More than half way through this year, and we can already accurately predict which big phones will be on many end-of-year lists. Devices like the Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8) and the LG G3. We're expecting other high profile phones to hit the market this fall, too, rounding out what will likely be remembered as one of the strongest years in mobile ever.
But there's another device people are excitedly talking about, a dark horse that's rising from the smartphone ether, and it's already showing tremendous promise. Maybe you've heard of it? The OnePlus One is this year's so-called "flagship killer," and it has many mobile nerds gawking.
Put out by Chinese company OnePlus, the device promises to be a no-compromise savior with a bold "never settle" philosophy. "'Never Settle' is about understanding our users' root problems and making the best product decisions to solve them," OnePlus says. "It's not about tipping the scale toward one extreme end, but rather finding how to create the best day to day experience."
That day to day experience OnePlus speaks of is without question among the best out there. Aside from a few small quibbles, I'd actually recommend this over the current crop of existing Android juggernauts. Not only is it a terrific device, but it's cheap as heck; cheaper than the Nexus 5 even, which is one of the most affordable handsets available.
It's such a shame, then, that OnePlus so severely bungled the One's launch. Even now, a few months removed from the device's initial announcement, the One still isn't available to purchase publicly. We were fortunate to receive an invite; others haven't been so lucky. As a result, the image of one of the most promising devices has been negatively affected. For many, the early damage can't be undone.
OnePlus One Video Review
At just $299, your immediate thought might be that the One probably feels as cheap as its asking price. Most devices with affordable prices wind up using chintzy materials, or simply relegate the design as an after thought. But OnePlus did an amazing job engineering a device that feels just as premium as something like the HTC One (M8). Maybe even better. This is such a high-quality device that it's almost impossible to believe.
My reaction when first holding the One was that it's really big. Equipped with a 5.5-inch 1080p screen, the device is really tall. Sure, you'd expect a phone with a 5.5-inch screen to be tall, but this is like, really tall. If you you have smaller hands like I do, the One will overtake your mitts with its size, and it'll definitely take some getting used to. But it doesn't take long for that feeling to disappear. In fact, I've come to fall in love with how big the OnePlus One is.
That's both a testament to the One's ergonomic design, the thinness (8.9mm), and the materials that were used. There's a nice curve to the back that fits perfectly in the palm of your hand, allowing you to easily grasp your fingers around the sides. The sides, meanwhile, feature superb button placement; the power button sits on the right in a perfect position that you can reach very easily with your thumb; the volume rocker sits on the left, directly across from the power button, and is mostly easy to manipulate. It is a bit thin, though, so you don't get a ton of tactile feedback. Chances are a lot of your volume control will be done onscreen through sliders as a result.
Many of the bigger companies have been experimenting with different rear shell material, or at least how that material feels, and it's astonishing that OnePlus was able to get it right on the first try. The silk white model has a kind of smooth matted feel to it, and for being plastic, it feels surprisingly premium to touch; it doesn't smudge with fingerprints, and it doesn't feel greasy after prolonged use, which can't be said for some other competing flagships.
The sandstone black model, though, is the real star. The material mimics a kind of fine sandpaper that feels a lot better than it has any right to feel. It doesn't attract fingerprints, nor does it get dirty. But the best part is that it isn't susceptible to scratches, and it's incredibly durable; if it does get scraped by something, you can just rub it away with your finger and it'll look good as new. Over the two weeks I've been using the sandstone model, it looks just as good as it did when it was first taken out of the box, so it holds up well with daily wear and tear.
On the top there's a 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the bottom is a microUSB connector flanked by dual stereo speakers, which are clear and loud, though when held in landscape, they can easily be muffled by your hand. It would have been nice to see a front-facing speaker design, but not every phone can be the M8. We have very few complaints, though, about the sound pumped out by the One, meaning, yes, you can hear a YouTube video just fine at a party.
The 5.5-inch 1080p screen, meanwhile, looks beautiful, and displays video, pictures and other content about as good as other flagships on the market. Pretty much anything you can throw at it will look damn fine, and if you're unhappy with how it looks, you can actually adjust the screen color yourself. The Standard option is the default, but there are also Vivid and Custom options, the latter of which lets you adjust things like hue, saturation, contrast and intensity with little sliders.
Everything is wrapped up by a nice chrome rim, giving it that extra touch of luxury; it's the little things like that that are very much appreciated. The screen, too, is raised slightly, giving it a very clean look that can rival the best designs out there. Very rarely am I this impressed with a design, so hats off to the OnePlus team for creating such a lovely device. I don't know how many times I caught myself holding the One in my hand, screen on, just staring at it. It's almost embarrassing.
Specs & Camera
Like the design, the specs inside the One are anything but cheap. In addition to the 5.5-inch display, the device sports a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, 16GB and 64GB storage options and a 3100mAh battery. It also sports a 13-megapixel Sony Exmor sensor, with six lenses to avoid distortion, dual-LED flash, and f/2.0 aperture to allow for great shots in low-light. The low aperture also means the sensor will create some nice depth of field.
Battery life on the OnePlus One was actually pretty damn impressive—it got me to the end of a busy workday without issue. In fact, I don't recall one instance of battery anxiety (something I'm sure real doctors have diagnosed somewhere). Your battery mileage will always vary depending on how much you use your device. Me? I typically email, text, snap pictures, browse the Web and use a handful of apps to keep myself entertained. The 3100mAh battery was more than enough, and it should be just fine for your needs.
As for the camera, the One performs decent enough. Not bad, but not exceptional. Out in broad daylight and other well-lit conditions, the 13-megapixel sensor performs admirably. At night, though, you start to notice it can't quite keep up as well; the results aren't terrible, but they can definitely be improved. If you rely solely on your smartphone camera like I do, the results produced by the One will be satisfactory.
Even though I don't have too many complaints about the pictures taken by the One, it could definitely be improved. For example, the image stabilization was kind of a bummer, and the low-light performance, like I said, left a lot to be desired. If you're just out at the beach or some other amply lit place then the One will get the job done. For a $300 device, it's more than capable, and can definitely hang with the competition. It also helps that the stock CyanogenMod camera app is so easy and fun to use (more on that later).
The Joys of CyanogenMod
At the center of the OnePlus One experience is CyanogenMod. Basically, CyanogenMod, which is now a standalone company, is an open source OS based on the Android platform. The version that the One runs, 11S, is based on Android 4.4.2 KitKat, and has actually been custom built for the One. Google has zero input on how CyanogenMod looks and acts, though you still get the benefit of the Android experience.
If you're a prior Android user, you'll feel right at home on the OnePlus One. In fact, if you had no previous knowledge about CyanogenMod, you wouldn't even realize it's actually a custom OS; you might just think it's merely a light skin placed atop Google's mobile powerhouse. The UI design is almost identical, and the spirit is essentially the same. You will notice some differences off the bat but, by and large, this is a pretty faithful recreation of the Android experience.
Once you start using the One, however, you'll soon realize that 11S actually might actually offer a superior out-of-box experience, especially for those who love to tinker. For starters, there are some really cool gestures you can perform before you even turn on your device's screen. First, and easiest: you can knock twice on the display to wake the screen. That's by no means a revolutionary or even new feature to smartphones, but it's so, so convenient. You can also knock twice on the status bar to sleep your display.
The second gesture allows you to bring up the camera by drawing a circle, and the third will turn on the flash by drawing a V. You can also control music playback; drag two fingers vertically to play/pause; draw a left arrow to play the previous track; and draw a right arrow to skip ahead. These are fun and useful, though, forewarning, people have complained about the gestures registering on accident, like when the device is in a purse or pocket. I didn't notice anything on my end, but you can just turn them off altogether if they cause problems.
Unique about the One and 11S is the ability to choose between onscreen and capacitive buttons. In KitKat, the preference has become software keys over the capacitive buttons of old, which take up some limited screen real estate. Not everyone likes this method, so the One allows people to use capacitive buttons if they prefer. I found myself leaning toward the software implementation.
For one, the capacitive buttons are extremely difficult to see, with no way to raise the brightness (though you can determine how long they stay lit). Second, the onscreen buttons are more flexible in CyanogenMod, allowing you to rearrange and even add more buttons to your heart's content. And since the One's screen is already so big, you get plenty of screen real estate, even with the software keys on. Thinking about it, I would have preferred to see OnePlus just ax the capacitive buttons altogether and shrink the bottom bezel.
Moving deeper into what CyanogenMod offers, you can easily personalize your home screen, lock screen, and even what theme you're using, including icons, fonts, styles, boot animations, sound packs and more. In the interface column, you can personalize your status bar, quick settings panel, notification drawer, and icon size, too. Pretty much anything you'd want to tinker with is accessible straight off the bat, allowing users to really make their device unique. You can even quickly set custom profiles, which let's you assign a name to certain connection overrides (Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and more).
The camera app has also been made custom for 11S, allowing you to easily change filters by swiping up or down, along with more advanced settings like changing the pixels size, shooting modes, ISO, video options (you can record in 4K), and other general options, including the ability to adjust the controls for left-handed users. Additionally, there's also a Privacy Guard feature, and voice wake and search feature that OnePlus says will get better the more you use it. I feel like a weirdo talking to my phone, so I rarely used it all.
On CyanogenMod, all the big Google apps are available straight away so, again, the out-of-box experience is excellent. You do get other pre-installed apps, too, like AudioFX, File Manager, Torch and Themes Showcase, which lets you easily browse through and purchase themes for your device.
I've had prior experience with CyanogenMod, and have used Android quite a bit over these past few years. Right now, at the moment, I'd probably give the edge to CyanogenMod 11S. There were some instances when it took me longer than I would have liked to find a certain feature or settings, but, for the most part, the CyanogenMod experience was very pleasant and unobtrusive, and gave me just enough control where I didn't feel forced to do one thing or another.
I also have to commend the team on not just creating a fun OS to use, but one that's very stable and quick. I've seen reports of people complaining about lag and stability, but have honestly not run into a single issue (so far). Opening and closing apps is lightning quick, and simply navigating the OS is really zippy and fluid. With the specs that are onboard, you'd expect that kind of performance. But it's nice to see that hold up after a few weeks of daily use. Even when playing games and watching video, I didn't notice any issues.
Shaky Launch, Uncertain Future
Here's the thing about the OnePlus One, though. It's impossible to find. The company has settled upon a maddening invite system, and it hasn't been popular among prospective buyers. Even now, going to the company's site, you can't get the device without an invite, and getting an invite is next to impossible at this point. The company hasn't said a word about if it'll open the device up to more buyers in the future, but for now you're more likely to win the lottery.
If this is to become a true "flagship killer," OnePlus will need to make the device available on a wider scale. The company's hubris is entertaining, but it has to start putting its money where its mouth is. We'll cut the company some slack, though; at a starting price of $299, OnePlus is probably working with the slimmest of margins. Still, with so much demand out there, OnePlus hasn't been able to keep up, and that's a huge problem.
An even bigger problem is finding a way to reach the average consumer. Right now the OnePlus One is sought after by people who closely follow the mobile market. Mention the device to your neighbor Karen down the street, and she'll probably just stare at you and make a weird face. OnePlus will need to find a voice among people like Karen, not just the die-hard nerds.
But that brings up a big concern: can OnePlus as a company provide the customer service necessary to become successful? There are already a handful of horror stories out there about OnePlus's service, which doesn't bode well for a wider roll out. If, eventually, more devices do become available, it'll just mean more customer complaints the company will need to address. Whether OnePlus can satisfy its fanbase remains to be seen. It sure didn't start out well with the company's "Smash the Past" campaign.
OnePlus will need to prove itself as a company—not just as a competent handset maker—if it ever wants its name to be in the conversation with competitors such as Samsung, HTC and even Apple. That definitely won't happen the way things are going. But they got me to talk about them, right? That's a start. And it doesn't hurt that the company's device is pretty darn amazing.
The OnePlus One lives up to the hype, and then some. For the price, or any price, you really can't do much better.
If you have access to an invite, I would encourage you to get the OnePlus One—even over some of the other big boys, like the S5 and M8. Starting at just $299 (or $349 for the 64GB model), you just can't do much better in terms of sheer value. The phone is fast, beautiful and runs a terrific OS that's faithful to the look, feel and functionality of Android. Out of the box, it's one of the best experiences around. I was expecting the One to fail terribly, but I've enjoyed every second of it.
The closest rival in terms of price is the Nexus 5, which starts at $349 for the 16GB version. That device, however, offers an inferior camera experience, and the hardware is nowhere near as nice. You do, however, get the benefit of receiving the latest Android upgrades as soon as they're available, so Nexus 5 can start using Android L when it hits this fall. CyanogenMod, meanwhile, has said One users can expect an update to hit 90 days after Android L launches, which isn't exactly timely.
When OnePlus calls the One a flagship killer, the company isn't exaggerating. It won't outsell any of the most popular Android devices around, and it won't take down Apple's mighty iPhone. But it will slowly win people over, like me, because of its fantastic design, great OS and bottom-dollar price. That's about all you can ask for in a handset, and I can't wait to see what OnePlus does next. It's just too bad actually getting the device is so darn hard.
Brandon used the sandstone black OnePlus One for ten work-days before drafting his review. Mark used the silk white version for two weeks before he filmed his portion of the review.