10th Mar 2014 | 15:02
Oppo takes on the phablet market, but can it live up to the bigger billing?
Smartphone newcomer Oppo arrived from nowhere to win the hearts of Android enthusiasts last year, with the Oppo Find 5 offering decent performance and selling for an impressive price. It was a good start for the previously unknown firm.
Now Oppo's gunning for the more glamorous, barn-door sized phone end of the market with the Oppo N1, an enormous 5.9-inch model with a full HD 1080p display and relatively high-end Snapdragon 600 series chipset.
It's an audacious, slightly bonkers, Galaxy Note 3 or Sony Xperia Z Ultra competitor, but with an RRP of €449 (around £370, or $615, AU$680) it seriously undercuts both Sony and Samsung's rival phablets.
Plus it has a mad swivelling camera, a touchpad around the back and a lean Android OS heavy on motion and touch gestures. It's innovative and cheaper than its peers. Back of the net, right?
What immediately sets the N1 apart from other phones of its size is the innovative rotating camera mount. This houses a fast and impressive 13MP sensor, one that you can rotate through 180 degrees to capture your own gurning face at a resolution unprecedented for a front-facing camera.
And it's a nicely built, sturdy mount, locking into place when it's facing backwards and automatically flipping the on-screen viewfinder image when you rotate it. It's no novelty, it's a super idea.
Oppo's also blowing the traditional phone-selling model apart by including an extremely nice flip case in the box, which is smart enough to automatically activate and deactivate the phone's display when you open and close it - like the world's most technically advanced fridge light.
It's a smooth, stylish case that you'd expect to pay a fair few quid for, so many big-ups to the Oppo team for bunging it in as a freebie.
This case also has a soft area around the back, where there's no padding, like the delicate soft spot on a baby's head.
This is so you can use the Oppo N1's other unique feature - the rear-mounted trackpad. Oppo calls this the O-Touch panel, an additional input method, albeit one that's not hugely useful in the N1's current software setup.
And there's more. There's also a tiny keyfob-size remote control called the O-Click included with the Oppo N1, letting you take photos using the swivelling lens while a short distance away from the phone. It's the ultimate 'selfie' device, no doubt about that.
It's a bit of a shame to see hardware capacitive buttons beneath the huge display, though, as many of today's newest Android models feature the more versatile on-screen software buttons that can pop themselves into and out of existence when the OS deems it necessary.
And it's not what you'd call thrilling to look at.
As for the physical size of the Oppo N1, it's huge and fairly heavy. I'm coming from using the modest Moto G and Sony Xperia Z1 Compact as my main mobiles, so opening the box and taking out the massive N1 was a shock.
It almost seems like a joke at first, but, as usually happens when switching up a few inches, after a day or two you find yourself getting used to the extra screen size.
The rotating camera mount means the headphone socket is placed on the bottom of the N1, where it battles for space alongside the USB connector and speaker.
The left-hand edge only houses the microSIM slot - accessed by poking a pin in to pop out the tray - while the right-hand edge has the power button a little above the middle for easy thumb access.
It's surprising to see there's no SD card support on the N1, as it's usually a banker on phones from lesser known makers.
Despite its size and weight, and the fact that I felt embarrassed flopping out such a whopper in public for the first few days, it fits in the hand(s) pretty well.
It's never going to be usable in one hand alone as you'd need to have King Kong's hand grafted on to hold it and reach the notifications tab with your thumb, but it's not impossible to imagine carrying it around all day.
The free case helps you to hold it. It's textured and grippy, plus it flips open like a book - so you can hold it like a book. Because it's as big as a book. A thin book, mind, so it's not that noticeable in your trouser pocket.
One problem I had with the case was that it hides the power and volume buttons a little, with the edge of the case recessing them further back. I never managed to train my fingers and thumb to find the power button automatically, as the edges of the case mask the buttons.
It would be nice if the power and volume toggles poked out a bit more, especially as the volume-down button also doubles as a camera shutter button when taking photos. But the fact that it's often a little hard to find meant I stuck with the on-screen software shutter during my time with the N1.
As for build quality, it feels solid. Easily as impressive to hold as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, with the matte white plastic and occasional bit of chrome-style finish giving it quite a Samsung-like appearance.
It's also really thin when out of its case, with Oppo measuring it at just 9mm thick. This helps it fit some pockets, although it's still so enormous there's a worry it'll pop out and end up on the floor if you're forced to crouch for any reason. So best use that free case.
The display is another area where Oppo matches that offered by today's more familiar brands. The N1 outputs at 1920 x 1280 resolution, and the separate capacitive buttons mean you get all of that screen devoted to action.
It's a lovely display, bright and colourful, with plenty of contrast when viewing photos and video clips. It's so bright I never had to have it anywhere near maximum brightness, even when outdoors, which can only help squeeze more life out of the phone's hard-pressed battery.
Viewing angles are great, too. Colours and contrast are consistent even when your arms start dropping under the weight of it and the phone starts to move about in your hand, making it ideal for watching downloaded media.
Oppo's tried to make the N1 a little more user-friendly than the stock version of Android, with the phone full of lots of small software touch and gesture controls to help you get it set up the way you want it to work.
For example, Oppo's included something it calls the gesture panel. This is a way of launching apps by drawing pictures, accessed by dragging down from the left-hand side of the Notifications bar (you can edit where it activates in the settings).
You might want to draw a big letter "T" to launch Twitter, or a circle to open the camera. It's debatable whether this is actually any quicker than unlocking a phone and clicking on an app, and I never bothered with it once the initial curiosity had worn off.
But you may find a case for using it. If you don't want to clutter your Home screens up with too many icons, perhaps it would be a nice way of launching things.
There's also the touchpad on the back, or the O-Panel, as Oppo calls it. As with the Gesture Panel, you can associate actions with this via a custom menu, although these are limited to stuff like using it to open the camera and change tracks in the music player.
I didn't use it much, as being placed in the middle of the back of such a large phone means it's surprisingly difficult to find, plus, despite the soft bit in the case to allow you to poke at it, it's pretty unresponsive to touch.
Perhaps if it worked as a music track shifter when the phone is in standby it'd be more useful. But it doesn't. It only works when the music player is open and on the screen, which is quite peculiar.
So it's not very useful at all. Presumably Oppo's hoping the development community can come up with some better ideas for utilising it.
What I did use quite a lot were some of the Oppo N1's gesture controls. A standalone menu lets you set up tasks that activate when moving the phone, with one particularly useful option being to have the music player skip through tracks with a shake of the N1.
You might look a bit odd doing that with the phone in your pocket, but it's certainly a better use of tech than the bizarre rear touchpad.
You can also open up the camera by squeezing the display with lots of fingers, or capture a screengrab by running two fingers down the display.
The latter only works occasionally, as pulling down tends to scroll whatever you're looking at, so it takes a few goes.
And as with all this additional control stuff, it depends on you learning it in the first place and remembering it. As useful as it can be, it feels like the sort of thing you'll use once, think "Oh, that's clever," then forget about and never do again.
And there's the rotating camera. It's a bit of a novelty, sure, but it does mean you get a 13MP front-facing camera, plus you can do weird things like put your phone on the top of the fridge, rotate the camera so it's pointing out into the room, and use the self timer properly for once.
It also produces great shots and is quite a killer feature if you're serious about mobile photography.
Possibly the most interesting feature on the Oppo N1 is its ability to run an official, 100% fully featured version of CyanogenMod.
The community-led alternative version of Android is available for installation on many Android phones and tablets, but Oppo is the first maker to support it officially.
As in, installing CyanogenMod on the N1 won't void your warranty, and is simply a case of sticking the installer on the phone's memory and running it to completely change operating systems - no "rooting" or "bootloader" misery involved here.
And it's definitely worth giving it a shot for a couple of reasons. First, the CyanogenMod software is significantly closer to the stock Android experience in terms of look and feel, so is useful to have access to for that reason alone if you're not entirely won over by Oppo's own ColorOS UI.
Secondly, CyanogenMod adds stacks of additional features to Android. You get more toggles, including a torch, in the pull-down Notifications menu, the lock screen comes with customisable quick-launch shortcuts to a variety of apps.
Plus there's a burst mode in the camera, a variety of transition effects to change the Home screen's icon and widget scrolling, app drawer modifications and much more.
For fiddlers, CyanogenMod adds a staggering level of depth and control to the Android experience, plus it's 100% stable on the Oppo N1 - great to see it working at full power without any functionality caveats whatsoever.
And if you don't like it, bunging the ColorOS installer on the phone's internal memory and running it is all you need to to do switch back to the safer alternative.
Interface and performance
The Oppo N1 runs on the quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset, which is technically one performance tier behind the Snapdragon 800 that sits inside some of today's top-drawer Android models like the HTC One and LG G2.
It's backed by the standard 2GB of RAM other hardware makers put in their flagship models, so multitasking works well, with apps staying alive in the memory.
Meanwhile, switching back and forth between several apps is nice and quick, as is web use in the pre-loaded Chrome browser.
Android 4.2 Jelly Bean is the core behind the Oppo N1, with the maker customising this through a skin it calls the Color OS.
It's a fairly standard example of a manufacturer Android skin, offering a different clock and optional weather widget, a floating dock along the bottom for up to five permanently accessible apps, plus the usual drop-down notifications tab that's also accessible from the lock screen if you tap the relevant toggle in the Settings menus.
I was horrified upon first booting the N1, as the notification pull-down area is absolutely rammed with row upon row of grim grey toggles and options, but that's really the only place where the ColorOS intrudes on the usual simplicity of Android.
In fact, once your eyes have calmed down and noticed there's a useful brightness slider right there in the Notification area, you quickly forgive it for appearing so packed, as quick, one-touch access to the brightness setting is nice to have.
You can have up to nine home screens, each filled with whatever collection of app shortcuts, folders and live widgets suits you best.
A long-press on an empty bit of the display (or the Menu button) brings up the customisation menu, from where you can install app shortcuts and widgets, select from a massive number of themes, edit transition effects and change your wallpaper.
What Oppo has included that's exclusive to the N1 is a pair of custom home screens dedicated to music and imaging. These are what Oppo calls its Exclusive Spaces, which offer easy access to photo messaging and music playback.
They're basically enormous widgets, though, with the music player filling a whole screen with a record player graphic, which will thoroughly baffle any teenagers.
This doesn't exactly offer any thrilling features, simply functioning as a simple music player, much like Android's smaller, simpler, widget option. Only taking up a whole screen. One of Oppo's more baffling creations, that.
The Photo Space page is equally odd. The live camera viewfinder widget at the top of it is impressive, but it takes low-res images designed to have text attached to them for sharing via text message and social media.
It's something I wouldn't ever use, as there's not a lot of point in deliberately taking low-res images in exchange for the ability to share them with a caption embedded upon them.
As for how the OS and Snapdragon 600 combine here, benchmarking powertool Geekbench 3 rates the Oppo N1 with a multi-core score of 2,008.
That's a little lower than that scored by the Nexus 5, which runs on the next-rung-up Snapdragon 800 chipset, but you'd struggle to notice any difference in terms of real-world use.
The Oppo N1 is generally smooth in use, with a camera app that's possibly the fastest I've seen on an Android phone.
It may not have the very best processor available, but picking up on that would be like complaining your new car can only do 130mph instead of 145. As long as the windscreen wipers and heater works, it'll still do what you need.
Oppo's also made a few tweaks to Android's way of navigating its menus. The Settings zone is now tabbed, which might confuse you for a few minutes. The ColorOS breaks down the N1's options into three areas - General, Sound and Display - which are accessed through three tabs along the top of the screen.
Plus you can have folders inside the app drawer, if there's a lot of pre-loaded apps in here you're unlikely to want to use. And there are. I had one folder dedicated entirely to hiding Google+.
Oppo's put a version of Swype on the N1 as the default keyboard, meaning that, as with the modern stock Android text input system, you get line-drawing gesture input for typing.
This has really taken off as the best way to type on phone displays, although it means that instead of typos you get the entirely wrong word inserted every once in a while.
Still, given there's a massive 5.9-inch display in here, it's possible to touch-type of a sort on the N1, or at least use a couple of fingers or three on it to manually tap in your messages.
The keyboard's generally fast, with next-word prediction part of the experience too.
Get lucky and you can fire out complete sentences by linking suggested words, although the keyboard glitched for me a few times with the landscape layout appearing while I was trying to type in portrait mode - so I couldn't see or press all the keys.
The contacts section is simple. Accessed through an icon on the dialler, you get a standard list of all contacts currently synced via your Google account, with a tab for any Favourites you've starred within the main list - and a Frequently Contacted section beneath that.
A handy Show Contacts From menu item lets you choose which accounts display their contact details here, so it's possible to only have ones saved on your SIM display, if you have an old school approach to keeping people's data.
Lock screen widgets, one of Google's more recent additions to Android, are also included as part of the N1's ColorOS, although whether they appear or not depends on the type of lock screen you currently have active.
The default option lets lock widgets work, but others refuse.
It's the same with the music player. Some of the N1's lock screen styles come with music player controls and some don't.
It's a weird inconsistency, but there are at least plenty of quirky lock options to choose from, including an icon map that has you drawing lines between locations to unlock the phone.
Call quality is good and clear. The onboard speaker is particularly loud too, plus, if you don't feel like talking, calls can be rejected from the lock screen with a stock polite - or personal rude - pre-written message.
One tiny feature I like that's typical of Oppo's exhaustive attention to detail is the option to control the capacitive buttons' backlight.
You can have them stay illuminated for six seconds or leave them permanently on, which is something I'd definitely use as it drives me mad when capacitive buttons decide to turn their lights off and disappear from view.
Other teeny tiny nice things I've found that makes me like Oppo's approach are: an option to set a power off and power up time; an extremely polite late night battery alert that tells you to charge you phone else it'll go flat tomorrow; and a weird "easy answer" option that automatically answers a call when you hold the phone to your ear.
That's the difference between what Oppo's done with the ColorOS and what Samsung does with TouchWiz. Oppo's all about little features for you to find, whereas Samsung rams everything in your face.
Plus, if you like, there's a Jelly Bean style theme that removes most of the ColorOS visual changes and swaps in the current Android icon set, if you want something nearer the standard stock Android experience.
Battery life and media
The Oppo N1 has a huge 3,610mAh capacity battery inside it, pushing double the storage capacity of some smaller mobiles and containing enough to drive a Nissan Leaf to Barcelona and back.
Obviously the 5.9-inch display is a big drain on power, but I was frankly quite amazed by how long the Oppo was able to maintain its high-res display and still work as a useful thing.
The standard TechRadar battery drain test involves playing a 90-minute video file with the display left on and at maximum brightness.
With the volume about two-thirds of the way up the N1's battery went down from fully charged to 87% remaining after 90 minutes.
That was a great performance, and it's nice to know there's enough juice in here to play a full movie and still get a full day - or two - of normal smartphone use out of it as well.
At the time of writing, it's still running on that same charge, showing 41% battery remaining and having had the screen active for a total of 4 hours and 22 minutes during today's interminable fiddling with the camera and apps.
And, once the oh-my-god-new-phone novelty period had worn off, the N1's a surprisingly long-stayer too. I managed to squeeze an astonishing three days of use out of one charge earlier in the week.
This was with fairly light use, mind you - just a few camera shots, using it as a phone and checking emails once every hour or so. But still, awesome work and not the power nightmare you'd expect of a large phone.
Rather than hide the video content away and force you to hunt it out or install a file manager like many other Android models, Oppo's included a standalone My Videos app to make it dead easy to access clips you've recorded and any files you've put on yourself.
Open this and you get a fairly unexciting combined view of all media files on the phone, including ones you've recorded yourself, legit downloads and any ripped files you've shuffled across via USB.
One nice touch that copies a little bit from Samsung is the floating video option. Tap the icon while a clip is playing and the N1 busts the video out into a frame that sits atop the rest of the phone OS.
This means you can go about your usual smartphone business while a video plays on part of the display.
A simplified player menu lets you pause the clip or close the player, or press the icon again to go back to the full player.
As for music playback, the Oppo N1 offers the same mixed-media installation as many other Android smartphones.
There's Google's cloud-based Play Music service on here, which is the one to use if you want access to music uploaded from a desktop and playlists seamlessly synced between the N1 and any other phones or tablets you happen to use, plus there's Oppo's own music player.
Oppo's player isn't what you'd call glamorous, but it does let you create playlists, pick favourites and, usefully, access files through a folder-based interface.
So if you've got a beloved 7GB curated collection of MP3s gathered over the last decade and carefully placed within a thoughtful folder structure, you can access that on the N1.
As mentioned earlier in the Essentials part of the review, whether or not you see lock screen music controls when using the Oppo player depends on what lock screen you've chosen.
But what you can always have is the option of motion control or use of the rear touchpad to navigate tunes. Both methods are a bit hit and miss, both requiring a few goes to get to respond properly.
Still, sound from the onboard speaker is extremely loud, although, with the speaker mounted along the bottom edge of the phone, it's a bit distracting when watching movies to have the majority of the sound pointed at your right earhole.
The Oppo N1 features a 13MP sensor, and, as you've no doubt already seen, it's housed in a rotating mount so you can have it facing backwards, standard style, or can flip it around to use it as a front-facing chat cam. Your casual internet hook-ups have never had it so good.
The camera app is simple. There are no filters and only a handful of options, but that's okay as it's a blisteringly fast imaging app and produces shots so good you don't want to go spoiling them by pretending they were taken in 1985 on a film camera.
When taking panoramas, the N1 displays a live composite of the scene inside the viewfinder. Which doesn't achieve much, but it's a clever little touch.
One unusual Oppo feature is automatically activated within the Album app, whenever the N1 detects a photo of a face. A little lady icon pops up to indicate it recognises a human, with an editing tool popping up beneath to give users a choice of makeup effects to apply to the image.
Given the manly size and hardcore enthusiast nature of the Oppo N1, I can't imagine many users are likely to be applying makeup to their selfies, but it is quite a clever tool all the same.
Also, selecting the details tab on an image within the Album lets you rename it right there on the phone. Probably not a feature most will use, but again it shows that Oppo's done some serious brainstorming about how to put stacks of clever little features on top of the usual Android experience.
Video captured at 1080p is quite good. I couldn't see anything in the way of artifacts on the footage when viewed at full size on desktop, although middle distance detail could perhaps be a little better.
Still, it's many multiples better than the images produced by rival monster phone the Xperia Z1 Ultra, so best not complain too much.
One problem I found is that the Oppo N1's freebie flipcase is made of creaky rubbery stuff and you can end up with noise on your clips if it rubs against the mic, unless you hold the phone very firmly and quite still or take it out of the case altogether.
There's one quirk to be aware of when recording clips, too. The N1 auto-focuses when you start recording a video, but from then on it's up to you to manage the focus by tapping on the screen when you want the camera to refocus.
A minor pain, but it does stop things continuously popping in and out of focus.
The one thing the world isn't short of is enormous telephones. Samsung started it off with the mocked (at the time) Galaxy Note model, which, it turned out, was exactly what people wanted.
The Note series went on to become one of the best-selling smartphone models and helped drive today's relentless explosion in screen sizes.
The Galaxy Note 3 is slightly smaller than the N1 at, ahem, 'just' 5.7 inches, giving the Oppo N1 a little lead in terms of sheer screen size.
Both the Galaxy Note 3 and the Oppo N1 share a novelty input system, with the Note 3 having its S Pen and the N1 having the backside touchpad.
I don't really like the way smartphone makers are inventing solutions to problems that don't exist, simply so they've got a thing to boast about on their tech spec sheets.
That's about all these two phones have in common though, as Samsung's creaking TouchWiz interface goes down a whole different road to the simple, stock Android inspired ColorOS found on the Oppo N1.
The N1's a pretty simple affair with modest extended features based around gesture and motion input, while Samsung's Note 3 is heaving with bespoke software, stylus tools and more.
Both are big, both are very powerful and good at running Android. I'd go for the Oppo, if only because TouchWiz is starting to look a bit grey and bland these days.
Sony's most recent entry in the big phone world is the Xperia Z Ultra, a huge 6.4-inch phone that's definitely able to take on the role of bedside tablet as well as daytime mobile phone.
Despite launching in late 2013 the Z Ultra still costs a lot more than the Oppo N1, selling for around the £450 ($750, AU$833) mark online.
And that's a big weakness, as with a less impressive camera and smaller battery (3,050mAh) than the N1, the only thing the Z Ultra has in its favour is its larger display.
It's a lovely display, mind, managing the same 1080p output as the N1, so if you really need the extra half an inch for getting the best out of your media content it's a good main selling point.
But the Oppo's software has more in common with regular Android, the camera's vastly better, plus it's cheaper and more powerful. The N1 crushes the Z1 beneath its manly boots.
Huawei the lads
If your main criteria is price, Huawei's Ascend Mate is the Oppo N1's biggest competitor. The massive 6.1-inch phone can be bought for around £300 online, so you get a bigger display and a few quid left over to put toward the next financial quarter's luxury tech purchase.
That's about all the Ascend Mate has in its favour, though, with the Huawei phone offering a slow and often glitchy experience and Huawei's own quad-core chipset struggling to run Android as well as the N1's Snapdragon 600.
The Mate also comes with Huawei's take on Google's OS, and it's a much less impressive and comprehensive skin than that conjured up by Oppo.
The Oppo N1 is heavier than Huawei's tab/phone at 213g against the Mate's 198g, but the slimmer N1 tricks the brain into thinking it's less substantial and it's less angular, helping again to make it seem like less of a lump.
I thought it was too big. I thought the rotating camera was silly. I thought the battery wouldn't last more than 20 minutes. I was wrong.
The N1 is an affordable, large phone, that has many clever hardware and software touches, and one you'll love, even if some of Oppo's wilder innovations don't quite hit the mark.
The camera is very nice. It's ridiculously fast in use, plus the HDR option is so swift to build the shots that it creates little in the way of the image ghosting you tend to see when capturing HDR composites on other phones. So you'll use it more. 1080p video is free from artefacts and relatively high in quality too.
The rotating camera mount really is properly useful. It means Android's photo self timer is much more usable, as it's easier to stand/balance/prop the phone in a way that gets the angle you want when you can also rotate the lens.
Plus it means you get a ridiculously high-resolution 13MP front-facing camera as and when you need it, with the N1 automatically flipping the view when you rotate the sensor.
During the review process I received two OS updates from Oppo. It's clear it's targeting the hardcore Android enthusiast with this phone and, coupled with the option to install the CyanogenMod ROM without voiding your warranty, it's really nice to see a hardware maker taking such an innovative and rigorous approach to software updates.
The touchpad around the back is, like Samsung's weird insistence on including a stylus with its Galaxy Note series, a novelty you probably won't often use.
In fact, Oppo seems a bit confused as to why there's a trackpad on the back of the device too, with the OS suggesting you use it as a button most of the time.
The capacitive buttons around the front aren't particularly sensitive. The double-tap required to access Android's multitasking menu often fails to register, with the Back and Menu buttons also requiring multiple presses.
You'll probably eventually teach yourself to press these harder, but with Android doing such a clever job of using on-screen software buttons in many other models, Oppo's use of separate touch buttons is a bit of a shame.
There are a few bugs in the software. I couldn't adjust the brightness while a video was playing, plus the keyboard displayed in landscape orientation when I was holding the screen in portrait, meaning I could only see half the screen.
It's usually quite fast and reliable when in use, though, so I wouldn't say these are deal breakers.
It's a solid, thin and powerful phone with a great camera. And most importantly, the Oppo N1 beats the opposition in terms of price.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 costs around £450 to buy unlocked outside of a contract, whereas the Oppo N1 is relatively cheap - at around £370 ($615, AU$680) - to buy direct from Oppo.
Plus Oppo throws in a really nice flip case and a remote to control the camera. In terms of bang for buck, the N1 is a winner.
The capacitive buttons are a bit temperamental and there are some small bugs in the OS, but the camera and its original rotating mount are both awesome features.
It feels like Oppo is trying very hard to make friends with the N1. It's certainly made a few here.