OnePlus One review: a great phone, if you can get it

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What does it mean to “Never Settle” when it comes to a smartphone? Almost every piece of technology has its limits, due to the restrictions of available technology, physics, or just how much circuitry you can cram into a rectangular box.

Does not settling mean including every possible feature under the sun? Does it mean making an affordable phone with zero compromises on hardware? What would zero compromises look like? New kid on the block OnePlus, a Chinese manufacturer led by a former Oppo executive, has given us its bold answer in the One, a phone it calls a ‘Flagship Killer.’

That’s a pretty daring title, and it’d take some pretty daring hardware to live up to the name. Does the OnePlus One meet and exceed our every expectation? Does it fall victim to hype it can’t possibly live up to? Does it deserve the codename Bacon? Find out in Pocketnow’s first guest review from OnePlus One owner and friend of the Pocketnow Weekly, Christopher Larson!

 

Specs & Hardware

oneplus one review hardware

The OnePlus One is a sleek, contemporary looking piece of kit. From head on, with the screen off, all you see is the big –and I mean big– glass slab of a screen surrounded by the silvery ring of the magnesium chassis. The screen hardware is actually recessed on all sides from the chassis, and it looks like it emerges from the metal beneath, which is a nice way of subtly protecting the screen from drops on the side while creating something stylish and unique.

And, wow, that screen. The 5.5-inch JDI-manufactured IPS-LCD display is huge, matching the size of the LG G3‘s, and only 0.2 inches short of the Galaxy Note 3‘s panel. It’s 1080p, and so not quite best in class in terms of resolution compared to the Oppo Find 7 and LG G3’s QHD displays, but the display certainly doesn’t feel like a compromise. It offers vivid but accurate colors, great viewing angles, solid brightness levels, and a respectable pixel density of 401 ppi. Streaming World Cup matches was a treat during the 10-day review period.

oneplus one front

Swinging around back we get to see the gorgeous polycarbonate backplate that feels soft and dry, almost like a thin carpet to this reviewer’s hands. Top to bottom, the One’s backside plays host to the camera module (probably the least elegant portion of the phone stylistically); the OnePlus logo; the CyanogenMod logo; and the required FCC designations.

The button placement is intelligent for a phone of this size, with the power button on the right side and the volume buttons on the left, both within easy reach about two thirds of the way up the phone. Coming as I was from a tall phone with a top-mounted power button this was a HUGE relief. There is also a full spectrum LED notification light embedded in the front near the 5-megapixel front-facing camera.

oneplus one back

At 152.9 millimeters tall by 75.9 millimeters wide by 8.9 millimeters deep, it’s a pretty enormous piece of hardware, but to this reviewer it has rarely felt ‘too big.’ Of course, your size tolerance will vary, and I do find myself pulling it out of my pocket and resting it on the table when sitting, but that’s about as far as the inconvenience has gone. And let’s be clear, the gobs of space inside have been put to good use: our review device sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor at 2.5 GHz, 3GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage on our Sandstone Black unit (there’s a 16GB option that’s $50 cheaper with a Silk White back cover), a 3,100 mAh battery, and a 13-megapixel camera.

Those internals are top notch in mid-2014, oddball flagship variants notwithstanding. With unique, sleek styling and that powerful hardware, the One feels like a first-class piece of technology.

 

Software

oneplus software

oneplus software 2That screaming Snapdragon 801 drives one of the most unique Android variants on the market today, CyanogenMod 11S (“CM11s”). A community-driven Android project, CyanogenMod is something like AOSP+, allowing much more customization than AOSP while also adding features with an emphasis on user privacy and usability. CyanogenMod compiles versions of its OS for most recent hardware. I was running nightly builds of CyanogenMod 11 (note the lack of S) on my Droid DNA prior to switching over to the One. However, CyanogenMod saved some features for the One and the One alone, hence the S differentiator.

CyanogenMod’s standard features include many customization options, such as the very robust theming engine, which can be used to change nearly every visual element from stylistic flourishes like styles of buttons, to fonts, icons, wallpapers, boot animations, and more. It can make quite a difference, and I used it to immediately switch from the One’s standard square icons to a more AOSP-like Holo theme.

Aside from themes, standard CM11 allows you to customize many aspects of the phone’s usability. You can change what the capacitive buttons do (by enabling a long-press of the menu button to bring up the multitasking display, for instance); you can change which on-screen navigation buttons appear; you can adjust what choices are visible in the quick settings menu; and you can add options that are normally unavailable like a flashlight/torch or camera shortcut. You can also add additional shortcuts to the Google Now swipe up gesture from the navigation bar. These shortcuts can be many things, not just applications, and I have found it incredibly handy to keep a NextBus bookmark there so I can quickly look up my nearby public transit options here in Boston.

bq1

But it’s not just flair that CyanogenMod has in mind. PrivacyGuard lets you safeguard your own personal information from apps at a system level. I try not to install apps that ask for unreasonable access to things (why does your game need to look at my call log?), but with CyanogenMod you can actually still install the app and only allow access when you choose. Install that game, and with PrivacyGuard enabled you’ll get a pop-up asking you whether you want to let the app access your location, send texts, or delve into your contact details. Just say no, and you can tell it to remember your choice forever. I love this feature, and Google should integrate it into AOSP post haste.

You also get access to WhisperPush, which will automatically encrypt your text messages if sent to oneplus software 3another CyanogenMod user with WhisperPush enabled. Not the most useful if you don’t know anyone else running your boutique OS, but a useful option nonetheless.

The unique features that give the One’s variant that S designation are pretty great, and enough that I might be grumpy about not getting them on other versions of CM. The lock screen switches from the usual AOSP circle to a simple large light blue ‘grab area’ on the lower half of the screen that you can pull down, which requires a lot less precision, and is easier just to swipe and go. This area also hold your weather and battery information, and will display message notifications or, in a nice touch, a subtle amplitude effect when you’re playing music. The top of the screen has a blurred image of your wallpaper that unblurs as you pull down to unlock (again, unless you’re playing music in which case it’s a blurred image of the album art). If you were last on your homescreen CM11S seamlessly fades your icons and widgets on top of the wallpaper; otherwise it’ll open up whatever app you were in last.

CM11S also includes some gestures you can perform while the phone is locked and the screen is off. Swiping a circle will unlock directly into the camera app, and swiping a ‘V’ will activate the flash on the phone, which has proved surprisingly useful. There are also gestures for play, pause, next track, and previous track for audio, and finally there’s a double-tap to wake the screen. The gestures are not always consistent: they’re sometimes confused for one another, and there seems to be an issue where the flash won’t always come on due to the phone not ‘waking’ properly to activate it, but all in all they’re still nice to have.

oneplus software 5

Another CM11S-unique feature is the ability to switch between capacitive and on-screen buttons. This is unique to the One, as far as I know, and fits squarely into CyanogenMod’s emphasis on user choice in how you interact with your phone. If you go with on-screen navigation the capacitive buttons fade to black and are almost impossible to see.

There are many additional nice features we could talk about, like Voice+, profiles, and more, but the general gist is that you’re getting a great, bloat-free version of Android that will let you do a lot of what you want to do. The only feature I’d really like to have seen with a screen this large is split-screen multi-tasking à la Samsung and LG.

 

Camera

oneplus one review camera

The camera on the OnePlus One is a solid performer. It doesn’t have some of the fancier features you’ll find out there, like laser rangefinders, two-tone flashes, or Optical Image Stabilization, but it takes good, relatively accurate pictures. The Sony Exmor IMX 214 sensor tops out at 13 Megapixels in 4:3 mode which, annoyingly, you’re locked in to at that resolution. The camera’s low light performance leaves something to be desired, with a lot of noise creeping into shots, especially in sky regions where colors aren’t as differentiated.

 

CyanogenMod contributed a custom camera app which is accessible but powerful, and I really enjoyed being able to change shooting modes with a swipe on the screen. Switching over to HDR was just a flick away instead of drilling down into settings menus. And boy, is that HDR aggressive, but I have to say I think it works well. You occasionally get, with jittery hands like mine, some blur in the image due to the camera sampling over a period of time, but generally the HDR mode takes crisp, vivid  pictures.

If I had to say the OnePlus did compromise with the phone, I’d say that the camera was where it happened, but it still outputs very respectable images in favorable light. It just isn’t quite as bleeding edge as the rest of the phone’s hardware.

 

Performance

 

The OnePlus One’s bleeding-edge internals put it on par with any Android flagship from a smoothness perspective. Nary a stutter or jitter appeared to this reviewer’s eyes. Operation was clean, fast, and responsive. The OS is built for speed and access, without the usual cruft and garbage that you’d find cluttering a manufacturer’s skin, and it is truly a delight to use. Gaming has been super smooth, and the Adreno 330 GPU cuts through graphics-heavy titles like a hot knife through buttah.

Cellular performance, though it varied a little depending on network conditions, was generally stellar throughout the Greater Boston and suburban Minneapolis / St. Paul areas. Average transfer rates hovered around 30 Mbps down and 18 up, with peaks download rates hitting almost 50 Mbps. T-Mobile’s relatively unsaturated LTE towers are a blessing, though we’d expect those numbers to diminish slightly as more customers hop on. The One supports the following connectivity options: GSM (850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz); WCDMA (Bands 1/2/4/5/8); LTE (Bands 1/3/4/7/17/38/40); Bluetooth 4.0; Wifi 802.11ac; and NFC.

oneplusone back

Voice calls were crisp and clear on both ends according to our testers, and the down-firing speakers were surprisingly loud. It’s not BoomSound by any stretch of the imagination –bass in particular leaves a lot to be desired– but for throwing on some tunes in the background, they perform just fine. Audio on headphones was detailed and accurate, and for those who like to tweak, the included AudioFX will let you manually equalize and bass boost easily, with an updated graphical interface for CM11S.

Battery performance, by and large, was excellent, with the phone lasting all day even during heavy usage including over an hour of gaming, streaming half of a FIFA World Cup match, heavy texting, and serious camera usage. Screen on time generally was in the 4.5-to-5-hour range, with occasional forays beyond.

 

Pros

+ Amazing price

+ CyanogenMod 11S is powerful and customizable

+ Top-notch internals

+ Clean, elegant design

 

Cons

– Size could be an issue

– Camera performance is average

– Getting one is near impossible

 

Pricing and Availability

oneplus one avail

 

Trying to purchase a OnePlus One is by far the most frustrating part about it. With an extremely small supply available, OnePlus has limited the ability to purchase this phone via an invite system. Without an invite you can’t get one. Period. The problem is, with high end specs and a cheap price, the demand is far outstripping supply, leaving many would-be customers frustrated. Here’s hoping that OnePlus can solve recent yield problems and deliver their product into eager fans’ hands.

(Editor’s Note: In the meantime, we’re giving away two OnePlus One purchase invites in the next two weeks of the Pocketnow summer of giveaways! Check back on Monday, June 14 for details on how to win!)

If you do get your hands on an invitation, the Silk White version runs $299 with 16 GB of internal storage, and the 64 GB Sandstone Black version, like our review model, runs only $50 more at $349. Compare that to the jump from 16 to 64 gigs on an iPhone 5S, which doubles the on-contract price from $199 to $399.

 

Conclusion

oneplus one face

The OnePlus One is an excellent phone. Without taking price into account, it stands tall against the mighty likes of the HTC One M8, the Galaxy S5, and the LG G3. Its camera doesn’t have the optical stabilization of the LG G3 or the low-light performance of the One M8, and you may prefer the size of the slightly smaller Galaxy S5, but from a specs, style, and software perspective the OnePlus One is right there with them. And then you look at the price tag, which is half or less than any of its competitors. Half or less.

Yes, it does ‘settle’ if by settle you mean make some small compromises, but what phone doesn’t? If OnePlus can sort out production and calm the angry fans who are still waiting to purchase one, then we’ll have one of the most exciting competitors to come to the US market in some time.

Overall score 8.9 | Hardware 8.8 | Software 9.0 | User experience 8.8

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About The Author
Christopher Larson