OnePlus is like one giant, never-ending Kickstarter campaign. It’s a company built around a credo of community-driven product development that makes every buyer of a OnePlus phone also feel a sense of ownership over the brand’s fortunes. Of course, just as with Kickstarter, that’s more of a marketing half-truth than a reality, and the new OnePlus 6T shows a company willing to defy and disappoint its most ardent fans.
A year ago, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau wrote that 80 percent of OnePlus users still used the headphone jack. Today, Lau is launching a phone without a headphone jack. More recently, company co-founder Carl Pei explained to me that the notification LED was so important to OnePlus users that its inclusion even affected the size of the OnePlus 6’s notch. Today, Pei and company are releasing a phone without a notification light.
The trade-offs that OnePlus has made are easily noticed: the 3.5mm jack makes room for a larger battery, while the absentee LED allows for a smaller notch at the top of the display. Both decisions bring OnePlus closer in line with the mass market and further away from its origins as an edgy outsider willing to make a phone dedicated to the needs and desires of an enthusiast audience. With expanded mobile operator deals across the globe and sales in T-Mobile stores and support for Verizon in the US, OnePlus as a company is signaling a stronger intent to compete in the mainstream market.
To wow consumers and phone geeks alike, OnePlus has built the fingerprint reader directly into the display of the OnePlus 6T — which is already a familiar feature in China, but not something that will have been experienced in the US before. Also atypical for the American market is OnePlus’ pricing, which starts at $549 for a sizable 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM, making the OnePlus 6T the most affordable flagship you can get.
With a bigger display spanning 6.4 inches and a slightly thicker profile due to the larger 3,700mAh battery, the OnePlus 6T is every bit the jumbo phone that the OnePlus 6 was. Somewhat counterintuitively, I find that the newer 6T is easier to handle because of its greater weight and thickness. It feels more natural to grip than the flatter, more board-like 6. That being said, you’re still dealing with a big phone, right in line with the dimensions of the Google Pixel 3 XL and iPhone XS Max. If you don’t fancy those devices’ ergonomics, replete with slippery (and fragile) glass on both front and back, well, OnePlus isn’t giving you much of an alternative.
The fit and finish of the OnePlus 6T are just about perfect. Unpacking this phone and inspecting its physical form, I am no less impressed than when opening an iPhone box for the first time. OnePlus even throws in the added bit of customer service of pre-applying a nice and inconspicuous screen protector to its phone. OnePlus’ design refinement has grown alongside the entire mobile industry to the point where it’s hard to now find flagship phones that don’t look like pieces of precision-engineered electronic jewelry. My only quibble is that the 6T’s earpiece — sitting at the top edge of the phone, pushed out of the ultra minimalist notch — tends to gather dust and debris a little too easily.
The whizzy new addition to the OnePlus 6T over the previous OnePlus 6 is an in-display fingerprint sensor. OnePlus tells me it has tested the new biometric reader to work for as many as 300,000 unlocks without exhibiting any deterioration in accuracy or speed. It also works in wet weather and through screen protectors. The company is confident this fingerprint reader won’t lose accuracy over time, but I’m not impressed with the accuracy or consistency it has when it’s brand-new.
I registered my two thumbprints with the OnePlus 6T, and I got a maddeningly low success rate unlocking the phone on the first attempt. Sometimes, it would be a straightforward unlocking experience, albeit a noticeably slower one than the previous discrete fingerprint scanner OnePlus had. More often, though, I’d have to reposition my finger multiple times before the phone identified me. And yes, I made sure to re-enroll my thumb scans more than once in case the original ID information wasn’t good enough.
Also less than ideal is the brightness of the fingerprint ID graphic at the bottom of the screen. It doesn’t adhere to the brightness setting of the overall display (neither do ambient-screen notifications, but those are more forgivable because I actually want to read them), and so it appears jarringly bright in dark environments. OnePlus accompanies the unlocking process with a huge animated electrical sphere around my finger. This is in part to dress up the bright green light needed to illuminate my finger to get a clear reading, but I again find it jarring. This would be a cool unlocking process for something I only access a couple of times per day — there’s a certain sense of occasion with all this fussiness — but it quickly grows fatiguing when you’re unlocking your phone upwards of a hundred times per day. In-display fingerprint readers are undeniably cool, but they have to be implemented very well, and OnePlus just hasn’t done so with its latest flagship.
The display of the 6T impressed me more the more I used it. At first, I noticed the characteristic OLED color shift as I tilted the phone to its side: whites would start to exhibit red and green hues. But as I got into the rhythm of using the phone (as opposed to scrutinizing it to excessive detail), I really got to enjoy the colors, contrast, and crispness of this screen. It’s an extra tall (19.5:9 aspect ratio) 1080p panel, which doesn’t match the extreme pixel density of a Huawei Mate 20 Pro or Samsung Galaxy Note 9, but it doesn’t need to. Both of those devices intelligently scale down their resolution most of the time, anyway, to preserve battery life.
One thing I noticed with both the OnePlus 6T, in its adaptive mode, and the Mate 20 Pro in its Natural Tone mode, is that they seem to expose shadows and dark areas that little bit more than Google’s Pixel 3 XL or Samsung’s Note 9. Now, I think the Pixel and Note are the more accurate and faithful representations, but in practice, I find the greater level of shadow visibility that OnePlus and Huawei give me more useful. They still produce splendidly deep blacks, as all OLED screens do, when they have to. But it’s those last few shades before absolute black that are a little brighter with these two phones.
OnePlus offers sRGB and DCI-P3 color modes on the OnePlus 6T, with the former subduing saturation and the latter seeming to have just the right amount of it. I’m not entirely clear on how the adaptive mode differs, it appears to hew very closely to the P3 profile, but whatever you do, make sure to escape the default mode immediately. The default setting on the 6T is the screamingly oversaturated assault on the eyes that OLED screens have traditionally been known for. Also worth acknowledging here is OnePlus’ Reading mode, which as far as I know, remains a feature unique to this company’s phones. It turns the screen to a reading-optimized monochrome, and it can be assigned to activate when you’re in certain apps. I find doing this with Twitter especially helpful, as the dull appearance helps me get out of the app faster than I usually would.
As to that teardrop-shaped notch, I don’t think it’s an asset (by being smaller than the competition) or a burden (by existing). Initially, I thought it’d be small enough for me to tolerate its existence, but over time, I found it more prominent than a flatter and wider notch. So I flipped on the notch hiding option and got a reasonably sized top bezel that happened to display my notifications and status icons. No, it doesn’t match the curvature of the bottom of the screen, but I’m not pedantic enough to notice or care about that.
I am, however, super pedantic about camera performance on phones, and this is where OnePlus again lets me down. A year ago, I wrote that the OnePlus 5T is the best phone without a great camera, and nothing has changed about that situation. In fact, in a year when Apple, Google, and Huawei all took major steps forward with their imaging, OnePlus decided to leave its OnePlus 6 camera hardware entirely unchanged in the OnePlus 6T. The company has made some software tweaks and optimizations: there are new de-noise algorithms, better edge detection in portrait mode, and improved scene detection. The 6T will apply process images differently depending on whether it detects their content as text, food, a night scene, or a shot filled with greenery. This is a rudimentary form of the advanced AI calculations that Huawei and Google’s camera systems use.
OnePlus adds a new night mode with its latest camera software, which aims to emulate the company’s bigger rivals, but fails to impress. The 6T’s night mode opens the shutter for a fifth of a second, gathering more light than a regular shot and helping to restore some detail in the most contrasty areas. Trying it out in a nighttime street setting, I liked that it managed to claw back the blown highlights of illuminated street signs. But if the best I can say about a night mode is that it’s better at handling highlights, then you can rest assured that it’s an underwhelming feature. The camera, more than anything else, is where you’ll experience the price delta between the OnePlus 6T and the pricier flagships above it.
With Android 9 Pie preloaded on the 6T, OnePlus is making amends for last year when it shipped the 5T without the latest version of Android on board. Even better, the implementation of Android 9 on the OnePlus 6T is a faultlessly smooth and pleasurable experience. OnePlus’ OxygenOS adds genuinely good and desirable things without taking anything away from the core Android experience.
I love that OnePlus isn’t forcing Google’s new gesture-based multitasking on users, as exhibited on the Pixel 3 devices. Instead, it’s relying on its own copy of the iPhone X system. (Let’s be honest, the iPhone is the gold standard in this category). Google’s current system is incoherent, seemingly unwilling to commit to gestures as the universal interface model. OnePlus, on the other hand, has a really smooth and easy setup.
A quick swipe up from the bottom of the display brings you to the home screen, where a swipe up from the middle leads to your app drawer. A swipe up and right within any app instantly switches you back to the previously used app — the animation for this is particularly satisfying — and to access multitasking, you just have to swipe up and hold for a beat. The back button is replaced with swipes up from the left and right bottom corners of the screen. In use, these are fast, intuitive, and natural gestures.
There’s just one conflict spoiling the party here and that’s the on-screen keyboard. Because Gboard accepts swipe input, any time I have my keyboard up in an app and want to switch to elsewhere, the upward swipe I use for multitasking is inevitably registered by the keyboard. So I tend to leave a bunch of apps with a “by” or a “cv” swipe-typed in. The workaround is that I have to bring the keyboard down every time I want to exit an app, which is not a requirement I used to have with a dedicated home button (nor one that Apple users, still pecking at each key individually, have to face). I find this merely suboptimal rather than a deal breaker, but OnePlus gives you the option to revert to the old trio of Android navigations buttons, if you so wish.
OnePlus’ typically fast performance is very much in evidence with the OnePlus 6T — at least on the 8GB variant I’ve got for review — but the company has stepped up the level of polish to an impressive degree. Where previous OnePlus phones were stupidly fast but lacked finesse in their animations, the 6T gives a sensation of both speed and comfort. The fluidity of the user experience here isn’t merely on par with the world’s most expensive smartphones, it surpasses many of them, thanks to good design decisions from OnePlus. There’s no dumb Bixby button here, none of the daft spam notifications you’d get from Oppo or Huawei, and no irksome theme stores that demand you create an account just to be able to modify your phone’s interface to your liking.
Using a OnePlus phone, for anyone who’s had to suffer the friction of dealing with other Android manufacturers’ software, is frankly liberating. Provided the privacy concerns that OnePlus caused last year do not re-emerge, I’d probably declare this the best Android experience available right now. Speed at every turn, easy and flexible customization of both the interface and app icons, and precious little in the way of annoyances. I also didn’t stumble into any crashes or bugs during my testing time with the 6T.
Personally, I’ve never been a big notification LED enthusiast, so I don’t miss that omission from OnePlus, which is offset by the option to show minimal notifications on the screen when messages or alerts come in. I also can’t mourn the absence of the now-departed headphone jack, which is not a thing I’d have said six months ago. But Google’s release of the very affordable and very good Pixel USB-C earbuds and OnePlus’ launch of the cheap Bullets USB-C earphones have made USB-C audio attainable and desirable. If we take the demise of the dedicated headphone jack as a given, I’d say OnePlus has judged the exact right moment to make the switch. I also like the USB-C Bullets, and I wish OnePlus had figured out a way to bundle them in the box with the phone. Instead, you get an adapter dongle, which you’ll be able to know is from OnePlus because its stumpy little cable is in the company’s signature red color.
The lost headphone jack, OnePlus tells me, opens more space for the battery, which is the biggest OnePlus has yet put in any of its phones. With batteries, bigger is always better, and I do find this to be the most reliable OnePlus phone I’ve yet used. The 6T lasts that extra bit more than the 6, nudging it from good to almost great battery life. I’d say it’s on a par with the Pixel 3 XL, though not quite in the same category as Huawei’s eternal Mate 20 Pro, which has the same size screen, but can last much longer because of Huawei’s more efficient 7nm processor, an even larger battery cell, and some ultra-aggressive power optimizations.
For the regular user, the OnePlus 6T will make it through a day of intensive use without a problem, whether you’re gaming, binging on Robert Sapolsky lectures on YouTube, or unable to tear yourself from the social media debates about the coming apocalypse. And it’ll give you unerringly fast and fluid performance through all of those tasks.
I have some sundry complaints about the OnePlus 6T that tend to demonstrate the (few) corners OnePlus has cut. First up is the loudspeaker, which sounds very nice on this phone, but is woefully inadequate in terms of volume. Even at max volume, it’s only really useful in a quiet environment. A long-standing flaw of bottom-firing speakers of this kind is also that you can occlude their opening really easily, especially when holding the phone in landscape for gaming. Then there’s the matter of wireless charging and proper water resistance certification, both of which the OnePlus 6T lacks. Those are quickly becoming table stakes for flagship smartphones, and their omission from OnePlus’ offering is only going to grow more egregious with time.
The OnePlus 6T is yet another very good phone from OnePlus. Even with some enforced changes, that might not please every member of the OnePlus community, I think it’s a device that shows progress and improvement. But how big is that progress?
Without a great camera, without wireless charging, and with a headline feature that disappoints, the OnePlus 6T is not the unequivocal winner it might have been. It’s just a good phone at a favorable price. For most people, that will be enough.
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