In hindsight, the OnePlus One was a no-brainer. There are very few things people enjoy more than good products that are also cheap, and there are even fewer things that fit such a description in the world of smartphones. Google’s Nexus series had proven that there was a not insignificant amount of people willing to gobble up phones that were mostly high-end but sold on affordability, but the way in which the One came about seemed to catch people off guard.
Here you had this Shenzhen-based startup, with its first ever phone (a device it called a “flagship killer”), barging its way into conversations usually dominated by the same five or six manufacturers. Even for a group whose roots are in an established company the way OnePlus is with fellow Chinese firm Oppo, this doesn’t happen often. But it did, despite naming its device after a basic math equation, despite running a strange and occasionally tone-deaf marketing campaign, and despite selling the phone through a truly convoluted “invite system” that prevented many people interested in the One from actually buying it.
OnePlus could get away with all of that, though, because the One’s price was so right. For $300, you got a genuine flagship, with a new chipset and big fancy screen and the works. It’s a simple pitch, but one that’s difficult for a market conditioned on a few familiar brands and that $600-700 high-end price point to trust. If you have a weirdly-named phone, from a company you’ve never heard of, at a price that’s half as expensive as the devices most similar to it, you’d think there has to be some sort of catch to it. But there isn’t, at least once you have the phone in your hands—there’s just a tremendous value.
It’s been just over a year since the One launched, and with a successor on the horizon, OnePlus has dropped the aforementioned invite system and made its current flagship available in the traditional way. Even with a new crop of flagships out and about, it’s still very much a phone worth grabbing. Here’s why.
The Specs Remain Strong
As has been the trend for a few years now, the annual spec boost between last year’s higher-end phones and those of this year isn’t terribly great. For most people’s needs, the One’s Snapdragon 801 SoC and 3 GB of RAM will keep any performance-related problems to a minimum. The phone can get a little hot if you push it with heavier tasks for an extended period of time, but we couldn’t say it has an overheating issue the way the newer Snapdragon 810 chipset does. In that sense, some of the One’s internals are arguably preferable to those within the LG G Flex 2, HTC One M9, and other 810 devices. For navigating the UI, opening up apps, gaming, and the vast majority of other tasks, it still flies. Although it can’t reach the peaks of newer SoCs, there’s still nothing here that you won’t be able to run with some speed.
The One’s 5.5-inch, 1080p LCD display seems a little more dated now that the Galaxy S6, Nexus 6, and LG G3 have started making 1440p panels the norm, but as we’ve argued in the past, that jump in resolution doesn’t bring many added benefits in and of itself. With a pixel density of 401 ppi, the One’s screen is still plenty sharp. Everything else about it is still fantastic, too. Colors can’t get as surreal as they can on a good OLED screen like the Galaxy S6’s, but they’re about as accurate as you can get on an LCD panel. Contrast is also beyond fine, and both the viewing angles and brightness levels here are fantastic. Again, it’s difficult to see many people complaining over something that’s consistently well above-average.
CyanogenMod 12S is Generally Excellent
Besides its price point, the other notable oddity about the One is the fact that it runs CyanogenMod—basically a lightly modified version of stock Android—instead of a custom skin or stock Android itself. Although OnePlus has experimented with a light skin of its own in recent months, CyanogenMod is still the default, and its latest 12S update started rolling out to One devices a couple of weeks ago.
For the week or so we’ve been using it, it’s been great. The KitKat-based fork that shipped with the One was prone to bugs and other sketchy moments—our unit had a habit of turning on its flashlight uncontrollably, for instance, or preventing us from ever using the power button—but thus far the 12S experience has been noticeably smoother. Past iterations often wouldn’t let you forget that you were using a third-party mod, but, for now at least, the whole thing just comes off as a little more refined.
It’s better looking, too. CyanogenMod is essentially stock Android with a chunk of extra options thrown in, so using the One isn’t too different from using a Nexus device at its core. Really, it’s like the budget Nexus phone that never came last year. The icons, animations, and Material Design influences of stock Lollipop are all onboard, with no redundant apps or TouchWiz-style aesthetic clashes to confuse things. All of its own functions are well camouflaged within the standard interface. It’s Moto-like in its consistency, because it wisely doesn’t mess with the good things Google has created. There aren’t many phones that can claim that.
Where CyanogenMod shines is in all the extras it has on top of those good things. If you can think of any nifty addition a third-party Android OEM has baked into its custom skin, chances are in it’s in here too. There’s a suite of handy gesture controls, including a double tap to wake function and easy shortcuts for accessing the camera, flashlight, and music playback options. There’s an “ambient display” option that puts notification on the home screen in a low-power state. There’s an “adaptive brightness” one that does exactly what its name suggests. There’s a more granular level of security and privacy control, including a built-in number blocker and a “Privacy Guard” menu that lets you manage how much personal data various apps can access. There’s a fairly expansive theme store, and the ability to change themes on a per-app basis instead of messing with the entire UI. You can change the look of the info in the status bar. You can customize the layout of the notifications menu. You can create multiple user profiles—a feature that was in CyanogenMod before Lollipop included it.
You get the idea. All of these bonuses can be overwhelming if you dive too deep into them, but Cyanogen does a good job of neatly tucking them away and making them all optional. If you want to really mess around and customize your phone, you can, and that’s rewarding in its own way. It saves you some time, and lets you feel like you’re making this weird phone you ordered from China your own. But if you just want to put your apps on the home screen and end it there, the OS never feels like it’s pushing its tricks down your throat. Some of CyanogenMod’s extras aren’t always functional—its take on voice controls has a hard time picking up commands, for one—but most of them are, or at least can be useful. Now that it runs a little more crisply, it’s easier to recommend.
The Competition is Still Pricey
Beyond the fact that it’s just a good phone, the One continues to be viable a year after launch simply because it’s still more affordable than most of its peers. It’s $300-350 cheaper than this year’s flagships, which mostly offsets any drop-offs in power and build quality, but even compared to the high-end phones from last year, it remains bargain.
The Galaxy S5, One M8, LG G3, Moto X, and others go for around $500 unsubsidized these days, which is a definite step down, but isn’t really close to the mid-range tier that the One hangs around in. There just isn’t any other recent phone providing this kind of ability at this kind of price point. The only comparable competitor is the Moto G—that’s $120 cheaper, but also brings a decided decline from the high-end power of the One.
Now, There are Undeniable Issues…
Lest we make it sound like everything about the One is sunshine and roses, it’s worth noting that it does have some faults that gradually reveal themselves as you use it more often. It’s still a top-tier purchase, but as a phone it has clear imperfections.
Battery life is the primary concern: Even after applying the CyanogenMod 12S update, we’ve been lucky to get through a single day with any juice leftover. With average use, we’re usually in need of a charge by the time the evening rolls around. You can see percentage points drop off in real time just by browsing the web or checking Twitter—play a session of a graphics-heavy game like Hitman Go and bigger chunks will be chopped off by the time you’re done. It’s something that gets worse as time goes on, and the fact that the 3,100mAh pack is non-removable makes things that much more troubling. The one plus (!) here is that the One’s proprietary charger is quick to fill the device back up.
The rest of the device isn’t shabby at all, but looks a little worse for wear as the past year has gone by. The 13-megapixel main camera wasn’t a world-beater when the One first launched, but now it’s especially meh in light of the spectacular efforts put out by the Galaxy S6 and most recent iPhones. Like most mediocre Android cameras, it’s capable of taking some detailed, accurately colored shots in good lighting conditions, but struggles with noise and softness in darker surroundings. Its autofocus is quick, and its camera app is simple, but you can get higher quality shots on most of its competitors.
The One’s design also feels somewhat dated after the general uptick in build quality that’s infiltrated Android phones over the past few months. The “sandstone” texture that makes up its rear is legitimately unique, but it doesn’t evoke the kind of high-end feel that a good aluminum, glass, or even wood (in the Moto X’s case) back can provide. It’s an odd material more than anything, and while it’s not cheap, it comes off as one of the areas where OnePlus compromised to meet its price point. It also scratches easily, though the fabric is such that those can be wiped away without much trouble. It does deserve credit for being more than your everyday black rectangle, at least.
Most everything else is just a heap of minor quibbles, the kind of things that don’t mean much individually but add up to remind you that this is still a $300 phone. Call quality is rough. The speakers are loud but not full. There’s no microSD support (though for $50 more you can get 64 GB of storage by default). The phone’s body is light enough, thin enough, and curved enough to feel comfortable in the hand, but it’s a smidge too tall, making one-handed use more difficult than it is on other phablets of a similar size. CyanogenMod is solid, but it’s not from Google, so OS updates like the recent 12S one take much longer to roll out here than they would on a Nexus or Moto device. Then there’s the fact that you’re buying directly from a Chinese startup, which brings up a host of potential warranty and support service issues.
…But More Phones Like This Need to Exist
Still, this is a $300 phone in a $500 phone’s body. Smartphones today have gotten boring, because they’ve hit somewhere close to the peak of most of the things that matter. Annual spec boosts can only push them so far. Annual design revamps can only come so often before they start to feel like change for change’s sake. The phone makers want to innovate, because that can sell, but there isn’t much more they can do with a formula most users have grown comfortable with.
So how can we liven all of this up? With more phones like the OnePlus One, and more devices that make the good stuff affordable for more people. You’re not making a statement by buying a smartphone, but fostering the growth of devices like this (and the Moto G, and the Moto E) can at least make it feasible for people who aren’t rolling in it to enjoy similar pleasures as the people who are. Inexpensive doesn’t have to be a bad word. The margins are thinning at the top of the market, but devices like the One allow more love to be shared in the middle. It did this a year ago, and it still does it today.