Can you make a smartphone without compromise? Is it possible to cram top-of-the-line hardware into a slim phone body, then fit it with well-regarded software, then sell it for about half the price of competing devices, and call the resulting product a "flagship killer?" Can you, as the ceaseless OnePlus promotion machine so succinctly puts it, "never settle?"

In a word, no. The OnePlus One, the maiden Android phone from a boutique manufacturer, is not completely without its shortcomings (or indeed, its compromises). But even so, it's a brilliant first effort, and one well worth considering for the Android enthusiast or the bargain hunter. With excellent hardware and a fresh build of the open-source aftermarket Android ROM CyanogenMod, the One shines in many categories, and it's only dull in a few. For $300, it's easily one of the best deals on the market for those who want an unlocked and contract-free phone... assuming that they can actually buy it when it goes on sale next month.

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OnePlus One: Specifications
  • Price: $299 (16GB), $349 (64GB)
  • Processor: 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
  • GPU: Adreno 330
  • Network compatibility: GSM-LTE, unlocked (Micro SIM)
  • Operating system: CyanogenMod 11S - Android 4.4.2
  • Display: 5.5" IPS LCD 1920x1080 (401 DPI)
  • Memory: 3GB RAM / 16GB storage
  • Cameras: 13MP rear, 5MP front
  • Battery: 3100mAh, non-removable
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi A/B/G/N/AC (dual band support), NFC, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Ports / expandable storage: USB 2.0 (with USB OTG), no MicroSD card
  • Thickness: 8.9mm
  • Weight: 162g
The Good
  • The One has the most powerful hardware available at the $300-350 price point, bar none.
  • Build quality is great, and much more impressive than I would have expected at the price point. It blows the Nexus 5 out of the water and is noticeably better than any Galaxy you care to name.
  • On top of Android 4.4.2, CyanogenMod adds a ton of options and settings that will please power users.
  • Battery life is very good, and regular users can expect 2 days with heavy WiFi use and at least one full day on 3G or LTE.
The Not So Good
  • The 13MP rear camera is sub-par, tending to wash out colors and perform poorly in low light despite impressive specifications.
  • The screen size isn't going to please everyone. While some will appreciate it for video and reading, the phone is slightly too big for one-handed operation.
  • Purists who refuse to buy a phone without a removable battery or MicroSD card slot will dismiss the One out of hand.
  • The invitation system required for purchase is borderline insulting.

Hardware

From a stylistic point of view, the One could be called "conservative." It does little to change the status quo of the big-screen slate form factor that dominates smartphones. Big screen up front, camera in the back, buttons on the sides - you won't find any dual cameras or fingerprint scanners on this machine. That's fine by me. Such things are only meant to draw the eye of the casual consumer, and OnePlus is hoping to appeal to more discriminating tastes.

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Though the One has a standard plastic body, it's much more sturdy than other polycarbonate phones. Compared to a Galaxy S4 or Nexus 5, the One feels like it's much more sturdy, approaching the impressive build of HTC and Motorola. The white back on the 16GB model can be removed, though not without quite a bit of effort. The battery, however, is fixed in place. Given its large 3100mAh capacity, it's unlikely that you'll miss the option (though some certainly will). Even with a removable back and large battery, the One keeps a relatively svelte 8.9mm profile, no doubt helped by the 5.5" screen. Note the NFC module embedded in the back cover.

The screen is a black plane of Gorilla Glass floating on a bezel made of a separate piece of plastic painted chrome. While it won't fool anyone, it does look much more sharp than, say, the faux metal bezels of some Samsung phones. I'd have preferred the tapering side design seen on some LG and Motorola devices to the straight ones here, but perhaps the benefit of that particular choice (being able to shrink the screen bezels without fear of accidental taps) isn't necessary with such a large phone anyway. There's a multicolor LED notification light hidden next to the front-facing camera.

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Overall, the looks of the One are like a Camry: appreciable without being bombastic. The phone won't turn heads (unless they opt for one of the more crazy swappable style covers, which we didn't get to try out), but neither will it attract unwanted attention. The build quality is good, if not great, and the matte finish of the plastic won't show fingerprints even on the white back. The OnePlus logo and Cyanogen badges are on the rear of the phone only, stylishly understated. That's part of the benefit of eschewing carrier partnerships.

Screen

Screen size is a divisive topic when it comes to smartphones: you'll be hard-pressed to find two users who like exactly the same size. I myself don't like screens larger than 5", since it pushes beyond the boundary where Android becomes usable with one hand. The One is definitely a "two hand" phone, though its slim bezels and beveled back mean you'll be able to do some (not all) things without resorting to two. You get the benefit of a larger area for videos and browsing, of course. I think that this size is something of a no-man's land - too big to use with one hand, but just small enough that you want to. Why not give up the pretense and become a mini-tablet, like the Xperia Z Ultra or the Oppo N1?

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Objectively, the 1080p LCD panel isn't the best I've seen, but it's far from the worst. Colors are bright without any real "pop", and the 5.5" size is a good match for this resolution, with sharp text and big, eyesight-friendly videos. The maximum and minimum brightness are plenty separated, and I did not notice any significant light bleeding, which is more than I can say for other "budget" phones with high-resolution LCD screens. The auto-brightness feature is a bit too dim outdoors at the default setting, but thanks to CyanogenMod, you can manually adjust its performance and trigger points. You'll find that CyanogenMod improving the already solid hardware is a common thread in this review.

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I binged Netflix and read a pulp novel to test out the panel, and both experiences were more than adequate. If you want a big screen in a thin body, as seems to be the fashion with smartphone hardware, the One will not disappoint. It's by no means the best, and I miss the luminosity of my preferred AMOLED panels, but the One's screen is perfectly capable. Considering the price of the overall phone, that's a relief - the screen is often the first thing to take a hit on budget hardware. That is not the case here.

Buttons

The buttons on the One deserve some special attention. Not the power and volume buttons, on the right and left of the phone, respectively. I'll say that they're too thin for my taste and hard to hit with my meaty digits, but not overly so. No, the interesting thing about the One's button design comes in the navigation panel. The hardware includes capacitive menu, home, and back buttons beneath the screen. You'll have to look hard to see them: the weak backlight disappears in any strong light (such as, for example, the photo lights in a humble gadget blogger's home office).

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Point one against them is that they are out of order from standard Android. I'm used to having the back button on the left side of the screen, whether it's physical or capacitive, and on more than one occasion I hit menu multiple times before remembering. That's easy enough to get over, but I don't see why it's necessary. Point two: a menu button? Really, OnePlus? A skeptical reviewer might point out that the young company has a lot of corporate ties to Oppo, which makes the Find 7, a phone with remarkable similarities to the OnePlus One, right down to identical capacitive buttons. But I digress.

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CyanogenMod comes to the rescue here. If you don't like the default layout, some - but not all - of the functions can be changed. The menu button can be switched to activate the Recents view with a single press, which at least brings the buttons back to Android's standard three. You can also assign long-tap actions to the home and menu buttons, as well as double-tap for the home button, Samsung-style. These aren't unlimited, but the defaults include most of what you'll probably want, including Google Now or a camera launcher. The back button cannot be modified.

But wait, there's more! Cyanogen also lets you ignore the physical buttons completely, opting for a Nexus-style on-screen navigation bar instead. With the virtual nav bar enabled, the capacitive buttons will ignore all input, becoming all but invisible with the backlight disabled. And like most custom ROMs, the virtual buttons can be added, subtracted, and re-arranged. If you miss Android's dedicated search button or want an always-on menu button, you're welcome to throw them in. The swipe-up option for Google Now can be re-assigned or expanded into three common actions, including any app you'd like. Cyanogen's Expanded Desktop option even allows you to hide the navigation bar, summoning it with a swipe from the bottom of the screen. 

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I suspect that the inclusion of both kinds of buttons stems more from an existing Oppo hardware design than from a true desire for flexibility. I would have preferred them to leave out the physical buttons altogether and make the phone that much smaller, if possible. This is another one of those design choices with fans on both sides, so at least you're given the option.

Performance

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor in the One has four cores with a top speed of 2.5GHz. Paired to 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU (clocked at 537mhz, slightly faster than some 330 variants), the specifications will meet or beat any phone currently on the market. On paper, the One is the match of the previously mentioned Oppo Find 7 and Sony's flagship Xperia Z2, and it has the same processor and more RAM than the HTC One M8 and the LTE versions of the Galaxy S5.

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In everyday tasks, the One is a champ, with nary a slowdown or dropped frame to be found. That's pretty much expected from this kind of hardware. With CyanogenMod's relatively light RAM load compared to Sense or TouchWiz, those who like to keep their phones humming along will be in hog heaven. Even while recording 1080p video the phone is silky smooth, and in a game of Crazy Taxi the device is on par with other phones equipped with an Adreno 330. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the heaviest and most intensive game that I can find on Android, looks better on the One than any of my other devices.

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I often compare the Nexus 5 to a pony car: super-powered hardware in an understandably cheap body. The OnePlus One falls into the same category, but its hardware is even better (even allowing for extra development time), and the sturdy chassis shows none of the flex and flimsiness found on the Nexus 5. If you are a shameless spec hound you'll find no fault here, at least in terms of performance.

Audio, Reception, And Call Quality

The One has two stereo speakers that flank the USB port on the bottom of the device. (They're real stereo, by the way, not the fake stereo grilles as seen on the Nexus 5.) These are pretty typical of smartphone speakers: tinny and not really suitable for music. But they are surprisingly loud - about 1.5 times as loud as the single speaker on my DROID MAXX, which is no slouch itself. It's more than suitable for speakerphone conversations or listening without headphones, and the placement on the phone's edge means they're audible whether it's face down or face up.

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Reception on the phone is admirable, even in my remote location where AT&T's 3G signal is hard to come by. Once I got into the city I had no problem pulling down a reliable LTE signal, outdoors or indoors, and the speed matched the connection. Call quality was a problem at first, not because of reception, but because of volume. The earpiece above the screen was far too soft, making it hard to hear the other party even in a quiet room.

After I mentioned this in my initial hands-on, a OnePlus representative said that they were aware of the problem. Sure enough, the first timely software update boosted the volume of the earpiece considerably. It's still not quite as loud as I'd like it, but you won't be straining to hear someone unless you're getting some pretty loud noises around you. The other parties in my phone calls all said I was coming in loud and clear.

Storage And Battery Life

The $300 base model of the OnePlus One comes with 16GB of storage, the unfortunate standard for some time. It's not unreasonable for a phone at that price range, but the lack of a MicroSD card slot is regrettable, and goes against the "Never Settle" attitude. This is somewhat mitigated by 64GB model, which will be offered for just $50 more - an excellent value, compared to competing phones and their $100 upgrades for 32GB - but not much of a comfort if you can't afford the extra expense. The CyanogenMod software takes up just shy of 4GB of storage, leaving 12GB left for the user.

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The 3100mAh battery, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. I found that I could easily go for more than a day on the One if I stuck primarily to WiFi, even with lots of browsing and Netflix. Once you're at the mercy of the more draining mobile networks, the One still manages to go for the better part of a day before dipping below 20% juice. While I'm not a fan of larger screens, it's hard to deny the material benefit of fitting bigger batteries into phone bodies. The excellent longevity of the OnePlus One should help mitigate worries about the lack of a removable battery. 

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Left: a typical work day for me. Right: the day I went to the zoo for the photoshoot. I rode the phone hard, using high brightness and Google Maps navigation without charging, and it managed about 5 hours of life with the screen on. With more normal use you can expect about double that.

Camera

We've seen this again and again, haven't we? Shoving more megapixels onto a tiny camera sensor will make your photos bigger, but not appreciably better. Such is the case with the 13 megapixel rear shooter on the OnePlus One. When I took the phone to the Fort Worth Zoo for an impromptu photo shoot, the photos were consistently washed-out and showed poor contrast between light and dark areas. OnePlus claims that the Sony Exmor camera and F/2.0 lens combo should outperform other, similar cameras, but alas, I probably could have gotten better results (at lower megapixel ratings) from a point-and-shoot.

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Perhaps that's an unfair comparison - after all, even a cheap single-purpose device will generally outperform an all-in-one. But according to the promotional page, the 6-lens system takes "amazing pictures even in low light conditions." When moving indoors, where the low F-stop value should really shine, I found the same disappointing lack of contrast and flat colors. Also worthy of note: the OnePlus One takes photos in a 4:3 format, as opposed to the 16:9 format native to the screen. There is no option to change this, as seen on some (but not all) competing high-end phones. This doesn't particularly bother me, since I'm used to shooting with a DSLR and cropping afterward.

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Video, too, has a tendency to wash out bright spots and ignore darker ones. The lack of optical image stabilization doesn't bother me for stills, but it's more apparent in video, when even the biggest phone will tend to wobble in your hands. If you care for such things, the camera can record in 4K resolution, or slow motion if you bump it down to 720p.

The underperforming camera is easily the most disappointing hardware feature on the OnePlus One, falling far short of similar sensors on the Samsung and LG flagships. It's not bad, at least in the greater scope of Android phones - I generally prefer its photos over the lackluster ones taken with my DROID MAXX, for example. But if you want a truly excellent mobile camera, go for the Galaxy S5 (or, if we're being really honest here, the iPhone). The front-facing camera is 5 megapixels, so if you're a serial selfie snapper, you'll be better off with the One than with other phones in this price range.

Software

The OnePlus One runs CyanogenMod 11, a tweaked and customized version of Android 4.4.2. In fact it's a little more tweaked than usual, since this is a build developed especially for OnePlus, labeled "CyanogenMod 11S." Even the Oppo N1, the first phone to be available with CyanogenMod pre-installed, didn't get that honor.

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So if you're a regular custom ROM user, you know what to expect here: an almost slavish dedication to "pure" Android in most respects, with a lot of advanced options for power users to dig through. As a CM user since 2010, I'm thrilled to see the newly-incorporated team getting some real recognition, and though I'll admit to a somewhat biased favorability of their work, there's no denying the appeal of an Android variant with all the safeties off.

But what if you're just a regular Joe, with no interest in root or bootloaders unlocked or otherwise? Then it's best to think of CyanogenMod 11S as another manufacturer skin, albeit probably the best one available. In addition to the latest version of Android and the tacit promise of faster updates than other devices, the OnePlus One has more options than just about any other phone I've seen with the possible exception of the Galaxy S5. And here the options make sense, allowing for deep customization right out of the box, no experience necessary.

Interface

I loaded up the latest build of CyanogenMod 11 on my Nexus 5, just to compare the features between that rom and "11S" directly. The first noticeable change is the lockscreen, which abandons Android's semi-translucent one for a cyanogen-colored slab that slides down to unlock or to the side for the camera. That's about it. It's interesting (and there's more to come), but not all that much better than the basic lockscreen. I disabled it after a while to get access to the full-screen music cover art in default Android.

11S also has more fine grain control over themes than standard CyanogenMod, allowing the user to apply an entire theme, or overall style, icons, fonts, wallpapers, boot animations, or even sounds at their leisure. None of this is impossible with standard CM11, but the settings menu makes it much easier on the One.

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The One does some interesting interface tricks as well. There's a wake-to-launch feature a la the Moto X, but it seems more like a promotional tool for Qualcomm than an actual feature add. You can train the phone to awaken to a command. Well, one command, and only one: "Hey Snapdragon." Thanks, Qualcomm, you found a way to make voice control even more awkward. In its favor, the Qualcomm implementation does allow you to set it to activate any app, but I don't think you'd want anything except for Google Now. This feature should be making its way to more phones this year, at least if Qualcomm gets its way. Come on, folks, let us pick our own messages: I want to command my phone with "Computah" and pretend I'm Patrick Stewart.

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Much more useful is the ability to wake your phone with taps and gestures. There's a double-tap to wake option, a la LG's KnockOn, and inside the Interface menu you'll find more ways of commanding your phone while it's off. Music can be controlled with a two-finger upward swipe to play or pause, and left or right arrows to go forward or back. My personal favorite is activating the flashlight with a "V" motion - every manufacturer should throw in a way of turning on the camera LEDs when the phone is off.

As cool as the tap and gesture functions are, I found that the music controls would often be activated while the phone was in my pocket. (The gestures rely on capacitive input, not vibration - I don't know how it happened.) I turned them off after a while, after one too many song skips and "butt dials" - I think this feature needs to be combined with standard proximity detection to make it truly useful.

Apps

The OnePlus One also gets a few custom apps that aren't part of the CyanogenMod stable. The familiar DSP Manager is replaced with AudioFX, a more swanky version of the basic equalizer app. The camera app is slightly altered, perhaps to accommodate the extra features: instead of a long-press to open up various manual controls, they're tied to more conventional virtual buttons, and swiping down will scroll through various scene and image options. Unfortunately, I would often accidentally scroll through these just by trying to take a photo or refocus.

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The theme manager mentioned above gets its own icon. Other than that, CyanogenMod's customized versions of Android apps like the homescreen and calculator are present and accounted for. Strangely, the customized Apollo music player is not present, which I suspect is a function of Google's certification of the consumer-ready One - all of Google's standard apps are pre-installed, whereas you have to download them from the Play Store after flashing Gapps on standard CyanogenMod.

The Other Stuff

Other than the differences outlined above, this is standard CyanogenMod. Technically our review unit came with pre-release software, and I did notice a few niggling bugs, but everything except a weird wallpaper formatting error was fixed with a small software update even before I started writing this review. The OnePlus One has an unlockable bootloader and presumably it will play nice with any properly-formatted ROMs, but unlike a CyanogenMod build flashed onto another phone, it is not immediately rooted.

There are far too many features in CyanogenMod to list them here, but I've selected a few of my favorites. These enhance Android for the power user, and even casual users should be able to find some things they enjoy.

  • Customizable navigation buttons (see above)
  • Full theme support
  • Customizable pull-down quick settings menu
  • Notification tray settings (Samsung style)
  • User-set shortcuts on the lockscreen and Google Now pop-up launcher
  • Battery percentage icon option
  • Expandable desktop (hide the nav bar and/or notification bar, returns with a gesture)
  • Settings profiles and reboot options in the power menu

The presence of CyanogenMod is very cool, but not exactly essential for power users, who would probably have installed their own custom ROM anyway. For someone who wants an impressively customizable phone that runs the latest version of Android, the OnePlus One's software is quite attractive. But if you've already installed the custom ROM of your choice on your current phone, the additions found only on the One (for the moment) aren't worth seeking out a new device by themselves.

Value And Invite System

There's no way to deny it: considering the hardware and software, the OnePlus One is the best deal around for a high-end device. At approximately half the cost of flagship devices from HTC, Samsung, LG, and Sony, the One really is a "flagship killer" if all you care about is the price. The Nexus 5 can be had for a few dollars more, but its build quality, screen, camera, processor, RAM, and camera (such as it is) are all wanting. Add in the fact that the 64GB version of the OnePlus One is an entirely reasonable $350, and it's an amazing value. (Sorry, Verizon and Sprint customers: there's no CDMA option, and the One will not work on your LTE bands.)

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But there is a fly in the ointment. OnePlus is using an invitation system, so in order to earn the privilege of buying their product when it goes on sale in June, you'll need to enter a lottery. Actually, it's not even a lottery: you can only get invitations by joining in the teeming masses on the OnePlus forum or by watching the social promotions closely. If you happen to know someone who's already done that, you can bug them for an invitation instead.

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OnePlus claims that this is a way to reward loyal fans, and to "cut out the middlemen" of distributors and retailers. Cynically, I suspect that this is simply a way to limit the initial rollout of limited stock draped in marketing mystique. Let's call this what it is: an attempt at fake exclusivity and hype. The self-congratulatory and condescending nature of the OnePlus promotion machine thus far has not endeared me to their business model, and the invitation system is just shy of insulting to anyone whose excitement for the One hasn't manifested in slobbering praise on the company-hosted forums.

Here's a business tip from my grandfather, OnePlus: never make it difficult for people to give you money. Low inventory and manufacturing delays from a brand-new company making a niche product would be understandable. But this faux exclusivity for an ostensibly community-minded product is simply frustrating.

Conclusion

The OnePlus One is not the perfect, everything-to-everyone phone that its creators might like you to think it is. But it is an amazingly powerful and versatile device, even before you consider its staggeringly low price. The addition of software and updates from CyanogenMod makes it a compelling option for anyone who's in the market for an unlocked GSM phone, especially if they're looking for power on a budget. Great specs, impressive battery life, excellent build quality, and plenty of user-facing options are all points in favor of the One.

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A regrettably underpowered camera is not an insurmountable hurdle, and neither is the somewhat divisive choice of a 5.5" screen. A lack of a removable battery and a MicroSD card slot don't bother me. What might sour potential buyers more than anything else is the invitation system, which has already caused consternation even among OnePlus's most ardent supporters. When the phone launches in June, and probably for at least some time thereafter, it won't be "One for all."

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That being said, the One will be worth a bit of effort to procure for those who are excited by the powerful hardware being sold so cheaply, and by the further progression of CyanogenMod as a viable alternative to manufacturer-customized software. If you like your phones fast, your screen big, and your price tag low, there's no better option in the current crop of Android phones than the OnePlus One.

OnePlus.net