Andrew Williams reviews the OnePlus One smartphone, one of the most surprising mobiles of recent times and self-proclaimed '2014 flagship killer', which packs a lot of whallop from just £229.
Would you buy a high-end phone from a company you’ve never heard of? Initially, snagging a OnePlus One seems about as sensible as buying an Appol MacBok from Dodgy Mike down the market, but look a little closer and this suspiciously affordable 'flagship killer' looks a lot more attractive.
The OnePlus One boasts the sort of components you see in massive £500 mobile heavyweights like the Samsung Galaxy S5, but costs just £229. And, as far we we know, those components haven’t fallen off the back of a lorry either. No wonder the One has got nerds of the internet all hot under their starched collars.
OnePlus One review look and feel - like a stubbly teddy bear
The OnePlus One doesn’t diminish expectations when you first pull it from the box either. Fair enough, it may not have the glamorous metal body of something like the HTC One M8 or the glossy all-round sheen of the Sony Xperia Z2, but its grand stature immediately demands you respect it, like a man with a government ID badge and no sense of humour.
While OnePlus hasn’t tried to give the phone a look you’ll immediately recognise from 100m away, it fits in remarkably well with the other Android big boys. Actually get your hands on one and the OnePlus One experience becomes most unusual, though.
Rather than trying to feel like soft plastic or cool hard metal, the One has a rather weird ‘Sandstone’ finish. Half soft, half a bit rough, it has the sort of feel you might get from taking a grade 0 beard trimmer to a teddy bear. It’s unexpectedly sort-of fuzzy.
At first it feels wrong, but like all-day breakfast pizzas or chilli-flavoured beer, there’s something very right about this brand of wrong. OnePlus also plans to let you buy extra backs for the One with all kinds of different finishes, but these are yet to appear. Don’t hold your breath is our advice.
The one potential downside to the OnePlus One design is that it is big. It’s bigger than the Galaxy S5, bigger than the Xperia Z2. It’s even bigger than the LG G3, a phone that has the same 5.5-inch screen size.
If you have tiny hands or skinny jeans that are tight enough to turn your feet purple by dinnertime, the OnePlus One probably isn’t for you. And even those with normal hands and trousers that would get laughed out of Dalston may take a while to bed into the phone’s size. It took us a week or so, but now we’re honestly used to it.
The massive screen is probably there to appeal to the hardcore Android crowd, but annoyingly you don’t get one feature the true Android obsessive loves – expandable memory. The lack of a microSD slot in the OnePlus One may have nerds some crying into their Minecraft hankies, but as you only have to pay an extra £40 – for a total of £269 – to get the 64GB version, it’s not the end of the world.
OnePlus One review screen and media - Not quite IMAX, but pretty darn good
Video fiends should definitely consider the 64GB version over the plain old 16GB model too, because the OnePlus One makes a cracking little mini cinema. The screen is 5.5 inches across and 1080p in resolution, one of the most affordable Full HD displays around.
It’s an IPS screen, the kind you can wiggle any which way without what’s on-screen disappearing thanks to naff viewing angles. Image quality is pretty great too. Natural-looking colours, good brightness and decent outdoors viewing mean the OnePlus One screen can comfortably sit next to phones like the Galaxy S5 and LG G3 without looking like the one bottle of Lambrini in the champagne fridge.
Sure it can't boast the insane pixels-per-inch of the LG G3 or the deep black level of the Galaxy S5, but for £230 there’s nothing better.
The internal speakers are decent too, although not world-beating. You get two speakers, but as they both fire down from the bottom of the phone they’re effectively mono. No BoomSound effect here.
Max volume and tone are decent for a phone, but if you’re the kind of tit who wants to drown out all the other delinquents on the bus, we’d recommend the HTC One M8 or Sony Xperia Z1 instead.
OnePlus One review user experience - Living in a geekster’s paradise
What the OnePlus One does give you more than just about any other Android is control. That’s because the phone uses CyanogenMod rather than vanilla Android or an interface made by the manufacturer.
What the heck is CyanogenMod we hear you mutter? Well, CyanogenMod used to be a bit of Android scene software, only known about by the kind of people who can reel off the differences between Android 4.2.1 and Android 4.2.2. But now it’s available in a few phones fresh out of the box. And this is the first we’ve seen it in action.
From a glance, the desktop looks just like good old standard Android KitKat 4.4, but it’s really anything but. You can reskin the entire phone in a few seconds using CyanogenMod themes – there are dozens of the things available from Google Play – and you can make countless little tweaks to the interface.
Fancy changing the look of the battery notification icon, or altering the exact hue of the OnePlus One’s notification LED? It’s a sign you might have too much time on your hands, but it’s all for the taking here.
Actually using the OnePlus One’s CyanogenMod feels just using the Android 4.4.2 software that runs underneath, so you don’t need a degree in Android to get on with the phone. There are simply more little tweaks available in the Settings menu if you dig deep.
OnePlus One review performance and battery life - All the power for little cash
We did find that, as we used the OnePlus One more, it was sadly a little glitchier than a standard Android phone like the Nexus 5. Weird graphical bugs are things to expect in this phone, although actual phone stability is really just about as good as any of the other top Androids.
That's mostly because the OnePlus One has enough power to light up a small Ethiopian village. Like the Galaxy S5, it uses the 2.5GHz version of the Snapdragon 801 CPU, and it packs in a massive 3GB of RAM. It’s no wonder the little glitchy bits of the software don’t slow the phone down much.
With those sorts of brains on-board, the OnePlus One can play any fancy 3D Android game perfectly. We found it just as capable as the more expensive Android crowd, yet at half the cost.
As the handset uses an efficient Snapdragon 801 and a chunky 3100mAh battery, stamina is pretty good too. You’ll get a solid eight hours and ten minutes streaming video using the phone’s mobile internet connection or eleven hours and change if the video’s stored on the One’s own databanks. Highly impressive stuff, and well above average for an Android device.
In more normal use, you can squeeze a couple of days’ use out of the OnePlus One if you’re careful, something we haven't seen since the LG G2. What you don’t get are the modes that other top phones depend on to string out life expectancy. There are no energy-saving modes that switch off data networks when they’re not being used, so you need to keep half an eye on the nearest power socket when your battery level really starts drooping.
What else is missing? There’s just one serious bit. As the OnePlus One is designed more for the yanks than us brits, it doesn’t support one of the more important 4G bands here, despite being advertised as a worldwide 4G phone.
So that means 4G won’t work for O2, Vodafone, GiffGaff or Tesco Mobile customers – you only have Three and EE to pick from for your blazingly-fast mobile internet. It’s a real shame, and there’s absolutely no way to fix thing with firmware, as far as we know. OnePlus hasn't just dropped the 4G ball here, it's actively pounded us into submission with it, dodgeball style, while shouting “you like this, you limey pricks?”
OnePlus One review cameras - Dual shooters
The OnePlus One packs the usual dual camera array – one on the back, one on the front – with a flash to help out the rear snapper at night or down the boozer. You don’t get any fancy optical stabilisation or claims of otherworldly-sounding technology with this phone, but you can get some pretty sharp photos thanks to the main camera having 13 megapixels to work with.
Exposure metering isn’t always perfect, but there’s a very effective HDR mode on-board to help out. It does go a bit over the top at times, though, making normal scenes look like some sort of Wizard of Oz Technicolor nightmare on occasion. It’s not quite on the level of the Galaxy S5, then, but it is a lot better than the Nexus 5, and around the same level as the LG G2.
You can shoot videos in 4K if you want too, making its CV of skills pretty up-to-date.
OnePlus One review verdict
If you can stomach getting in line to buy one of these phones – at present you need an invite and they’re not too easy to come by – the OnePlus One is a real bargain. There are a few weird glitches in the software and 4G doesn’t work too well in the UK, but otherwise this phone can stand next to the top names of Android, which cost around twice the price.