Oppo has got a mammoth mountain to climb to become the familiar name that it wants to be for a European audience. Good job it's just released the N1, then, a mammoth-sized phablet that's certain to grab your attention.
It will do so for a number of reasons. Primarily because that 5.9-inch 1080p screen is huge, firmly nestling it in the phablet rather than smartphone space. Secondly there's a 13MP camera on board mounted on a 120-degree rotational bracket. Say hello to standard shots, selfies, and beyond without the need for front- and back-facing devices.
And the last yet prominent point is simply that Oppo likes to do things differently. Enter ColorOS, the Chinese company's custom skin and set of apps that tweaks Android 4.2.2 into a new kind of beast. Or, if you're one that want a more standard Android experience minus the clutter then a limited edition CyanogenMod version of the phone is the first to see proper Google backing.
Mammoth size, big on features, and certainly different. But with a price that’s the opposite of its melange of "big" features. At £375 - however, it has to be imported from Europe, priced €449 - the Oppo N1 is highly competitive, and that's a giant factor in its possible success. Does this mixture make for a surprise phablet champion? We've been using the Oppo N1 for a number of weeks to find out.
Handsome in the hand
Phablets, by their very nature, are large. But we've not only grown accustomed to them, we've come to love them too. If you don't take many calls then it's a viable phone alternative and that screen will come in handy. In the case of the N1 its a 5.9-inch IPS panel with 1920 x 1080 resolution that generally looks great. It might not have the brightness and saturation of something like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but that's a device with double the price tag.
Oppo has opted for a plastic finish to the N1, but with its white matte finish it looks attractive rather than budget. It's finished off with a silver trim to the front and where the two panels adjoin around the side.
The camera sits proudly to the top, where its default resting position sits in seamlessly with the rest of the design. It’s not the very first time a phone has featured a rotational camera, but there is something very cool about it and we’ve used it a lot - and not for selfies, but at a 45-degree tilt for discreet street shots for the most part.
With a 9mm thickness the device isn't razor blade thin, and it's chunkier overall than even a 5.9-inch size may suggest due to all the other features housed in the device, but we found it to rest in the hand really well. The back panel - which can't be removed as the battery is fixed - has a subtle curve to it which further aids in the comfort and that material finish is smooth but not to the point of it sliding around the palm.
Moving from our go-to HTC One, the Oppo is certainly a whole lot larger and heavier - 213g is heavier than the Nokia Lumia 920 - but we got accustomed to it over our weeks of use. It’s considerably smaller than the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, though, as we side-by-sided the two devices and in terms of footprint the Sony dwarfs anything but proper tablets.
The proportions are a little strange, however, or at least they are for our hands. To the right hand side there's an on/off button with a plus/minus volume rocker below this and, frankly, we feel they're misplaced for a device this large. The power button feels too low down, although as with any device your brain will learn to adjust for the positioning over time.
The scale of the device also makes it tricky to make use of the full touchscreen with just the one hand. Oppo has tried to be considerate of this with a rear touchpanel - called O-Panel, and it's literally on the rear of the phone - to assist with gestures and swipes. Now we say "try" because when we first used the phone at the launch event we thought the panel was small and tricky to naturally gravitate towards. Those sentiments remain now, even after prolonged use. We often forgot it was there, until striking it into use by accident, and when we tried to use it we pretty much just failed. It's not something we found useful at all, but as its presence is all but undetectable it can easily be ignored too and, therefore, isn't an issue. Each to their own, some users may find its inclusion of use.
But that moan aside here is a device that, if budget is a consideration, looks the part and costs less than most large-screen smartphones. If it's scale you want then here's a great alternative option.
Cyan, magenta, yellow
Oppo’s default ColorOS isn’t something we’ll hang around on as, we suspect, most people that buy this phone won’t be using it. It’s really easy to install CyanogenMod, or there’s that built-in CyanogenMod limited edition model for sale which includes the open-source operating system installed by default. But if you can’t find that model a simple download of a ZIP file, drag, drop, and reinstall in safe mode will wipe the phone and implant your new OS. It’s that easy.
This does mean, however, that it’s one operating system or the other. Yes, both are Android-based with their own specialist application sets and features, but it is not possible to run the two in tandem. Which is a bit of a shame - but we can live with that.
If you’re happy to live with ColorOS then it’s not as giant a compromise as we thought it could be. All the usual Google Play access is there, as are your favourite Android apps, alongside some additional fun features. ColorOS handles multi-finger and shape-based gestures via a pull-down menu. Pull down from the top of the screen to the left side to bring up this "drawing pad" where gestures and symbols can be drawn and learned to activate specific actions. Pull down from the top right of the screen and the more typical Android settings menu pops up instead.
Within ColorOS three-finger swipes will perform actions such as, for example, a 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. It also means handling the phone with two hands, not one, which was part of the point of the rear touchpad control as an alternative.
In our use we predominantly used CyanogenMod, so that's been part and parcel of shaping our opinion of the N1. For the most part it feels like Android 4.3 with a few quirks here and there and while this isn't an outroght review of CyanogenMod, in short we can say we like it. There’s no clutter, no nonsense, no bloatware or hoops to jump through. The option to arrange icons and widgets for layout is welcome, but we were happy to just stick with standard icon sizes, sometimes stacking multiple apps into single icon containers.
Swipe left and there’s a default music player, swipe right and by default there’s a library widget. The home screen shows time, date, location and weather while leaving a four by four grid space for apps. With extended desktop on there are also many screens available to fill up with apps as you desire.
It’s a largely stable system too, we experienced three random auto-off reboots in as many weeks - and that was when trying to do much within the not-so-stable Skype app on each occassion.
Our main moan in use wasn't to do with the software, but the Oppo’s trio of light-up Android soft keys. They just don’t like a delicate touch at all. We’re so used to the likes of the HTC One or Nexus 5 that many of our home key presses seemed to be ignored when we first got the N1.
Double tapping the home icon to view all open apps, for example, will often take more than one attempt because it’s just not sensitive enough. That can be quite annoying, although if you use only this phone and no other for a couple of weeks - as we did - you will begin to adapt for it. But the second we swapped back to a different device it further highlighted how poor the sensitivity of these keys was. An oddity given how responsive the touchscreen otherwise is throughout.
Behind the times?
Too often it’s easy to look at a phone’s spec sheet and make a grumbling noise that it doesn’t have the latest, most powerful processor and then consider it a write-off before even using it. With the Oppo N1, the 1.7Ghz quad-core Snapdragon S600 processor at the phone’s core might not be the latest and greatest, but it does still perform very well - partly thanks to 2GB of RAM on board.
Some will shun the N1 for being a generation behind. But in use we didn’t really feel it, and it’s a step ahead of a device such as the Huawei Ascend Mate without costing much more cash. For the price point it’s hard to complain.
We’ve been playing Angry Birds Go! without a hitch, and that giant screen works really well for gaming. There’s enough space top and bottom for a solid grip and the IPS panel means viewing angles are really good too.
When not gaming we used the N1 as a wireless hotspot for hours on end during the Consumer Electronics Show 2014, all the while with the usual email, messengers and other communications apps in the background. Put simply there was nothing the phone wasn’t able to do for our needs. S600 will be ample for many users, even if it isn’t as top-spec as the latest kit and, with all eyes of Mobile World Conference 2014, come March and April time we will be seeing the step-up generation of new phones too - so that's something to keep in mind.
Because the S600 is less power intensive than the latest processors, paired up with the on-board 3610mAh battery we found the N1 could last our for an age. We were giving it very heavy use on the trade show floor, and even while acting as a permanent Wi-Fi hotspot we were getting a full day’s use out of it. In Airplane mode or when just doing less it lasted out considerably longer - if you’re cautious with the brightness and a light user we’d wager two days of use no problems. That’s really good going.
On the inside the entry model comes with 16GB storage, with a 32GB option available. There’s no microSD expansion slot though, so you’ll need to pick wisely upon purchase.
Calls, connectivity and audio
When is a smartphone not a phone? When it’s a phablet. We didn’t take stacks of calls using the N1, but when we did there were a couple of things that we didn’t like.
First, the vibration from the phone is really weak. We want to really feel that buzz so we can catch it even when walking around. Secondly, finding the right position for your ear when taking a call can take a bit of moving around, because the device is that big and the speaker section - on the back, or the front depending on how you look at it, of the camera unit - is really small. Even the receiving microphone section is on the base of the phone rather than the front panel, and given how far the device protrudes from the face that’s not the best place for it. All this could have been thought out better.
But, at the end of it, it’s successful for calls and we experienced no drop-outs or issues - even when overseas. The call quality itself is passable, but not the most crystal-clear that we’ve ever heard. That probably comes down to the speaker and mic units that are hardly stand-out for their audio reproduction.
Connectivity, however, is limited by the S600 on board. As this particular Snapdragon chip isn’t LTE compatible straight out of the box - it can be with the addition of another modem, but that’s not the case here - there’s no LTE support. Although 3G HSPA+ is good enough, if you want the fastest connectivity available then look elsewhere. In the UK 4G comes at a premium, and the networks are still limited to a point, so we suspect this will be a bigger issue for our American readers than on this side of the pond.
Shoot and swivel
A standout feature of the Oppo N1 is its camera. Now it’s not the best of best smartphone camera out there, but we genuinely found the 120-degree rotational bracket to be of considerable use. Not so much for selfies - we’re not huge fans of the narcissistic snap - but for tilting to less obvious angles. Typically we would tilt at 45-degrees and as the camera section doesn’t significantly protrude from the camera, it’s easy to take discreet shots - it just looks like you're fiddling around in an app on a giant phone rather than taking a picture. We did this plenty of times in places where we would have otherwise been told not to. It’s our new covert camera.
Autofocus works well too. A simple tap on the screen and a circular focus area will "twist" as it brings the subject in to focus and you're ready to shoot. There are some basic settings on offer too, and while not as complex as something like the Nokia Lumia 1020, the simple approach is sometimes the best approach. Works for us.
The 13-megapixel sensor behind the lens delivers good enough shots in a variety of conditions, and even indoor shots in so-so light don’t end up immediately riddled with image noise. Out in Las Vegas we visited the Ultimate Fighter Championship training gym one evening where the octagon wasn’t exactly the brightest lit spectacle and the camera did a decent job. 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, and this shows when there’s not much light available.
In better light shots expose well, but there's a clear presence of grain and this is amplified further when viewed at 100 per cent scale. Smooth gradients seem to lack, as in a sample shot we took out in the desert where the blue, gradated sky looked rather grainy. It gives a sort of character rather than being something to cry over, but it also adds up to not being the best smartphone camera on the block.
The thing is these shots will rarely be used at the full 13-megapixel resolution. And as CyanogenMod has built-in filters to use with the camera app, we spent a lot of time converting to black and white, adding a vignette, or colour cast to a shot and then outputting at 1024 pixels on the longest edge. Ideal for sharing on social sites and the like.
If you do want to use the camera for selfies and portrait shots then Oppo has added another feature, similar to the dual flash found in the iPhone 5S. There’s a normal, white light, and a second more golden light for far more flattering portraits. As both are mounted on the rotational unit they can flash in the forward direction throughout any given camera rotation. Very nice.
Of all the phones we’ve handled we’ve never been approached by so many members of the public and fellow press to ask about what we're using. From restaurants, to casinos, to conferences - the Oppo N1 caught peoples’ eyes and stood out as the different, alternative phone that it genuinely is. Now that doesn’t make it an instant success, but it goes a step in pointing out how the leftfield can be more interesting than the norm.
Even though the S600 processor at the N1’s core isn’t the most up to date, we didn't mind. Because for the price it’s a fair association, and as a smartphone it still did everything that we wanted it to. But the S600 chip does bring with it one issue that's probably of most concern for our American readers: it doesn’t support LTE out of the box. So the N1’s connectivity isn’t top-tier either, although 3G HSPA+ does a fair job.
If the idea of CyanogenMod - think about it like an open-source Android re-skin - sounds scary, then fear not. It’s a lot like using Android 4.3 and works a treat. Add to that a decent 1080p IPS screen, a quirky camera that’s of genuine use, solid design and fair price and the N1 gives us a lot to marvel at.
It’s the small things that let the phone down though. It’s obviously big and fairly weighty and if the idea of that freaks you out then this 5.9-inch phablet might not be the right choice for you in the first instance. Button positions and ill-responsive Android soft keys are among the main nuisances, as is the all-too-casual vibrate alert, and the O-Touch touchpanel control, for us, was as good as pointless - but that last feature can be ignored so it doesn’t really matter. But are these little moans enough to hold back a phone that’s trying to do things differently? We don't think so, no.
If you’re on a 3G network and are looking for a fully-featured bargain phablet then the Oppo N1 walks all over the likes of the Huawei Ascend Mate. Can’t stretch to a Galaxy Note 3? The N1 would be our alternative budget choice. It’s got a lot going for it, even if it does come from a brand that many Westerners will look at and say "what?". It’s like the hipster of phones; a positively different device that, while it won’t suit all, we have grown to love over time.