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My OnePlus One Review
The American smartphone market has become increasingly saturated. New manufacturers face impossible odds against a market dominated by Samsung and Apple. Even established players such as HTC are struggling, and other companies such as Sony have opted out entirely to focus on Europe and Asia. In the midst of this extreme competition, a new company named OnePlus is attempting to break into the market by offering the latest and greatest specs, software by one of the biggest names in Android, all at a price even lower than the Nexus line. However, an invite-only purchase system combined with production delays have turned some potential buyers off. Is the OnePlus One worth going through the hurdles to buy, and can it be beaten by more readily available phones?
Before writing this review, I used the OnePlus One for three weeks, including time on T-Mobile and Straight Talk (the latter running on AT&T’s network), in every signal strength between no service and perfect 4G LTE. I had a few particularly heavy days of usage, including taking plenty of pictures and video at my brother’s wedding reception, and two days of flying.
The OnePlus One ships in two separate and nice looking boxes: one box for the phone, SIM ejector tool and charging/sync cable, and one box with the USB Power adapter specific for your region. The box is very well designed, along with the included accessories. The SIM ejector is very well made, and comes in a rubber sleeve that can be attached to a key chain with an included metal link. The charging/sync cable is worth mentioning too. Rather than the standard USB design that makes it hard to distinguish which end to plug in, this port includes one completely flat side, and one side with all the necessary contacts, making it incredibly easy to plug in. Despite the unique design, the cable functions just as you’d expect in terms of charging and transferring data, however it is shorter than I’d like. With the included charging cable and adapter, I was able to charge the One at a rate of about 1-2% per minute, an acceptable rate in today’s market.
The design of the phone is not what you’d expect at such a low price point. The phone has an understated, yet classy design. OnePlus has designed swappable back covers for the One, and on the 64GB version that I picked up, the default back cover is “Sandstone Black”, a nice looking and feeling design. The Sandstone texture feel like unfinished pavement, and makes the device very easy to grip and hold, despite the large 5.5” display. Speaking of that display, it includes a 1080p resolution and Gorilla Glass 3, similar to flagships from most OEM’s. If you are used to a smaller device such as an iPhone or Moto X, a phone this size may be a turn off, and rightfully so. You’re either going to like the size or not. I like bigger phones, so I am perfectly happy with the phone. I wear relaxed fit Levi’s Jeans, different brands of cargo shorts, and smaller shorts for exercise, and I’ve never had a problem fitting this phone into my pockets. If you have smaller pockets, your mileage may vary. I’m more into function over form, but I cannot say enough how much I like the design of this phone. I’m even enjoying the Sandstone Black cover more than I expected. If the Sandstone Black is not your taste, OnePlus plans to sell different covers soon, including real wood and denim covers.
While it may not pack as many pixels as an OPPO Find 7 or LG G3, the display on the OnePlus One looks very nice. Some users have reported an issue with their displays having a strong yellow tint, however that was mainly on models produced early in the production run, and reports of the yellow tint have become less common. I did not have the issue on my phone, but in comparing it next to a Nexus 5, the Nexus had slightly whiter whites and more accurate colors. Overall though, there are few reasons to not like this display.
Hardware wise, the OnePlus One not only checks every box, it does so very well. Inside, you have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor coupled with 3GB of RAM powered by a 3100 mAh non removable battery. The baseline One includes 16GB of internal storage (minus a small amount used by the operating system), however for an additional $50, you can upgrade to a more spacious 64GB. OnePlus explains the price differences between a 32GB and 64GB version would be negligible, so they didn’t bother with a 32GB. The One does not include a micro-SD card slot, but does allow for USB on the Go in case additional storage is needed. On the rear of the device, you have a 13 megapixel camera with a Sony Exmor sensor capable of recording video up to 4K resolution, accompanied by a dual-LED flash and a microphone. On the front of the device is a 5 megapixel, ambient light sensor, notification light, and earpiece. Below the screen you have three capacitive keys- from left to right: menu, home and back.On the top border, you have a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, a second microphone. On the left and right border (when viewing the front), you have volume and power buttons respectively. These are the only physical buttons on many phones these days, and they are nice and clicky on the One. Dual mono (not stereo as OnePlus originally claimed) speakers, a micro USB charging/sync port and the third and final microphone are located on the bottom.
On the software front, the OnePlus is running a custom version of Cyanogen’s already custom OS on top of Android 4.4.2. If you’ve never used a phone running Cyanogen before, think of vanilla Android plus a few really sensible additions. Some standard additions on all Cyanogen devices include custom unlock buttons for the lock screen, a customizable quick settings panel, a feature called Privacy Guard that restricts what data applications can access, the option to toggle between the included capacitive keys and on screen keys (as well as remap the capacitive keys) and a theme chooser that make skinning your device and simple process. Features specific to the One include a custom camera interface, an optional custom lock screen, and the Audio FX equalizer. For those that want an even more vanilla experience, OnePlus is offering an AOSP ROM on their website. OnePlus and Cyanogen have already promised the One will receive Android L within three months of Google releasing the final code. When I received the device, the capacitive keys were a little too dim for my liking, a recent update has brightened them up.
From the settings menu, you can perform basic functions such as viewing a breakdown on battery life and set your ringtone, as well as some specific to Cyanogen, like choosing your theme and custom lock screen shortcuts. Speaking of which, there are few actions you can perform with the display off. These include drawing a circle on the display to activate the camera, drawing a “V” to activate the flash light, using two fingers to pause music, and making either a left or right arrow to control music playback. However, I noticed that these actions would occur while the phone was in my pocket, so I disabled them. You can also assign actions to the capacitive keys while on the lock screen. Because the display has to be on for these to be activated, there are less accidents than the previously mentioned actioned.
Between the bleeding edge internals and the light software, the OnePlus One absolutely flies. Switching between and launching applications happens in a flash, and even particularly heavy games run without issue. To put the One to the ultimate test, I loaded up about twenty applications, leaving each one in the recent apps switcher. Even with more processor intensive applications such as offline navigators, the One had no problem switching back and forth.
As mentioned above, the OnePlus One includes a 13 megapixel Sony Exmor camera, as well as different camera layout than what is included for most Cyanogen builds. The layout includes three buttons for quick access to take a picture, start recording a video, or take a panorama shot. Unfortunately, Photospheres (or an equivalent) are not included, but this device is compatible with Google’s Camera application. Along the right side of the camera display, you have can toggle between the rear- and front-facing cameras, toggle flash settings, and have two menu keys for various functions. One function is a list of shooting modes, and you are able to quickly switch between specific modes you designate. For example, I have “Auto”, “HDR”, “Night” and “Mono” selected in the settings menu, and I can flick my finger on the main camera screen to quickly switch between the four. The camera also includes a very fast shutter speed, and the pictures came out looking great a majority of the time. I took hundreds of photos using the One on a recent vacation, both in day and at night, of still targets and moving, and I can only remember one or two pictures coming out blurry. One camera mode, “Clear Image” was only recently added. The basic premise is the One will take ten photos, then stitch them together into a super high quality image. It takes longer to process than a standard or HDR shot, but it is well worth it if you have the time. Similarly, the camera takes fantastic videos as well, and the three microphones will do an excellent job capturing sound. To say the One has a great camera is an understatement.
Battery life has been great on the One as well. On my heavier usage days-3G only data, taking lots of pictures/videos, making lots of phone calls, navigating, etc.- I never saw the battery go lower than 30% before making it home to charge. Now that I’m back to work again, I keep the One turned off in my car for nine hours a day, and spend most of the rest of my time at home on Wifi, using it for light browsing and messaging, as well as listening to music. Following that routine, I am easily able to achieve two days of usage, again with the battery at around 30% when I plug in on the second night. No matter how heavy your usage, you should have no problems getting one full day of battery life. Unfortunately the One does not include Qi wireless charging like other devices, but that’s hardly a deal breaker.
I noticed no problems using the phone as a phone either. The One includes all proper LTE and HSPA+ bands to let it run smoothly on both AT&T and T-Mobile. Sorry Verizon and Sprint customers, you won’t be able to use the One on your network. There was an issue with earlier handsets that affected call volume, however that was corrected in an OTA before I received my device. I did have an issue with the GPS antenna however. I keep my GPS completely shut off unless I am using it for navigation. When I first received the device, the GPS would lock on quickly enough, but would lose signal after about a minute. Following that, it would not be able to find my location for five-ten minutes. After that period, it would regain my location and everything would be fine. After using navigation a few times, it seems the GPS has warmed up, and works fine without any hiccups.
Despite the low price point, I can’t find any shortcomings with the phone itself. It’s fast, powerful, has all the right antenna bands you’d expect, takes fantastic pictures, and has incredible battery life, all at half the price of comparable phones. Combined with a great pre-paid plan, this is a very inexpensive way to have a top of the line experience without the usual cost.
There’s just one rather large problem: you can’t buy one.
OnePlus has implemented an invite-only system to control how many phones they are producing. It’s understandable for a new company to do; the fastest way to go under would be to produce too many phones that nobody buys. However, OnePlus has had difficulties ramping their production up to meet demand, leaving hopeful buyers to look elsewhere. I was able to get an invite because I had been a member of their forums for so long, but OnePlus has also been distributing invites via contests. Once someone receives their phone, they also receive three invites to give out. This too, has been controversial, with some members selling their invites on eBay. The invite system is the only thing that keeps me from recommending this phone to everyone I know.
If you absolutely need a new phone right this second, do not wait for the One. I understand why OnePlus implemented the invite system, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for people who want to buy the device. If you can wait, I believe it will be worth it. This phone is easily as good as - if not better than - the Galaxy S5, HTC One and LG G3, at half the off contract price. The hardware is new enough that it won’t be out of date while OnePlus is getting their production sorted out, and both hardware and software will keep the phone feeling fresh for quite some time. The design, hardware, software, camera, battery life and network options all add up to an amazing experience, without an unbearable price. If you’re not sold on the screen size, there’s really no fixing that. Alternatives include a Nexus 5 (which can easily be hacked to run Cyanogen), as well as the Moto X and soon to be announced Moto X+1, all of which run (or are expected to in the case of the X+1) vanilla or near-vanilla Android.