IT’S always interesting to review smartphones from relatively new brands, simply because we receive a lot of questions around how well they compare with the mainstream, popular models.
With the explosion of the smartphone market over the last few years, along with the plethora of local and Chinese brands, this is a valid concern, as consumers try and differentiate between low-priced Chinese models with questionable quality, and those from credible, value-driven smartphone vendors.
Oppo, an electronics manufacturer from Dongguan, China, falls into neither camp. Its devices exude quality beyond a doubt, from the packaging all the way down to the components used.
Yet they come at a premium price, on par with models from established players like Samsung, LG and Sony.
That’s probably why Oppo spent the last few years aggressively building its brand through mainstream channels like out of home and retail advertising, in a bid to raise its profile.
Take a walk around the shopping malls of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and you would see the company’s large green signage at prominent locations (pic, right), not to mention its branded retail outlets that look like they’ve taken a page off the Apple Store book.
Oppo’s premium models have also garnered adequate hype. It achieved a number of firsts in the smartphone industry and gained recognition among Android aficionados (or phone geeks, if you will).
The Oppo Find 5, for instance, generated lots of buzz in early 2013 as the first device to feature a Full HD (high-definition) display, the highest resolution (1920 by 1020) at the time.
It followed through with the Oppo N1, the first smartphone to feature a rotating camera, enabling users to capture photos and selfies using the same 13-megapixel shooter.
So here we are in early 2015, with Oppo’s latest imaging flagship, the Oppo N3, and the mid-range style hero, the Oppo R5. While they share the same brand, these two smartphones are, dare I say, polar opposites.
The Oppo N3 is a beast of a device with some of the highest technical specifications in the business, and a unique motorised swivelling camera.
On the other hand, the Oppo R5 is a visually striking slab of glass and metal, and one of the thinnest smartphones in the world.
Both devices come packaged in premium-looking hard plastic enclosures, almost as if justifying the higher prices they are commanding. The N3 comes in white, while the R5 is housed in the black version of the box.
The only peculiar thing we found was that the R5’s bundled headphones came with a standard 3.5mm plug even though the phone, due to its super slim profile, doesn’t support this. Unfortunately the USB to 3.5mm audio adapter that was supposed to be bundled didn’t show up – proving that such dongles are never the best solution, since they get easily misplaced.
Regardless, the R5 is a solid piece of technology, with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 adorning the front, and a stainless steel frame supporting the phone’s metal housing.
The volume and power buttons are lined up on the right side, while the micro USB connector is positioned at the bottom.
A 5.2 inch, Full HD display takes centrestage in front, with a 5-megapixel camera, proximity sensor and earpiece just above the screen, while the 13-megapixel camera protrudes out slightly from the back at the top left corner.
To understand how slim this device is, try stacking four CDs together and you’ll get the idea. It really is an amazing feat of miniaturisation. But in spite of this, it is anything but fragile.
To prove that, Oppo posted a video showing how to use the side of the R5 to cut an apple in half, crack a nut, or hammer in a nail. The video looked great on the device’s Super AMOLED screen. The rich colours, strong brightness, good contrast and wide viewing angles are all very appealing.
What Oppo failed to nail home though, are the storage and battery life features.
This device only comes with 16GB of storage, of which around 12GB is usable. That’s paltry by today’s standards, and it’s made worse by the fact that there’s no room for an additional memory card.
Essentially then, the multimedia capabilities of this device have been severely hampered, due to the omission of a 3.5mm audio jack and limited storage capabilities.
It does support Bluetooth 4.0, so if you do purchase the R5, we suggest investing in a pair of Bluetooth stereo headsets. Oppo, with its experience in making high-end audio equipment and Blu-Ray players, will be more than happy to sell you a pair.
You’ll also need to invest in a power bank (which many people do own these days), since the 2000mAh non-removable battery won’t last a full day with a typical usage pattern of a number of phone calls, dozens of messages, an hour or so of music, some web browsing and Facebook postings, as well as a few photographs of your lunch (the battery life may not survive past dinner).
To overcome this, Oppo has provided its VOOC fast charging technology with the R5, allowing you to charge the battery from 0 to 80% within 30 minutes. It’s a real life-saver if you have access to an AC power point at any time during the day, or you could purchase an optional VOOC portable battery pack from the company.
The fact that Oppo has run sales promotions that give away this fast charge battery pack for free says something.
Performance-wise, the R5 is endowed with Qualcomm’s latest 64-bit octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor, a competent System on a Chip (SoC) by any measure. However, paired with Oppo’s ColorOS software running on Android 4.4 (KitKat), there were some clear performance issues.
Some camera functions (like the GIF creator) crashed the app, we weren’t able to get some air gestures to work well, and we activated the camera or flashlight unwittingly at times with the screen-off gestures.
Air gestures are a feature that lets you wave your hand in front of the screen to move desktops or view photos, presumably when your hands are too grimy to touch the screen. Screen-off gestures let you draw an alphabet or shape on the black standby screen to immediately activate a feature.
The double-tap gesture to turn on the display is useful, but the other gestures didn’t work consistently. Worse still, the screen-off gestures would accidentally kick in when the device was in the pocket.
Connectivity on 3G networks (especially for mobile data) also seemed surprisingly hampered, as we struggled to get a decent signal (even in a city like Singapore with very good mobile coverage), so we suggest using this with a 4G LTE plan (which would significantly improve the download performance speeds).
One other recommendation is to use this device with a protective cover, even though that would increase the thickness (or obscure the impact of the device’s slimness).
That’s partly to protect the rear camera, which is vulnerable to scratches when placed on its back, but it’s also because the R5 just isn’t very comfortable to hold, due partly to the chamfered edges. Plus, the phone gets quite hot when used for web browsing or playing games.
Oppo claims the R5 has a “phase-shifting material” made from resin, metal and other composite materials that absorbs heat and improves thermal efficiency. It does cool down quickly once you stop using it, but covering the back with a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) or leather case would easily improve the situation.
In summary, if you’re keen on buying the R5, make sure you add on a cover, a portable VOOC battery pack and a Bluetooth headset to smoothen out your experience.
The total package could cost upwards of US$550 when purchased separately, which in comparison, could get you a high-end flagship model from other brands. As such, you may probably want to hold off until Oppo bundles all these options for free.
The Oppo N3 needs no such accessories, particularly a cover, since its dimensions and weight already test the boundaries of usability.
In other words, it’s large and heavy.
Although smaller than the original N1 (which had a 5.9-inch display), the N3 with its phablet-sized 5.5-inch Full HD screen is still relatively tall, due to the swivelling camera module at the top and the Skyline Notification bar which takes up the space below.
That’s where the bottom part of the frame sits just slightly away from the phone, allowing a thin gap for the notification light to bounce off, thus creating a soft, pulsing illumination from below the phone.
It is elegant, no doubt, but not entirely necessary, especially when the metal frame around the device contributes to the extra weight and length of the N3.
Also, due to both the top and bottom sides being fully occupied, Oppo had to position the 3.5mm audio jack on the right side, above the volume control buttons – hardly a convenient or intuitive spot to plug in our headphones.
On the left, the power button sits just below the hybrid dual SIM/ micro SD slot. The second slot lets you choose between inserting another SIM or a memory card, and we appreciate being given that choice.
The USB charging port, which supports the VOOC fast charging system mentioned earlier, is at the bottom left. Inside, a non-removable 3000 mAh battery provides enough juice to last a whole day (and a bit more).
The matte white back cover looks like it’s made of ceramic but feels smooth and soft. More importantly, it doesn’t look ‘plasticky’ and doesn’t collect fingerprints.
Top marks for the material and finish of the N3.
Oppo included a fingerprint sensor on the N3, which is a nice addition and makes it more convenient to unlock the device. It’s placed at the back, below the camera, low enough for your index finger to easily reach. The recognition software supports multiple fingerprints and beats swiping patterns or inputting passcodes.
This smartphone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor running at 2.3GHz, a high-end SoC featured in many smartphone flagships in late 2014. Performance is no issue here, as it handled all the apps and games we tested with aplomb.
Unlike the R5, the N3 comes with 32GB of built-in storage (along with the previously mentioned memory card expansion slot), thus providing enough space for all those videos and photographs that you plan to capture.
And you probably will, because the motorised camera that can swivel up to 206° is the key reason why anyone would buy this device. This module houses a Schneider Kreuznach lens system and is backed by a 16 megapixel f2.2 sensor, with a dual LED flash.
This means that there’s no need for a separate front camera for capturing selfies, since all you need to do is rotate it around to face you – something which you can control manually or via the touch screen.
You can also use the bundled O-Click, a Bluetooth-enabled remote control that lets you activate the camera shutter or pan the camera.
The software allows you to take photos in a variety of modes, some of which need to be downloaded and installed into the phone, but the advantage here is that Oppo is able to update and improve the software over time.
Diving into the camera software functions themselves would require a separate article altogether, but suffice to say that the N3 offers a plethora of choices in terms of capture and edit modes, and includes the mandatory ‘Beautify’ mode to enhance your selfies.
Selfie stick users would appreciate using the O-Click, but there are also options like Voice shot (just say “Colour” or “Cheese”) to snap the photo.
The motorised function comes into play with panorama pictures, where the lens will automatically swivel to capture the shot.
Swiping the screen to pan the camera seemed more trouble than it was worth, and is an example of Oppo trying too hard to throw in features which aren’t really that useful.
Similarly, activating the camera software directly with screen-off gestures was not consistent and we gave that up pretty quickly. We preferred simply to just rotate the camera to turn it on.
When it comes to image quality, both the N3 and R5 produce very pleasing results, both during the day and even in low-light situations, although the noise levels could be improved.
For high contrast situations, the HDR mode helped to mitigate the overly dark or light parts of the photograph.
The Ultra HD mode provides us with a massive 32- or 64-megapixel photo by capturing a few photos and stitching them together, allowing us to zoom in to the photograph. However you’ll need a steady hand or tripod to get a sharp high resolution photo.
The other cool camera mode is After Focus, which allowed us to capture a photo and then decide on where to focus on later. This again requires a steady hand, but can come in quite handy especially when there are many subjects in the photo (like in a party environment).
Aside from its imaging chops, the N3 produces excellent sound quality when playing digital music. It plays lossless files off the bat, but if your MP3 tunes require adjustments, the sound can be enhanced in two ways – using MaxxAudio’s algorithms as well as Dirac HD sound (used with headphones only).
Oppo also included its screen-off gestures here, although the inconsistency of the software kicking in meant that the use was limited.
All in all, we would recommend the N3 if you can live with the dimensions – and the price. The smartphone costs US$649, which is at the premium end of the market. In return, you get a number of neat features, notably the rotating camera, fingerprint sensor and VOOC charger.
Design **** ½
Performance ** ½
Value *** ½
Overall *** ½
We love how the Oppo R5 looks, but the compromises on storage capacity and battery life doused our enthusiasm.
As for the Oppo N3, the motorised camera is more than just a gimmick, and we could possibly get used to the size of the phone, just because we want our 16-megapixel quality selfies.
But the high price for both models means that it’s not an easy purchase decision to make, and we’ll want to consider all other options before coming back to Oppo.