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OnePlus 7 Pro bets on pop-up camera, notch-free display to justify premium price

OnePlus drew fans for its affordable flagship phones. What happens when they're not so affordable anymore?

Angela Lang/CNET

I pick up the new OnePlus 7 Pro and immediately notice something different about the device. The front of the 6.7-inch phone is all screen. No notches. No camera lenses. Nothing. Just a seemingly endless stretch of glass.

But how do I take a selfie?

I fire up the camera app and press the selfie button. All of a sudden -- 0.53 second, to be precise -- a silver rectangular box containing the front-facing camera lenses pops up from the top of the phone, almost like a turtle peeking outside its shell. As soon as I snap my photo and toggle away from selfie mode, the camera descends back into its casing, almost as if it never existed.

That's the OnePlus 7 Pro's front-facing, pop-up camera -- its marquee feature and a first for a phone launching in the US. Though that in itself makes the 7 Pro unique among the sea of smartphones in the market, OnePlus would have you focus on that big, unobscured screen instead.

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"By doing a run of tests, we found out that the immersive, full-screen experience is more important [than the front-facing camera]," Vito Liu, OnePlus product manager, said via an interpreter at the company's launch event Tuesday in New York. "You're always looking at a screen when using a cellphone ... so we put that as the top priority."

At a time when Apple and Samsung are racing to jam more bells and whistles into their thousand dollar-plus smartphones, it's notable that OnePlus, known for making affordable phones with high-end specs, managed to pack a full, notchless display into its flagship device. Apple kicked off the notch trend with its iPhone X, while Samsung introduced the "hole punch" with the Galaxy S10, and Huawei offers the "teardrop" of the P30 Pro.

But in the US, OnePlus got to the full screen first.

OnePlus, like other Chinese handset vendors, has tried to stand apart from giants like Apple and Samsung by offering premium features for lower prices. It's succeeded where many of them have failed, thanks to its adoring fan base. It's steadily built its own cult following by selling directly to customers online, often through pop-up shops and "flash sales" where the product sells out quickly.

But the 7 Pro isn't cheap. If you want its camera and screen innovations, you'll have to pay $669 -- that is, $120 more than its flagship from October, the OnePlus 6T. It marks a seismic shift from the company focusing on affordable premium to focusing on, well, just the premium part. In line with Apple and Samsung, OnePlus has steadily raised the price of its phones.

"If you're looking to OnePlus as a bargain phone, then maybe OnePlus has left you behind," said Avi Greengart, an analyst with Techsponential. "But in terms of what OnePlus is offering versus the competition, it still offers a significant discount. This type of phone would be over $1,000 at Samsung."

Camera trendsetter?

OnePlus is taking a risk by adding a pop-up camera, which could turn off less adventurous consumers.

But look overseas, and you'll realize the 7 Pro is just part of a bigger trend.

There are now several models with cameras that pop up or slide out of the body. The Samsung Galaxy A80 has three cameras that swivel to take photos in either direction, while Oppo and Vivo, two Chinese hardest makers with some of the same investors as OnePlus, offer devices with pop-up cameras.

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The OnePlus 7 Pro has a pop-up, front-facing camera and three rear camera lenses.

Angela Lang/CNET

They're not likely to be alone. At the Google I/O developer conference last week, Google said it's including tools in Android Q that will help the upcoming mobile operating system work with pop-up cameras.

"There'll be many interesting different form factors in the way people innovate with the front-facing sensors," Sameer Samat, Google's vice president of product management for Android and Play, told CNET at I/O. "We're starting to see this form factor come to life."

In the case of OnePlus, its front-facing, pop-up camera is a 16MP shooter. Along with taking photos, it also can be used for OnePlus' facial unlock. Activating the feature takes 0.65 second (versus 0.53 second for snapping a selfie) as it pops up and goes back down almost immediately.

OnePlus started looking at including a pop-up camera in its phone lineup over a year ago, Zhang said. It ran tests, created hundreds of prototype 7 Pro devices and talked to users before ultimately deciding to run with a pop-up camera instead of a hole punch or other kind of notch.  

The initial versions of camera that OnePlus tested didn't have a strong enough motor to make popping up the camera a smooth process. Instead, the camera module shook, and the smaller motor caused the module to tilt a bit instead of being vertically aligned with the phone. OnePlus ultimately had to use a stronger motor to boost speed and durability, and it redesigned the module's structure to make it larger and more stable.

"The pop-up camera changed the whole structure of the cellphone," Zake Zhang, product manager for the OnePlus 7 Pro, said in an interview at the device's launch. "It takes more space, but I think it's something we have to do."

OnePlus also added a silicon ring at the hole for the pop-up camera to protect the device from dust and water. OnePlus' camera isn't rated for dust or water resistance, though.

The company has looked at technology to put camera lenses behind the device's glass screen, removing the need for a notch, but the display's layers get in the way of shooting a clear photo, Zhang said.

Stress testing

A pop-up camera may be an interesting first in the US, but consumers will inevitably have questions about durability.

"That can be a wow factor, as in we've never seen it before in the US," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "Or it can be a risk factor -- am I going to snap it off?"

OnePlus says it's done extensive durability testing on the 7 Pro, activating the pop-up camera more than 300,000 times -- the equivalent of the camera opening up 150 times a day for about five and a half years.

During its event, OnePlus showed a video of a 49.2-pound cement block being lifted into the air. The mechanism supporting the block was the 7 Pro's open camera module.

The company conducted specialized tests for the camera, as well. It threw the device, with the camera popped up, into a barrel 150 times and and rolled each 75 times at 356-degree turns. And OnePlus threw the camera into a box full of dust and let the wind blow as it opened and closed the camera 300,000 times. 

"There were no issues with it coming up and closing," Zhang said.

If you drop the phone, the device's accelerometer, gyroscope and sensors detect the motion and cause the OnePlus 7 Pro to automatically retract the camera module. The technology tells the motor to close the camera even faster than it opens, Liu said. (It's 0.5 second.)

Though you're not supposed to push the camera module down to close it (the phone even flashes a warning), doing so won't actually destroy your phone. What it does is wear down the motor, giving your camera and phone a shorter life. But in tests, the camera could be pushed down about 300,000 times -- the same figure the company touted for closing the camera with a button.

"If you do it all of the time, it definitely affects the lifetime for the motor," Zhang said.

Immersive display 

OnePlus included a pop-up camera in the 7 Pro for one simple reason: to make its screen even more immersive. CNET reviewer Lynn La called the display "razor sharp" and said that "because the front-facing camera sits on the top edge ... and the left and right sides of the display spill to the edges (à la recent Samsung Galaxy phones), the viewing experience feels more immersive in a way."

The OnePlus 7 Pro's AMOLED display is 6.67 inches with a 90Hz refresh rate, which makes for smoother scrolling through feeds like Twitter's. In comparison, most phones have a refresh rate of 60 frames per second (as in, the display refreshes 60 times in one second).

"If you use your phone all day and are scrolling, or if there are animations, the improvement is real," Greengart said.

OnePlus' goal with the display was to make viewing video, animation and other moving images better than on other devices.

"For the screen, normally [handset makers] just use a higher resolution and better color accuracy," Liu said. "We think the screen is more than images ... We need to shift the focus from still images to moving pictures to provide a better user experience."