Oppo N1 hands-on: Big screen, big size and big ideas, but is it belittled by the competition?
Oppo might not be a name that you've heard much about in the UK. But as the Chinese brand's strength increases so too do its devices. At a launch event in Beijing, Pocket-lint got the skinny on the latest Oppo flagship smartphone, the Oppo N1.
And speaking of skinny, the N1 is a slender slab of (sorta kinda) Android smartphone at 9mm thick. But it's far from small, as that 5.9-inch screen makes for a device that can only really be described as giant. It positively dwarfs the HTC One, as we found out.
READ: HTC One review
But then Oppo is aware of the physical size and the implications that come from trying to use a larger device with just one hand. On the rear is a touch panel that can be used to control various actions - whether a press and hold to take a shot using the camera, a swipe to move between shots in a gallery, and so forth. And here's the bit where we let marketing take over: Oppo calls this O-Touch. Oh yes.
It's barely visible on the rear except for the subtlest of outlines that catches the light occasionally. Compared to the screen size the O-Touch panel is relatively small, as it's designed to sit where the index finger will most typically rest.
It's a big idea and it's got potential. But it feels alien for most operations, and we ended up doing most things by accident rather than intentionally, such as swiping through screens without meaning to. Individual actions or the whole touchpad control can be switched off from within the menus, but we have a feeling that this is all about sticking with it; learning to adapt to the new control mechanism to get the most out of it. If you have the patience.
For some tasks we don't really feel O-Touch adds much. "Reaching" across a screen that's held with just the one hand can hit virtual buttons and icons at inopportune moments, but that's usually for icons further up the screen or towards the edges. So when it comes to a casual one-fiinger swipe across the screen we don't see the necessity to do that from the rear panel most of the time. It's like learning a new language.
Beyond single-finger motions, the N1 also introduces its new operating system, dubbed ColorOS. It's built on Android, so it feels just like an Android user interface that's been dressed up, albeit as this is China there aren't the usual YouTube, Google Maps and similar applications. No biggie as there are Chinese equivalents, while other territories will come with the ability to flash CyanogenMod directly from stock recovery to get access to all the usual Western tools. If you know Android then the N1 feels easy to use: the three soft keys to the base are there and that's about as much as you'll need to know for navigation, the whole "Color" thing doesn't have too much of an impact.
However, ColorOS handles multi-finger and shape-based gestures. Three-finger swipes, for example, will screen grab, while a three finger pinch will open the camera. A nice idea but try doing a three finger pinch - it doesn't feel all that natural, a bit like pretending to be a crab or something. It also means handling the phone with two hands, not one, which was part of the point of the rear touch pad control as an alternative.
The gestures aspect revolves around drawing known symbols to begin an action. A single vertical line, a circle, triangle and so forth each have their own actions. This made us think a little about the latest OS updates in Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, although the latter Korean manufacturer's idea feels a bit more universal. With Oppo the N1 requires a little more effort. But in a language full of signs - and we've witnessed plenty of Chinese writing on touchscreens to dictate characters for text messages - it makes a lot of sense in the East.
In terms of feel the N1 is lightweight considering its physical size, and looks quality. It is massive, but much of the front space is taken up by that 5.9-inch 1080p screen. It's ideal for movie playback and here the finger gestures come in handy too: it's possible to control brightness, volume and so forth in real time while watching a movie. Cool.
Design wise Oppo says that the N1 has an arched back but it's barely noticeable in the hand. The frame is aluminium that's been polished, and is coated in a warm, smooth material that Oppo describes as "ceramic-like". We don't know what it is, but we do know that it feels a grade above the Samsung Galaxy S4 for sure.
READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 review
One of the N1's biggest new features is its rotational camera unit. To the top of the device is a 13-megapixel camera, the a modified version of the Sony Exmore RS sensor - the likes of which you'd find in the Xperia Z. But rather than being fixed into the rear of the unit, it can be rotated through 206-degrees for front-facing selfies or more traditional outward-facing shots. You can even get playful and rotate the lens to face at 90-degrees for over-the-head shots. We had a little go and it seemed successful.
READ: Sony Xperia Z review
To turn the camera on there are various options, the most apparent of which is to twist the unit by 120-degrees for activation. That'll probably mean it's then facing the wrong way compared to where you want to shoot, and twisting it back into position won't turn it off. So it's not a foolproof activation we have to say. The quicker method is just to go through the normal channels, and here the 0.6-sec activation time can be felt. It's quick enough, although for all the self-praise Oppo gave itself it's not quicker than plenty of decent dedicated cameras out there.
The N1 camera specs remain strong throughout too. The 1/3.06in sensor size is supported with an f/2.0 maximum aperture to let lots of light in for the best possible results. How good those are we don't yet know as we've not had long enough to play around with the phone as yet. All we've got are promises of the PI (Pure Image) engine and its ability to bring colour uniformity, correct for colour fringes and cope with long exposures up to eight seconds in length. Oh, and that's not forgetting the built-in flash which also roates along with the camera lens.
Then there are a whole stack of things we couldn't test properly in our limited hands-on time with the phone. The 2GB RAM and Snapdragon S600 processor should be speedy; the 3610mAh battery long lasting, and all the other Wi-Fi, NFC, gyroscope and special feature modes on board amount to a fairly strong all-round phone.
But it's huge. For us, too huge. Realistically this is an Asian phone for the Asian market, in part ColorOS sees to that. But when it does arrive in the UK, dressed in white, this December the one thing that could truly elevate it to the point of serious interest is price. And based on the press conference's announcement that the Chinese model will be 3,498 yuan - that's approximately £355 - that could be the thing to seal the deal. If, that is, you want a mega-massive phone.