Mid-range smartphones are all the rage right now. And it’s not hard to see why. The best of the best, when it comes to mobile tech, costs, give or take, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Kshs 100,000, amounts that are way out of reach for most of us. Yes, myself included.
So, what do you do when someone offers you something that promises to deliver the experience of a premium 2017 smartphone for just a third of the price? The initial reaction is bound to be either to look at the offer with a lot of suspicions and rule it out or to quickly open your wallet or purse and walk away with the said device. The latter, I have concluded, is what you need to do with OPPO’s latest smartphone in the Kenyan market, the OPPO F5.
The OPPO F5 is everything you want in a smartphone and then some more.
But hold on, you may want to hear what I have to say, extensively, about it before making up your mind.
Check out the OPPO F5’s specifications here.
Design and Display
Seeing as it is that the OPPO F5 hit the market just half a year since the F3 became available, one is tempted to ask why. Well, the answer primarily lies in the design of the F5 since the other features, like the size and internal components, are largely identical. The F5 is OPPO’s reaction to a highly dynamic environment where 6-month smartphone designs are stale and no longer the talk of town.
The F5 was the Chinese device maker’s response to the rollout of near-bezel-less smartphones by the competition. Samsung had had the Galaxy S8 family in the market for a while and Apple’s iPhone X, another ambassador of the “borderless” design craze, was just getting started. As such, the OPPO F5 has the distinction of being the first OPPO smartphone in the market with an 18:9 screen aspect ratio. What this means, in simple words, is that you get a slightly longer display than is usually the case (on 16:9 displays).
I had gotten used to this design on the Samsung Galaxy S8 so I wasn’t that surprised when interacting with the F5. I actually loved the extra screen real estate that one gets. It’s a nice touch knowing that you are getting a comparable experience for just over a third of the cost. The only downside, the weird scaling of videos on YouTube and some unoptimized apps and games here and there, are really not OPPO’s fault.
The display is bright and vibrant.
I found the placement of the volume up and down buttons on one side of the device and that of the power button on the other actually much better than the trend of having all of them on one side as is mostly the case on devices these days.
The placement of the fingerprint sensor at the back is as natural as natural gets. It’s a good thing that everyone seems to be realizing this and going back to having the fingerprint sensor there instead of the front of the device.
The speakers, a microphone, a microUSB port and 3.5mm headphone jack dot the bottom of the device. I am still at a loss why OPPO is holding out on USB Type-C at a time when everyone else is going that route not only because there are boosts in data transfer speeds and charging but also because it no longer matters how one plugs in.
My favourite feature of the entire design is just above the power on/off button: the SIM tray. The SIM tray plays host to two nano SIM slots as well as a microSD card slot. There’s no that hybrid arrangement which forces users to choose between having extra storage for their songs and photos and the services of an extra SIM.
While the OPPO F5 manages to score highly in the design department, just like every other recent OPPO smartphone, it still manages to disappoint where it matters to all of us Android enthusiasts: the software.
Where do I start?
One step forward, two steps backwards
I found version 3.2 of Color OS, the modified software that runs on the OPPO F5, to be quite a departure from the version I found on the F1s in late 2016. It showed progress. Thankfully, even before I could finish editing this review, OPPO pushed out an update that rectified one of the things that had me boiling with rage. However, not everything was fixed or is about to be fixed any time soon.
For instance, how do we explain the fact that OPPO goes out of its way to frustrate any attempts by users to fully customize something they spent their hard-earned money on? I mean, what’s the use of a device who’s launcher you can’t change? And what’s with having to reboot the device every time one switches SIMs or adds another? That’s so 2012! I happened to be using several other devices around the time I was taking the OPPO F5 for a spin. It always bothered me that I’d have to loose a minute or two waiting for it to reboot every time I changed SIMs (something that I do multiple times a day). I also did not understand why OTG connection is turned off by default. I am a big user of the feature and I had to bump on it in the settings app by mistake. The first time I needed to plug in my flash drive, I assumed that the F5 lacks the feature since there’s no response by default. Only to find out much later that it’s just turned off. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. I am running out of words.
Something as simple as clearing individual notifications has a learning curve (swipe left to reveal options). Sigh.
Of course, as has been the case for a while now, Color OS is just another name for “the iPhone’s user interface on Android”. I’ve already shouted myself hoarse about this so at this point I just say, “To each their own.”
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are some silver linings.
In its quest to keep up with the heavy hitters, OPPO introduced its own version of “Face ID”, the facial recognition system that debuted on the iPhone X and which had also been a central feature of the last two generations of Samsung smartphones (the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 and the Galaxy S8 family of 2017). Make no mistake, using facial recognition tech to unlock mobile devices is nothing new. In fact, Android has had support for it since late 2011 when Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was introduced. I remember using the feature extensively a year later on my 7-inch Samsung tablet. However, that feature has never been the most well implemented and, owing to its inferior security status, had been shunned for years. Taking a cue from the likes of Samsung and Apple, OPPO took it upon themselves to make it front and centre of their new device, the F5.
Make it front and centre they did. The F5’s aggressive facial recognition, which complements the more secure fingerprint reader at the back of the device, is unmissable and, for the most part, just works. While it did not work 100% of the time (there were quite some significant hits and misses), I loved and do appreciate the effort. In fact, I can’t note any differences between it and what I had on the Samsung Galaxy S8. While the feature does try to work in low light situations, the fail rate is much higher there than any chances of success.
OPPO has also gone the extra mile to include in Color OS features like the ability to clone apps i.e. use one app in two separate instances by introducing a “copy” of an app so that they run simultaneously (hey WhatsApp users). For the gamers in the house, the F5’s software allows “game acceleration” i.e. several tweaks to enhance the device’s performance when playing games to maximize resource utilization, bar any disturbance (calls, notifications) as well as avoid mistouches. These are features that made me love the Galaxy S7 family devices and, later, the Galaxy S8 family.
There are also some nice little touches that can also be found on other devices (nothing to do with the F5’s AI smarts, though) like the ability to identify apps placed in a folder on the home screen (reminder: the OPPO F5, and every other OPPO device for that matter, lacks an app drawer) and automatically provide the appropriate name for the said folder.
Other additions felt unnecessary. Gimmicks. These include the so-called “secure keyboard”, a keyboard that presents itself when one is using an application that has been identified as being sensitive and thus operating in OPPO’s “Environmental Safety” environment (apps like those for mobile banking). OPPO has made a lot of noise about how the F5 is one of the most secure devices in its class out there and so the “secure keyboard” kicks in every time one is keying in a password in an app or something of the sort. It’s sort of reassuring but…
The OPPO F5 descends from a lineage of devices that keep on being dubbed “selfie experts” by their maker. It’s no different from those. From my experience with the cameras on the F5, there’s no device within its price range that takes pictures as good as the F5 manages to take. End of story.
I am not quite the camera buff but every time I squatted to take a close up of the sunflowers that dot the gardens close to our office, I got results that I’d otherwise struggle to get elsewhere. All without having to fiddle with endless knobs and settings. This is because the much-hyped Artificial Intelligence capabilities of the OPPO F5 are best exemplified and seen at work when using the device’s cameras.
While everyone else has to stick two cameras at the back in order to be able to isolate backgrounds and focus on the subject in the foreground, the OPPO F5 has it easy doing so without the need of an extra pair of hands (lens?). While the noise does increase at night using the device’s automatic settings (and hoping its famed AI lends a hand), the end results are still just as impressive as those one gets when the sun is high up in the sky.
Basically, this is the kind of camera phone you think you’re getting every time someone/anyone hypes their mid-range device. Only that you end up getting a raw deal because, well, that’s not the F5.
Battery life on the OPPO F5 is good. While OPPO’s software suppression tendencies mean that we get less and less detailed information about what’s really going on, a day’s use without needing the services of the hard-to-plug-in cable means that all is well.
- The device’s design is top. It looks good and feels very light.
- The device’s performance manages to stay above average.
- Battery life is good.
- While I may have my own issues with the software on the OPPO F5, some of the features it packs are really helpful. Like the very aggressive data manager which, by default, disables mobile data when a user consumes over 200 megabytes of data. This is quite handy more so if one is on a tight data plan.
- I have noted with great concern that quite a number of devices that are competing with the F5 in the market lack some features that many may not even know their Android devices should be having. Like the ability to project on external displays. Unfortunately, just like with the USB On the Go (OTG) feature highlighted above, DLNA is turned off by default and one has to dig through the wireless connections settings to turn it on and be able to view whatever they’re working on on a bigger external display like, say, a television set.
- There are no words I can use to describe the cameras (both front and back) on the OPPO F5. The competition has nothing on them.
- When it works, the facial recognition on the device is fast and highly convenient.
- The price is a tad too ambitious and on the higher side. OPPO should’ve aspired to keep it under Kshs 30,000 by all means if it is to compete fully with the competition since none of the F5’s features justify the high markup.
- Seriously, the software needs work. Who thought it wise to stop users from using Nova launcher? Yes, it’s not everyone who’s into Nova and third-party Android launchers but please, let us be. Let it be a user’s choice to go that route or not. Also, allow SIM quick swap. It’s annoying to have to reboot the device every time. Also, I am not a fan of the status bar changing colour when I am tethering.
- I have no idea why OPPO cannot find within itself to ship its pricey mid-range devices with at least a half-decent pair of earphones. I mean, at least try to justify the price for Christ’s sake!
Having used the OPPO F5 for over a month, it is a phone I want to keep and take with me on any epic road trip because, my usually dry Instagram page could do with the awesomeness it can produce. It’s beautiful, takes the best snaps any device in its price range can take and lasts an entire day on a single charge (something I can’t say of the Nokia 6). However, the thought of being stuck with a home screen setup that I cannot do much about after spending over Kshs 30,000, does not sit well with me. Not every one of us wants to be a “mini” iPhone user. That and the fact that Android updates are unlikely to be showing up any time soon has me struggling to justify spending Kshs 32,000 on this device.
Note: The OPPO F5 used for this review was made available to me by OPPO Kenya.