The flagship killer. That’s how OnePlus - a fresh Chinese start-up that’s suddenly sprung out of nowhere - is pitching its debut US$300 (S$373) smartphone.
And boy, does it live up to that pitch.
Charging onto the smartphone scene under an ambitious ‘Never Settle’ banner, OnePlus has made a genuinely brilliant, genuinely disruptive device with a huge 5.5in screen, the best processing power currently available and kickass battery life. All for less than the price of a Nexus 5.
The sheer, almost-unbelievable value of the OnePlus One is impossible to resist. Pick up this smartphone just once and you will want to own one.
But there’s the rub: owning one right now is very tricky thanks to an invite-only ordering process. So just how far should you go to get yourself on the list?
Just to be clear, the OnePlus One lives up to the hype in almost every single way. It really does beat the Nexus at its own game and will be giving the sweats to all of those oh-so pricey flagship phones from the accepted Big Boys. But no device is absolutely flawless, so let’s get the few issues out of the way at the start.
I’s not waterproof like the Galaxy S5 and Xperia Z2, and there’s no expandable microSD storage. But consider that the 64GB version of the OnePlus is just US$349 (only a US$50 or S$62 premium over the 16GB model) and that lack of storage expandability seems less of a loss.
A few other minor niggles aside (skip to our camera section, for one) that really is it. In terms of design, screen, performance and battery life you simply can’t get better than this for anywhere near S$350.
READ MORE: Nexus 5 review - the all Google smartphone
Better built than a Samsung Galaxy S5
Plastic without the creaks. And a big screen without the hand stretching.
We’ve been completely won over by the OnePlus One’s design and build and those are the key reasons why. It’s solidly made and feels like a one-piece construction even though it isn’t - you can prise the back casing off if you really want to but the battery can’t be removed. And it’s somehow easy to handle despite its size.
There’s no denying this is a big phone - tall, especially - but the fairly slim, curved edges mean it sits fairly nicely even in small hands, and the reasonably light 162g weight helps here, too. The almost-identical Oppo Find 7, which is slightly fatter and weighs 173g, feels too much by comparison. If you’re used to a Nexus 5, an iPhone, or any number of 2013 smartphones the size of the OnePlus could initially cause some concern, but you really will get used to it.
This isn’t the prettiest Android. There are hardware buttons below the screen - they’re customisable but small and not bright enough. Considering we switched to onscreen buttons on day one, we wish OnePlus hadn’t bothered. Its ‘chrome effect’ trim cheapens the front slightly, the big bezels top and bottom make it look retro and there’s none of the carefully preened and machined charm of say, a HTC One (M8). But it has its own character and charm and won’t look out of place, at a glance, next to more premium kit.
That’s thanks to the quirky Sandstone Black finish that brings to mind a slightly furry rock, pool table felt and camping stoves depending on who you ask. The only problem is that if it gets mucky down the line, you can't wipe it down. This is on the 64GB model, if you go for 16GB, you get a matte, white polycarbonate finish as there’s no mixing and matching. OnePlus has been shouting about its StyleSwap cases, too - available in exotic materials such as bamboo and denim. We haven’t got our hands on any yet but it’s good news for fans of personalising their gear.
Us? As it is, the OnePlus One’s big form factor, odd texture and intriguing logo is enough to elicit plenty of ‘What’s that?’s when out and about. And after bragging about its indie credentials, we’ve been getting even more smug when the next question’s ‘How much?’
Bigger Screen than a Sony Xperia Z2
With a 5.5in 1080p display, the OnePlus One has a bigger screen than most 2014 flagships but that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to handle. It’s not quite LG G3 (or indeed G2) levels of engineering big screens into tiny bodies, but it’s still an impressive balance.
Gestures such as double-tap to wake also help to avoid phone juggling. Just be warned; these can be overly sensitive and you might find, as we did, that you’re accidentally turning on the torch function in notifications 3-4 times a day.
Pixel pedants will notice that the bigger size, without making the leap to 2K as the G3 and the Oppo Find 7 have done, means a lower ppi than rivals - but 401ppi is nothing to sniff at, especially at this price. For less than S$400, this screen is very, very nice.
Text is crisp and contrast is superb, making everything from Android games to webpages to homescreens look punchy. Colours are on the warm side when compared to more neutral looking displays such as the G3, but the OnePlus is no sucker for saturation so faces still look natural. Viewing angles are good and the screen is fairly bright, too - not the absolute easiest to see outdoors but it’s manageable.
When watching movies, the stereo speakers on the bottom of the OnePlus are OK but nothing more - they’re not the loudest and can sound tinny. Good enough for occasional use but you’re going to stick to headphones most of the time anyway, aren’t you?
As powerful as an LG G3
A device this cheap just shouldn’t be able to cram in components this powerful. We’ve seen 720p screens and high-end software features trickle down but not the fastest silicon on the planet. More importantly, it doesn’t disappoint in use.
The power in question comes from a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor - yep, the same one that runs the LG G3 and Galaxy S5 - plus 3GB of RAM. Everything is fast. The only app that we’ve seen take a second or two to load is the Gallery app, but then that is in beta (and is already flaming lovely).
After 10 days with the OnePlus One we had only one minor crash when changing lockscreens - we say crash, we mean the phone went berserk for ten seconds until we pressed the power button. Don’t worry though, it’s wonderfully smooth day to day and that’s enough for us to forgive it one blemish. Seriously, if this smartphone were twice the price, we’d be cooing over its performance. As it is, we go into full-on gawp mode every time we remember how much it costs.
More after the break...
More megapixels than a HTC One (M8)*
This is a half-win for the OnePlus.
For daytime snaps, the OnePlus’ 13MP camera is reliably great. The f/2.0 lens makes for bright shots and colours are natural and appealing, even if they’re a tad washed out next to the best. There’s plenty of detail captured, the zoom is usable and macro pics can look stunning. Autofocus is reasonably fast and won’t have you tutting too much - although it can’t keep up with a G3 or Galaxy S5.
CyanogenMod’s camera app has made it simple to change modes - just swipe down in the viewfinder screen to switch to HDR, Night Mode or other presets, which you can customise for easy access. For this trick alone it’s become one of our favourite camera apps. In fact, the main problem we’ve had while out snapping is that the lens is seriously close to the edge of the phone in landscape, so there have been a few giant fingers in frame.
CHECK OUT OUR FLICKR GALLERY OF ONEPLUS SNAPS BELOW
Indoors, the OnePlus One does a so-so job but, without resorting to its LED flash, it just doesn’t have the low-light capabilities of a HTC One (M8) or LG. OnePlus says it features ‘Image Stabilisation Technology’ software but it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, sadly. Don’t even bother outdoors at night. Let’s not forget, the Nexus 5 is no stunner in low light, and every other budget phone is even further behind that benchmark. But on a device that’s so impressive it’s a shame to come out with slightly fuzzy snaps of your mates over dinner. It’s not terrible but it’s one area where it stills pay to, you know, pay.
A nice bonus is that the OnePlus can shoot pretty smooth Full HD and 4K video - though give its slow-mo a miss - and stills and video taken with the 5MP front camera are bright and detailed, too. Overall, the OnePlus’ camera capabilities are the one area it doesn’t quite match the nearly S$1000 flagships, but it performs better than both the Nexus and standard mid-range efforts.
*We know the HTC uses UltraPixels but you get the idea.
Slicker UI than a Samsung Galaxy Note 3
We love what CyanogenMod has done to Android. What’s CyanogenMod? Essentially it’s a tinkered-with version of Android that sticks closely enough to the vanilla experience to get pre-installed Google apps and frequent updates. The OnePlus is following the lead of the Oppo N1 here in making this version of Android legit.
Based on Android 4.4, CyanogenMod 11’s like stock Android on steroids - if you like to tweak your status bar, lockscreen, notifications pulldown, navigation buttons, sounds or just about anything else on your device, this is the smartphone for you. Of course that means that beginners might be a bit overwhelmed by options. There’s plenty to switch off from the get-go, as you would with an overstuffed TouchWiz on a Note 3, say, but ultimately it’s the clean, fluid stock Android experience with more customisation. Aside from CM’s signature hexagons, it looks very similar to stock, too - before you start mucking about with themes, fonts and icons that is. Settings includes a Personalisation section for gestures, lockscreens and the like, and in ‘Buttons’ you can flit between hardware and onscreen navigation buttons.
Interested in more than just design tweaks? Then dig into ‘Profiles’ - a feature we’ve seen on some Motorola devices but is again taken to the next level in CyanogenMod. Here you can automate Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi, data, ring volumes and notifications for home, work, night, car settings. It works brilliantly and, of course, there’s more to play with here than even power users can dream of.
One thing that’s missing is a split screen feature to run two apps in windows - as seen on the LG G3 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. So OnePlus isn’t squeezing every last drop out of that 5.5in screen, but don’t forget - features such as this are still a bit of a luxury. As is a stylus, which the OnePlus also does without.
We still have a soft spot for HTC’s Sense UI but CyanogenMod proves that it’s grown-up, stable and plenty slick enough. It does what the vast majority of absolute giants fail to do - improves Android.
Longer Battery Life than an Oppo Find 7
The OnePlus One is a rare thing: a big, cheap smartphone with an awesome battery life.
With a 3100mAh battery (that’s almost as big as the Galaxy Note 3’s) the One’s stamina really impresses. With any big-screened phone, nevermind a cut-price one, battery life is a worry, but here it’s really not a problem with a damn impressive 10 hours 20 minutes in our 720p video rundown test (Wi-Fi on, half brightness). And side-by-side with the almost identical but 2K-screened Oppo Find 7, the OnePlus drops 9% an hour on average versus the Oppo’s rather worrying 18%.
The battery isn’t swappable, there’s no VOOC fast charging (as on the Oppo) and neither is there a built-in power saving mode. True, the last one is a small nuisance, but none of it takes away from the joy of getting a day of use out of an otherwise fantastic 5.5in smartphone.
A side note - OnePlus has lavished its microUSB cable with attention. We can’t believe we’re saying this but it looks proper gorgeous in an orangey-red and white. Not only does it stand out in a sea of black and white cables, it’s been flattened to avoid tangling, too. Good work.
READ MORE: Oppo Find 7 preview
OnePlus One Verdict
Hype confirmed. Disruption commencing.
To get one of the best smartphones on the planet, you don’t need to pay through your nose anymore. You just need a OnePlus One invite.
OnePlus tells us that as production ramps up, more invites will be sent out (to buyers and on forums) and a good, old-fashioned pre-order system set up. Letting gadget fans buy the device the proper way means the US$300 One could well be the flagship killer that was promised. On supreme value alone, it deserves it.
If OnePlus decides to make a smaller smartphone in 2015, it might even put a few tech giants out of business. For now, the OnePlus One might be too big for some.
But it really does have ‘it’ - that combination of good design, reliable performance and value for money. The Nexus 5 has it, so does the smaller Moto G. But now the OnePlus One has surpassed both and takes its place as the king of the budget flagships. It’s perfect for early adopters, spec worshippers, tinkerers and anyone willing to take a gamble on an unknown - but utterly brilliant - gadget.
Specs, style and stonking good value. Watch out, smartphone world - the OnePlus One is coming for you