When it comes to phones, I like variety. I appreciate innovative and quirky features too; that’s why I’ve never settled for the homogeneity of Apple’s iPhone, or Samsung’s wonder bricks.
So when Jon Rettinger asked me to live with Oppo’s latest phones, the R5 and N3, I jumped at the chance. The Chinese manufacturer, better known for its high-end Blu-ray players, has been making phones since 2008, but I’d never actually seen one in the wild. However, I knew Oppo had a reputation for innovative, often quirky, designs.
So I’ve spend the last two weeks with Oppo’s latest flagship phones, the N3 and the R5. While the two share a number of similar characteristics, in many ways they couldn’t be more different. One’s a Luxury SUV, the other a temperamental supermodel.
Both phones are built around Oppo’s ColorOS, an Android variant. It’s a simplistic, colorful and fun mod, with some neat features and some frustrating limitations. The biggest limitation for me was that both use physical home, menu and back buttons, rather than the soft buttons used by most other manufacturers. The lack of reconfigurable buttons wouldn’t be so bad, but Oppo added insult to injury by mixing up the menu button’s behavior as well. Instead of bringing up a list of running apps from the home screen, it launches some weird interface modification screen. You have to press and HOLD the menu button to get that scrollable list of running apps. That’s just wrong. An Oppo representative said that it will have some devices with soft keys in the future, but because these are physical keys that’s just the way it goes.
Color OS also lacks an App Drawer, so every program you install simply fills up home page screens. I’d rather keep my home screens clean, and leave those other apps in a drawer. Oppo, apparently, disagrees.
However, Oppo won me over with its array of customizable and downloadable themes that convert the phone from a whimsical playground to a dystopian landscape. I counted 99 downloadable themes, that not only change the background, but also include their own sounds, animations and new icon designs for both built in and downloaded apps. Some of these designs closely resemble existing IP – including Scissor Hands, which is a dead ringer for Miyazaki’s Totoro, and a Despicable Me theme as well – but Oppo says there are no other branded themes on the way. I loved being able to change the look and feel of the phone with the touch of a button, depending on my mood. However, the lack of sorting or searching features made it more frustrating than it should have been to go back and find a theme I liked, or to see – for example – all the monster themes in one place.
Some of the bundled apps were less than perfect, revealing an OS that needs to mature a bit before it’s bulletproof. The bundled weather app, for example, kept insisting that I was five days in the future – and showered me with the animated rain we’re expecting next week, rather than the sunshine of today. The Backup and Restore app is handy, but doesn’t work as expected. When I backed up and restored from one phone to the other, only a few of my accounts came along. I had to recreate most of my email accounts along with many of my other apps. And after a restore, I saw a variety of apps crash as well – I had to reinstall some of them – including Waze to get them working again. Oppo attributes much of that to encrypted data. There are better options, including Titanium Backup, but they require root access.
The built-in cameras on both phones vary in specs, but both include some neat photographic features including HDR, easy GIF creation, a super-macro mode, and the ability to change the focal point after you snap a shot.
But overall, if you can get used to ColorOS’ quirks, you’ll enjoy using the OS on either device. Unfortunately ColorOS runs on top of KitKat, not Lollipop, which means you’re not using the latest Android. Even worse, an Oppo representative wouldn’t even commit to Lollipop ever coming to either phone, saying simply that “OPPO is currently working to optimize the overall user experience of the devices and planning the direction that ColorOS will take.”
Well how about the devices themselves? Let’s start with the $649 Oppo N3, the luxury SUV of the pair. Off the top, I really like this GPS phone. Built around a speedy 2.3HGz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core chip, a separate Adreno 330 GPU and a bright 5.5” 1920×1080 TFT display, it’s beefy and brawny. But it’s more than just a large candybar, Oppo’s design flourishes and quirky add-ons make this a phone that I’m happy to lug around every day.
First, the phone includes a gimmicky motorized camera that flops back and forth between selfie and standard modes. You can also pan the camera around from zero to 206 degrees to get just the right shot. It also includes an auto-panorama feature that slowly sweeps the motorized head around to create nearly 180 degree panoramic shots of beautiful places.
The 16 megapixel camera takes very nice pictures, and includes a dual-mode LED flash. 1080p videos were also crisp and sharp, particularly in good light. And because there’s only one camera that works in both front and back-facing modes, your selfies will look particularly good.
From a design perspective, the white N3 I tested stands out. First, that rotating camera is encased in faux-stitched leather, which looks expensive – or dorky depending on your taste. And there’s a weird rounded extrusion on the bottom that makes the alert light more noticeable, but also limits port and button placement. The best part about the N3’s exterior though? A fingerprint sensor/ON switch on the back that actually, really, easily works. All you need to do is register your fingerprints – which was easy as pie – and then simply press the back button anytime you want to turn the device on. I’ve used a LOT of fingerprint sensors in my years of testing products, and uniformly none of them work well. This is the first one I’ve seen that’s actually useful, usable, practical and soon it became indispensable. All phones should adopt this feature.
Unfortunately the rotating camera and weird extruding bottom piece forced the headphone port to the upper right side of the phone. That makes the phone wider when you’re listening to music, which is inconvenient when you stuff it in your pants pocket – although if you’re a skinny-jean wearing hipster, it’s going to extrude right out of your pocket anyway.
Similarly, the micro-USB port is on the lower left side, which makes it awkward to hold and use when you’re charging the phone. That’s less of a problem than you might think, because the N3 includes a wonderful VOOC rapid charging feature that gives you a quick boost after five minutes, and gets you to 75% in just half an hour. In my tests the rapid charging really worked as advertised, and it became another indispensable feature. As you might imagine, though, you need to use a special AC adapter, which means lugging around an oversized wall wart and special cable. The phone will charge on any old random USB adapter and cable, but the phone occasionally reset when I plugged a generic cable into its micro-USB port, which seems to indicate a risk for some sort of short when using other chargers and cables.
The N3 includes a weird little accessory called the “O-Click” – a simplified remote control for the phone. About two inches long, but ultrathin, the O-Click is designed to fit onto your key ring. The single button can be used to control the camera motor, and snap pictures on your phone – presumably while hoisted aloft in a selfie stick – or to control the built in music player. It’ll also help you find your phone when you’ve lost it – double-press the single button and it simulates a phone call. That’s ideal if you live alone and lack a landline, but it’s more of a gimmick in most households.
As a phone, the N3 was superb. The top speaker is good and loud, the microphone sensitive, and the separate bottom speaker – which pushes audio around the extruded arc – sounded as good as any single-loud speaker phone I’ve tested. Battery life on the N5 was more than adequate. The 3000mAh battery easily lasted through full days of calling, texting and snapchatting during my tests. It includes 32 GB of internal storage and a microSD slot so you can add a lot more inside. Finally, the N3 supports dual SIM cards, enabling separate instantiations for work and personal, or for your wife and mistress. I did not test that feature.
I really liked the N3. It’s a bit expensive when compared to some other Chinese phone models, but all those features and functions make it well worth investigating – especially if you can live with the faux stitching on the motorized camera. If you want it all – and you don’t want to be just one of the herd – the N3 could be your type.
Unless you’re Tom Brady, having an ultrathin supermodel wife is bound to come with compromises. And the R5 is no different. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous phone, and at 4.85mm thick, it’s the thinnest phone I’ve ever seen. It’s about a third the height of most phones, including the N3, and the aluminum back and sides give it a sleek, shiny, luxurious patina. The 5.2 inch AMOLED screen looks very nice, although it wasn’t that easy to read in bright sunlight.
Unfortunately, those compromises begin to cascade once you begin using the device. The 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 615, coupled with the Adreno 405 GPU just can’t keep up with the ColorOS and many of the apps I added to the phone. I saw a good bit of lag while moving from screen to screen. The camera was also slow to start, which meant I missed a few shots waiting for it to come on line. Once underway, though, the 13 megapixel camera delivered decent results in both indoor and outdoor lighting.
The phone includes just 16 GB of internal storage, and lacks any sort of expansion slot, so you’ll be juggling storage regularly if you like taking lots of pictures, listening to lots of audio, or watching movies on the device. But the biggest limitation for me was the abysmal battery life. The 2000mAh battery – 2/3rds the size of the N3 – would typically drop below 20% after about 6 or 7 hours of use. Using the default darker theme helped a bit with battery life, as did turning off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The lightweight power pack was only partly redeemed by the same VOOC fast charging found on its brawnier brother.
There’s only one speaker on the phone, and does double duty as both a phone speaker and a loudspeaker. I was unimpressed with the audio quality both during calls and playing music and videos. Here, again, the compromises required to make such a sexy, svelte phone resulted in less than adequate performance.
I was also nonplused by the state of the audio jack – given that there was none. Instead you’ll need to carry around the special micro-USB to mini-jack dongle if you want to use your wired headphones or plug the phone into another audio device. That wouldn’t work for me either – I’d lose that dongle in a week or less.
I also ran into some stability problems with the R5. Many apps crashed for no apparent reason, including Google Maps. I was also concerned that the super-thin R5 – like many a high-strung supermodel – would easily break down if subjected to just slightly elevated levels of stress.
Oppo must feel the same way, because it included a nifty case in the box with the phone that incorporated a wraparound cover to protect the fragile screen. A rectangular window on the upper third of the cover displays a big digital clock, along with the phone’s status when the cover is shut. Open it up and the full screen appears. It’s a nice touch, but it makes me wonder whether Oppo’s being overprotective, or this phone is just too thin for its own good.
But these are all just quibbles. The R5 is the thinnest, sexiest, and in many ways the best looking phone I’ve ever seen. It feels great when you touch it, and you’ll find yourself wanting to rub it and caress it all day long. It’s not for me – there are too many limitations. But if you’re looking for a tasty bit of pocket candy, by all means give the R5 a try. It’ll be available in the US for about $450, but you can order it now from Taiwan on Amazon for closer to $600.