Review: OPPO R9
Never have I ever had more people perplexed by what phone I’ve been using these past couple of weeks. OPPO R9 is one of the manufacturer’s boldest moves ever, and it’s bound to leave more than a few on the fence as to how they feel about it.
It’s a brilliant example of quality design and finish for not that much dough, but as is often the norm with heavily skinned Android smartphones, the software remains an area of improvement.
With all that said, let’s find out whether OPPO’s latest mid-range flagship stands up to its upmarket look.
- Refined design, a marked improvement over the impressive R7 series
- Insanely responsive fingerprint reader
- Generally fluid performance
- Decent front and rear cameras
- ColorOS closer to iOS than ever, which won’t be to everyone’s taste
- Software bugs
- Lack of NFC
- Having to tell people it’s not an iPhone
THE DESIGN AND BUILD
Let’s just get this out of the way, the OPPO R9 bears similarities with the iPhone 6s more than the R7 series ever managed. In our time with the handset, it was frequently mistaken for an iPhone, or occasionally the HTC 10 when viewed from the front.
I wish I could say I was able to successfully defend its design more than not, but it just wasn’t the case, and in no time the R9 became something of a butt of jokes amongst those who know I personally wouldn’t be caught dead using an iPhone. With that however also came a certain allure from iPhone users in my circles, who didn’t so much look at the R9 with scorn, but with an admiration for its design, and a hope that its slimline bezels, discreet antenna strips and chamfered metallic edge would make its way to Apple’s next offering.
OPPO know how to design and assemble truly well-built handsets, and yes while its looks aren’t groundbreaking in any way, it’s a pleasant sight amongst other mid-rangers, and even flagships, and a mark of the real feats the Chinese OEM has managed in a few short years. It may be a metal-clad handset like the R7 series before it, but it’s miles ahead in fit and feel, with a surface treatment to its metal rear that leaves a far smoother finish.
One thing I do have to say is where I somewhat criticised the colouring of the ‘gold’ options being too subtle on the R7, R7s and R7 Plus, those examples don’t compare to what is the case with the R9. When pictured on its box, you’re left to assume this handset is the real deal, but once removed I could only fathom I had received a sealed silver handset by mistake; until I realised the OPPO R9 is not offered in silver at all, only in rose gold and gold, apparently. The main hint to go off this handset being gold are the creamy plastic strips housing the antenna and associated components. Under certain light it has a tinge of gold to it, so that’s something, I guess.
Branding on the R9 is kept to the minimum. The capacitive navigation keys have returned, but with a recents key replacing the outdated menu button, and a hardware physical home button doubling as a fingerprint reader. That means there’s no garish branding on the front as was the case with the on-screen nav key equipped R7s and R7 Plus, so a tasteful OPPO badge resides on the rear, along with a 13MP shooter and flash LED.
A higher-res 16MP camera adorns the front, beside the earpiece grille, with a light and proximity sensor to the left of that.
The speaker grille remains on the bottom edge as it first featured in the R7s, making it possible to blare tunes while the handset rests on its back, something the rear speaker R7 and R7 Plus struggle with. A microUSB port with VOOC Flash charge support and audio jack also feature along the bottom. OPPO’s Flash charge will haul the R9’s battery from flat to full in about an hour.
Along the left edge are two tactile volume buttons that are easily identified by touch, while the right edge hosts a slightly mushy power/lock button, and the R9’s hybrid dual SIM / nano SIM + microSD tray. As standard the R9 comes with plentiful 64GB internal storage for most users — of which about 59GB is available out of the box.
Its measurements are 151.8 x 74.3 x 6.6 mm, and with a 2850mAh battery, the handset weighs in at 145g.
Within the box is a complimentary clear plastic case to go with a pre-installed screen protector, which is a whole lot more than a lot of the other OEMs do. While the case doesn’t add any serious protection, it does ward off the kind of everyday scratches and dents from keys and the like.
Seeing as the R9 is known in other markets as the F1 Plus, it’s only natural it’d have a larger display the 5-inch F1 that released locally earlier this year. Here we have a 5.5-inch AMOLED FullHD display, producing a pixel density that’s a smidgen over the 400ppi mark.
Colours are rich but not overbearing in saturation, while viewing angles are pretty good. Sunlight legibility is ok, as is maximum brightness, but it’s nothing spectacular for an AMOLED panel, or even compared to OPPO’s recent R7s.
The R9 has deceptively thin side bezels and it’s an effect which plays well to the handset’s sleek guise, but switch the display on and like a number of other OPPO handsets, you have a thin black border around the display itself which is noticeable, but not something your eyes will be regularly distracted by.
THE SOUND AND CALL QUALITY
The OPPO R9 must make do with a single mono speaker on its bottom edge, and volume output on the whole is not bad, but it’s not quite as loud as previous offerings we’ve seen on OPPO’s handsets. At higher ends, distortion makes its presence known, and audio becomes rather tinny. On the whole, there’s a real lack of bass, but that’s nothing out of the norm for smartphones without stereo sound.
Calls are managed well through the R9’s earpiece, and at no point did we have or receive any complaints during our test calls in varying noise conditions.
ColorOS — OPPO’s Android overlay — has undergone some drastic changes in its v3.0.0i incarnation, and it’s not going to please everybody. Running Android 5.1 under all its layers, ColorOS represents a shift from what was previously a skin that featured some aspects of iOS in its interface, to one that is not even trying to hide where its inspiration is drawn from. ColorOS 3.0 is a hodge podge of iOS and Xiaomi’s MIUI skin, and that will have its pull, as Apple and Xiaomi both seem to be doing well for themselves — and so is OPPO — but whether it’ll win over the likes of Android purists remains to be seen. OPPO would do well by its community to release their Project Spectrum vanilla Android ROM for the R9 as it has for the R7 to date, as well as the Find 7, and R5 series.
Squared icons with rounded edges and vibrant hues, clean white interfaces, animations, a settings menu incorporating settings for proprietary apps, instead of within the apps themselves, it’s all there. There’s even slide to power off. When you think you can try and change things up by way of a stock Android theme from OPPO’s Theme Store, you can’t even find one, and so your small, unthemed icons mismatch, and things just end up looking silly. There’s a lot I personally don’t like about the visual appearance of ColorOS 3.0. With previous iterations, I had hoped OPPO wouldn’t take it to that next level, and they went ahead and did.
Fortunately many useful features remain, like Eye Protection mode, which filters out blue from the display so your eyes aren’t damaged once the sun goes down, but it remains an option that must be manually toggled, while I’d prefer it were automatic, like f.lux for PC. Gesture and motion-based controls feature too, with screen-off gestures including double-tap to wake, and the option to configure a range of shapes and swipes to launch apps, or control music. There’s also smart call controls, to answer calls when the handset is held to your ear, flip to mute calls and more. On-screen gestures include gesture screenshots or one-handed operation by way of a diagonal swipe in from a bottom corner to run the display in a smaller window.
In the process of enhancing the visuals, there are a number of bugs that remain from previous iterations of ColorOS, and new ones that have popped up. Firstly, the handset still won’t leave Bluetooth open detection disabled to keep the presence of the R9 hidden from others searching for a signal. Pairing and maintaining a connection with my Pebble smartwatch again proved a issue, as it has frequently in the past with OPPO handsets. The recent tasks panel occasionally pulls up the incorrect task running beside the one selected, while the notifications pane is not sensitive enough to touch, making swiping away tasks or opening them a hassle at the best of times, though this isn’t always the case.
Software updates are something to look forward to at least, even if they’re mostly only bug fix and security patch updates, because any support is better than none at all, even if the prospect of the R9 ever receiving a ColorOS build based on Android N let alone Marshmallow isn’t certain.
Registering a fingerprint is a straightforward process, and takes about 15-20 presses to complete. As with most handsets, the OPPO R9 can store up to five fingerprints.
THE PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE
Although the fingerprint reader may not be an always-on touch scanner, the reader itself is extremely snappy and possibly the fastest we’ve experienced on a smartphone to date. Requiring the home button to be pressed, OPPO claims a 0.2 second response to unlock straight to the homescreen, and in use it’s effective a majority of the time — provided your fingers aren’t clammy.
OPPO R9 is rather different from the F1 and R7 series, in that it’s dumped a Qualcomm chip for a MediaTek Helio P10 octa-core chip — specifically MT655 — comprising eight Cortex A53 cores clocked at 2.0GHz, with 4GB RAM to juggle every task in its path. Interestingly where the OPPO R7s felt sluggish at times with its Snapdragon 615 and 4GB RAM, the R9 maintained its composure more often whilst performing general tasks and running laps around ColorOS’ skin.
Gaming performance isn’t bad, but its Mali graphics doesn’t quite match the Adreno graphics of mid-range Snapdragons, making it slower to render objects, and prone to greater frame drops with titles like Minecraft: Pocket Edition, Carmageddon and Riptide GP2.
As far as battery life, while on the surface the R9 has a paltry 2850mAh battery to power a 5.5-inch 1080p display, the handset managed to surprise with how well it held up each day. Using the display does chew through the battery a fair bit, but on days mostly over 4G I was typically able to get a good 12-17 hours out of a single charge, with screen-on time ranging 1.5-3 hours, depending on what apps were being used and tasks running in the background. Days where WiFi was predominantly used saw standby span a good 15-22 hours, while screen-on time ran 2-3.5 hours or more, again depending on use. Speaking of, my daily use typically consisted of web and social media browsing, streaming music for a few hours, watching a couple of YouTube vids, texting a few folks and making/receiving a couple of calls; so your mileage may vary a fair bit.
In something of an oddity for a smartphone, the OPPO R9 is equipped with a 13MP camera with f/2.2 aperture, smaller and lower-res than that of its front 16MP f/2.0 shooter. With a tagline “Selfie Expert”, we’re expecting great things from the front camera, but what of the main?
Regardless of which camera you happen to be using, there’s OPPO’s ColorOS camera UI, which in its latest iteration is simpler than ever and as expected, closer to iOS’ own camera interface. Swiping on the viewfinder will switch between a number of shooting modes, though additional ones — including the handy manual shooting Expert Mode or Ultra HD mode — can be accessed to the right of the shutter key when held in portrait. Access to flash, HDR toggles, additional settings and switching the camera are found on the opposite side of the display.
Image quality out of the primary camera is not bad. Shots come out with a good amount of detail, colours are on point most of the time — if a little washed out depending on lighting — and exposure and range is handled well in most conditions, largely eliminating the need for HDR and allowing the handset to be used as a fast point and shoot camera.
HDR if anything is used only to correct shots where highlights are blown out more than is true to scene, but even then its results aren’t all that improved over shots without it.
Indoor and low-light shooting is where things start to fall apart, but it’s all highly dependant on how much light is available. Noise and loss of detail will make its way into most shots, but colours still fare pretty well, and in areas where white balance is off, there’s an opportunity for Expert mode to be put to good use.
The front camera doesn’t entirely live up to OPPO’s own marketing hype. Sure, images are fairly detailed and colours are accurate for the most part, but it just isn’t as impressive on the whole as the seemingly “lesser” main camera, and it’s prone to light blowouts in its efforts to take in as much light as possible.
OPPO have once again managed to impress us with the R9’s design and build quality. There’s no denying the OPPO R9 is a real thing of beauty for its $599 price, even if its fundamental design isn’t all that original.
Just about everything is an upgrade over the R7 series, and in all the handset handles itself more fluidly than the still recent R7s.
Software remains a point of contention, but OPPO are at least devoted to providing the best possible experience by way of bug fixes and security patches, even if the overall user experience won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Moreover, if OPPO confirm their Project Spectrum AOSP-based ROM, there’ll be a seriously good reason for Android purists to be interested in the R9.
The cameras are both quite good for the price, but they’re not going to be leaving high-end flagships shaking in their boots. Something that will is the fingerprint reader, which is just miles ahead of certain competitors for speed and reliability.