Back in April 2014, a Chinese startup, one which was never heard of before, claimed that it could shake the smartphone market. And looking back at it 2 years later, they did leave a major impact.
This startup was none other than OnePlus, and their impact came in the form of the OnePlus One — an oddly-named device that promised beastly, flagship-grade specifications at a price that the market was not accustomed to. While mid-rangers obviously existed in the market prior to the OnePlus One, they were all but a shadow of their flagship brethren, costing a fraction of their higher counterparts, but expectedly, offering a fraction of their performance as well.
The OnePlus One attempted to change all of that. With the Snapdragon 801 at its helm and other supporting specifications right on point, the phone really stood out for offering the most bang for the buck as you could snag the base model up for about $299 right on release.
So how has a device that shook the market in 2014, stand the test of time two years later? Read along as we point out what makes the OnePlus One a device among the legends of the Android world.
Facing the Specifications
Right off the bat, the OnePlus One started off as a flagship killer. As a recall of the specifications, the OnePlus One offered a large 5.5″ FHD LTPS LCD display, giving the device a pixel density of ~401 ppi. The display of the device was widely praised to be very bright for a LCD panel at that time, with wide viewing angles and natural colors. You also got Gorilla Glass 3 on top for scratch resistance.
“The OnePlus One stood neck-to-neck with the heavyweights of early 2014, and it’s still a good performer even today”
On the inside of the OnePlus One was a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, with 4x cores clocked at 2.5GHz. There were 3GB of RAM on the device, as well as 16GB/64GB of non expandable storage. For the camera, you get a 13MP Sony IMX214 on the rear, and a 5MP front camera. A large albeit non-removable 3,100 mAh battery rounds off the spec sheet.
The closest device that launched around the OnePlus One which came close to match the bang-for-buck value proposition of the OPO was none other than our beloved Nexus 5. Launched in Q4 of 2013, the Nexus 5 featured a 5″ FHD display and the Snapdragon 800 with 2GB of RAM. But, owing to an earlier release, the Nexus 5 costed $349 for the 16GB variant, and $399 for the 32GB variant. On comparison, the OnePlus One managed to one up the apple of the eye of the Android world by offering an “improved” (in reality, just overclocked) processor, an extra GB of RAM, a bigger display and a much more attractive price. For $299, you could get the 16GB of the OnePlus One, and for another $50, you go to 4 times as much storage. Drawing parallelism on the basis of just the common price, you get a much sweeter deal if you were willing to drop $349 for a device from a Chinese company with no prior track record at that time instead of opting for the safe haven of an LG made Nexus. Even the price bump from moving to greater inbuilt storage was significantly better, since you get much more storage for the $50 increase in base price.
If you want to compare on the specifications front alone, the OnePlus One stood neck-to-neck with heavyweights like Samsung’s flagship of 2014, the Galaxy S5, which was released around the same time. The Galaxy S5 came with a 5.1″ FHD Super-AMOLED display, a Snapdragon 801 (US Variant) and 2GB of RAM. It bested the OnePlus One in the camera department and a few other areas, but one expected the lead to be larger considering the S5 had a retail price of $649.99, almost double the price of the OnePlus One! It wasn’t that the Galaxy S5, or other competing flagships, were bad phones, but it just went to show how much of value you would get if you went with the OnePlus One. Rightfully so, the device came to be known around as the Flagship Killer.
Even Marques Brownlee aka MKBHD from YouTube agrees on the OnePlus One being the best “budget” smartphone for 2014. He even went on to crown the OnePlus One the best smartphone you could purchase under $300 in 2015, a full one year later.
The Lovechild of Controversy
While the One may have been the best smartphone you could arguably purchase in 2014, there was one very huge disadvantage that the phone had: you could not purchase it, even if you tried!
The OnePlus One started its sales with OnePlus’s notorious invite-based system. This one decision singlehandedly gave an otherwise wonderful device a very bad reputation in its early days. The reasoning behind the invite system was the limitation of supply, OnePlus being a new startup. Considering that the phone did shake the market with its announcement, the demand for the device was deemed to be significantly higher than what OnePlus could reasonably produce in their initial phases. As a result, the device had to be very confined in its distribution. While other OEM’s usually run contests where they give away devices, OnePlus ran several promotions and other contests to give away a chance to purchase the device.
One such promotion undertaken by OnePlus was called “Smash the Past”, which offered 100 lucky winners an opportunity to purchase the 16GB variant for $1 along with 3 shareable invites, on the condition that they record a video of themselves breaking their previous device. To add a bit more spice to it, the contest rules dictated which devices were eligible for “smashing”, all of which were coincidentally smartphones with a higher retail value. To make matters worse, there was misinterpretation on the part of several readers wherein they smashed their devices prematurely — OnePlus would first select the 100 winners who would then smash their phones, because 100 destroyed smartphones would be a better scenario than thousands of smashed phones. OnePlus later changed the terms to donate the phones to a charity instead, which was a well-welcomed change.
The second contest for the OnePlus One was equally cringe-worthy: “Ladies First”. Women enthusiasts were invited to post photos of themselves holding the OnePlus logo or having it drawn on their body. The winners were to be decided by a vote from the community. Then, 50 winners would be selected based on the “most liked photo”, who would then receive a OnePlus T-shirt and, wait for it, a chance to purchase the phone. We won’t state the obvious reasons why this was a bad idea, but yeah, this was a bad idea. OnePlus pulled the contest down with haste and issued an apology.
From then on, OnePlus tried to clean up their act. There was significantly less controversy generated directly by them. But, as the phones started to flow and reach the hands of the customers, horror stories started emerging of OnePlus’s Customer Support. The OnePlus One was criticized initially for the quality issues on the device, and then on how OnePlus handled claims. While devices are not made perfect and every device faces issues that are not found before the first batch reaches the consumer, OnePlus had an extraordinarily volatile audience. Their medium of advertising and publicity in the initial phases restricted the device to the tech enthusiasts for the most part, as the general public remained elusive (and couldn’t care less) about a phone they couldn’t buy. As such, these users had a higher chance of voicing their discomfort on online blogs and with other tech enthusiasts. Thus, all you would ever hear about the OnePlus One after the honeymoon period of the device ended would not be entirely related to the faults of the device, but would be more focused on the indifferent treatment that OnePlus extended. To OnePlus’s fair credit, they have significantly improved their act in 2015 and are no longer as bad as they once were.
Despite controversies, the OnePlus One had impressive sales despite a lack of traditional advertising
The one effect all of these controversies had was that OnePlus, and by extension, the OnePlus One, perennially remained in the news. Sites carried articles upon articles on the Flagship Killer and the marketing techniques followed by OnePlus. We talked about it, everyone else talked about it. About how much they loved the phone and how much they hated the company. The important point was that they talked about it. As a result, OnePlus quickly became a recognizable brand that crept beyond the tech community for its recognition. For a Chinese “unknown” to gather such a momentum, their pace was certainly incredible.
This directly helped the company maintain a steady demand for their product while their supply crawled its way, which was a necessity since consumer interest tends to be fickle. Keeping in mind that barely anyone could purchase the device in its initial months, the OnePlus One sold close to a million units by the end of 2014, whereas the company had planned to sell only 50,000 units of its first smartphone! This is certainly an impressive figure considering the company did not partake in conventional advertising till that time, relying on nothing but word of mouth through the internet.
Future Proofing: Hardware that is Great And Open Leads to Software that is Great And Open
One of the greater appeals of the OnePlus One was that it was the first device that shipped with CyanogenOS. Since CyanogenOS itself shared various building blocks with CyanogenMod, the developer community had one more reason to be excited about: Open Source friendliness! Cyanogen Inc started off with releasing the full GPL-mandated kernel source code for the OnePlus One, and then promised to go above and beyond this. True to their word, they followed it up by releasing the full device tree for the OnePlus One. This, along with the hardware’s similarity with certain existing Oppo devices, gave the device a very impressive launching pad for development activity.
What do you get when you mix flagship grade hardware with open source elements for developers, and overdose by a margin in hype and value-for-money? Why, you end up with the OnePlus One.
The culmination of all of this made the OnePlus One a device to watch out for if you cared about the words “open source” and “development”. Tomek recently encapsulated on why the OnePlus One redefined Developer Friendliness, and I agree with him strongly. Arguably, the OnePlus One has performed better when compared to its direct Nexus rival, the Nexus 5 when it comes to 3rd party ROM support. While the Nexus 5 had all of Google’s blessings when it was under software update support from the giant itself, the OnePlus One has become the go-to device when it comes to softwares and OS outside of Google.
You can get a very wide variety of ROMs and custom kernels for the OnePlus One. Infact, there’s actually 3 ROMs that can be considered “official” for the OnePlus One: CyanogenOS that it launched with, OxygenOS (that is sadly completely closed source outside of GPL mandated bits) that OnePlus developed after their split from Cyanogen and HydrogenOS that they created for their Chinese community of users.
A lot of the development on the OnePlus One also has to do with how the hardware itself has aged over the two years of its release. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 was a beastly processor of its time. Being the flagship processor of 2014, it still works very well as a mid grade processor. Further, OnePlus’s decision to throw 3GB of RAM onto the One at a time when competition rolled with only 2GB has really helped it stand out from the crowd two years down the line. Even the camera works adequately for something that is two years old. As a side note, all the photographs that you see in device reviews that I have done, that aren’t part of the camera review of that particular device or in which the OnePlus One itself appears, are taken from the OnePlus One. [Elephone P8000 Review | Elephone M2 Review | OnePlus X Review | Elephone P9000 Review]
Not all aspects of the device have aged gracefully though. If you purchased the 16GB variant two years ago, you would be hard pressed for storage unless you depended on cloud in a big way. The OnePlus One did not have a microSD card slot, so you are essentially limited by your storage choice. The next bit of complaint is the non-removable battery. The OnePlus One started off with incredible battery life, often raising the bar when it came to how long you could use your phone without killing. The battery is not easily swappable by the user, and keeping in mind the expected degradation of battery life, there is a good chance that you are no longer at the top of the battery game. On a personal note, since I purchased my OnePlus One 64GB a year ago, I can still eke out a day’s usage ordinarily, but I fully expect to have difficulties a few more months down the line.
OnePlus has more pressure as their pricing strategy is now mainstream
Further, everyone expected the OnePlus 2 to be developer-friendly to the level the One was. But OnePlus had different plans for the device. After their break off with Cyanogen Inc, over the Micromax incident in India, OnePlus shifted its focus to OxygenOS, which unfortunately, is as closed source as every other custom OEM ROM out there. Sure, rooting the device, unlocking the bootloader and flashing a custom ROM and kernel still continue to be pieces of cake. But with OnePlus’s insistence in not sharing the sources for the laser autofocus on the rear camera and the fingerprint scanner meant that custom ROMs so far had a difficult time getting these features done right. OnePlus did mention that these will come after Android 6.0 hits the device, and since Marshmallow for the OnePlus 2 has entered the Community Beta phase, we expect this to materialize sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the OnePlus 2 is really losing out in an area that the OnePlus One flourished.
With the OnePlus X, the scenario is improved in comparison with the OnePlus 2, but still loses out to the One. This is more likely due to the age difference in the devices, as the OnePlus One is a tried-and-tested battleground by now while the OnePlus X is still a relatively new device. But, seeing that the OnePlus X is more of a mid ranger, it may not get as much developer attention.
With the OnePlus 3, OnePlus’s work seems to be cut out very well. Users of the OnePlus One, myself included, are looking for a device that recreates the magic from 2 years ago. We want the same value bargain with a flagship-grade processor and other specifications, a device that can hold up against two years of relentless pressure from ever improving competition. More importantly, and I think I am echoing the voice of the community with this, we want a device that features great hardware that we can truly own at a price we would not mind. OnePlus has more pressure now than ever, though, as their pricing strategy is now mainstream.
The OnePlus One is a phone that endured time. It is the only phone that OnePlus has made so far that really lived up to its name. It sparked a low-cost revolution and allowed more than one and a half million people to enjoy a real flagship killer for a real bargain. We hope that this success can be replicated by OnePlus with the OnePlus 3. But even if they can’t, the memories and experiences of the awesome developer community and support stand in testament to a job well done. For the OnePlus One is now an immortal legend, a device that will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of the HTC HD2 given enough time.