[Review] The No-Nonsense OnePlus One

Short version: Yes it’s good. It surprisingly trumps many other far more expensive devices and the codename for the phone is ‘bacon’. Even so, it’s not for everybody.

There are many things that I see making technology headlines that I have absolutely no need to EVER use. Things like Vessyl, the Kickstarter-backed cup that tells you what you just poured in. How else could you trust yourself? Hapifork, to tell you to stop stuffing your mouth with delicious meatballs. Or ‘The Hug‘, a ‘fitness-band’ you place around your water bottle, that tells you that you need to be drinking more water. Who knows how humans have survived for hundreds of thousands of years with such chores like eating and drinking afflicting us. This is essentially where we’re at right now, technology for it’s own sake.

Simplicity is the universal tenet that’s finally resurfacing, at least for some, bombarded as we are by a cacophony of new fitness devices, smartwatches, smart eyewear, smart thermostats and the constant notifications, messages and security breaches that go along with it all. If there’s anything that I’ve learnt in my history of buying gadgets, it’s that there’s NEVER a shortage of even more gadgets. The smartphones of the last 12 months have offered heartbeart sensors, depth sensors, fingerprint ID, infrared blasters, faux leather plastic, buttons on the back, bezel-less frames, just about every possible gimmick imaginable.

But what if you just want your phone ‘simple’? Not basic, but simple, this is what the One offers.

 DSC01234  Impossible to accuse of being overly gaudy or glitzy, unlike say, nearly every other high-end device, gold or not.

Who’s this Oppo then?

Enter Oppo. Along with Huawei, Xiaomi (which literally translates as Little Rice) and Lenovo, they’re one of China’s fast growing local smartphone manufacturers. Samsung and Apple still hold substantial, but rapidly shrinking market share. The Chinese phones command majority share in the local market, but haven’t made substantial inroads in Western countries. Sometime in late 2013, Oppo spun off a company called OnePlus, a clean test bed. Their aim, at least for now – to bring to the international market a competitive ultra high-end device, at a cheap price. To date, there has always been a trade-off. Always. Even when people pay top dollar for an S5 or G3, they are still bombarded with a huge amount of cruft and every imaginable useless feature. It’s all a sick joke.

The One is OnePlus’s first phone. Not the Two, but the OnePlus One (I’ll call it the OPO from here on). Horrible naming, but I suppose there’s always the ZL2 SOL25 to think about. In brief, it brings the big guns – a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 (ala Galaxy S5, Xperia Z2, HTC One M8, LG G3), 3GB of RAM, a 5.5″ FullHD display (401 ppi) by Japan Display Inc. (who also supply panels for the iPhone) and a substantial 3100mAh battery. All top-shelf components, suspiciously similiar to Oppo’s Find 7 smartphone. There’s two key things to note here, the first is that it runs CyanogenMod out of the box (or CM for short) currently the most popular and arguably beloved third-party Android ROM, built off AOSP. CM then implement further improvements to AOSP including Code Aurora optimizations (ie. Qualcomm supplied improvements). In short, no bloat.

The second thing is, the phone is priced at only $299/$349 USD, for the 16GB/64GB models respectively. You don’t need me to tell you, that’s abnormally cheap and the 64GB is the no brainer. You’d normally barely be able to pick up a middling mid-range device for that price. How is this even possible? It’s this cheap because it’s being sold at, or near cost, according to Peter Lau, the CEO. OnePlus, despite admonitions to the contrary, is likely being bankrolled by parent Oppo, with access to their manufacturing economies of scale. For comparison, the iPhone 5S carries a $199 bill-of-materials, with the S5 coming in at around $250. The remainder between that and selling price is marketing/research/overheads, and of course, juicy profit. What OnePlus’ long-term strategy is, I’m not so sure, but it’s clear that from the rabid demand, that this formula is working for now.

This is clearly not sustainable, but who doesn’t like to buy stuff at cost? OnePlus is not just knocking at the door, it’s flying in with a dropkick.

DSC01241

The sandstone finish is neither overly smooth nor rough, and offers a moderate amount of grip. If it was yellow/brown, it’d look delicious.

What’s the catch?

Initially, I was very suspicious for a few reasons. Firstly, OnePlus doesn’t shy away from controversy, it runs head long into it with bells on. To have the option just to buy one of these phones from OnePlus directly, you need to have an invite. Tacky, but it seems to be working as there are countless ‘waiting lists’ on dozens of forums and a whole market of resellers (read: scalpers). These were incredibly difficult to obtain in the early days, but slightly less so nowadays. The first promotion they did was one where you had to smash your existing phone, to get an invite. Then more recently, inviting women to skip the queue by posting selfies with OnePlus messaging. As you can imagine, they were not received well and these promotions were pulled quickly. Hard to determine if it was marketing folly or genius, I’m leaning towards the latter. Dubious practices aside, I obtained my phone a few weeks ago from a reputable eBay seller and set about finding out just what corners were cut.

How does it wield?

It’s extremely spartan on the outside, a balanced and simple aesthetic without being overly busy. A biggish phone, at 153mm x 76mm, it towers over just about everything, height-wise, even the Galaxy Note 3, by 2mm. But where the Note 3 is wide and has a stubby aspect, the OPO is substantially narrower. This, combined with the thin rounded back and ‘Sandstone’ finish on the back, makes the 162 gram device comfortable to use in-hand for extended times, more so than the Nexus 5. There are capacitive buttons, horribly dimly lit, and in the wrong (ie. Samsung order of menu on the left). These can be completely disabled in software, allowing on-screen buttons, which I highly recommend. The physical side buttons are placed about 40% of the way down, much lower than Nexus 5. You can find out detailed specs here.

About the size, it’s not monstrous, but it is noticeably bigger than other phones. The narrow width stops it from being too clumsy, but all the same, it does take some getting used to. If you’re coming from anything other than an iPhone or a small Android device, then it will seem more incremental than shocking. But in terms of usage, that extra screen space feels luxurious and spacious to view. Like sitting in a comfortable leather couch after spending all day in a cramped office chair, surrounded by small cubicle walls, enclosed in solitary confinement, in a coffin, underground.

Even with the 5″ Nexus 5, I still felt ‘cramped’ when browsing webpages or watching videos, not so the OPO. After the Note 2, I was determined never to get another monstrous ‘phablet’ again, but I admit, the OPO strikes a good balance. I hesitate to say it’s agile, but it’s not as cumbersome as the numbers would betray.

DSC01238Compared to the Nexus 5, it’s substantially bigger. The viewable area benefits accordingly. Shame about the capacitive buttons.

The screen sits slightly raised (about 1mm) above the singular metallic bezel, a Full HD IPS display at 5.5″ (401 ppi), with contrast ratios around the 1:800 mark, and a 450 nits brightness. Not class-leading, but certainly more than adequate. I found the colours to be on the slightly warm side, noting this is adjustable in the settings. The two speakers at the bottom (dual mono) are quite loud and reasonably clear. The backplate is supposedly removeable, though not easily. There are other patterns available to swap in/out. The battery is visible underneath, with slightly more capacity than the S5/M8, though also not easily removable, at least without breaking the non-tamper seal on one of the screws.

Wireless is dual-band 802.11AC, BT 4.0, there’s NFC support and dual LED flash for the camera. Kudos to OnePlus for the impressive physical packaging effort, very slick and polished, with a keyring SIM-ejection tool, a beefy USB cable and all meticulously packaged. It’s definitely up there with Apple’s minimalist packaging efforts, and miles ahead of Samsung’s faux wooden boxes.

What is it running?

I’ve been using CyanogenMod over my last few devices to great effect, it’s the most widespread third-party ROM available, and supports a huge range of devices. Now flush with investment and staff, the OPO is Steve Kondik and his team’s first foray into a factory-released model. You can read what it takes to qualify to be able to include Google’s Play Services on a factory phone in this fantastic rundown. In short, it’s not easy, you nearly have to sell your soul and kids to Google, and then they eat your lunch too. Notably, there are two version of the OnePlus, software wise. The first runs OnePlus’s ColorOS, a China-only version of AOSP. It has it’s own apps, it’s own icons, and no mention of Google anywhere. Avoid this one, or flash CM11 over it (it’s very easy, guide upcoming). The other runs CyanogenMod 11S (CM11S for short). You can tell by the CyanogenMod logo on the rear of the phone.

The S in CM11S is important to note – it’s the CM designed specifically for the OPO, customisations include an OPO specific kernel, custom lockscreen/camera/gallery/DSP, some colour calibration tweaks and it’s own visual theme, not a massive amount of difference. The vanilla CM11, which is also available for the OPO, has faster updates (automated nightly builds) and has recently implemented previously CM11S-specific features, like double tap to wake, quick boot and on screen toggles. OnePlus has also informed that CM11S will have an Android L OTA within a maximum of three months after official release. No carrier to get in the way either.

As for the common CM11 characteristics themselves, it’s a bare-bones system with zero bloat. A few important customisations over standard AOSP, like adjustable notification light colours and status bar settings. Most people will overlook the built in CM-specific apps like the launcher and run their own. Think of CM like a blank slate. To this end, the OPO is a fitting partner. In the time that I’ve had the phone, CM and OnePlus have been pushing out updates rapidly to address various issues, and there’s a very healthy community over at XDA and the OnePlus forums. I’d say that initially at release in May, the OPO was not yet production ready, with various reports of multi-touch inconsistencies, but recent updates have fixed these, and a host of other, issues. It’s currently very usable.

DSC01226

The packaging is simple and slick.

Camera:

Onto the camera, one of the most important aspects of any smartphone nowadays. The OPO uses a Sony Exmor IMX214 f/2.0 13MP 1/3.06″ camera for the rear. It supports full 4K 30fps recording in two formats (and also HDR with video), and the dual-LED flashes work well. I found the picture quality to be fairly good, comparable to the Galaxy Note3 / iPhone 5S, and it’s miles ahead of the Nexus 5. Some reviewers have found it pounds the ground with the iPhone 5S. The wide aperture allows for great bokeh images and fast snaps, and there’s time lapse, super slow motion and all that. Overall, I wouldn’t have hesitation in using this camera solely on a holiday. Certainly some of the images other owners have been taking are impressive (gallery).

The CM11S-specific camera also has a preset mode called Clear Image (samples), which combines a series of 10 pictures, not for the purposes of HDR, but to reduce low-light grain and improve sharpness. In practice, I found it to be very impressive, allowing for substantially less grainy shots, though a reasonably steady hand helps. On the downside, the built-in HDR mode is slightly too aggressive, resulting in halos around objects and an artificial look. This is something that will need to be tweaked in future updates. All the usual variables like exposure, ISO and shutter time can be adjusted. Super slow shutter speeds allow for effective light-painting or long exposures on a tripod as well. I believe the Android L update will bring RAW file output for the enthusiasts. With RAW and 4K and no SD slot, you can see why 64GB is the preferred option.

Performance / Battery Life:

Now the nitty-gritty, the Snapdragon 801 is an MSM8974AC variant (the fastest) clocked at 2.45ghz x 4, which is also seen in the Galaxy S5. The Adreno 330 GPU runs at 578mhz, with 3GB DDR3 @ 1866mhz. I can’t really fault the performance at all, it’s exceptional as one would expect. There are some situations where the 3GB makes a difference. Android uses the extra RAM to keep applications in memory and for caching. This means in real-world use, though difficult to measure, task-switching is quicker, and some games may end up swapping less / loading faster. I tend to run a bunch of background services, including Bittorrent Sync and Tasker at all times, and Tasker on the Nexus 5 (with 2GB) often threw ‘Low Memory’ errors, a non-event with 3GB. I found free memory on the OPO to fluctuate between 1.5GB-500MB free in daily use without gaming (via System Monitor w/background monitoring).

Benchmarks performed as expected, a slight bump over the Snapdragon 800 devices, which is what the 801 is, but with a large advantage in GPU intensive tasks, like games. Where the OPO and other 801 devices benefit is in lower power consumption doing the same tasks. I found the battery life to be exceptionally good, often still have 1/2-1/3 left after an entire 16 hour day of moderate use. My Nexus would barely last to 3-4PM on most days before needing a charge, the iPhone 5 even worse. Screen-on time of the OPO hovered around 6 hours on average, about on par with the similarly equipped Galaxy Note 3. Less heavy users might get two days out of a charge. I also measured fairly respectable 50mbps/30mbps download/upload speeds on FD-LTE, comparable to other devices in the same area.

The 64GB is an interesting aspect as well, because not many phones offer 64GB of in-built storage, let alone at only a $50 markup over the base model. Being that the upcoming Nexus 6 (the most likely contender to the OPO) is not likely to have a 64GB option, those with large storage needs have a no-brainer.

screenshot

The Tab Pro 8.4 and Nexus 5 are both SD800 powered, the Nexus 7 is SD400.

Should you buy one?

If you are off-contract (and there’s every reason you should be on a BYO plan), and you’re in the market for a larger phone like an S5/Note 3/M8, then yes, absolutely the OPO trumps these devices in nearly every way, at a fraction of the cost. Chase up an invite, or buy one off eBay. It won’t matter if you get the ColorOS version of the CM11S version, you should be flashing vanilla CM11 onto it anyway for many reasons.

If you’re not a fan of big phones, then either await the upcoming supposed 5.2″ Nexus 6 at the end of this year (but note that it’s unlikely to have a 64GB option), or pick up one of the small and capable devices like the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact (4.3″) or the Motorola Moto G (4.7″). With the OPO’s price, pending Nexus 6 update and the immediately availability of the others, the Nexus 5 may be a difficult recommendation at this point.

Pros:

  • Amazing hardware for ANY price
  • Very fast performance
  • Excellent screen and loud speaker
  • Comfortable to use
  • Very long battery life
  • No bloatware, runs Cyanogenmod
  • Fast and continuous software updates
  • Excellent camera with Sony sensor

Cons:

  • Non-removable battery
  • No heartrate sensor / IR Blaster / fingerprint sensor
  • No wireless charging
  • Can be hard to obtain

What makes this worthwhile?

What I’ve traditionally associated with a high-end phone, like an S5, is many useless gimmicks, covered with many layers of what Samsung perceive to be useful additions, often implemented by framework changes. Some are worthwhile, like the split screen function. Others are terrible, like the Magazine UX, or the Settings pulldown. The same exists for other high-end devices like the G3 and One X. What OnePlus offers here is an antidote to this issue. You buy it because you want to bypass all that nonsense and carrier interference, like a Nexus device, but you don’t want to compromise on some crucial component either.

To that end, the OPO is the anti-phone, because it goes against what we’ve become accustomed to. Our instincts tell us that at this price, there HAS to be some fatal shortcoming, but there isn’t. If anything, it’s that OnePlus hasn’t revealed how they plan to actually make money in the future. Maybe this is a rare fluke, or maybe it’s Oppo bloodily buying mindshare, or something more sinister. In any case, it’s fairly simple – the OPO ticks all the boxes, provides a fantastic, unmolested device with a delightful experience and should cause anybody shopping for any mid or high-end device at the moment, to look twice.

 

 

 

 

 

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