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.