Review: OnePlus 7T outperforms the Pixel 4, at two-thirds the price

OnePlus makes headway in the smartphone market, with the OnePlus 7T a formidable competitor to Google's Pixel 4.

Review: OnePlus 7T outperforms the Pixel 4, at two-thirds the price OnePlus makes headway in the smartphone market, with the OnePlus 7T a formidable competitor to Google's Pixel 4.

For nearly six years, OnePlus—the dark horse subsidiary of Chinese electronics manufacturer BBK—has sought to disrupt the US phone market by going direct-to-consumer with flagship phones positioned at hundreds of dollars below the price points of Google, Samsung, and Apple.

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

This strategy that has paid off in dividends for OnePlus. Now thanks to a T-Mobile partnership, the OnePlus 7T is available in stores, as well as direct to consumer, at a substantial discount ($599) compared to the Pixel 4 ($899), Galaxy Note 10 ($949), and iPhone 11 ($699), and is really just enough phone for the mainstream—and a compelling option, particularly as the transition to 5G makes dropping nearly $1000 on a phone with limited future proofing a less than appealing proposition.

There are some strategic miscues, however—while the OnePlus 7T is physically larger than the Pixel 4, the larger OnePlus 7T Pro is strangely unavailable in the United States, a clear disappointment for those who prefer larger phones. Conversely, the original, non-T, OnePlus 7 was unavailable stateside even though the Pro was available, in a reversal of the present circumstances. While this strategy is questionable on the surface, this is a sideshow away from the strength of the phone itself.

OnePlus 7T specifications

  • CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus (Octa-core, 7nm, up to 2.96 GHz)

  • Display: 6.55" 2400x1080 (402 PPI, 20:9 aspect ratio) AMOLED

  • RAM: 8GB LPDDR4X

  • Storage: 128 GB UFS 3.0 2-lane (256 GB available)

  • Rear Camera: Sony IMX586, 48 MP + 12 MP telephoto + 16 MP ultra-wide angle lens

  • Front Camera: Sony IMX471, 16 MP

  • Ports: USB 3.1 Gen1, Type-C, dual nano-SIM slot

  • Networking: 4×4 MIMO, LTE Cat. 18 (up to 1.2 Gbps download), 2x2 MIMO, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4G/5G, Bluetooth 5.0, support aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC.

  • Battery: 3800 mAh, Warp Charge 30T (charger included)

  • Size: 160.94×74.44×8.13 mm, 190g

Design and hardware

OnePlus has a rather distinct visual style, and the 7T falls squarely in that design pattern—curves are everywhere, for better or worse, with a camera cutout on the top of the panel. This is unobtrusive compared to prior years, and is a fair bit more aesthetically pleasing than the "screen fins" design used on recent iPhone models. The back of the phone is Gorilla Glass, giving some echoes of a Samsung influence. While this is Gorilla Glass, the added glass is just another part to break, to speak pessimistically.

The 20:9 AMOLED screen is rated for 1,000 nits of brightness, making it pleasant to use outdoors. Power management changes the brightness a bit even when set manually, though it may be possible to limit this behavior. 

The screen ratio is quite nice when using messaging apps, particularly, as software keyboards tend to use a great deal of screen space. It also avoids collisions with the camera cutout, as media can play at the original 16:9 without issue. The audio is smartphone-level quality—it is a trifle tinny, though voice comes through clearly. The combination of one front-facing and one bottom-facing speaker can be a bit distracting—listening to the opening of Twin Peaks, for example, the directionality of the sound is a bit more evident than it is for calls.

The phone includes an in-display fingerprint sensor—this is invisible when not in use, and is quite fast and reliable when in use, though OnePlus requires dozens of samples on initial setup to get to that point. 

The first-party cases produced by OnePlus are very adequate—the clear bumper in the box is likely to discolor with use (as is inevitable with this material, seemingly). The silicone and textured cases are quite pleasant and make the phone easier to hold on to.

The included Warp Charger is a nice touch, particularly relative to Apple's tendency to not bundle high performance chargers with iPhones—Apple includes an 18W USB-C fast charger with the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, but the iPhone 11 is left with the classic charger. That said, the lack of wireless charging will be a disappointment for some. For music lovers, the lack of a 3.5mm port or dongle is a blemish, though the 7T does include support for the range of advanced Bluetooth codecs out there, for higher sound fidelity.

CNET's review notes the lack of official IP rating for water resistance, though notes that OnePlus claims it is as water resistant as the 7 Pro. CNET tested that phone for water durability in August, with results putting it on the same scale as IP68-rated devices.

Software and performance

Owing to the 90Hz refresh rate of the display panel, the phone feels quite speedy in head-to-head comparisons with the Pixel 3. The OnePlus OxygenOS is still fairly lightweight, though despite the ample amounts of RAM added to the phone, aggressive management still persist. This is worse when Chrome is terminated in the background, as this typically results in a page reload, causing a longer than pleasant wait time to see the page you were just on. 

Relative to Samsung phones, the additions are relatively (and thankfully) sparse. This is not a bloated phone, which is often an issue (and gamble) on carrier phones and on lesser-known manufacturers-- essentially, all Android phones other than (largely) Google's Pixel series, OnePlus, and Nokia. Speaking as someone who frequently relies on custom ROMs such as LineageOS to avoid bloated theming and bundled apps, the OnePlus does not need it—it is ready to go when you open the box.

With both phones on Android 10, the OnePlus 7T is largely a faster and more pleasant experience than the Pixel 3, owing in part to the beefier hardware. The lack of squeeze-to-touch may be missed if you rely on Google Assistant often, but it's not a significant omission otherwise. 

The verdict: Should you buy the OnePlus 7T?

The smartphone industry suffers from an upgrade treadmill problem—the two-year upgrade cycle is past dead, with phone lifetimes expanding beyond the three year mark, increasingly. This, combined with the prospect of 5G mobile networks on the horizon, makes it difficult to recommend any phone at the moment. 

If you are just looking for an upgrade for a phone that is a year or two old, save your money. If you are upgrading due to a cracked screen, poor battery, or other malady affecting your current phone, the 7T is a very compelling choice, given the pricing of the competition. 

In a head-to-head comparison between the 7T and the Pixel 4, the value-for-dollar goes to OnePlus—the SoC on the 7T is faster, the screens are equivalent in performance, both have Android 10 out-of-the-box, and the OnePlus offers more device storage, for less.

"I would definitely give the edge to the 7T over the Pixel 4 for now. I'm just not bullish for the Pixel 4 because of the pricing," said Cliff Maldonado, principal analyst and founder of Baystreet Research, a firm that tracks smartphone sales. 

Also see

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Image: OnePlus