The wealthiest team in sports doesn’t always win the championship. Sometimes all you need are the right pieces, the willingness to take risks, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get your reward. Nobody would have predicted a team like Leicester City, which finished 14th last campaign, to be among the top teams in the English Premier League this season. Yet The Foxes are right near the top.
That analogy very much parallels the mobile market, which is quickly becoming a more diverse and accessible place full of strong competition. Companies such as Apple and Samsung gained an early advantage because they had the riches to create some of the most desirable smartphones we’ve ever seen. But just because a phone is powerful and expensive doesn’t mean it’s the best. Not anymore.
For how good the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus is, you can get an equally good experience with a phone like the Nexus 5X. And the options don’t end there.
To get the best, you used to have to pay the price. But over the past year, it has become clear that buying a cheap phone no longer means it’s also bad. In fact, there’s an All-Star team of affordable standouts available right now, ranging from the unbelievably impressive $129 Moto G, to the solid $399 Moto X Pure Edition. These are handsets you can proudly buy without feeling like you’re missing out, and you don’t have to break the bank to get them.
Now we can add the OnePlus X to that list, which, at just $250 off-contract, offers some of the best value we’ve seen all year. And it’s downright gorgeous.
A good phone needs to have peppy performance, a solid camera, and a beautiful design. What a phone no longer needs is a monster price tag, and the OnePlus X is yet another perfect example.
Cheap phones often feel cheaply made, something we accept without a fuss because you get what you pay for. But the OnePlus X is in a completely different class, combining an elegance and polish usually reserved for the top rung of smartphones. If you handed this to your buddy, they’d have a hard time believing this was just $250. Even I’m still having a hard time.
Surrounded by an intricately etched metal frame with chamfered edges, the OnePlus X looks and feels like an expensive piece of jewelry; it sparkles in the light with the sophistication of something you’d find behind a heavily guarded display. When sitting next to an iPhone or Galaxy device, some of the most highly regarded designs on the market, it doesn’t look out of place. The build quality is that superb.
That said, the OnePlus X’s design does borrow ideas, and winds up looking like a cross between an iPhone/Nexus 4/Xperia, which is absolutely fine in my book. Phones look like other phones, that’s just the way it is. The sooner we get past that the sooner we can start appreciating the kind of craftsmanship and engineering that goes into these objects of our desire. The OnePlus X looks like other phones, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.
One small way it does put its own stamp on the design is through that excellent Alert Slider; it’s a small addition, but it makes for a big difference throughout the day. Just slide it up and you’ll get no interruptions. Keep it in the middle and only priority notifications will come streaming through.
Other than that, the problems we’ve had with double-sided glass phones still persist; namely, the OnePlus X is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, and you just know it’s begging to be shattered into a million pieces the second it’s dropped. Not a monumental deal, but worth noting.
Oh, and OnePlus has decided to also offer a Ceramic version of the X, but only 10,000 are being made due to the complexity of the manufacturing process, which involves heating raw zirconia for 28 hours, and takes 25 days in total from start to finish. It’ll cost more at around $400, but if you want something relatively unique, that might be something to consider.
But not even the gorgeous design can hide the fact that the OnePlus X is running older specs. We’re on the cusp of getting our hands on the Snapdragon 820, so if you’re absolutely intent on being on the cutting edge, the OnePlus x’s Snapdragon 801 probably won’t do it for you, especially if you’re looking for something that’s future proof. That said, you have to remember this is the same processor used in the OnePlus One, which offered excellent performance.
From my experience, the X was more or less what you’d expect: it certainly doesn’t feel low-end, though it’s not exactly the pick of the litter, either. You won’t really notice it’s running older specs unless you’ve experienced the power of a Note 5. The X isn’t meant to singe your hair with speed; it zips from place to place at an acceptable rate, and only occasionally will it show it’s not the fastest around. Keyword being occasionally.
For the price, however, you still get 3GB of RAM, a 5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display, a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, 16GB of expandable storage, OxygenOS based on Android 5.1.1, and a 2525mAh battery, which is a lot smaller than the 3100mAh unit used in the OnePlus One from last year. That’s one area where OnePlus made a significant compromise in its pursuit for such a thin (6.9mm) design.
Luckily OnePlus’ OxygenOS does a pretty stellar job optimizing performance and keeping the X alive through a heavy day of use. I’m talking Twitter, gaming, Facebook, Instagram and the other usual suspects. My expectations weren’t particularly high since the battery is relatively small compared to some of today’s big flagships, but I was actually surprised at how well the device held up.
OnePlus has already baked battery-saving features into its software, which means users are getting some of the benefits of Google’s Marshmallow, albeit in OnePlus’ own way. A Marshmallow build is eventually coming to the X, but the current iteration of OxygenOS more than holds its own, offering the same fun tweaks and little flourishes we came to love when we reviewed the OnePlus 2 a few months back.
Even though the battery is decent, the OnePlus X doesn’t offer the luxuries of wireless charging or Quick Charge, the latter of which is hard to live without once you use it. Some of today’s most popular flagships can be topped off in just minutes; you won’t get such extravagance with the OnePlus X. Such is the life of a $250 phone.
The X’s AMOLED display might be a boon to the battery as well; OnePlus takes advantage of the screen by making a lot of OxygenOS’s UI black, keeping pixels turned off when they’re not needed; it’s a thoughtful way to ensure the battery isn’t taking a hit while you’re swiping through your app draw or digging through settings.
The display, which comfortably curves ever-so-slightly at the edges, is quite nice, too; it’s sharp, colorful, and stands up well in bright light. It also doesn’t completely blind your face before bed, which is another benefit of AMOLED. For such an affordable phone, this is a top display—you won’t have any complaints. And at 5 inches, it’s smaller than screens used in both the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2, which I quite like. The X’s overall footprint winds up being the perfect size.
Not everything is dandy at such a low price, however, and there are some inevitable compromises. One of my major gripes is the lack of a fingerprint sensor, which is becoming very common among today’s top phones, including the Nexus 6P, iPhone 6s, Galaxy S6 Edge Plus; we’ve also seen the technology spread into the mid-range market as well with phones like the OnePlus 2, Nexus 5X, and HTC A9. While the lack of a fingerprint sensor is by no means a deal breaker, it’s sorely missed.
Meanwhile, the OnePlus X lacks a few important bands for low-frequency LTE here in the U.S., which means you might experience an unreliable LTE connection depending on where you live. I was able to get a consistent HSPA+ connection through AT&T at my apartment in Huntington Beach, CA, which pulled down decent speeds. When the phone did connect to LTE, I was never on it for more than a few minutes.
These are pretty minor compromises in the grand scheme of things, but worth noting if you plan on keeping this phone for the next few years. The device also doesn’t come with NFC just like the OnePlus 2, which has been a very controversial decision to say the least. I never find myself in situations where I need NFC (I don’t use mobile payments), but it’s technology people use for sure. It’s an especially egregious omission now that Android Pay is available.
Finally, the camera. The OnePlus X sports a 13-megapixel sensor with ISOCELL technology, which is capable of isolating individual pixels inside the sensor. What this does is improve the sensor’s ability to capture light, and also reduce crosstalk. Compared to a BSI sensor, crosstalk promises to offer sharper, less grainy images.
In reality, the X’s camera isn’t the strongest performer out there. You’ll get adequate images—good enough to share with friends and to post on social media. But there’s a lot of processing going on here, and I often got pictures that were noticeably noisy, soft and bland, especially in lower light situations. And you can pretty much forget about cropping in on images.
Things might improve as OnePlus optimizes how the software processes pictures, but, as it stands, the X’s camera is, at best, just OK. I never expected this to match the quality of the Nexus 6P or iPhone 6s Plus, but it will have to do.
The actual stock camera app built inside of Oxygen OS is very easy to use: Tap on an area and the camera will focus; tap the shutter button and you’ve made a photo. Focusing is very quick and painless, too, and always seemed to accurately pinpoint the subject I was aiming at. Taking pictures was pretty snappy as well; never was there a situation where the camera’s sluggishness kept me from taking the photo I wanted.
Thanks to OxygenOS’s customization features, I was able to set the camera to launch by pressing the X’s middle capacitive button (capacitive buttons that don’t light up, which is another slight annoyance; you can always just go with onscreen buttons if you prefer). It doesn’t launch quite as quick as Samsung’s implementation in the Note 5 or S6 Edge Plus, but the X’s camera was always ready to go when I needed it.
Some of the features inside of the camera app are pretty standard. You get options like slow motion, photo, video, time lapse, and panorama. You also have access to functions like HDR, a beauty feature, and clear image, which OnePlus introduced last year. Clear image essentially combines 10 individual photos for one final super high-res image. That’s not something you might use regularly, but it could be great for trips to Yosemite.
The OnePlus X offers a great balance of performance, design, and price. With a few small revisions, it could have been one of this year’s top phones.
Offering cheap phones is the name of the game for OnePlus, and even though this isn’t the company’s most powerful device, it might be its most important. Nearly two years ago, the Chinese startup surprised the market with a phone that offered high-end specs for an amazing price. The OnePlus X follows a similar path, and does so for just $250.
At that price, it’s hard to focus on the X’s shortcomings. The phone is by no means perfect, but it’s among the best value propositions on the market. That is, if you can even get your hands on the X, which (ugh), can only be purchased through an invite system. That just comes with the OnePlus territory I’m afraid.
Should you buy this? That’s really, really tough. The fact that it doesn’t support important cellular bands here in the U.S. is a deal breaker for some, and it doesn’t come with NFC, which is yet another controversial decision on OnePlus’ part.
I’d be very curious to see what next year’s OnePlus X will look like. With a few more revisions, this could very well become the company’s strongest device, even if it doesn’t come with the very latest specs.
If you’re on a very strict budget, I’d highly recommend this phone with the caveat that you might not get a consistent LTE connection. But at $250, it’s hard to ignore just how good of a phone this is despite its imperfections.
Lacks important LTE bands
Disclaimer: Brandon used the OnePlus X for five days before beginning his review. Mark used the OnePlus X for five days before filming his review.