The Whatto N1?
It’s perfectly possible that you’ve heard of Oppo, the Chinese manufacturer responsible for launching bold new Android phones with a blatant disregard for the unspoken smartphone code. If that’s the case, the 5.9in N1 phablet is the perfect intro. Why? Because it’s unlike any other smartphone we’ve encountered.
It’s a bit of a rebel - there’s no “small” version, it only comes in white, the back-panel is touch-sensitive and there are not one but two alternative versions of Android to choose from. Not only is the N1 a boisterous rule-breaker, it’s doing so with Google’s approval - there’s a limited edition CyanogenMod handset certified by the Big G itself. And don't worry, if you don’t know what CyanogenMod is you’re about to find out.
There’s more. Oppo’s also completely ignoring the fact that most Full HD phones with 13MP cameras, Snapdragon innards and NFC cost a bomb. The N1 isn’t quite Nexus-cheap, but at £375 is pound-for-pixel an incredibly good value phablet.
An early frontrunner for the most exciting phone of 2014 then, but what exactly is in the Oppo Smartphone Manifesto?
A bigger screen is a better screen
There’s no getting around the fact the N1 is massive - to see the whole 5.9in Full HD slathered-in-Gorilla-Glass-3 screen in all its glory you almost need to step back a little. And it’s a beauty when you do.
Colours pop and contrast is bang-on whether you’re scrolling through pin-sharp text on Stuff.tv, playing Deus Ex: The Fall or just trying on themes, lockscreens and icon packs for size. Viewing angles are nice and wide, too. So yes, everyone in the self-service queue behind you is staring at your phone and can see exactly what you’re doing.
A small warning for movie buffs: loading the N1 up with 1080p videos does make it apparent that the o-mazing Oppo’s screen isn’t quite on a par with, say, an LG G2 or a teeny iPhone. It’s not quite as crisp and punchy as the best, at 377ppi, and colours drift a little to the warm side (think suntanned faces). The Note 3 gets brownie points in this respect for easily accessible screen modes to suit every taste.
There’s lots to love, though. A double tap turns the N1’s screen on, as with the similarly gargantuan G2 - especially handy as the shallow power button can be tricky to find when phone juggling. And Oppo hasn’t even taken up any screen real estate for home, back and settings buttons - glowing capacitive buttons sit below the display.
No close-to 6in phone is going to be easy to hold one-handed, but although it’s 9mm thick the Oppo looks and feels sleek, with a helpful, ergonomic curve to the back. At 213g, feeble wrists will start to ache after 20 minutes streaming Archer during a commute, but all in all the screen makes the heft worth it.
Your phone can be a playground
Building a 5.9in flagship phone is just the start of Oppo’s design mischief. Once the shock of its size has sunk in it’s easy to see that the N1 has been carefully constructed with a lovely matte plastic finish, dual chamfers, slim bezels - oh, and a rotating camera up top.
The 13MP camera, its dual LED flash and the small top speaker can be flipped to face forwards, backwards or anywhere in between. Sure, it looks retro (and slightly annoyingly it relegates the headphone jack to the bottom edge) but after plenty of time with clean slabs of metal and glass it’s a bit of a delight to flip part of your phone around without feeling like an idiot. In short, it’s our new favourite nervous habit.
Oppo’s not done messing with the outsides of the smartphone, either. Smack bang centre of the back of gigantophones is the place to be right now - the G2’s power and volume buttons sit here as does the HTC One Max’s fingerprint scanner.
Oppo uses it for its O-Touch panel, a PS Vita-style touch-sensitive rectangle that can be used as an alternative control - swiping up or down can be used to scroll through long articles in Chrome, for example. In use we found some settings, such as scrolling, genuinely useful on a big phone, but others, such as tapping to launch the camera, actually took in practice than the standard button.
Just one more Oppo device to play with: the O-Click accessory. This nifty tech button is temperamental with some CyanogenMod compatibility tweaks needed, but it works well as a remote shutter for the N1’s camera. It can be attached to keys and acts as an alarm to find your phone quickly too.
Take or leave the N1’s quirks, but what the Oppo does best is let you experiment with features, themes, gestures - even which OS you want the N1 to run…
Two fresh versions of Android are better than one
Here’s where things get super exciting - or super nerdy, depending on which way you look at it.
Oppo’s own Android skin - ColorOS - is most likely what will arrive pre-installed on your N1. Based on Android 4.2, it’s a customisable overhaul that includes Google Play access and a familiar widgets, homescreens and app drawer set-up.
Useful tricks include gestures such as swiping up/down with two fingers to control volume (including in third-party apps such as Netflix), the status bar disappearing unless you nudge it down and a whole bunch of free online themes accessible by swiping up from the centre of the N1. Our theme of choice is the adorable Constellation, but iOS 7-style icons are available too - you know, to be ironic. An in-built stylus is nowhere to be found but handwriting is still an option with finger scrawls.
ColorOS is fresh and intriguing, but the big noise over the N1 comes from Android fans who are bursting with excitement over one of their darling systems going ‘legit’ through a partnership with Oppo. Said system is CyanogenMod, and if you can't track down a limited edition CyanogenMod N1 you can simply install it yourself. And don’t worry, Oppo has done all the legwork - there's no fussing around with drivers, flashing or manual update faffing and you can easily drag the file across onto your phone from Macs as well as PCs. More instructions can be found here - it really is a ten minute job.
CyanogenMod is very similar to stock Android in that it’s fuss-free and runs silky smooth. On the N1 it’s also compatible with the O-Touch panel, Oppo’s gestures, and even the O-Click accessory, making the decision to switch very easy. And, in short, everything is customisable - extending desktops means more homescreens to play with, you can alter how your battery displays in the status bar, what’s on the lockscreen, and grab icons from Android launchers such as Nova. Very open, very phone-geek.
The N1 is a smartphone to spend hours, rather than minutes, tweaking to your exact, detail-crazed specifications and discovering new features - both ColorOS and CyanogenMod allow you to do this but we suspect the latter will be on most N1s before long. It’s a shame you can’t flit between the two - going back to ColorOS involves reinstalling Oppo firmware in the same way so it’s a bit of a pain. And the one thing we missed completely is a Note 3-style multi-window feature to make the most of the 5.9in screen. But, hey, perhaps we’re just being greedy.
More after the break...
Selfies deserve 13MP too
Two OSes are better than one, but a single camera is better than two if it means you’ve got 13MP to play with on both sides of the phone - selfies deserve detail, too.
The 5.9in screen is a great viewfinder, ColorOS offers scene modes (CyanogenMod has the standard Jelly Bean cam), and the rotating section means you can hold the phone in portrait and tilt the cam upwards for interesting angles. If it wasn’t for the N1 being so big and white and conspicuous, this would be a great way to take sneaky snaps. As it is, any time the Oppo’s in your hand there will be gawping.
We particularly like how the N1 shoots indoors in imperfect light, the scene of many a grainy smartphone pic crime. And in good light, outdoors, images look great, with vibrant colours, good contrast and - for the most part - accurate exposure. Blown up and side by side with images from the best smartphone snappers the N1’s pics aren’t the cleanest, but they are a cut above the norm.
And if you want to snap pics of yourself? You can set the camera app to spring open when you rotate the lens towards you and there’s even a beautify setting that will automatically pop up on portrait shots. We let the Oppo virtually paint our face in the style of a Tokyo teen makeover booth and it went so far as to pinch in our chipmunk cheeks. Sigh.
Phablets should run smoothly and last all day
Watching movies, tweaking status bars, snapping profile pics - this is not a phablet to leave in your bag. And happily the Oppo is a true battery life hero.
The beefy 3610mAh unit, which can’t be swapped out, plays nice with the Snapdragon 600 processor. So not only does its 5.9in Full HD screen last a full day of messaging, browsing and gaming, but in ColorOS mode there’s an excellent power saver, too. The eager to please N1 will even nag if you get to below 40% at night.
Running CyanogenMod things are a little more pared back functionality-wise, but in our standard 720p video rundown test, at half brightness with Wi-Fi on, the Oppo gave the Galaxy Note 3 some grief with a time of 9 hours 5 minutes.
Whether on ColorOS or CyanogenMod, the N1 also knows how to make the most of a comparatively old processor, the Snapdragon 600. With 2GB of RAM to help things along, we didn’t encounter any lag or hiccups during testing, even when really pushing it. Downloads of HD movies and big music files are nippy, and although AnTuTu rates the N1 lower than the Note 3 and G2, its 26513 score is still in the same race.
What Oppo Forgot
Cue open-source sad face emoticon. Stepping back from our heady week of getting to know the N1, it seems a shame to point out that it isn’t quite flawless. But we can at least count the niggles on one hand.
The biggie: there’s no 4G. Less of an issue in the UK for now, perhaps, but for all its forward thinking Oppo’s really missed a trick by not making the N1 that little bit future proofed.
Then there’s the non-expandable storage. The N1 does come in a 32GB variant that’s selling for around £480, but a microSD slot would be far more appealing. Finally, as we nitpicked earlier, it’s pretty heavy even by phablet standards.
This mobile maverick breaks all the right rules. Zany but still elegant hardware coupled with the most open and customisable Android software on the planet - it makes for a very tempting combination indeed.
This kooky, clever phablet is the best big phone you can buy for under £500, thanks to a superb screen, innovative yet reliable camera, great battery life and solid performance.
Chinese handsets won’t be grouped purely into budget phones and knock-offs anymore. The Oppo is set to be a real sleeper hit as it makes its way around the world. An accidental hipster phone and choose-your-own-OS pioneer, and we can’t wait to see what Oppo comes up with next.
Words: Sophie Charara
A humongous slab of hipster phone, this alterna-OS beauty breaks plenty of rules but is still bursting with appeal