The 20-40k price segment in the Indian smartphone market used to be a barren wasteland not too long ago. You either spent under 20k and get a decent budget smartphone or just blow all your load on a fancy Galaxy S or the iPhone. The few phones that existed in this price range did nothing to justify their existence.
But that’s not the case anymore. Ever since OnePlus came into existence, this space has always had a worthwhile contender. Well, to be fair, the OnePlus One and 2 weren’t that good but with the launch of the 3 and subsequently, the 3T, you never really had to look anywhere else if you had a budget somewhere between the Xiaomis and the iPhones.
But today, we have all sorts of phones from multiple manufacturers being launched in this segment, after they all came to this shocking conclusion that people like having flagship features without spending flagship money.
Today I’ll be talking about four such phones, the OnePlus 6, the Asus ZenFone 5Z, the Huawei Nova 3, and the Poco F1.
I’ll just get this out of the way first as it puts everything else in context and makes it easier.
Despite being somewhat in the same price bracket, there is a fair amount of difference in pricing between the four phones.
The OnePlus 6 is the most expensive, which feels like a weird thing to say about a OnePlus phone. Rather, it can be the most expensive. Although the base model starts at 35k, the 128GB model costs 40k and the Avengers edition goes all the way up to 44k.
The Huawei Nova 3 only has one variant and it costs 35k, same as the OnePlus 6 starting mode except the Nova 3 has twice the storage at 128GB.
The Asus ZenFone 5Z is next, with three variants that start at 30k for the base 64GB variant, 33k for 128GB and 37k for 256GB.
But when it comes to sheer value and cutthroat pricing, nothing beats the Poco F1. The base model starts at 21k for 64GB, with 128GB coming in at 24k and the 256GB variant at 29k. The most expensive variant is still cheaper than the cheapest ZenFone 5Z, which is crazy because of how well ZenFone 5Z itself is priced.
Of course, the price doesn’t tell the complete story but it’s important to keep that in mind going forward.
In terms of pure aesthetic appeal, my personal favorite here is the OnePlus 6. It’s a really well-designed phone that looks lovely from every angle. I like that there are two finishes, a more matte, frosted glass finish on two of the colors and glossy, mirror finish on the remaining three. The front has the smallest bezels of the bunch and although all the phones have a notch here, the OnePlus 6 has the smallest.
The Nova 3 is a close second. The Iris Purple color looks stunning and it’s generally a very attractive design, marred only by the giant notch on the front. I’ve always liked Huawei designs and the current generation designs are especially fetching. I also like what they are doing with color and makes their devices stand out from the crowd.
The ZenFone 5Z is the smallest here with a shorter, squarer body. It, too, looks quite good with a very understated but elegant design and some nice flair at the back with the spun metal finish underneath the glass that catches the light and creates spinning wheel patterns.
The Poco F1 distinctly looks like it belongs a class or two below the others. It’s not just that the back is plastic but that there is very little design to speak of. It doesn’t look bad but the design is more functional than attractive and there’s nothing about it that stands out visually.
In terms of build quality, there is not much to separate the three glass phones and they roughly feel identical in hand, with the Asus being noticeably lighter (which I like). They all feel as premium as they look but being glass there’s only so much you can push your luck with it. I’ve already broken one OnePlus 6 unit, which shattered its back glass from a two feet drop. Luckily, all four phones here come with a clear silicone case in the box.
The Poco F1 doesn’t feel bad in hand but its 180g weight, the highest in this bunch, is extremely obvious. It feels more like a weapon in hand and instead of calling the emergency number you could just throw the phone at your attacker. The soft matte plastic on the Armoured Edition also attracts smudges and looks filthy within seconds of using the phone.
I should also mention that while none of these phones have an ingress protection rating, the OnePlus 6 is the only one that claims to be splash resistant, making it the least likely to be affected by water damage.
The OnePlus 6 has the best display of the bunch. It’s the only AMOLED here, which gives it an advantage in terms of contrast ratio and reproducing perfect blacks. It also comes with properly calibrated color profiles. There’s not much to complain about it. It’s damn near perfect.
The Nova 3 also has a good display but it takes more work to get there and you have to mess with the color dial in the settings to get close to an accurate white point. The color accuracy in the Normal mode was good, however.
The ZenFone 5Z also has a very good display but as with the Nova 3, some work has to be put in. However, once you fiddle with the settings, you can get a fairly accurate looking display.
I kinda expected Xiaomi to half-ass the Poco F1 display to save cost but it’s actually really good. Color accuracy in the Standard mode is spot on and the display is genuinely very good.
As someone who likes Android to look and feel as pure as possible, OxygenOS on the OnePlus 6 is my pick here. In reality, it’s drastically different from stock Android in many ways, but it still honors the original design and feels like an artist paying homage to the original rather than choosing to redesign everything or just rip-off iOS. It’s clean, it’s fast, it has just the right balance of features and overall it just feels great to use whether you are a light or heavy user.
EMUI on the Nova 3 is alright. There are things about it that irk me but by and large, it is quite usable. It could still look better; it’s not as bad as it used to and the iOS influence is slowly fading away but I wish they would align themselves with the Material Design direction and clean up some of the UI cruft.
ZenUI on the Asus, too, has its quirks. It’s packed with an incredible number of features, some of which are useful, others just there for the sake of it. It used to be worse in the past and Asus seems to be slowly improving but there still needs to be more self-control regarding picking of features for the final product. The good thing is, it’s all optional so you can just choose to leave it off if you don’t need it. If you spend some time adjusting everything to your liking, the software experience is passable.
The F1 still runs the same version of MIUI as every other Xiaomi phone, just with a different launcher. MIUI 9, by and large, is still annoying. The sheer number of deviations Xiaomi does from the way Google does things almost feels like the developers have contempt for the way the original OS is designed. What irks me the most is that they often remove features that are present in the underlying version of Android in its stock form. There is no proper support for DPI scaling the way Google has implemented. The share sheet is god awful and far worse than what Android has by default since fucking Marshmallow. There is also no support for Notification Channel feature that debuted in Nougat.
On top of that, there are the usual MIUI issues. Notifications are still terrible; you still have to manually enable things like lock screen notifications and wake display for notifications on a per-app basis every time you install a new app. The icons are hot garbage and Xiaomi insists on shoving its terrible design language on other app icons. The notch settings aren’t as elaborate and don’t work as well as they do on the other three phones. The multitasking screen is a usability nightmare. The phone is littered with Xiaomi’s bloatware apps, most of which cannot be uninstalled and spam you with notifications and sometimes even ads. The volume of connected Bluetooth audio accessories doesn’t sync with the phone’s volume. On the Poco F1, the status bar shows absolutely no notification icons and relies on you pulling it down to know if you have any notifications. It’s honestly a huge mess and in many ways, the other three do a significantly better job of designing software than Xiaomi.
Because three out of four of these phones have the exact same hardware, there’s not much to choose from in terms of performance. Those are the OnePlus 6, ZenFone 5Z and the Poco F1. All three are stupidly fast and are a genuine pleasure to use.
That leaves the Nova 3, which is using a rather dated processor at this point. It’s not that it’s slow but it’s not especially quick either and normally I’d let it pass but in this company that’s very noticeable. Part of me also feels applications just don’t work as well with the Kirin processors as they do with Snapdragons so even though the phone isn’t lacking in outright grunt it feels slower due to the lack of software optimization.
I know it’s sounding like favoritism at this point and I’m only going to make it worse with this one. But, it has to be said. The OnePlus 6 has the best camera of the bunch.
Now, I’ll be honest. OnePlus previously never had the best camera of any bunch, even if the bunch were to include low-end phones and one phone without any camera. But they have truly redeemed themselves with the OnePlus 6 because this thing takes some seriously good photos. You could put the daylight images out of the OnePlus 6 next to the Galaxy S9 or the iPhone X and you’d be hard-pressed to pick a clear winner. Lowlight isn’t fantastic but is respectable. Video looks great, too. Overall, a very solid camera.
Nova 3 camera is a mixed bag. The main problem with it is the same as with any Huawei camera, and that is the image processing. The images just tend to look over-processed, with aggressive tone mapping, saturation and contrast levels. And this is without the AI mode, which just makes everything look cartoonish. The best thing about the camera is the secondary monochrome sensor, which produces fantastic looking images. Unfortunately, being monochrome, it’s not the most practical option and outside of a few situations, rarely gets any use.
The ZenFone 5Z primary camera is disappointing. If the Huawei wasn’t here, this would be the worst. In fact, the Huawei tones itself down at times and produces a decent image but the Asus is consistently mediocre. What saves the camera is the wide-angle secondary lens, which gives a fantastic perspective. The quality on that camera is even worse but the ultra-wide field of view makes me want to overlook that.
As with the display, I expected the Poco F1 camera to be some bargain basement unit. To my surprise, it’s actually very good. A lot of the outdoor images came out looking really good and although the OnePlus 6 is always better, I don’t mind looking at the Poco F1 images at all. Lowlight images are weak but not considerably behind the others.
You can find all the full resolution images here.
In terms of capacity, the ZenFone 5Z and the OnePlus 6 have identical 3300mAh. The Nova 3 has 3750mAh and the Poco F1 has the largest fuel tank at 4000mAh.
Battery life on the OnePlus 6 is not very good at all. To me, it doesn’t feel like I could go an entire day on a single charge. What sucks the most is that they clearly sacrificed battery capacity to make the phone thinner, which is just obnoxious. I don’t think even one person would say I want a thinner phone at the cost of battery life, yet phone companies tend to do the opposite.
The ZenFone 5Z battery life is a bit better and was less cause for concern for me when I was using the phone.
The Nova 3 battery life was good and you can definitely go an entire day on this phone.
The Poco F1 was the clear winner here. You can easily get through a regular day with this phone and still have power left to spare.
While the OnePlus 6 does have the worst battery life here, it has the fastest charging. OnePlus DASH charging is an absolute benchmark and nothing else comes close. It’s a shame you need to use the proprietary charger and cable and there are no power banks with DASH charging. The fast charging solution used by Huawei is also decent, if not the fastest. Lastly, the Asus and Poco use Qualcomm Quick Charge, which is kinda slow, especially on the Poco with its large battery. Good thing is, there are a lot of power banks that come with Quick Charge so you can top up relatively quickly on the go.
None of the four phones have particularly good loudspeakers. The OnePlus 6 had a terrible sounding speaker at launch but they tweaked the sound later and now it doesn’t sound as bad but it’s still not good. The Nova 3 is the only other phone with a single speaker at the bottom and the sound is okay. The ZenFone 5Z has two speakers, one at the bottom and one in the earpiece. The sound overall is decent but the speakers sound imbalanced due to how different they sound and the whole thing sounds a bit off. The Poco F1 technically has stereo speakers but there is a reason you won’t see it mentioned on the spec page. Like the ZenFone 5Z, it uses the earpiece as the second speaker but it’s so quiet it’s barely audible and 99% of the audio you hear is coming from the speaker on the bottom (which sounds decent).
All four phones have fingerprint sensors. They are all pretty much instantaneous but the one on the OnePlus 6 misreads all the time and keeps angrily buzzing at you for its own fault. I’m not sure why it’s so shit and why they can’t improve it but none of the other phones have this problem.
All four phones also have face unlock. The Nova 3 and Poco F1 have infrared sensors that work even in complete darkness. The OnePlus 6 just makes its display really bright to light up your face, which sounds clever except the light is blindingly bright at night and because the screen turns pure white you also can’t see anything on it until the phone unlocks. However, in normal lighting, it’s the OnePlus 6 that’s consistently the fastest to unlock.
All the phones have a headphone jack, which is nice, but the Poco F1 has it on top, which I vehemently dislike especially when using headphones with thick cables and thicker plugs.
The ZenFone 5Z is the only phone here to come with a pair of earphones in the package. They sound decent and should be sufficient for most people.
OnePlus 6 is the only one with a slider to quickly change audio profile, which I always miss on other Android phones. However, it still splits the power and volume buttons on either side of the phone, which I’ve never been a fan of.
The Poco F1 has no NFC. I’ve never found much use for it so I personally don’t miss it.
None of these phones have USB 3.1 and instead rely on the older USB 2.0 standard. Considering the amount of storage they all are capable of having, it sucks that you have to rely on the thoroughly outdated transfer speeds of USB 2.0 to copy large amounts of data.
If you read the whole thing, it will be obvious which one I’d pick and yes, it’s the OnePlus 6. It’s the most expensive of the bunch but it also fully justifies its cost. It has the best design, the best display, the best camera, and the best software experience. The battery life isn’t the best but it charges the quickest. If you can afford it, the OnePlus 6 is easily the best phone you can buy in this segment.
My second choice would be the one from the opposite end of the price spectrum, the Poco F1. The F1 is actually better than the remaining two and that it’s priced the lowest is just a cherry on top. I expected significant drawbacks in terms of hardware considering the price point but I didn’t see many. The biggest drawback for me continues to be MIUI. The current version is bad but we are now on the cusp of MIUI 10 launch and there is small hope that things could get better.
However, actually getting your hands on the Poco F1 might be an issue, as is usually the case with Xiaomi phones. This is where the Asus ZenFone 5Z comes in. I was honestly surprised by this phone; I had very few expectations from it but I did quite like using it. The software experience needs polishing and the camera is lackluster but it’s a very accomplished phone overall and if you went with this over the Poco F1 I wouldn’t blame you at all.
That leaves us with the Huawei Nova 3. The Nova 3 loses out by having the weakest hardware out of the four as well as a mediocre camera experience. The phone just feels woefully overpriced for what it offers and it’s difficult to recommend it to anyone. If you want a Huawei phone, the cheaper Honor Play is a better alternative.
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