This week, Oppo announced its most ambitious phone in years: the Oppo Find N, a foldable that attempts to remove key issues that affect other phones of this type.
It is less horrifyingly expensive than the competition. It has the least obvious hinge crease we have seen in a foldable phone to date. The Oppo Find N is also easier to use one-handed than other foldables bar those of the Samsung Galaxy Flip series.
This is progress. However, at first glance, none of it matters. The Oppo Find N will only launch in China, Oppo’s home country. We are unlikely to see a wide release of the phone in the UK, despite the brand’s growing recognition in the country. And a US launch seems out of the question given that Oppo barely has a presence there. At the same event, Oppo also unveiled its version of Google Glass, Air Glass, again not intended for release outside China.
So if we won't be able to get our hands on the Oppo Find N, why are we writing about it?
The Big BBK-Shaped Shadow
Oppo is not an entirely independent entity. It’s part of one of the least-recognized giants of consumer technology—in the West at least. Oppo is a brand of BBK Electronics, which has capitalized on the decline of Huawei to gain greater than 44 percent share of the entire smartphone market in China, according to Counterpoint Research.
This dwarfs Apple, Xiaomi, and Samsung. And BBK Electronics is making moves to alter its strategy in the West, leveraging the “odd one out” in its lineup, OnePlus. It may not be too long before we see some of the Find N’s tech in a OnePlus phone.
BBK Electronics’ lead phone brands are Oppo, Vivo, Realme, OnePlus, and IQOO. OnePlus is the only one of these brands widely distributed in the US, and the only one that arguably is not distinctly recognized as a Chinese company. And its long-term success is reportedly the result of an experiment that got out of hand.
OnePlus formed at the tail end of 2013. Its cofounders were 24-year-old Carl Pei and 38-year-old Pete Lau. The two already worked together at Oppo.
It’s not unusual to see founders of tech startups in their twenties. But OnePlus was not really a startup, as much as it looked like one at the time. It was a project funded by a tech giant—not the kind of thing you’d expect to fall into the lap of someone who dropped out of business school a couple of years prior, as Pei had indeed done.
Imagine Samsung spinning off a new phone brand today, launched exclusively via TikTok by some fresh-faced kid cofounder. That was OnePlus.
OnePlus went from incorporation to the launch of its phone in just four months. This would presumably have been impossible if it hadn’t utilized BBK Electronics’ existing supply chains and manufacturing partners.
The results were almost unimaginably good. OnePlus’ One phone met with a demand-versus-supply situation not dissimilar to today’s Xbox Series X and PS5, albeit on a much smaller scale. In hindsight, the OnePlus One could have, should have, been a disaster. But it wasn’t. It was a genuinely decent phone, and almost certainly the best-value “high end” phone in the world at that point.
Seven years later, all of OnePlus’ edginess has been gradually shaved off. Prices rose with each successive release, and the agile “direct to consumer” approach was diluted as the company struck deals with mobile networks across the world.
OnePlus All Grown Up
Carl Pei, now 32, left OnePlus in 2020 to “pull a OnePlus” with new tech company Nothing. But today we’re more interested in the activity of Pete Lau. He was, and remains, CEO of OnePlus. Lau may have had more say on the company’s strategy over the years than Pei ever did, despite being far less visible.
Today he is not just CEO of OnePlus, though. He is chief product officer of Oppo, and oversees the output of both Oppo and OnePlus.
“To work across two brands is indeed a challenge for me, but the bright side here is, in comparison with working with OnePlus alone in the past, working with two brands brings me more resources, and I’m working with more talent,” says Lau.
OnePlus was likely never truly out of the BBK/Oppo fold, but it is now visibly, publicly within it. There will be much less of a need to keep up the pretense that OnePlus is a separate entity, so technologies seen in Oppo phones may appear freely in OnePlus ones. It’s something Lau recognizes.
“There will be more sharing of resources. And some of the technologies will be able to be used and shared between the two brands in the future,” says Lau.
We are already seeing this take place in real time. OnePlus phones are being updated to use Oppo’s ColorOS software in place of the frankly superior Oxygen OS they had previously.
From a more positive perspective, it means we can almost consider the Oppo Find N a test run for a OnePlus foldable phone that may arrive in the UK next year.
After all, priced at several hundred pounds cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3, one important factor is already sorted: OnePlus needs to undercut Samsung to maintain relevance.
All About the Hinge
The key technology here is the Find N hinge. Lau says Oppo has been granted more than 100 patents relating to the phone, and many of these likely relate to the hinge.
Oppo uses a “teadrop” technique, leading to a less severe pinch point at the fold of the inner screen. This results in a display crease that is virtually imperceptible in the screen image. You can see the mild deformation in reflections casting off its surface, but it is a noticeable improvement over Samsung’s designs, even though that company is now three generations into its own foldable project.
Oppo is likely feeling the strain of relatively early manufacturing of its foldable parts, though. “The hinge is a very complicated design, and the yield is not ideal either,” says Lau. “The cost of the hinge is actually $100.” That’s an awful lot to pay for a single phone component, great as it may be.
While the Find N is still heavy and thick enough to make a convincing Clue murder weapon, the relatively small size of its outer screen also makes it comfortable enough to use one-handed. And the aspect ratio feels right, rather than being elongated to the proportions of a smartphone skyscraper.
Try to run apps on the Oppo Find N and you’ll see why it is a work in progress, why holding off a UK launch right now is sound—aside from the fact the phone is likely a nightmare to manufacture in large quantities. While simpler apps flip between the front and rear screens perfectly well, not all do. Fortnite gets extremely confused, rendering at the wrong resolution and breaking touch input when you switch, for example.
Lau says some of the most popular Chinese apps have been optimized to use the Find N display and an Oppo-specific feature where the app windows scale to suit the screen when partially opened. But few of the apps you may use have. Also, this phone in particular needs these optimizations, because if you watch a 16:9 aspect ratio video on the inner display, the actual image is smaller than that of a “normal” phone like the Motorola Moto G60S.
This is a future role for OnePlus: convincing European and American app developers that Oppo-derived hardware is worth tailoring software for, by creating a bigger audience than Oppo can generate alone. It’s primed to become the more Westerner-friendly face of Oppo.
Motorola plays a similar role for Lenovo. Many people think of Motorola as an American company. Parts of it still are, but its phone arm is owned by Chinese Lenovo, and has been since 2014.
Oppo has other Chinese rivals to contend with, too. Despite its best efforts with phones like the excellent Find X2 Pro, Oppo never quite managed to pull off what Huawei achieved in establishing itself as a high-end manufacturer to rival Samsung in the EU and Europe. And Xiaomi is doing a rather good job of picking up slack in sectors Oppo inhabits with its well-designed, often very aggressively priced lower-mid-range phones.
The question for now is whether Oppo will utilize the progress and goodwill OnePlus has garnered over seven years making remarkably consistent Android phones. Or if it will tighten the screws too much and lose what made OnePlus such a success in the first place.
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