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Commentary Phones

The OnePlus 6 could have been nearly perfect if only...

Too bad "perfection" often comes at a price.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Best-value phone for price! Undercuts the premium models! OnePlus once again made magic with the OnePlus 6, a phone whose performance-for-value was good enough to snag a rare CNET Editors' Choice Award.

Here's the thing, though. The power of OnePlus, a Chinese brand out of Shenzhen, isn't that it's crested the pinnacle of mobile design and performance. It's that the hardware and overall experience of using the handset is the best deal you can buy for features that many people want.

There are objectively "better" phones than the OnePlus 6: devices with longer battery life, more features and cutting edge technology. Where the iPhone X has secure Face ID, the OnePlus 6 has a convenient -- but not secure -- face unlock feature. Where other phones with glass backs support wireless charging, the OnePlus 6 will power up through the cable alone. And while you can completely submerge top devices from Samsung, LG, Huawei and Apple in water, the OnePlus 6 is merely splash-proof.

We strongly recommend the OnePlus 6 as an elusive Goldilocks phone, that's no question. It has a good camera with portrait mode, the fastest processor, up-to-date Android and a beautiful design. But there are ways that the OnePlus 6 could be a better phone. Whether OnePlus could afford to keep its pedigree as a lower-cost Android brand is a different question entirely.

Read: How to buy the OnePlus 6

Longer battery life

A battery life of 15 and a half hours is a pretty good score in CNET's phone tests, where we loop video in airplane mode until every last bit of power dries up. The OnePlus 6 lasts longer than the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL. So what's the problem?

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It's that the OnePlus 6, poops out about an hour and a half sooner than last November's OnePlus 5T, which has a battery with the exact same capacity as the OnePlus 6: 3,300mAh. What gives?

When an hour and a half can make all the difference between having connection or not when you're out late, this battery backsliding is a big deal.

Better selfies, please

Portrait mode on the OnePlus 6 is great. You know what isn't? Portrait selfies, because, unlike most marquee phones, that particular feature doesn't quite exist yet for this device.

Well, I'm convinced. (Click to enlarge.)

Patrick Holland/CNET

OnePlus promises we'll get the feature, but later, and that's never a good look. Arriving late with promised features doesn't just string buyers along; it casts doubt over the feature's quality.

We're not just saying that to be provocative. Selfie photos from the OnePlus 6's 16-megapixel front-facing camera didn't look as crisp or well-balanced as on phones like the Google Pixel 2 XL, for example. And the phone weirdly crops selfie videos to cut your head from frame.

Selfies are such a major part of the way people interact with phones, it's crucial to get this right.

 "We worked to optimize the camera to render scenes as accurately as possible and produce results that are natural," OnePlus told CNET in an email. "We didn't apply prescriptive edits that users can't undo or that reduce the integrity of the image file."

Expandable storage

The OnePlus 6 has great storage options... in theory: 64GB, 128GB and 256GB. But popping in your own microSD card is usually cheaper than buying the next model up, if you can even find it in your country.

Here's what OnePlus said when I asked: "Most users have been happy with the storage capacity and options we offer and we also felt a potentially slower user experience didn't warrant the addition."

Wireless charging

Where there's glass on the back of a phone, there's potential for wireless charging. With Samsung, Apple and LG behind the charging technology, OnePlus has the opportunity to be the first phone at its price to embrace wireless charging.

samsung-galaxy-s9-2400-6160

Imagine if you could charge the OnePlus 6 this way.

Josh Miller/CNET

So why didn't that happen? My guess is that wireless charging would further drive up the price, and that's a delicate balance OnePlus will want to keep. My other guess is that with two competing wireless charging protocols melding into one, wireless charging technology will become both faster and more convenient, eventually spreading to more devices.

"We will consider wireless charging in the future as the technology improves and are confident the current recharge experience of the OnePlus 6 is one of the best on the market," OnePlus said. 

Read: Wireless charging is meh, but it's going to get way better

Support Verizon and other CDMA carriers, already

This isn't about Verizon. It's about the OnePlus 6's lack of support for CDMA, the network technology that powers major networks like Verizon and Sprint in the US, but also networks in markets like China and South Korea.

OnePlus' phones (and many others) solely support rival network technology GSM, and CDMA tech is being rapidly discontinued or phasing out.

It'd be tempting to say that OnePlus is justifiably cutting costs by dodging support for Verizon and other CDMA networks.

The Moto G6 works will both major network technologies.

César Salza/CNET

But, there's one sticking point. Motorola makes dirt cheap phones like the Moto G6, which support both types of networks, so we know this is possible without making prices soar. With a phone this good, the decision to exclude almost half of the US, the world's second largest mobile market, feels short-sighted.

To be fair, OnePlus also hasn't built a phone for a carrier like Verizon, which means that it hasn't laid the groundwork for certifying phones for both technologies, unlike Motorola.

"While we want our phones to be available for as many people as possible, the requirements for full CDMA connectivity on US networks does not make sense for us at this time," OnePlus told me.

Stop bumping up the price

Top phones are getting more expensive each year, and OnePlus is taking the strategy to remain in lock step. Relatively, the OnePlus 6 is still a terrific deal, at almost 50 percent cheaper than the iPhone X. A great phone for "half off" is hard to resist.

Now consider this. The OnePlus One launched in 2014 for $300, £229 and AU$529, while the current OnePlus model starts at $529 and £469 (roughly AU$700 converted). Yes, it packs in more and better features than older models, but so does the Moto G of the season which remains a knockout $250 (converts to £175 and AU$320).

The top phones of the world are so expensive because they often fold in expensive, cutting-edge parts, like the iPhone's 3D camera for Face ID and the Galaxy Note's digital stylus. Companies also have to make up for what they spend on R&D for those far-out features, and ballooning marketing budgets to battle rivals over the airwaves and in print.

OnePlus, however, keeps the hardware fairly simple and relies on word of mouth marketing, which helps keep costs low. 

"The rise in price is a reflection of the increase in quality and components and we believe we still offer the industry's best product at this price or even above," the company said.

However, I think OnePlus should quit while it's ahead and hold prices steady from here on out before it loses that pretty-low-cost advantage the company's worked so successfully to build.

If OnePlus could fold in all -- or almost all -- of the features above while maintaining its current quality and price level, its lists of downsides would shrink to next to nothing.

Editors' note: Article was originally published May 27 at 4 a.m. PT and updated May 29 at 10:51 a.m. PT with OnePlus' comments.

Read: Everything we loved about the OnePlus 6

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