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OnePlus One Review: Smartphone Value Redefined By A Newcomer

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OnePlus is a rare beast: A startup building smartphones. Their first device is the Android-based OnePlus One, which, despite its unnecessarily repetitive name, is impressive hardware in a market where legacy device makers rule the roost and charge top dollar for smartphones packing the same kind of internals as the One. The OnePlus One is actually a remarkable deal at $299 for an unlocked device, and proof that Google isn’t the only company in town that can offer Nexus style price economics.

Basics (As Reviewed)

  • MSRP: $299
  • 5.5-inch, 1920×1080 display
  • 16GB storage
  • Quad-core 2.5GHz processor with 3GB RAM
  • LTE, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Product info page

Pros

  • Cheap without compromises
  • Highly customizable out of the box

Cons

  • Hulking huge design
  • Customization isn’t for everyone

Design

The OnePlus One is a monolithic device; with its 5.5-inch screen, it’s firmly in the realm of what we once referred to as phablet devices (sadly the term is dying as more phones extend to larger displays). But it does at least manage to fit all that screen in a package that’s as slim as possible – the device is only around 0.35 inches thick.

It’s just a shade smaller than the Galaxy Note 3 in terms of overall footprint, but it more closely resembles the Nexus 5 in terms of its lines and the matte finish of the plastic back, which is somewhat rubberized for grip. As far as gargantuan devices go, the OnePlus One is among my favorite to hold, however, and the Nexus styling is visually appealing, too, as is the slightly protruding top and bottom metal-look lip. It manages to be one of the best looking Android phones recently launched, even if the look is a tad derivative.

Performance

The OnePlus One’s performance is unparalleled for a device in this price range, and that’s almost all that needs to be said about that. It packs as much RAM and the same kind of processor as smartphones that lead the category in terms of specs, like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8) – yet it manages to do so at a fraction (more than 1/2) the price of those devices. And the specs aren’t hollow; their effect is felt in the animations of the OS and the performance of Android games and apps loaded onto the device.

There were some issues early in testing with weird visual glitches when accessing the settings and notification panel from the top bar of the home screen, but OnePlus quickly acknowledged and then zapped these issues with a software update – another of its virtues is that it can push these out without leaning on either Google or carrier partners thanks to the use of Cyanogen as its primary OS. This Android fork offers a near-stock experience in many ways, but with extensive customization options. It’s a very capable performer, too, and in many ways much better than the customized interfaces that most other Android OEMs throw down on top of Google’s mobile platform.

Software

Speaking of Cyanogen, it provides the OnePlus One with many of its tricks, which include the ability to fully change the skin of your device with various onboard and downloadable themes. By default, the phone came with a horrible square icon reskinning of Android, but the point is that I didn’t have to live with the bad design choices of the phone’s creators; instead, I was able to swap out for a much more default KitKat look with minimal effort and no special permissions required.

OnePlus is full of such customizations, and a quick look at any Settings screen will reveal the extent to which you can modify elements including the lock screen, notification/status bar, home screens and more. The whole thing is basically a playground of tick boxes, switches, submenus and more, and that’s a very welcome thing for people who like to fuss with their phones. But for those who are content to have a device that works reliably and consistently, and presents an uncomplicated experience, this could be a bit overwhelming; most OEMs try to reduce and refine the Settings app, not complicate it further.

Still, for this reason, OnePlus’ inaugural device is something that probably appeals more to hardcore Android fans than even stock Nexus devices. It encourages playfulness and meddling, which is in the spirit of the original Android OS, before Google started slowly massaging it into more of a closed and controlled direction. Software-wise, this is the Nexus for Nexus lovers, as illogical as that may sound.

Display

The OnePlus One is impressive in most regards, but the fact that it can manage to include such an effective and good-looking screen at this size in a handset at this price is perhaps most impressive of all. The 5.5-inch display has excellent color rendering, and at 404 PPI pixel density, also won’t show any pixels no matter how hard you stare at normal viewing distances.

The display seems to hover at the very top of the glass on the front of the phone, too, and renders text perfectly. It’s great for watching movies and viewing images, and if there’s a flaw to it at all, it’s that some of the assets included, like stock OS icons for the built-in flashlight and audio recorder, aren’t designed to be viewed on such a high-res display, meaning they appear slightly fuzzy and look wrong.

Bottom Line

oneplus-one1

OnePlus One manages to do the impossible, offering up top-tier specs at mid-tier prices. It does this seemingly without sacrifices (battery life was excellent, for instance, especially when using the smartphone’s display sparingly). The camera is a decent performer, beating the Nexus 5 by a wide margin, though falling short of the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone in this department. But its flaws are small things, details that fail by matters of degrees rather than huge margins, and for a smartphone that costs less than half of many of its competitors, that’s nothing short of amazing.

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