OnePlus 8 Pro review: Speed is everything
Image credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget
The OnePlus story was an underdog story. Since the beginning, the company’s aim was to take on the world’s best smartphones with, powerful, feature-rich devices that didn’t cost nearly as much. It had its share of problems along the way, sure, but the company soon became synonymous for the way it balanced high performance and low prices. But things are starting to change. OnePlus isn’t nipping at the heels of the biggest players in the industry with its cheap, fast phones anymore. Now it’s trying to beat companies like Samsung at its own, premium game — and the OnePlus 8 Pro is the proof. It’s as sleek and powerful as the very best devices I’ve tested this year, and it packs some flagship features that OnePlus never bothered with before, like wireless charging and IP68 rating for water resistance.
But that progress comes at a price: The base OnePlus 8 Pro, with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage costs $900, and the fully-kitted model with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage costs $1,000. For those keeping count, that’s as much as the Galaxy S20 and $250 more than last year’s top-end OnePlus 7 Pro. OnePlus’ price advantage — a key part of the identity the company built for its — isn’t as big a factor anymore. That begs an important question: What does the company have to lean on this time? Speed. Speed is everything with this phone, and — spoiler alert — it’s enough to make it my favorite Android phone of 2020 so far.
- Phenomenal 6.78-inch display
- OxygenOS is well-thought-out
- Excellent performance
- All models now support 5G
- Sleeker and lighter design
- Solid main camera
- Fingerprint sensor has early issues
- Lackluster telephoto camera
- Video motion smoothing isn’t for everyone
The OnePlus 8 doesn’t lean on gimmicks the way other 2020 flagship phones do, so it might not seem as immediately interesting. Don’t be fooled, though: Between its excellent performance, well-thought-out software and one of the best smartphone screens we’ve ever seen, the OnePlus 8 Pro is a fantastic smartphone that’s well worth the price of admission. Don’t assume everything is perfect here — some of the company’s camera choices are questionable and a slightly bigger battery would’ve gone a long way. Even so, the 8 Pro stacks up surprisingly well against the best the industry has to offer, and is well on its way to becoming a fan-favorite.
If you’re considering the OnePlus 8 Pro, you’ll have a few choices to make. The first, and most important, is which variant suits you best: I’ve done most of our testing with the standard model with 8GB of RAM and 128GB ($899), and it offers excellent performance while still undercutting the Galaxy S20s. The higher-end version with its 12GB of RAM didn’t run noticeably smoother, but because it comes with 256GB of storage it’s the model to consider if you want to lug a ton of files around — or perhaps plan to at some point.
You’ll need also to decide on a color. The OnePlus 8 Pro comes in black, a deep ultramarine blue and a new light green. I’ve been testing that last version and it’s easily my favorite of the three, though “green” can seem like a misnomer — depending on the light around you, the finish varies from seafoam to team, which you’ll probably notice in our photos.
Design and display
OnePlus’s smartphone designs have evolved a lot over the years, but the biggest leap happened in 2019. The 7 Pro was thicker and heavier than OnePlus had ever dared go before. Its screen stretched from edge to edge, with no notch or teardrop in sight. Weirdest of all, its front-facing camera was wedged inside the phone, popping up when it was time for selfies. The whole thing was odd by OnePlus standards, but it was also — for lack of a better word — awesome. This year, things are a little different.
For one, that motorized, pop-up situation is gone, replaced by a conventional, 16-megapixel hole-punch camera in the top-left corner. Normally, a design decision like this wouldn’t be anything to get worked up over — plenty of smartphones use a similar configuration these days. Still, I know plenty of people who bought a OnePlus 7 Pro last year purely because that pop-up camera meant we got a true, unadulterated, edge-to-edge screen, so a little disappointment is only natural.
For what it’s worth, OnePlus told me not everyone liked that camera setup, and that’s fair; no amount of testing could ever ease the nagging worry about potential mechanical failures. OnePlus also said that getting rid of it meant they could make the 8 Pro slightly slimmer and lighter, which it definitely is compared to las year’s model. We’re talking about minuscule changes in weight and dimensions, I know, but trust me — they add up when you consider how much time we spend clutching our phones. Still, people like what they like, and seeing OnePlus switch to a more traditional screen setup will disappoint some people, myself included.
Bear in mind, when I say “traditional screen,” I’m using the strongest possible air quotes. Apart from that hole-punch, hardly anything about this display is conventional. It’s where OnePlus’s obsession with speed starts coming into focus, that’s why it might be the best I’ve used all year.
This time, OnePlus went with a 6.78-inch AMOLED running at Quad HD+ (1440×3168) and what else can I say? It’s an absolutely gorgeous panel, with excellent viewing angles and what looks like spot-on color reproduction — hardly a surprise when you consider Samsung made the thing. More importantly, it refreshes at a rate of 120Hz, which makes all of your Twitter scrolling, Instagram gorging and anxious, quarantine web browsing look incredibly smooth. Games that have been updated to work at higher refresh rates look phenomenal too, though there aren’t many of those available right now. (Expect to change soon, now that phones like this are making a once-niche feature more mainstream.)
High-refresh-rate displays aren’t all that unusual: Some high-end gaming phones have them and so does Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S20 series. What makes the 8 Pro different, though, is that its screen offers 120Hz at its crispest, Quad HD+ resolution — the S20 makes you choose between one or the other. OnePlus’s corporate cousin, Oppo, technically accomplished this feat first with the Find X2, but I can’t say I expected OnePlus to ship a screen like this before Samsung did.
Since we’re talking about Samsung, the OnePlus 8 Pro shares another important, sort of unsung feature with the Galaxy S20: These phones poll the screen for touch inputs 240 times per second, which means there’s virtually no lag between the moment you move the finger across the screen, and the moment the phone reacts to it. The response is so immediate, it almost looks like you’re pushing around physical objects instead of pixels on a screen. File this under “things you really need to see in person.”
To further amp up that sensation of speed, OnePlus went in a pretty weird direction — it gave the 8 Pro a custom MEMC, or motion estimation/motion compensation chip. It’s a fascinating little thing that helps make videos in apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video look smoother by filling in the tiny gaps between your movie’s many frames. That might sound exotic, but I guarantee you’ve seen this before: It’s the same idea behind that truly awful TV motion smoothing feature that makes your favorite shows look like soap operas. In fairness to OnePlus, the feature does work — it takes a bit to kick in after you enable it — but you probably already know whether you want to leave it on or ignore it completely.
So, yeah, this is a fantastic screen — out of every display I’ve looked at in 2020, this is the one I’d want to use everyday. But that doesn’t mean it’s flawless. For one, the edges of the display extend down the sides of the phone a bit, and I get why companies keep doing this. It just looks cool. Problem is, that design means the edges of the phone are prone to accidental touches with the side of your hand, and often makes it difficult to close certain app windows. This issue isn’t unique to OnePlus, and it’s pretty easily remedied with a case, but it will never not annoy me.
The other issue I repeatedly ran into is more concerning. When the 8 Pro’s screen is on, its in-display fingerprint sensor works beautifully. When the 8 Pro’s screen is off — which it will be frequently — that sensor becomes incredibly flaky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to unlock the phone, waited for it to work, tried again, and waited some more. For a phone so laser-focused on speed, this is a very noticeable roadblock. For what it’s worth, OnePlus says it’s aware of the issue and plans to release a hotfix for it very soon; I’ll update this review when that actually happens.
A super-fast screen wouldn’t count for much if the rest of the phone couldn’t keep up, but that’s certainly not a worry here. There’s a Snapdragon 865 plugging away inside the 8 Pro, along with 8 or 12GB of RAM, and you could probably guess how this thing runs — I’ve been testing the standard 8GB model and no gorgeous game, no multitasking scenario, nothing I did made it skip a beat. If you’re concerned about whether it’s fast enough for you, don’t be. It just is. Then again, the same is also true of just about any Snapdragon 865-powered phone we’ve tested to date, and most people probably won’t come close to pushing phones like this to their limits.
The OnePlus 8 Pro is also faster in ways you might not notice everyday. Just consider all the storage tucked away in there — like the 7 Pro before it, the 8 Pro uses UFS 3.0 for faster read and write speeds. (Slightly down-market devices like the LG V60 ThinQ use older, somewhat slower UFS 2.1.) And beyond that, the phone also uses new LPDDR5 RAM, which promises faster speeds with less impact on battery life, though you’d probably be hard-pressed to spot the differences right now. The more immediate concern is how much RAM you actually need — the 8GB you get in the base model has been more than enough during our testing, especially with features like RAM Boost that keep apps you use frequently in system memory. That said, if you’re the kind of person who buys a phone and plans to keep it until it’s unusable, the 12GB model is the safer bet.
In case your eyes glazed over at the sight of flash memory standards, here’s what you really need to know: The 8 Pro is fast enough to stay relevant for a long time to come. Yes, you might not see the benefits of some of these choices all the time, but the thing to remember is that today’s overkill is tomorrow’s necessity. As apps and Android itself become more sophisticated, you’ll be thankful for that extra headroom — for now though, just relax and enjoy what feels like rock-solid performance.
The company’s fixation on speed extends to network connections, too. The OnePlus 8 Pro supports WiFi 6, which is great if you’re one the few people who already invested in WiFi 6 networking gear. On the flip side, you might see some noticeable speed improvements as the companies that run public hotspots embrace WiFi 6 more fully. You’ll also get full 5G speed out of the OnePlus 8 Pro, though for right now, the “full 5G speeds” I’ve been getting from T-Mobile aren’t dramatically faster than LTE. That’s just how it is, though — it’ll get better in time as these networks get fleshed out, but some of you will be in for a serious wait.
I should note that OnePlus will be selling a version of its cheaper OnePlus 8 through Verizon. (Disclaimer: Verizon Engadget’s parent company, but has no control over what we say.) That device, not the Pro, will have access to Verizon’s super-fast mmWave 5G network but A) mmWave doesn’t penetrate walls very well so it’s basically useless for sheltering at home, and B) this is all a story for another review.
So far, so good, but let’s get one thing straight: A company could make the fastest phone in the world, and it would still bomb if its software wasn’t up to snuff. People’s preferences vary pretty wildly when it comes to custom versions of Android, but I think OnePlus did a fantastic job with the 8 Pro’s OxygenOS. On the surface, it’s simple and clean, but there are plenty of tweaks and tools tucked away for power users to dig into.
A few flourishes worth noting: There’s a system-wide dark theme that you can customize with your choice of fonts and accent colors, and Zen Mode returns to basically lock you out of your phone for 20 minutes so you don’t read too much anxiety-inducing news. My personal favorite? A Reading Mode that tweaks the screen to reduce eye strain while you’re plowing through your Kindle backlog. There aren’t many notable additions to OxygenOS this time, but that suits me just fine — the software foundation OnePlus built is well-suited to Android newcomers and pros alike.
Honestly, I expected OnePlus’s high-performance ambitions to take a toll on the 8 Pro’s battery. To my surprise, it’s actually not bad — not great, mind you, but not bad. On days when I was picking up the phone and fiddling with it every few minutes, I generally got about 12 hours out of its 4,510mAh battery. That’s on-par with the Galaxy S20 Ultra and its 5,000mAh battery running with the same screen settings. If you only occasionally check the phone, as you would while at work or something, you might even end up with enough in the tank to last until the following morning.
That’s with the screen running at the default Full HD+ and 120Hz mode enabled, mind you — going for max resolution and refresh rate will take a serious toll on your battery life. Of course, the flip side is also true. If you’re really concerned about preserving your power, you could go Full HD+ and dial the refresh rate down to 60Hz; in my experience that buys you a couple of extra hours. Frankly, I would’ve preferred OnePlus squeeze a bigger battery in this thing, but they make up for it a bit by including a 30W Warp charger that can get you from zero to about 50 percent in about half an hour. Throw in 30W wireless charging — a first for a OnePlus phone — and you’ve got a device that charges almost as fast as it runs.
Some camera confusion
Even though they have always punched above their weight, OnePlus phones usually had one big caveat: The cameras were never that great. That’s starting to change, though. I’m not going to say that the company nailed it this time — some of its decisions are certainly questionable — but overall we’re looking at big improvements where it matters.
You’ll spend most of your time with the 8 Pro’s standard wide camera, so it’s a good thing that OnePlus clearly paid the most attention to it. The company went with Sony’s 48-megapixel IMX689 sensor, with optical image stabilization and an f/1.78 aperture, but don’t be fooled — you’re much better shooting 12-megapixel stills instead of full-resolution whoppers. Now, because of our current situation, I haven’t been able to spend too much time outside shooting.
The shots, I did get though, were very promising: You’ll spot plenty of detail and natural colors that didn’t get amped up for maximum appeal. Low-light performance was solid too, with decent detail to be found even in dark corners. These photos aren’t as downright satisfying as what you’d get out of something like a Galaxy S20 Ultra, but that’s only natural. Samsung cameras always seem to present a more idealized version of reality; I’m plenty pleased with the realistic results the 8 Pro churns out.
The other cameras are… well, interesting? The ultrawide lens, for instance, uses the same 48MP sensor as the OnePlus 7 Pro’s main camera, and it’ll capture a full 120 degrees. The photos I got out of this thing were a pleasant surprise: Color reproduction was nearly as good as the main camera, though you’ll notice some differences in white balance as you switch between the two. There wasn’t much vertical distortion around the edges, either, an issue that popped up for us a lot while testing the Galaxy S20s. The only real downside is that this camera doesn’t seem quite as apt at capturing fine details as the main one, but that’s sort of the point — it’s meant to shoot sweeping vista, not the nitty-gritty stuff.
If there’s one notable miss here, it’s the telephoto camera. Now, I’ve managed to get some alright shots with it, but there’s one big caveat: Unlike some other phones with long-range cameras, this one doesn’t optically zoom at all. OnePlus markets this thing as an 8-megapixel camera, but that’s not technically true — it’s a 12MP sensor that crops to 8MP, which the company says gets you “lossless” 3x zoom. That’s… a bit of a stretch. The results are usable, and I’d post them to Instagram without a second thought, but their inherent softness makes for some lackluster photos. If you really need that extra range, you can push in as far as 30x, but really — just move closer to your subject if you can.
There is one more camera here that, for whatever reason, OnePlus doesn’t like to elaborate on — it’s a 5-megapixel sensor that lets you shoot with some interesting color effects. If you want photos with a bit more saturation or some pops of color surrounded by black and white, this is the camera you’ll want to use. Honestly, though, I’m not sure what practical purpose this serves — we’ve seen similar features in phones that cost a fraction of the price, and while the results aren’t exactly the same, they’re close enough that I have to wonder what the company was thinking. A few of us here suspect OnePlus only added this camera to say the 8 Pro has four rear cameras, and for now, that’s as good a guess as any.
There are few more things I should quickly note: The selfie camera works well enough, but you’re going to look pretty soft in anything less than ideal light, and a built-in macro mode can be helpful if you’re taking incredibly tight shots. It’s not necessary all the time because the main camera does a nice job when you’re right next to your subject, but the extra processing does bring out some of the finer details. Oh, and unlike the Galaxy S20 and LG V60 ThinQ, the OnePlus 8 Pro can’t shoot 8K video at all — it tops out at 4K video at 60 frames per second. That’s not great on paper, but it’s certainly not a huge loss for most users.
The OnePlus 8 Pro doesn’t have a crazy space zoom camera, and you can’t attach a second screen to it. That means it isn’t quite as interesting as some of the other flagship phones we’ve seen so far this year, and frankly, I’m all for it. Forget the gimmicks: I want a phone that handles the fundamentals well, and between its excellent performance, well-thought-out software and one of the best smartphone screens I’ve ever seen, the OnePlus 8 Pro fits that bill nicely. Yes, not everything is perfect here; I still don’t get some of the company’s camera choices, and a slightly bigger battery would’ve gone a long way.
Even so, the 8 Pro stacks up surprisingly well against the best the industry has to offer. It used to be that OnePlus phones were excellent because of their value, but don’t get caught up in that line of thinking — the OnePlus 8 Pro is an excellent phone, period.
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