Take a look at any roundup of the best smartphones under $300 and you’re bound to find a list of compromises. Handsets like Motorola’s Moto G and ASUS’s ZenFone 2 bring useful features like waterproofing or high-end silicon, but skimp on fit and finish. Devices like the BLU Vivo Air go the other way, delivering a sleek and slender build but sacrificing essentials like LTE in the process. This is understandable given the enormous challenges inherent in modern smartphone design; after all, manufacturers can only deliver so much quality at a given price.
With its newest smartphone, OnePlus looks to change the game. At $249, the OnePlus X is the company’s most affordable handheld ever – but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. The OnePlus X is a gorgeous smartphone, and it packs a beautiful display and a capable feature set as well. In some ways it even eclipses its higher-end sibling, the OnePlus 2. With almost a third of its press release devoted to a description of the
manufacturing “crafting” process, OnePlus positions the X as an artisanal smartphone, fusing “sleek design with flagship-level performance.”
That’s a claim as common as it is ostentatious – and like most phones, the OnePlus X doesn’t quite live up to it. But where it shines, it positively gleams. The result is a unique Android smartphone whose charms mostly outweigh its faults (so long as you keep its price tag in mind).
OnePlus X Review Video
More than anything, the OnePlus X is about style. While our initial hands-on featured the more expensive ceramic edition, our review device is the standard Onyx build – and it’s exquisite. A pane of Gorilla Glass 3 up front and one of “fire-baked scratch-resistant glass” on the backside come together in an aluminum alloy midplate featuring Art Deco-style striping and subtle chamfers that twinkle in the light. The volume and power buttons are textured in radial circles, standing out much more readily than their equivalents on the OnePlus 2 and delivering better mechanical feedback as well. OnePlus has also carried over the notification slider from its flagship, allowing ringer settings to be changed with the flick of a switch.
In the hand, the feel is nothing short of sublime. By making use of a modest 5-inch display with fairly minimal bezels, OnePlus has produced a rarity in the Android world: a smallish phone with top-shelf design that can be comfortably used one-handed. Because this is a OnePlus device running OxygenOS, you don’t need to reach to the top of the screen for notifications, or below the screen for the capacitive keys (more on this below) but you absolutely can if you want to. The resulting one-handed usability reminds us of Sony’s Compact series, but at a lissome 6.9mm the OnePlus X is nowhere near as girthy as those devices have become. And the use of a Full-HD AMOLED panel means that blacks blend right in with the bezel, while colors seem to leap right off the screen. This is another area where the OnePlus X outshines its more-expensive forerunner the OnePlus 2, whose LCD panel seems washed-out by comparison.
To heap more praise upon the hardware would be to run the risk of gushing, so let’s cover the negatives. To start with: this is one of the most slippery phones we’ve ever used. Not since the LG Optimus G have we encountered a device that so readily slithers across a tabletop, pant leg or armrest – and our review device bears the scratches from no less than five falls on hardwood flooring to prove it. While the glass has resisted shattering from drops of up to three feet, the soft aluminum midplate already shows numerous dents. The slippery oleophobic coating might be easier to live with if it did a better job resisting smudges, but the OnePlus X is an absolute magnet for fingerprints. Sadly, they can’t be put to any practical use: there’s no fingerprint reader in sight.
The phone’s internal hardware, like an office-friendly radio station, is “a blend of yesterday and today.” An older quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 sits at the heart of the device, backed up by 3GB of LPDDR3 RAM and 16GB of storage, 11.5 of which is available to the user. Augmenting that storage is a MicroSD expansion slot good for another 128GB, or you can choose to double up on SIMs and use the phone on more than one wireless carrier. While the DSDS (dual-SIM/dual-standby) setup requires the user to choose which SIM is active at any given time, both SIM slots are 4G-enabled. Unfortunately, the OnePlus X lacks NFC, making it incompatible with Android Pay. Perhaps more seriously, it also omits LTE Band 12 and Band 17 support, which significantly affects 4G coverage on both T-Mobile and AT&T (see Performance, below).
The OnePlus X runs OxygenOS 2.1.2, a custom fork of Android 5.1.1 that we explored in detail in our OnePlus 2 review. The below impressions have been carried over from that review, with modifications where necessary.
Waking the OnePlus X from standby is a simple matter of double-tapping the home screen or pressing the power/standby button, which is positioned perfectly for our average-sized man-hands. The OnePlus X also offers an enhanced version of the Nexus family’s Ambient Display; when there’s a waiting notification, the phone periodically projects it onto the screen in power-saving monochrome. OnePlus improves upon the Nexus implementation with Proximity Wake, which uses the front-facing camera to trigger Ambient Display when a hand is waved over the phone’s face.
While the OnePlus X isn’t nearly as tall as the OnePlus 2, it’s still nice to be able to deploy the notification shade with a swipe-down gesture anywhere on the homescreen. 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 than a device running stock Lollipop. Also carried over from the OnePlus 2: the ability to run a systemwide “light” or “dark” theme.
Since OnePlus opted not to include LEDs for the X’s capacitive buttons, we chose to sacrifice some screen real estate for the always-on softkeys instead. As before, the position of the back and multitasking keys can be swapped. If you decide to stick with the physical buttons despite their lack of illumination, you get some more shortcut options as well. Long-pressing or double-clicking those buttons performs other actions like starting the camera or opening Google Now.
How much value OxygenOS offers will depend on how you prefer to use your smartphone. Drawing a circle or a “V” on the glass will launch the camera or the flashlight, respectively … a cute but convoluted alternative to other quick-launch options out there. (Turning on Ambient Display largely circumvents these gestures, as the phone almost always wakes the screen automatically when taken from a pocket.) The “Shelf” that OnePlus has anchored to the leftmost home screen remains little more than a vertically-scrolling list of widgets, coupled with a rough approximation of HTC’s Sense Home; while it occasionally comes in handy, it can be disabled if you want to do your own thing.
While it would certainly be nice to run stock Marshmallow on the OnePlus X, OxygenOS remains one of our favorite Android flavors. Its added features are convenient at best and inoffensive at worst, and its cosmetic customizations do a nice job of complementing the beautiful hardware here. OnePlus tells us a Marshmallow update is coming “sometime next year,” but the company has yet to commit to a firm date.
Like the OnePlus 2, the OnePlus X features a 13MP camera sensor – but the similarities end there. Rather than sticking with its predecessor’s OmniVision sensor, OnePlus has opted for a Samsung ISOCELL module (Samsung 3M2 CMOS, the same sensor used by the Oppo R7) featuring an f/2.2 aperture and no optical image stabilization. The result is a camera that produces adequate results in bright light – and that’s about as good as it gets.
If you’re planning on keeping and showing most of your photos on the phone itself, the AMOLED display helps a lot by artificially boosting contrast and saturation. Take them off the device though, and the colors wither to a shadow of their former selves. Zoom in and the detail falls apart, edges corrupted by digital noise, a smooth blue sky devolving into a grainy stretch of dusty felt. Brightly-lit zones are often overexposed. Colorful rows of pink flower petals appear as a washed-out expanse of salmon-colored feathers.
The lower the light gets, the tougher it becomes to gain and keep focus: we’ve shot acceptable night photos right alongside terrible ones, with the only difference being half a second and a minor focus adjustment. As with most smartphone cameras, mild grain in good lighting degrades into full-bore digital noise at night. Setting the phone to HDR mode helps it gather more light in very dim nighttime scenes, and using the resolution-enhancing Clear Image mode does add needed sharpness by combining multiple exposures into one large photo, but these are inconsistent workarounds.
There’s absolutely nothing special about the phone’s video performance, which maxes out at 1080p and exhibits many of the same handicaps as the stills do, with the added shakes and shimmies that come from a lack of stabilization (see review video, above). Selfie quality on the front-facing 8MP camera varies significantly depending on lighting, but as with most selfie shooters, it’s good enough given plenty of light. Its skin-smoothing Beauty Mode –which is enabled by default– does a good job of spiffing up your complexion without getting too crazy.
All told, the camera is probably the weakest aspect of the OnePlus X. This is no great surprise given its price point; it’s tough for most OEMs to get the camera right on even the most expensive smartphones. And for those who confine their photo sharing to casual stints on Facebook and Twitter it’ll get the job done. But those who take a measure of pride in their smartphone photography (even mildly-serious Instagram devotees) may want to look elsewhere.
The camera isn’t the only corner OnePlus seems to have cut in order to hit a specific price tier. Our six days of usage on T-Mobile and AT&T in rural New York have opened our eyes to a few pain points.
Probably the most significant of these, for US customers, is 4G network performance. As mentioned above, the OnePlus X lacks support for LTE Band 12 and Band 17. That means it’s completely incapable of using either T-Mobile’s or AT&T’s 700 MHz spectrum in the United States, which is a shame because those bands are particularly well-suited to indoor coverage. In our test market (Eastern Suffolk County, NY), that had little bearing on T-Mobile performance but sometimes prevented us from using AT&T’s 4G network at all. We even got an oddball text message from AT&T upon inserting our SIM, informing us that our “2G device” would soon be obsoleted and encouraging us to visit a store to upgrade. While it’s possible this was a symptom of a badly-provisioned SIM or an improper APN selection, it was still frustrating to be confined to 3G on America’s second-largest network. If you live in a market serviced exclusively by AT&T Band 17 or one which T-Mobile is targeting for Band 12 inclusion, you’ll want to think twice about picking up the OnePlus X. It won’t work as well as phones that include support for these lower frequencies, more of which can be expected to hit the scene as carriers roll out more coverage in the 700 MHz band. (On the bright side, none of this affects voice quality: the OnePlus X features a clear earpiece, and its 138g mass is no burden to hold up for a long call.)
Other handicaps are less significant but still worth mentioning. The bottom-firing speaker –only the left-hand grill seems to conceal a speakerphone– is easy to accidentally block with a finger, and while it’s usually loud enough, it’s prone to raspy playback. Battery life is better than we expected given the smallish 2525 mAh power pack, but it’s nothing special: while we were able to hit 4 hours of screen-on-time once over a moderate day of usage, a maximum of 3 hours SoT was more typical. That’s similar to the performance we got out of the Moto X Pure Edition – but that phone could be recharged rapidly, while the OnePlus X can’t. The lack of Qualcomm QuickCharge means that even using a 25W TurboPower adapter, the OnePlus X charges at a plodding 1% per minute or less through its USB 2.0 port.
As you might expect given the phone’s aging silicon, performance suffers somewhat in high-demand applications. Games like Asphalt 8: Airborne, which used to run quite well on the 801, have seen upgrades since to enhance their graphics. As a result the OnePlus X struggles to run the game smoothly at maximum quality settings (“medium” is about as high as we could go to maintain a playable frame rate). In day-to-day swipes and taps the phone is usually very snappy, but like some other devices it does bog down during rapid typing on the Google Keyboard. Fortunately these slowdowns are confined to specific and small corners of the experience. Still, we wonder what OnePlus could have done with a more-modern midrange processor like the Snapdragon 617, which serves the HTC One A9 quite well (and brings rapid charging to boot).
+ Excellent fit and finish at a manageable size
+ MicroSD expansion
+ Useful software improvements
+ Competitive price
– Extremely slippery
– Subpar camera
– Lacks important LTE bands for the US
– Aging chipset
Pricing and Availability
The OnePlus X will go on sale in the US on November 19th, following initial availability in Europe which began November 5. The phone is available for purchase through OnePlus’s invite system, which distributes invitations to purchase by means of a reservation list, as well as via occasional offers on social media. Additionally, buyers who have purchased a OnePlus X can invite others to buy the device. The OnePlus X sells for $249/€269.
Those prices apply only to the Onyx (glass) edition; the Ceramic version of the OnePlus X costs €369 and will be confined to a limited run of 10,000 units, available through special invites in the EU and India markets only starting November 24.
At its base price, the Onyx edition of the OnePlus X comes in just $80 cheaper than the OnePlus 2. The larger model outshines it in virtually every sense, from processor to power pack, so the natural question is: who’d buy the X when they could get the 2? Or better yet, who’d buy the X when they could spend $70 less on the very capable Moto G?
The answer is simple: the OnePlus X wasn’t built for those who notice or care about gigahertz or milliamps, water resistance or drop tests. It was built for those who want a beautiful accessory first and a capable smartphone second; those who don’t mind waiting another few seconds for an app to load, as long as they look good doing it. It was built, in short, for the exact opposite of the typical OnePlus 2 buyer.
For those people, the OnePlus X is an excellent option. The dated processor and mediocre camera will probably go mostly unnoticed, drowned out by the brilliant build quality and a cohesive software experience that’s absurdly good at this price point. Even those with more demanding mobile needs may be tempted by the potent mixture of a sensibly-sized Android smartphone with a reasonable price tag in tow. In terms of fit and finish, the OnePlus X is the gold standard of midrange smartphones. For $249, you may be able to find a smarter sidekick … but you’re not likely to find a prettier one.