The OnePlus One got its release date in June. But it's still rarer than hen's teeth. We snagged one, though! Here's our OnePlus One review
Fairly decent camera
Good specs and performance
Large, sharp screen
Low call volume
A couple of fairly serious problems hold it back from perfection, but the OnePlus One is one of this year's top smartphone bargains.
OnePlus is less than a year old, but it has already slapped a great big wet fish across the faces of companies like Samsung, HTC and LG. Its first phone, the OnePlus One, has many of the same specs as their £500 phones, but costs just £229.
Not heard of OnePlus or its One phone? As the nerd phone sensation of the year, it's a sign you may have healthy social skills and a non-dysfunctional relationship with the Internet. Well done you. But I think it's really about time you two got acquainted.
OnePlus One Review: Design
The OnePlus One is a big phone. It's bigger than all the most famous 5in phones of the year because it has a pretty large 5.5in screen. And unlike the LG G3, it doesn't have a screen bezel thinner than Nic Cage's real hair.
It is a handful, and I think that if you're upgrading from something like the Nexus 4 or Moto G – two other phones that got bargain hunters all in a flutter – you need to get your hands on one first. But, of course, you can't. OnePlus only sells the One from its website at the moment. Head into a phone shop and ask about it and you'll probably get a blank look followed by a prod in the direction of whatever phone will earn the little scrote the most commission.
But we digress. Aside from the size issue, the OnePlus One is a nice-feeling phone. And it's also a rather weird-feeling phone. The texture on its plastic back is quite unusual, with a soft touch-style finish that's also quite rough. Some say it's like fine sandpaper, others that it's like a teddy bear version of shark skin (no, we've never actually heard this, but it's about right).
It's this feel, more than the look, which adds distinctiveness to the design of the black 64GB version of the OnePlus we're testing. The look is more conventional. You get an inoffensive silver plastic screen trim, low-key light-up soft keys and a footprint that's a little more angular than some, but not so much it's noteworthy.
The stats tell the same story – the 8.9mm thickness, the 162g weight. They're all competitive without trying to be thinner or lighter than everyone else. OnePlus cares about saving you money more than providing a phone dazzling enough to make your eyes pop out so far they can make their own way to A+E.
OnePlus One Review: Screen
OnePlus has made sure the screen is a bit more noteworthy, though. You get 5.5 inches of IPS LCD display, where you'd be lucky to get a smaller 720p display from better-known rivals at this price. It's a good screen too, one that can stand next to rivals like the LG G2 and HTC One M8 without looking like the only kid that couldn't afford the Nike trainers. No, you don't get the deep blacks of the Samsung Galaxy S5, and no you don't get the ridiculous QHD resolution of the LG G3. But should you care? I don't think so. Not at £230, and probably not all that much even at £500.
Everything still looks very sharp, and the colours don't look radioactive or anaemic. You don't have to pay all that much to get a good phone screen these days but we don't normally see something this good and such a bargain basement price. It is, frankly, insane. The tone of the screen does come across as a little too warm but apparently this was a deliberate move on OnePlus’ part (so make of that what you will).
OnePlus One Review: Software and User Experience
But what's the phone actually like to use? The OnePlus One uses an interesting open source community version of Android called CyanogenMod. People fond of tinkering with their phones install this on their devices after hacking them, but here you get it right out of the box.
On a very basic level, it looks and feels a lot like 'normal' Android. It doesn't instantly come across as software designed by a committee of nerds – which is pretty much what it is.
It does offer a lot more scope for fiddling with than the normal version of Android, but unlike the software of Samsung and co., CyanogenMod doesn't offer endless reams of pop-ups telling you how to use superfluous function X or how to turn off gesture command Y. Here the features are simply there if you look for them. I think this is a good thing, but it does mean that the OnePlus One isn't a phone that people new to tech are going to get the most out of.
Still, one part of CyanogenMod's customisation is very accessible – themes. A themes browser app comes pre-installed, showing off all the custom looks you can give you OnePlus One. There are dozens of the things to choose from, made by all sorts of people, not just the makers of CyanogenMod.
These alter things from the wallpaper to the icons to the lock screen. You're free to give your One more facelifts than Joan Rivers if that's your bag. There are plenty of good-looking ones too, but as with any third-party Android makeovers, there's a lot of dross also.
OnePlus One Review: Specs and Performance
With a Snapdragon 801 quad-core 2.5GHz processor and software that's ultimately reasonably similar to the Android 4.4.2 kernel it's based on, the OnePlus One predictably offers pretty great performance. There's no obvious lagginess, games run as well as they do on a Galaxy S5 and the 3GB of RAM should ensure pretty decent speed even if you decimate the phone's internal storage with your Farmvilles, your Clashes of Clans and photos of your dinner.
However, we did notice the occasional visual glitch, down to bugs in the CyanogenMod 11S software used in the OnePlus One. There's nothing major, but it's a reminder that you're using a very good community project, not a version of Android made by a multi-billion dollar company.
OnePlus One Review: 4G and OnePlus Problems
There's also some evidence of this kind of bubbly youthful inexperience in less obvious parts of the hardware too. While the OnePlus One is a 4G phone, it doesn't offer perfect 4G support; not in the UK anyway.
The frequencies it supports leave out the 800MHz band used by many of this country's networks. O2 4G won't work, neither will Vodafone's. And as O2 4G isn't supported, that also rules out Tesco, GiffGaff and Lyca Mobile. Those last three are important because their super-competitive 4G deals and the OnePlus One's low price match up like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. And no, that is not a gay joke.
The OnePlus One will work with EE and, to a lesser extent, Three (part of its 4G uses 800Hz). But this is the key reason why I would think twice before buying the One.
Another weird issue is that anything that uses the microphone comes out very, very quiet. Calls are too quiet, ditto dictaphone recordings. However as this appears to be a software issue – as the internal speaker is incredibly loud – a fix should be on the way at some point. Fingers crossed.
OnePlus One Review: Camera
Back to the good stuff, the OnePlus One's camera is pretty decent. It's not Samsung Galaxy S5 good, but if we compare it to £250 phones, it's among the very best.
It has a 13-megapixel sensor on the back, and a 5-megapixel selfie one on the front – the latter is unusually high-res. You don't get optical stabilisation or any whizzy doodad-sounding focusing technology, just good old contrast detection, but you can get nice, sharp shots without too much effort. And while low-light shots are quite grainy, they're not too bad either.
You get a few extra modes in the OnePlus One, including panorama, creative filters and HDR, but nothing quite on the level of the Samsung Galaxy S5 or Sony Xperia Z2. And while the HDR mode is super-effective (see below images) it does look a little too 'larger than life' – the mode advanced mobile HDR modes offer effectiveness without looking like your camera has dropped a tab of acid.
The front camera is a real standout thanks to its 5-megapixel sensor. Colours in photos are a little under saturated and you'll never look more wrinkly and more tired than you will in a 5-megapixel selfie. But such things are largely the preserve of the young and happy anyway. Morose old gits may have a go, but probably shouldn't.
This selfie camera is one of the few bits where the OnePlus One might be seen as showing off a bit. However, one of the best bits is quite how surprisingly easy the phone is to get on with thanks to its relatively straightforward approach. The battery helps too – good hardware efficiency means the 3,100mAh battery lasts for a solid day and a half, or around 11 hours of video playback.
Of course, this all only adds up to so much if you're desperate for 4G when the OnePlus has worse UK 4G support than the £80 Alcatel One Touch Pop S3.
OnePlus One Review: Conclusion
The OnePlus One is a great phone that sells at a frankly ridiculous price. We thought the Nexus 5 and LG G2 were good value – they still are – but the OnePlus One is on another level.