This week, I visited the OnePlus offices and met with co-founder and CEO Carl Pei to get a good look at the new OnePlus 2 smartphone. It was an unconventional meeting to say the least, because it was conducted at 3 a.m. (my time, anyway), I couldn’t hold the device itself, and I spent the entire time laying in bed.
That’s because OnePlus — in true over-the-top style — held the OnePlus 2 launch in virtual reality, which is how I managed to get away with not leaving my bed to attend. It wasn’t some gimmick either. It was something of a triumph. I felt personally involved, like I got my own special tour of the OnePlus offices and the new phone itself. Of course, I wasn’t really there, and Pei was addressing a camera — but the VR was effective enough to create the illusion of intimacy.
It defined what OnePlus is about. Sensational, attention grabbing antics that put the rest of the industry to shame. This was a brave, ballsy way to introduce a smartphone, and its success adds even more pressure for the company to produce a very special piece of hardware. The last thing it wants is a technically impressive, and extremely cool launch event to overshadow the OnePlus 2 product.
Moto X Style has power and price, too
The day after it was riding high from all the VR coolness, OnePlus came face to face with a new, and very serious challenge.
OnePlus said the 2 would be the 2016 flagship killer, suggesting it’ll still trump the competition next year as well as this year. At first, the competitive $390 price for the 64GB model looked like a bargain when compared to phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S6, the LG G4, and the Apple iPhone 6. The 1080p screen, 13-megapixel camera, and Snapdragon 810 chip didn’t really blow us away, but it was hardly a disaster.
Then the Motorola Moto X Style happened. It’s only $10 more than the OnePlus 2, and on paper, the spec is better — a higher-res screen, more megapixels from the camera, stock Android, and a reliable processor. Phew, it’s harsh out there in the mobile world, when your new phone takes a knock like that less than 24-hours after announcement.
Is that it? Game over for OnePlus? No. Not at all. The OnePlus 2 has USB Type-C for convenience and some added cool, plus a fingerprint scanner that looks incredibly fast in early demos. The 4GB of RAM in the top-of-the-range version should make it a powerhouse, and it’s one of the only devices on sale to offer such a massive amount of memory. There’s also a degree of customization, just not as much as that offered by Motorola’s Moto Maker website. The camera also sounds like a winner, and we’re less skeptical of it than the Moto X Style, which Motorola claims is amazing, but that’s coming from a company that historically has some of the worst smartphone cameras, per DT’s testing.
OnePlus 2 is hardly dead in the water, then.
If OnePlus 2 delivers, it could win
The Moto X Style is a fearsome challenger, but OnePlus has something Motorola doesn’t: attitude, and the guts to try something new. The VR launch is probably only the start for OnePlus, which is a company that excels at building and maintaining hype more than any other Android manufacturer. For example, Motorola launched the Moto X Style, X Play, and new Moto G at a traditional stage-driven event. Yes there was a live stream so we could all watch along, but no way would I have stayed up until stupid o’clock to view it. OnePlus doesn’t have pre-conceived ideas about how to do stuff, or seemingly any stuffy suits intent of sticking with tradition.
Much of this seems to come from the top. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Carl Pei revealed he’s conducting a personal experiment living a minimalistic lifestyle out of a single suitcase and a backpack, in a different Airbnb apartment each month. When he travels locally, he does so only by an Uber car. It’s a bizarre choice, but one that shows he’s not afraid to buck conventions. He clearly drives OnePlus forward as a company in the same way.
It’s also great at nurturing faithful owners. The VR launch had input from awkward OnePlus groupies, everyone’s always banging on about the ‘community,’ and we’re expecting queues outside the various pop-up stores next week, where people can get their hands on the OnePlus 2 in advance. Motorola? Well, you’ll have to wait until the Moto X Style is on sale before seeing it.
But none of this early hype, VR fun, or any of the promo antics that are sure to follow, will matter if the phone can’t cut it. For all its success, we shouldn’t forget the OnePlus One was deeply flawed. When the OnePlus faced the Moto X and the Nexus 5 last year, expectations were low. It’s different now. It needs to deliver a cracking phone, or it’s going to be mugged by Motorola.
OnePlus the company knows how to make a sensation. Now it’s got to prove it really can make a sensational phone to go along with all the fanfare. We can’t wait to find out whether it has.