The OnePlus 2 is quite unlike any other phone of this year. Sure, it's a slim rectangle and has hardware we know well. But you can't buy it from shops, or even from the websites of any of the UK's networks.
Where Samsung and co. go to great lengths to try to persuade you to buy their phones, it can at times seem as though OnePlus makes buying its phones deliberately difficult. First, you can only buy them from the OnePlus store. Second, you need an invite to even place an order. An "invite"?! Who the heavens to these people think they are?
And yet, this hasn't stopped hundreds of thousands from scrabbling to get their hands on the new OnePlus 2.
And that's for the 64GB storage version. There's an even cheaper 16GB model incoming too.
It's pretty special. And absolutely worth chasing after if you have the patience to cope with the unique shopping experience.
Scratch my back
One of the real head-turning elements of the OnePlus 2 is that no part of it feels like it belongs in an affordable phone. It out-premiums the LG G4, for example, with a metal band that runs around its sides and an unusual rear texture that feels nothing like good old plastic.
Those of you familiar with the OnePlus One may remember this style. It's a rear cover texture that sits somewhere between felt and sandpaper, giving you a rough and grippy surface that has some of the tactile vibe of fabric.
I find it a much more satisfying feel than glossy or even soft-touch plastic, although if you hate the sound of this style, OnePlus also offers covers finished in kevlar, rosewood, bamboo and apricot (the tree, rather than the orange fruit itself). There are plenty of touch sensations on offer, each quite different from the norm.
You do have to pay around £20 extra for each of these, but it's not a bad deal when they feature real wood and kevlar, not just a plastic veneer.
Casting quite a shadow
Aside from the unusual backs, the OnePlus 2 is also a bit larger than some of this year's Android contenders. It's a lot bigger than the Galaxy S6, for example. Some of this is down to the large 5.5in screen, but there's also the battery to consider.
OnePlus is out to cater for hardcore mobile fans over just about everyone else, and that means the OnePlus 2 has favoured specs such as battery life and power over weight and skinniness. At 9.9mm thick the OnePlus 2 isn't exactly going to force everything else out of your pocket, but it is a bit chunkier and heavier than most. At 175g it's a good 20g heavier than the LG G4, for example.
If you absolutely hate larger phones, this might be enough to put you off entirely, but I haven't found any of the usability nightmares that cropped up with the also-chunky Nexus 6. The key thing is that the hardware buttons on the side are dead easy to reach, and that stretching for the soft keys doesn't feel like a thumb workout.
There are also several thoughtful little touches to the OnePlus 2's design. Where else among Androids do you get a little 3-way switch on the side, allowing you to immediately silence notifications or switch to only allow priority ones through? This cinema-ready switch sits on the left side.
The camera lens has also been shunted down the back a bit, so I haven't once ended up ruining a pic by resting a finger over the lens - and believe me, that happens quite a lot with some of the phones I've been testing of late. The OnePlus 2's camera placement does look a bit odd, but you'll get used to that far quicker than you'd teach your finger to not sit where it's naturally comfortable.
For the OnePlus 2’s real hardware special moves, though, look no further than the Home button at the bottom of the display. It’s not a mechanical button at all, but a touch-sensitive panel that also houses a fingerprint scanner.
We’ve seen all kinds of scanners in phones over the last year, some good, many not so much. This, thankfully, is a good one. You don’t have to swipe your digit, just press it on the sensor, and its accuracy is pretty excellent. The only times it's struggled are when my fingers have been wet: and any capacitive fingerprint sensor would struggle like this.
While the Samsung Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6 get extra smartie-pants points for fitting the scanner into a clicky button rather than a static pad, the OnePlus 2’s scanner feels just about as fast and reliable.
You can teach the phone up to five fingerprints, although 99 per cent of the time I ended up using my right thumb. It’s easily the most intuitive choice if you’re right-handed.
A pretty well-connected contender
There are other neat hardware improvements to note since last year’s OnePlus One too. The OnePlus 2 has dual SIM cards as standard, both tiny nano SIMs that slot into a tray under the back cover, which is held in place by an array of little plastic clips. It also has a USB-C connector rather than the usual microUSB one. This is reversible and so much less of a practical pain than current microUSB. We’ll start to see loads more phones use this in the future.
However, it’s still ultimately just a USB 2.0 port, not one that gets you the sort of bonus file-flinging speed that’ll be the norm once USB-C is the default.
4G coverage has been fixed too. One of the big issues with the original OnePlus One is that while it has 4G, it doesn’t support the 800MHz band, which most networks in the UK use for their 4G signal. On some networks it’s effectively a 3G phone.
The OnePlus 2 has pretty comprehensive 4G coverage for today’s networks: two thumbs up.
Every design choice in the OnePlus 2 feels deliberately considered. And that’s just as true when you consider the bits left out.
There’s no NFC, for one. This features in just about every other Android phone at the price. OnePlus says hardly anyone used it in the first phone. Is it possible the company nixed it just before it had chance to go mainstream? Tie me will tell.
An IR blaster is missing too. You get one in the Galaxy S6 and LG G4, but I imagine that OnePlus decided that — as with NFC — it would be more sensible to ditch it and save a few pennies. And presumably plenty of pennies have had to be saved to hit that delightfully tempting price.
Can you live without QHD?
The main area where this creeps in is the screen. Whether you say it’s to save a few quid or to make battery life better, the OnePlus 2 has a 1080p Full HD screen rather than the QHD type Samsung and LG fit into their top-end phones.
Across the 5.5in display that provides 400ppi density, which is obviously much lower than the QHD competition. But does it matter?
The OnePlus 2 screen is still very sharp, and the tone of it is lovely. It has none of the try-hard colour oversaturation of the LG G4, or the skewed palette of the price rival HTC One M8S.
For the price this is a pretty terrific screen. And it’s a very strong one at any price. Outdoors visibility is great (if not quite Galaxy S6-level), top brightness is very good and it looks right from any angle.
For the tech heads out there, the OnePlus 2 uses an LTPS IPS LCD screen. Too many acronymns? That means it’ll get you great viewing angles and improved power efficiency.
Thanks to the awesome contrast and colour of Samsung’s OLED phones like the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, it’s not a contender for the best screen out there. But I don’t miss the extra pixels of QHD. Size is important too: 5.5in is a good size for a bit of Netflix action, and doesn’t leave you with a phone that feels ridiculously big.
An O2 injection
Despite being unusual in some important ways, the OnePlus 2 still feels like a normal phone in most respects. It’s the same case with the phone’s software.
On the surface, it looks like the OnePlus 2 uses a totally vanilla version of Android 5.1 Lollipop. Its top layer looks just the same, but it actually runs OxygenOS, a custom version of Android made by OnePlus.
This is one of the most important ‘political’ changes since the OnePlus One, which used CyanogenMod at launch, an indie dev scene version of Android. The idea of OxygenOS is that it doesn’t radically alter the look or feel of Android, but gives you tools to fiddle with lots of different bits under the hood.
Nothing really overhauls Lollipop all that much, but you can do things such as switch the soft keys around, flip between using hardware and software soft keys and add loads of gestures. Want a double tap of the back button to load the camera? Sure. Want a long-press of the Home button to launch the last-used app? Fine.
You can also switch to a UI that’s mostly-black rather than mostly-white. However, the OnePlus 2’s OxygenOS avoids loading you down with millions of custom options and drastic UI themes. It’s meant to be ‘Android+’, not ‘Android Turbo XL Platinum Edition’.
Performance is generally excellent too. The OnePlus 2 has the Snapdragon 810 CPU, an eight-core processor with four 1.8GHz Cortex-A57 cores and four lower-power Cortex-A53 ones.
This is the cheapest phone we’ve seen use such a high-end CPU, and while the Snapdragon 810 has received some flak, seeing it in a £289 feels like a real achievement. So, what’s the Snapdragon 810 hate about?
It’s a bit slower and less efficient than the Exynos chipset used by the Galaxy S6. However, the big problem is overheating. It has caused some pretty big problems in the Sony Xperia Z3+, and slightly smaller ones in the HTC One M9.
The OnePlus 2 does get a bit warm without all that much provoking, such as heating up around the top of the phone just from browsing. But I've never found it getting flat-out hot. Even when gaming. And with scores of around 4460 in the Geekbench 3 benchmark, performance is very similar to the other Snapdragon 810 phones.
Where the OnePlus 2 strays from the pack a bit is with its camera. What’s not always talked-about is that virtually every higher-end phone uses a Sony camera sensor. There are some exceptions, of course, such as the Toshiba-toting HTC One M9. But Sony’s models are generally the top contenders.
Solid sensor but not the sharpest photography brain
But both Sony and Toshiba have been rejected here in favour of an Omnivision sensor. "Omniwhatnow?", you may well say, but we've actually had some great experiences with Omnivision sensors in phones such as the Oppo N3. Guess what: OnePlus was actually formed by folks from Oppo. It all’s a big circle.
It’s not about resolution (both of those phones have 16-megapixel cameras). It’s not necessarily even about sensor quality. It’s more to do with the software and processing OnePlus puts into the OnePlus 2’s camera brain.
First off, it could be faster. Given the OnePlus 2 offers laser-assisted focusing you might assume it’s going to be one the of the fastest cameras around. It isn’t. It’s not pig-slow either, but it’s not as snappy as the Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9, and there’s a bit of shot-to-shot processing delay when you shoot using the Clear Shot or HDR modes. More on those later.
This is a slight disappointment, but no great surprise. Laser focusing just uses an IR laser to tell the OnePlus 2 roughly how far away the subject is. It doesn’t help with speeding-up what happens after that, and the phone still actually uses contrast detection focusing like almost every other phone.
What's more, the OnePlus 2's camera app is also a bit rubbish.
Features-wise it’s perfectly fine. It just doesn’t offer as intuitive operation as almost any other manufacturer-made alternative and there are a fair few bugs. For example, when looking through photos post-shoot you can’t zoom into them properly without them pinging back to the full-frame view as soon as you take your fingers off the screen.
Then there’s the HDR mode. OnePlus’s take on this dynamic-range-increasing mode is horribly un-subtle, often turbo-charging colours so that they lose all sense of realism. This was true of the OnePlus One too, and it’s a shame OnePlus hasn’t patched this up, given how great Samsung, LG and Apple’s HDR modes are these days.
Still a fine shooter
So far, the OnePlus 2’s camera probably sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t. As much as OnePlus could have put a bit more effort into the software, the hardware is on the money.
Just using the default Auto mode, you get almost universally decent photos, with superb sharpness/detail and very good dynamic range for a phone sensor. While we don’t want to put too much focus on the numbers, one of the interesting things about the Omnivision sensor used here is that while it’s lower-res than its most direct Sony rivals, it’s pretty large at 1/2.6-inch, giving it 1.3 micron pixels.
There’s a slight tendency to overexpose scenes that should look somewhat darkish, and its obsession with preserving highlights can leave the occasional foreground looking a bit dull, but there’s nothing like the exposure issues that trip up the HTC One M9.
It’s pretty good at night shooting too. The OnePlus 2 has OIS, letting it use fairly long exposures without demanding you have hands stiller than a block of stone. It can still produce detailed photos at night, rivalling the Galaxy S6.
Given the £289 price, it’s a great camera. There are just better ones out there.
One of the more interesting elements to the OnePlus 2 camera is the focal length. It’s roughly 35mm in the usual camera standard, giving you a much more zoomed-in view than most other phones, which tend to stick around the 27-28mm mark.
It’s not great news if you want to take photos of every single meal you eat and not much else, as you’ll have to hold your hands a way above the plate. However, it’s the perfect lens style for everyday street photography. That’s 90 per cent of what mobile photography is, once you filter out the selfies and shots of people’s dinners. There’s some work to be done in subsequent updates, but it’s already a fun camera to shoot with.
To finish things off, there’s a pretty powerful dual-LED flash, it supports 4K video and slo-mo video. And you get a decent 5-megapixel selfie camera on the front.
A long drink of water
It has a 3300mAh battery, far outclassing the other 1080p phones in this class. The HTC One M9 has a 2840mAh battery, for example.
Playing a MP4 720p movie on loop the OnePlus 2 lasts for 11 and a half hours off a charge. That’s a good result that matches the Galaxy S6 and betters the HTC One M9. However, day-to-day I've found the OnePlus 2 outperforms all the other big-name flagships, flattening in particular the HTC One M9 and LG G4 on stamina.
You can still drain the thing down in a day if you really go for it with gaming and downloading stuff over 4G, but getting a good day and a half off a charge is a doddle. I’m not promising two days’ charge, because if you’re reading this and have made it this far, there’s a good chance you’re a bit of a phone enthusiast. And we tend to chomp away at battery pretty quick, right?
Anything else to cover? Well, there’s the speaker. It’s a single unit that sits on the bottom edge of the OnePlus 2. And while it looks like there are two speaker grilles for it, the sound only actually comes out of one of them. The positioning is exactly like the Galaxy S6’s, although the sound lacks some of that phone’s mid-range beefiness. Sound quality is fair, but isn’t going to impress you that much unless you’ve been listening to the phone speaker equivalent of cup-and-string walkie talkies to date.
OnePlus 2 verdict
OnePlus has done it again. The OnePlus 2 massively undercuts the big-name competition while offering a phone experience pretty similar to them.
Good software, good performance and battery life that far exceeds some of the £500-odd competition make this one of the easiest top-tier phones to live with. Some of the others have better cameras, but even this isn’t really a weak area. Not at £289.
What are the weak areas? Considering the price, there's nothing serious enough to threaten our double-barrelled thumbs-up. The lack of microSD support might disappoint a few of the hardcore phone fans, but other than that the only flaw that might really put you off is simply how much of a pain the OnePlus 2 is to get hold of. But then if it was on sale at Carphone Warehouse, you can bet it wouldn’t cost £240.