OnePlus One Review: Astounding Value For Money

Reviews Andrew Williams 11:20, 7 Nov 2014

The OnePlus One got its release date in June. But it's still rarer than hen's teeth. We snagged one, though! Here's our OnePlus One review

Typical Price: 
Amazing value Fairly decent camera Good specs and performance Large, sharp screen
Faulty 4G Low call volume
A couple of fairly serious problems hold it back from perfection, but the OnePlus One is one of this year's top smartphone bargains.

OnePlus is less than a year old, but it has already slapped a great big wet fish across the faces of companies like Samsung, HTC and LG. Its first phone, the OnePlus One, has many of the same specs as their £500+ phones, but costs just £229.

The OnePlus One is just one of the new wave of smartphones coming out of China that eschew high-cost launches in favour of something, well, a bit different. Xiaomi, often called the Apple of China, kicked things off in 2012/13 with the launch of a series of low-cost, spec-heavy handsets which, in the space of a few short years went on to dominate the world’s biggest mobile market. 

The OnePlus One is slightly different, however, as it didn’t go the network route, preferring instead to oversee the entire retail aspect itself – sort of like how Google retails its Nexus devices in Google Play. The phone itself comes unlocked, meaning the consumer is free to shop around for the best tariff in the country. And because doing things this way allows OnePlus to keep additional, variable costs (marketing, advertising, distribution) well below those undertaken by Samsung and HTC, it can pass on the savings to the consumer.

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei recently confirmed to Forbes that sales of the OnePlus One have now exceeded 500,000. Not bad for a company that claims to have only spent $300 on marketing. So what’s next? A MILLION obviously, and Pei reckons the company is on track to hit that goal before the close of 2014, although Pei did concede that it wouldn’t be easy (read: impossible) but added they were going to aim for the figure anyway – no guts, no glory. 

Not heard of OnePlus or its One phone? As the nerd phone sensation of the year, it's a sign you may have healthy social skills and a non-dysfunctional relationship with the Internet. Well done you. But I think it's really about time you two got acquainted.

OnePlus One Review: Design

The OnePlus One is a big phone. It's bigger than all the most famous 5-inch phones of the year because it has a pretty large 5.5-inch screen. And unlike the LG G3, it doesn't have a screen bezel thinner than Nic Cage's real hair. 

It is a handful, and I think that if you're upgrading from something like the Nexus 4 or Moto G – two other phones that got bargain hunters all in a flutter – you need to get your hands on one first. But, of course, you can't. OnePlus only sells the One from its website at the moment. Head into a phone shop and ask about it and you'll probably get a blank look followed by a prod in the direction of whatever phone will earn the little scrote the most commission. 

But we digress. Aside from the size issue, the OnePlus One is a nice-feeling phone. And it's also a rather weird-feeling phone. The texture on its plastic back is quite unusual, with a soft touch-style finish that's also quite rough. Some say it's like fine sandpaper, others that it's like a teddy bear version of shark skin (no, we've never actually heard this, but it's about right).

It's this feel, more than the look, which adds distinctiveness to the design of the black 64GB version of the OnePlus we're testing. The look is more conventional. You get an inoffensive silver plastic screen trim, low-key light-up soft keys and a footprint that's a little more angular than some, but not so much it's noteworthy. 

The stats tell the same story – the 8.9mm thickness, the 162g weight. They're all competitive without trying to be thinner or lighter than everyone else. OnePlus cares about saving you money more than providing a phone dazzling enough to make your eyes pop out so far they can make their own way to A+E.

OnePlus Drops Swappable Back Cover Production

OnePlus is not exactly a company that's covering itself with glory just lately, but the latest news is sure to dissapoint a few more customers. If you were interested in (or have already bought) the OnePlus One for its customisable back panel capabilities, prepare to be a bit upset as OnePlus has announced it will no longer produce interchangeable back panels for its flagship device.

The company is attributing the move to manufacturing problems, apparently a majority of panels produced did not meet its quality standards. There is a limited run of successfully produced bamboo covers which will still be sold, and OnePlus will be offering limited edition varaiants of the phone with the denim or kevlar panels included - but it seems you won't be able to buy them individually any more.

"We want to note that our "StyleSwap" covers were an ambitious and innovative concept for us; very few companies offer similar options. We focused heavily on how it would allow users to personalize and customize Ones," the company said in a statement.

"But now we know that we could have designed the removal process of the back covers better; it's tricky and makes frequent switches dificult. The swap can also leave the back cover slightly creaky or loose, and it risks damage to the battery, which is exposed for a short time."

It added, "There's no question that we are disappointed we were not able to deliver on this. But we're much more knowledgeable and know what steps to take to ensure this will not be a problem for the OnePlus 2, we will make sure the battery is properly protected and the StyleSwap covers are safe easy to replace. So as always, stay tuned." 

OnePlus One Review: Screen

OnePlus has made sure the screen is a bit more noteworthy, though. You get 5.5 inches of IPS LCD display, where you'd be lucky to get a smaller 720p display from better-known rivals at this price. It's a good screen too, one that can stand next to rivals like the LG G2 and HTC One M8 without looking like the only kid that couldn't afford the Nike trainers. No, you don't get the deep blacks of the Samsung Galaxy S5, and no you don't get the ridiculous QHD resolution of the LG G3. But should you care? I don't think so. Not at £230, and probably not all that much even at £500.

Everything still looks very sharp, and the colours don't look radioactive or anaemic. You don't have to pay all that much to get a good phone screen these days but we don't normally see something this good and such a bargain basement price. It is, frankly, insane. The tone of the screen does come across as a little too warm but apparently this was a deliberate move on OnePlus’ part (so make of that what you will).

OnePlus One Review: Software and User Experience

But what's the phone actually like to use? The OnePlus One uses an interesting open source community version of Android called CyanogenMod. People fond of tinkering with their phones install this on their devices after hacking them, but this time around you get it right out of the box.

On a very basic level, it looks and feels a lot like 'normal' Android. It doesn't instantly come across as software designed by a committee of nerds – which is pretty much what it is. 

It does offer a lot more scope for fiddling with than the normal version of Android, but unlike the software of Samsung and co., CyanogenMod doesn't offer endless reams of pop-ups telling you how to use superfluous function X or how to turn off gesture command Y. Here the features are simply there if you look for them. I think this is a good thing, but it does mean that the OnePlus One isn't a phone that people new to tech are going to get the most out of. 

Still, one part of CyanogenMod's customisation is very accessible – themes. A themes browser app comes pre-installed, showing off all the custom looks you can give your OnePlus One. There are dozens of the things to choose from, made by all sorts of people, not just the makers of CyanogenMod.

These alter things from the wallpaper to the icons to the lock screen. You're free to give your One more facelifts than Joan Rivers if that's your bag. There are plenty of good-looking ones too, but as with any third-party Android makeovers, there's a lot of dross also.

Android 4.4.4 Update Comes To OnePlus One

OnePlus have issued the Android 4.4.4 update for the OnePlus One. The updated CyanogenMod software brings with it a HEAP of changes, which you can see, in full, below:    

  • Updated to new versions of Google apps
  • Added Clear Image
  • Added new (colder) calibration for the screen
  • Proximity sensor prevents activation of off-screen gestures while in your pocket
  • Capacitive touch keys supported in the recovery mode
  • Increased capacitive button illumination
  • Improved overall stability
  • Fixed issues with vibration being disabled during Quiet Hours
  • Fixed lockscreen not updating the track information during music playback
  • Fixed microphone volume for all formats in the Voice Recorder app
  • Fixed “OK, Google” not triggering voice search in Google Now
  • Fixed Viber calls not working
  • Fixed battery percent not updating in custom lock screens
  • Fixed PicasaSync
  • Fixed Camera “O” gesture activating lockscreen instead of triggering camera
  • Fixed wallpapers not applying in full screen, taking the wrong size when cropping, etc.

The OnePlus One might also be one of the first Android handsets, aside from Google’s Nexus 5, to be updated to Android L. According to company execs, the next build of CyanogenMod is based on Android L and will be shipped out to OnePlus One handsets as soon as Google makes the Android L code officially available. Here’s an official statement from the company:

“So a lot – I mean, a lot – of people are asking about whether we’ll be getting on the Android L train. It was announced while I was asleep and when I got back to work the morning after, there were already a bunch of forum posts and (strangely) customer support requests about it.” 

“Well, we’re keen to announce today that the OnePlus One will indeed be getting the L treatment. When, you ask? That depends on Google. We promise to have it done within three months of their releasing a final build.”

CyanogenMod Firmware Updated To CM 11S 38R

OnePlus has released another update for the One, this time it's new CyanogenMod firmware designated CM 11S 38R and being pushed out over-the-air. As well as the usual package of bugfixes and optimisation tweaks, a few new features and capabilities are introduced with this build.

Of particular significane is included support for a wider range of audio codecs, battery life has been improved, and there's also support for ANT+. In addition the camera app now supports RAW format.

Here's the official changelog:

  • Improves the responsiveness of the touchscreen.
  • A new and very cool lockscreen.
  • Ability to take photos in RAW format.
  • Enhanced audio capabilities (24 bit, 96/192khz—flac/alac/wav files without resampling).
  • ANT+ support.
  • Added method for users to report bugs directly to Cyanogen.
  • Added pause button during video recording.
  • Improved battery life.

And bugfixes:

  • Fixed issues with camera exposure compensation stuck in ‘auto’.
  • Fixed issues with ‘4G Preferred’ option not connecting to 3G data.
  • Fixed issues with delay in torch activation.
  • Fixed issues with unresponsive screen requiring reboot.
  • Fixed issues with static in speaker when changing volume while headset plugged in.
  • Fixed issues with rotation not triggering when rotated slowly.
  • Fixed issues with Quiet Hours / system UI causing battery drain on last day of month.
  • Fixed issues with camera not starting when LED torch is already on.
  • Fixed issues with Bluetooth volume low on connection.

OnePlus One Review: Specs and Performance

OnePlus Silver Bullet Earphones For Your OnePlus One

OnePlus has now made some high-spec (yet affordable) earphones to accompany your OnePlus One handset. The in-ear earphones are called the Silver Bullet Earphones and you’ll be able to buy them in all 16 launch countries from September 29.

In the US each pair will cost only $15 but it’s unclear how much a set will cost in any other market. A straight up conversation means it’ll be under a tenner, an absolute bargain.

OnePlus said in a blog post, “We have meticulously engineered the Silver Bullet to deliver powerful and immersive sound while ensuring a compact yet durable feel.

“The brushed aluminium casing perfectly complements the rugged texture of the One’s Sandstone Black cover. Best of all, now you are in control of your music, camera, and voice calls without ever having to reach for your One.”

With a Snapdragon 801 quad-core 2.5GHz processor and software that's ultimately reasonably similar to the Android 4.4.2 kernel it's based on, the OnePlus One predictably offers pretty great performance. There's no obvious lagginess, games run as well as they do on a Galaxy S5 and the 3GB of RAM should ensure pretty decent speed even if you decimate the phone's internal storage with your Farmvilles, your Clashes of Clans and photos of your dinner. 

However, we did notice the occasional visual glitch, down to bugs in the CyanogenMod 11S software used in the OnePlus One. There's nothing major, but it's a reminder that you're using a very good community project, not a version of Android made by a multi-billion dollar company.

OnePlus One Review: 4G and OnePlus Problems

There's also some evidence of this kind of bubbly youthful inexperience in less obvious parts of the hardware too. While the OnePlus One is a 4G phone, it doesn't offer perfect 4G support; not in the UK anyway.

The frequencies it supports leave out the 800MHz band used by many of this country's networks. O2 4G won't work, neither will Vodafone's. And as O2 4G isn't supported, that also rules out Tesco, GiffGaff and Lyca Mobile. Those last three are important because their super-competitive 4G deals and the OnePlus One's low price match up like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. And no, that is not a gay joke.

The OnePlus One will work with EE and, to a lesser extent, Three (part of its 4G uses 800Hz). But this is the key reason why I would think twice before buying the One. 

Another weird issue is that anything that uses the microphone comes out very, very quiet. Calls are too quiet, ditto dictaphone recordings. However as this appears to be a software issue – as the internal speaker is incredibly loud – a fix should be on the way at some point. Fingers crossed. 

OnePlus One Review: Camera

Back to the good stuff, the OnePlus One's camera is pretty decent. It's not Samsung Galaxy S5 good, but if we compare it to £250 phones, it's among the very best. 

It has a 13-megapixel sensor on the back, and a 5-megapixel selfie one on the front – the latter is unusually high-res. You don't get optical stabilisation or any whizzy doodad-sounding focusing technology, just good old contrast detection, but you can get nice, sharp shots without too much effort. And while low-light shots are quite grainy, they're not too bad either.

You get a few extra modes in the OnePlus One, including panorama, creative filters and HDR, but nothing quite on the level of the Samsung Galaxy S5 or Sony Xperia Z2. And while the HDR mode is super-effective (see below images) it does look a little too 'larger than life' – the mode advanced mobile HDR modes offer effectiveness without looking like your camera has dropped a tab of acid.

The front camera is a real standout thanks to its 5-megapixel sensor. Colours in photos are a little under saturated and you'll never look more wrinkly and more tired than you will in a 5-megapixel selfie. But such things are largely the preserve of the young and happy anyway. Morose old gits may have a go, but probably shouldn't. 

This selfie camera is one of the few bits where the OnePlus One might be seen as showing off a bit. However, one of the best bits is quite how surprisingly easy the phone is to get on with thanks to its relatively straightforward approach. The battery helps too – good hardware efficiency means the 3,100mAh battery lasts for a solid day and a half, or around 11 hours of video playback.

Of course, this all only adds up to so much if you're desperate for 4G when the OnePlus has worse UK 4G support than the £80 Alcatel One Touch Pop S3.

OnePlus One Review: Conclusion

The OnePlus One is a great phone that sells at a frankly ridiculous price. We thought the Nexus 5 and LG G2 were good value – they still are – but the OnePlus One is on another level.

But it does have a few issues – namely that 4G issue and the noted software bugs. Also, it’s easier to come across weapons-grade Plutonium in the UK than this handset. Collectively, these are all things that limit the phone's appeal. And what about the future? Buying a OnePlus One is a leap of faith, simply because the company that makes it is so small, so young, so inexperienced. 

Work around these not-exactly-trifling problems, though, and you have a top phone bargain.

OnePlus One Pre-Orders Go Live October 27

Further to the company's previous revelation that it would abandon the invite-only distribution system and instead adopt a regular sales model and pre-orders during October, a more precise date and further details have emerged.

According to new information from OnePlus, pre-orders for the OnePlus One will go live on October 27 at 15:00 GMT (UK time). Anyone interested in buying a OnePlus can get in on the act early by visiting the product page and saving a handset to their shopping cart. You can then return to the store on the October 27 date and submit a payment.

OnePlus also revealed that during this pre-order period, accessories listed on the web store will have reduced prices.

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