OnePlus 2 review: a faux flagship for the frugal
“We have something bold to say.”
As this review goes to press, Apple’s newest iPhone is hitting store shelves for the first time. The iPhone 6s starts at $649, but that model’s anemic storage capacity means the smart folks will be stuck paying $749 for the 64GB version. Across the platform border, the new iPhone’s most visible competitor –Samsung’s Galaxy S6– comes in at around $540, while the fancy accoutrements of its Edge and Note siblings catapult their prices to near-thousand-dollar levels. High-end smartphones are expensive commodities.
For the second year in a row, Shenzhen-based smartphone maker OnePlus looks to change that. The company calls the OnePlus 2 a “2016 flagship killer” – a claim so bold that it seems like a typo at first glance. But outsized braggadocio is hardly a rarity in smartphone marketing, and OnePlus has reason to be confident. Topping out at just $389, the OnePlus 2 is an improbably affordable handset, especially considering how much raw capability it packs into its sleek, upscale casing. This is no budget phone; it’s a well-designed handheld that brings compelling features and powerful hardware in a sharp package. Can those highlights offset its inevitable omissions and its frustrating purchase process? Read on to find out!
OnePlus 2 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
If there’s one thing OnePlus excels at, it’s presentation. Popping open the OnePlus 2’s retail packaging reveals a stylish, angular handheld with a heft (175g) usually reserved for more expensive hardware. The fancy doesn’t stop at the phone, either: you get a soft linguine-style charging cable done up in striking red, with a slim non-shielded USB insert on one end, a reversible Type-C connector on the other, and a flexible strap to keep it nicely coiled. Little conveniences like that make customers feel taken care of, and OnePlus continues the practice on the phone itself with a complimentary screen protector. It’s not the best one we’ve used –its rubbery texture is very prone to scratching and oily buildup– but it’s still a nice concession to protection.
Beneath that sits a sheet of Gorilla Glass protecting the OnePlus 2’s 5.5-inch, 1080p LCD. The display is unremarkable: it’s reasonably sharp and it gets bright enough to be seen in most lighting conditions, but its saturation is fairly low and its viewing angles could definitely be better. While the ability to alter the display’s color temperature wasn’t included in the initial software release, OnePlus will include that option in a software update rolling out soon (more on this in a moment).
On the flip side of the phone is the sandstone backing that OnePlus made famous with its first “flagship killer”: a sharkskin coating that gives the chassis a distinctive look and a grippy feel in hand. If you don’t like the sandstone finish, you can –with some effort– pop it off and replace it with any of a number of StyleSwap replacement covers with finishes ranging from kevlar to rosewood. Regardless of which backplate you choose, it’s bordered on all sides by an aluminum/magnesium midplate featuring ports for powerful speakers at bottom, a three-stage notification switch on the left, and volume and power buttons on the right. The switch is fantastic in that it lets you set the OnePlus 2’s notification mode –All, Priority, or None– entirely by feel, and its rough texture makes it stand out. The volume and power keys, by contrast, offer precious little to differentiate them from the phone’s metal frame, or from one another.
Opening up the hood doesn’t get you access to any of the phone’s internals –the 3,300 mAh battery is embedded and there’s no MicroSD expansion here– but you do get a look at the OnePlus 2’s dual SIM tray, which allows you to use the device on two cellular networks simultaneously. Somewhere alongside that tray, buried under the matte plastic of the phone’s casing, sits the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor that serves as the OnePlus 2’s power plant, bordered by either 3GB or 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM and either 16GB or 64GB of storage. (Our review device is the higher-end variant.)
Waking up the phone is a simple matter of placing your thumb on the capacitive home button and letting the (very fast) fingerprint scanner do its work, after which you’re dropped right onto the home screen. Appearances aside, this ain’t your father’s Google phone: for this year’s “flagship killer,” OnePlus has ditched its predecessor’s CyanogenMod build with a custom Android fork called OxygenOS, and while it closely resembles a stock build of Lollipop 5.1.1, it’s significantly more customizable. You can deploy the notification shade with a down-swipe anywhere on the screen, for example – a godsend on a phone as tall as this. You can also control which shortcut toggles you want displayed within that notification drawer; you select what accent and LED colors suit you best; and you get much finer control over app permissions. It’s kind of like getting a preview of Android Marshmallow, and in some ways it’s better: remember that scrubbed plan to allow users to replace the default “light” theme with a darker one in Android M? That option is here on the OnePlus 2, and it looks fantastic.
The custom options don’t stop at interface colors. The home button and the capacitive keys flanking it are programmable: tapping them once gets you the usual home, back, or multitasking functions, while long-pressing or double-clicking them performs other actions like launching the camera or opening Google Now. If capacitive keys aren’t your thing, you can disable them and switch to software controls instead – and even those can be customized according to your whims.
Some of the custom options are more convoluted than they’re worth. While it’s nice to be able to launch the camera or flashlight without unlocking the phone first, we’d prefer a less cumbersome way to do it than doodling on the display. Drawing a circle or a “V” on glass with your thumb is surprisingly time-consuming compared to some other quick-launch options out there. Also, the “Shelf” that OnePlus has anchored to the leftmost home screen is ultimately just a vertically-scrolling list of widgets, coupled with a revamped version of HTC’s Sense Home. While it doesn’t annoy us enough to remove it, it’s also not really useful enough to justify its prominent placement.
OxygenOS incorporates a camera viewfinder that feels like an extrapolation of the Google Camera app, featuring slide-in menu options on the left and a swipe-directly-to-gallery shortcut on the right. In our testing, we found the camera software one of the OnePlus 2’s low points: it’s slow to launch, slow to focus and slow to capture, and swiping into the gallery from the viewfinder is a hit-or-miss affair. At press time, though, OnePlus was preparing a large upgrade to the camera as part of its OxygenOS 2.1 update which was said to include RAW support and full manual controls. We’ll follow up with a dedicated post here once our review device gets the OTA.
Even with the older software, though, this phone already kicks out some really nice photos. We’ve taken it everywhere: from the streets of Boston to the shores of Long Island to the mountains of North Carolina to the Fernsehturms of Berlin, and in each of those locations the OnePlus 2 produced pictures to be proud of. The camera uses an optically stabilized 13MP sensor (OmniVision OV13860) with oversized (1.3 µm) pixels, an f/2.0 aperture, a 6-element lens and laser-assisted autofocus. The result of all that optical technobabble is really nice shots more often than not. For mobile geeks, it’s proof that you don’t need a Sony sensor to get photos worth keeping from a smartphone; for normal people, it’s proof you don’t need to spend a fortune to get the same thing.
As always, the less light there is, the more digital noise creeps in, and that holds true both for primary camera shots and for the phone’s 5MP selfies. There are other shortcomings, too: the camera’s HDR mode doesn’t do the best job of preserving authentic colors; the optical stabilization rig doesn’t do much to counteract bumps during walk-and-talk videos; and focus wanders almost constantly in video mode, which is hugely distracting if you’re moving the camera even a small amount. Hopefully that 2.1 update can fix some of these issues. But on the whole, this is quite a nice camera for the money.
We’ve used the OnePlus 2 for 43 days, across four states and two continents. That’s much more involved than our usual review treatment, and there’s a reason for that: like most other outlets, we initially tested a prerelease media version (it’s the one you saw in our Galaxy S6 comparison). But we saw some strange behavior in that device and wanted to know what using a retail unit felt like, so we opted to hold our review until we could do so. We’ve used the release model for about eight days, and our revised conclusions are drawn largely from this unit.
Probably the most fun part of the OnePlus 2 experience for us has been the dual SIM slots. During our time in North Carolina we often found ourselves at the extreme edges of network coverage, which required us to switch between T-Mobile and AT&T frequently to maintain a connection. That carrier switching was easily done in the phone’s Settings menu, with no rebooting or APN reprogramming necessary. This feature will likely mean little to U.S. customers who tend to have only one cellular carrier, and it’s nothing new to Europeans who are much more accustomed to dual-SIM devices, but it’s a handy feature to have and it’s executed well. Unfortunately the OnePlus 2’s reception fell a little short; the much cheaper Motorola Moto G often did a better job holding onto a signal in fringe areas.
Endurance is a mixed bag. Whether in dual- or single-SIM modes, we routinely got between 4 and 4.5 hours of screen-on time per charge with moderate use. That’s not bad, but it’s also not amazing by any means, and most of last year’s OnePlus One owners were able to do better on those older devices. Annoyingly, there’s also no quick charge support here, so taking it from zero to a full battery takes almost two hours with the stock charger. Plus, if you’re out and about and find yourself in need of a top-up, you’d better hope you didn’t leave your charging cable at home, because not many of your friends are likely to have Type-C USB cables lying around. And speaking of that cable: as stylish as it is, the slim connector on its “wall end” has a devil of a time staying plugged in to a typical full-size USB port.
While we’re tabulating hassles: there’s no wireless charging here, and no NFC hardware either. That means there’s no support for Android Pay, which is just starting to roll out here in the States. Bad timing, OnePlus.
On a brighter note, despite its fearsome reputation the Snapdragon 810 processor will not fry your fingers off – just as we foretold. Yes, the phone gets hot when you’re playing an intense round of Smash Hit or Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, and yes it’ll blast through your battery in no time during such usage … but that’s true of every smartphone out there. Also, you’ll have no trouble hearing the music and sound effects from those games whether you’re using the loud bottom-firing speaker or your headphones, and OnePlus has also included a rudimentary equalizer in its software to tweak the output according to your tastes.
+ Excellent value
+ Camera takes solid photos under most conditions
+ Customizable software
+ Attractive fit and finish
– Mediocre display
– Lacks common features like NFC
– Poor camera performance in video mode
– Slow wired charging
Pricing, Availability, and Context
If you’re looking to get your hands on a OnePlus 2 of your very own, you’re in for a slightly more complicated purchase process than with a conventional smartphone. Yes, you still need to request an invitation for the privilege of purchasing this device; while it’s easier than it was last year, it’s still a convoluted enough process that OnePlus’s CEO felt the need to apologize for recent shipping delays.
Deal with that hassle, and you’re treated to one of the best values in Android. As we mentioned in the introduction, the entry-level OnePlus 2 starts at just $329 unlocked. Considering the underwhelming 16GB of storage on that model, though, we’d recommend most buyers spring for the extra $60 and snag the 64GB version. The 33% boost in RAM at the higher tier is a nice bonus, as well.
Other notable Android phones available near this price point include the Alcatel OneTouch IDOL 3 ($249), Motorola Moto G (2015) ($179) and ASUS ZenFone 2 ($199) on the low end, and the Motorola Moto X Pure Edition ($399) and LG G4 ($479) on the high end.
To be sure, the OnePlus 2’s low price doesn’t excuse all of its shortcomings. Even the most diehard OnePlus fanboy has to admit that the company made its own bed by marketing it as the “2016 Flagship Killer” – it’s not even a 2015 flagship killer. And for all the bluster, the OnePlus 2 still has the soul of a tinkerer’s smartphone, best bought by people with the expertise to tweak away its shortcomings … or the patience to deal with them until “the next update.”
If you possess that patience –or if saving enough money will allow you to find it within yourself– the OnePlus 2 definitely deserves your attention. It’s not the game-changer its predecessor was; phones with identical or even superior specs can now be had for much the same price (see Context above), and this plus its iterative nature means it has to work harder to keep phone geeks interested. But above all that, the OnePlus 2 is an uncommonly good smartphone for under $400 unlocked. That alone makes it worthy of consideration for those trying to save capital without sacrificing capability.