 Pro. True, you’re missing out on the ultra-wide and 3x telephoto cameras here (the secondary 20-megapixel, f/1.7 camera is only used for depth-sensing duties), but in large part, the photographs it produces look the same as they do on the more expensive OnePlus 7 Pro.

Sadly, that’s not quite a good thing, considering the issues I had with the 48-megapixel mode on the pricier Pro model. Although the OnePlus 7’s 12-megapixel downscaled images are absolutely fine, its full-resolution, 48-megapixel images look hugely over-processed to my eyes and severely lacking in detail compared with rivals like the Xiaomi Mi 9.

The differences between the two images are very easy to spot when placed next to each other, too. There’s no fault in the Xiaomi Mi 9’s ability to capture finer details, but the pictures snapped using the OnePlus 7’s 48-megapixel shooter look like a poor-quality watercolour painting. It really is that bad.

Considering that the OnePlus 7 launched two weeks later than its bigger brother, I did have hope that the firm’s software engineers could successfully address these issues in the form of a software fix but, at the time of writing, this isn’t the case.

That’s not the only problem, either. Rather infuriatingly, you’re forced to fiddle about with the camera’s Pro mode to access the 48-megapixel camera and from this setting, you, unfortunately, lose some basic features such as the HDR toggle. This isn’t ideal, and while it could be that the 48-megapixel mode doesn’t support HDR, this is never made explicit.

Thankfully, the camera’s video capabilities are considerably better. The footage looks lovely, is filled to the brim with details with colours that appear to pop right out of the screen. Unlike the juddery-looking Xperia 1’s video, the OnePlus 7’s 60fps shooting mode is as smooth as a salted caramel gelato – and that phone costs almost twice the price.

OnePlus 7 review: Verdict

Despite its problems, and the fact that OnePlus hasn’t updated the physical design of the phone, the OnePlus 7 still possesses all the credentials to compete with the best-value phones on the market. It costs a smidgen less than £500, includes the fastest mobile phone chipset around and OnePlus has improved the camera specifications this time around as well.

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Whether or not the OnePlus 7 can continue the company’s reign as undisputed value-smartphone champion is currently in flux, however. Now that other manufacturers, particularly Xiaomi, have muscled in so strongly on its territory, the OnePlus’ reign could be at an end. And if handfuls of new problems don’t stop coming in with each iteration, that end could come sooner than OnePlus or its fans would like.

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