You don’t have to spend $999 to get a flagship smartphone. In fact, there are several options that cost half as much as devices like the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X—two of which are among this year’s top handsets.
If you have $500 to spend, you can’t go wrong with the OnePlus 5T or Essential Phone, two high-end handsets without the premium pricing. But which one is the better value? That’s a tough question to answer, but one we’re willing to take a crack at.
The Essential Phone is gorgeous
As we said in our review, the Essential Phone is stunning to look at, featuring a slick blend of titanium and ceramic. Even among the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S8, the Essential Phone’s design stands out, displaying an impressive level of craftsmanship that punches well above the $500 asking price.
The OnePlus 5T is beautiful in its own right, but not nearly as premium. Sure, the screen is now bezel-less, but the company seems to have fallen into the same trap. OnePlus has gotten a bit complacent by recycling the same design we’ve seen over the past few years. The company seems to have fallen into the same trap Apple fell into with its iPhone.
In addition to its titanium and ceramic design, the Essential Phone features a 5.71-inch display with the negligible bezel (save for the cyclops eye). It’s gorgeous to look at and doesn’t feel real, like it’s a concept that was made by mistake—but in a good way!
The fact that there’s such little bezel means the Essential Phone has a small overall footprint, making the device more manageable during everyday use. The only real knock against the Essential Phone’s design is the LCD display, which isn’t as visually rich as the OnePlus 5T’s panel.
Overall, though, the Essential Phone’s all-glass design is much nicer than the OnePlus 5T’s, shining and glimmering like a fresh jewel.
Software is the key
In terms of software, the Essential Phone and OnePlus 5T are very similar. Both take a pretty clean approach, allowing the “stock” Android experience to shine through. If you’re looking for something close to what you’d get from the Pixel 2, look no further than the Essential Phone and OnePlus 5T.
There are some key differences between the two devices, however. In our review of the OnePlus 5T, we praised the company’s approach to software, lauding the phone’s performance and subtle but helpful tweaks.
Among a flurry of gestures, the OnePlus 5T allows users to tweak the look and feel of its software (dubbed OxygenOS). You can easily replace icons, change the system to dark mode, and enable a clever Reading Mode that mimics e-books for reduced eye strain.
The OnePlus 5T also features a facial recognition feature (that work well!), a Sunlight Display setting, and Parallel Apps, which allows users to clone selected apps, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Even if you don’t use these features every day, they’re great additions without feeling superfluous or bloated. They’re thoughtful, welcome inclusions that ultimately make the experience better.
The Essential Phone is more reserved in its approach to software. In fact, there isn’t much to say about the software other than it feels clean and optimized. That’s a compliment, but not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Where the Essential Phone’s software really impresses me is in how fast the company pushes out updates. Since the device was released, Essential has pushed out several over-the-air updates while improving the device’s camera quite a bit. And it’s lightning quick to release monthly security patches.
That bodes well for the device’s future. Essential is also working on bringing Android Oreo to its device—a beta has been available for a few weeks—so users will soon have the latest version of Android.
OnePlus recently said it’s working to bring Oreo to the OnePlus 5T, though it’s unclear when it’ll be pushed out. As it stands, the OnePlus 5T has a slight edge in terms of software, though Essential has been diligent about introducing updates. Not to mention Essential has promised two years of Android OS updates, with monthly security updates for three years.
With the Essential Phone, you know what you’re going to get; support from OnePlus is a bit more mixed.
Camera quality, or lack thereof
We’ve seen the camera quality of mobile devices improve dramatically over the past few years. Unfortunately, neither the OnePlus 5T or Essential Phone exhibit the best of what’s out there. If you’re expecting either phone to take on the iPhone X, you have another thing coming to you.
The good news is with software updates both the OnePlus 5T and Essential Phone can be improved. Since the Essential Phone launched, the device has received a handful of camera updates, and the quality is like night and day. It still can’t compete with the Google Pixel, but we’re optimistic about where Essential is going.
Our biggest issue with the Essential Phone’s camera when it launched was its performance. Taking a picture was painfully slow to process, so taking shots of action was virtually impossible.
We're excited to roll out a new camera update that includes portrait mode, reduced compression to improve image quality, and more. Download the update here: https://t.co/zXoZ765GHF pic.twitter.com/rCFJlLCYAm
— Essential (@essential) November 30, 2017
Luckily, Essential has mostly mitigated that over the past several weeks. The phone’s Portrait Mode also looks decent now, and low light photos no longer look like they were dragged through a swamp filter.
It’s a similar story with the OnePlus 5T. Images need a lot of work before the device can compete in the same tier as the Galaxy S8. But the good news is the camera app is quick to operate and features a lot of pro settings, giving users greater control over the experience.
Neither phone truly excels in the camera department. But out of the box, the OnePlus 5T has the slight edge. With all the updates Essential has pushed out, however, it won’t be long before its phone matches or surpasses what the 5T has to offer.
Essential surprised us
It’s hard to pick a favorite when you love both, but I’m partial to the Essential Phone. It really surprised me when I tested it out, thanks in large part to its excellent design and clean software.
I also think it has a bigger upside. Essential has a whole ecosystem planned for the device, though, to be fair, the amount of accessories available right now is frustratingly limited. But it’ll soon support a smart home gadget and a docking station, extending the device’s capabilities.
If the Essential Phone was still $699, which is what the handset was priced at when it launched, I would absolutely recommend the OnePlus 5T. But you can currently get the Essential Phone for $499. For that you’ll get a device that packs a Snapdragon 835 chip, 4GB of RAM, Bluetooth 5.0, a 3,040mAh battery and 128GB of storage.
Maybe I’m drawn to the Essential Phone because it’s the new guy in town. But there’s no denying it offers immaculate hardware and plenty of exciting potential. That’s why it’s a step ahead of the OnePlus 5T.