REVIEW: Oppo R9s is a tumultuous mix of gorgeous looks and flawed personality

Oppo R9s smartphone. (Source: supplied)

Last year I rated the Oppo R9 the worst phone I’d ever used. To the Chinese brand’s credit, it returned with the 2017 model, the R9s, for me to try, saying it had improved in leaps and bounds.

I would have to agree. A lot of the grievances with basic software functionality in the R9 have indeed been fixed. And at $599 outright for near-premium specs, dual-SIM capability and an absolutely beautiful design, on face value you can’t complain about the price.

But could I recommend it? The remaining flaws, especially in the software, still makes the handset a difficult value proposition, even at that very competitive price.

An alluring body

Oppo R9s, at 6.58mm, is very thin. (Source: supplied)

The R9s is physically attractive. Sure, it’s obviously modelled after the modern iPhone, but the light weight and the very thin dimensions inspired out of that design competes favourably against phones that are far more expensive. The 6.58mm thickness compares to 8.0mm for the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and 7.1mm for the iPhone 7.

So despite the sizeable 5.5-inch screen, it feels satisfyingly nice and feather-light in the hand. The AMOLED screen looks terrific, possibly better to the naked eye than its 1920×1080 401ppi specification suggests.

One possible criticism is that the body is very plastic, but at a mid-range $599 price point I think that might be too harsh. Higher quality glass and metal phones are mostly nudging or exceeding the $1000 mark, so can’t really be considered as direct competitors with the R9s.

Excellent battery life

It wasn’t that long ago that most workplaces saw the “3pm shuffle” each day, when anxious office workers scrambled to find spare iPhone chargers mid-afternoon to keep their devices going until they got home. Fortunately, Android smartphones across most brands have led the way in improving battery endurance in the past couple of years — and the R9s is a prime example.

The R9s, remarkably, is a mid-price phone that more than once left me with in excess of 80% of battery life at 11pm after a full work day of use. This is pretty incredible, and may be attributed to its ColorOS operating system. Oppo has heavily customised the Android-based environment, and I suspect much work has gone into optimising power use for its own hardware.

Unfortunately, that’s where the benefits of ColorOS end. More on that later.

Life passes by while you hold the camera

The camera is serviceable, although the biggest issue might be that there is a noticeable lag between pressing “shoot” and the phone actually snapping the picture. This was a problem both in daylight and in low light when the exposure needs to be that much longer — I actually found myself holding the camera still for several seconds, just to ensure a decent pic. Not good in 2017. (Editor’s note: we reduced the file sizes for faster uploading for our readers.)

Indoor shot on Oppo R9s . (Image: Tony Yoo)
Outdoor shot on Oppo R9s . (Image: Tony Yoo)
Indoor shot on Oppo R9s. (Image: Tony Yoo)

Not only is it an inconvenience to hold the device steady for an extended period of time, isn’t the whole point of a camera in a phone that you can quickly get it out and snap for those spontaneous moments in life? You might miss some of those great shots waiting for the R9s to kick into action.

When the picture is taken successfully with a patient hand, the results are good. The sharpness and daylight pics are both above average for a mid-range phone. But again, there is no getting around the painful shutter delay.

Outdoor shot on Oppo R9s. (Image: Tony Yoo)
Indoor shot on Oppo R9s. (Image: Tony Yoo)
Outdoor shot on Oppo R9s. (Image: Tony Yoo)

Software and performance

ColorOS is an Android 6.0 variant so deeply customised by Oppo for running optimally on its hardware that it can’t be considered a skin, but a separate operating system all together – a bit like Mac OSX compared to Unix. In last year’s R9, this deviation was my biggest beef, with very simple functions taken for granted on Android either missing in ColorOS or simply not working.

And I’m afraid ColorOS is again where this year’s R9s lets itself down badly. There are some basic things that are so incredibly annoying that you can’t help but think “Why can’t Oppo just use Android” as you audibly curse at the handset.

Critically, some Android apps just do not work on ColorOS. A first-hand example for me was the Qantas Entertainment app, which the airline uses for in-flight entertainment on domestic journeys. After failing to play videos on the first flight and blaming the Qantas system, I found on the second flight that ColorOS that was the one stopping the app from working properly. Switching over to a proper Android phone on the same flight saw the Qantas Entertainment software run without any issue.

In some situations, the app itself runs okay but notifications fail to appear on ColorOS, which was a problem also found in the R9 last year. Popular task management tool RememberTheMilk was an observed example of this on the R9s.

Other software flaws include no “hide sensitive” option for lockscreen notification privacy, swiping down from the homescreen always goes to phone settings rather than to the notifications window, the clock in the notification bar disappearing in “do not disturb” mode, and a lack of “instant action” support in notifications (e.g. archive action for Gmail). And those are just the ones Business Insider picked up.

And ColorOS again has no app drawer this year. For me, an app drawer is a quintessential Android experience that distinguishes it from the messy iPhone homescreen. ColorOS negates this advantage, perhaps to appeal to wannabe Apple owners.

Verdict

The Oppo R9s has the specs to compete with high-end phones but is sold at a mid-range price. But both the software and camera have deep flaws that may frustrate the heavy user. Go for it if the $599 price tag satisfies you, but head into the experience mindful of the annoyances and that there are alternatives.

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