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Monday, July 14, 2014

Of Phones... and the OnePlus One.

Ever the gadget connoisseur, I've always had a soft spot for phones. I've mostly been on the Android side of things sticking with stock Android phones - starting from the first Nexus One all the way to the Nexus 4. For some reason I skipped the Nexus 5. The geek in me loves the customization capabilities they offer, the tweaks they let you do all the way from the battery percentage in the status-bar to the CPU frequencies - something that other platforms didn't offer.

Somewhere in there though, the lack of a strong camera and poor battery performance on the Nexus line from Google turned me off, at which point I guess I decided not to get a Nexus 5. While initially at peace with myself over my apparent contentment with the Nexus 5, over a year that gave way to the typical nerdy need (distinguished from real-world necessity) to have the latest gadgets.

It was then that I began my.... betrayal, let's say, of Android. The first transgression found me in the Windows Phone camp with the Nokia Lumia 521 (which still serves as my media player on the move with WP 8.1 on it), the next had an iPhone 5S in my hands. For someone who doesn't really love all things Apple, I did love the battery life of the phone plenty and the build quality, though I heard often that the former degraded pretty fast and the lack of customization options irked me. Even though I was platform agnostic, there was never a phone that took the best of everything and served it up on a platter.

It is in the midst of this phone search that I came across OnePlus, a Chinese start-up partly backed by OPPO Electronics and started by a former vice president of OPPO with the Motto "Never Settle". They aimed to offer well-designed premium hardware sporting excellent software at affordable prices. Selling at near cost and word-of-mouth marketing were what they counted on to make them big. Their first, and presently only, device - the OnePlus One - sports top-of-the-line specifications - Snapdragon 801 CPU, 3GB RAM, 64GB of onboard memory, a 5.5 inch 1080p screen, 3100 mAh battery, 6-lens 13 MP f/2.0 Sony Exmor IMX214 camera, excellent build quality with a magnesium frame underneath and a sandstone-like back, not to mention the Cyanogenmod 11 OS on it - the next best thing to stock Android.

The issue here though, is that they are a start-up that made way too many promises with a marketing campaign that was too effective, albeit the latter being annoying once said effect was achieved. Once such gadget-goodness hit the internet, there was little to stop the hype train from gaining momentum and demand from spiraling. While the Chinese version of the phone sold well, they went with a very controversial invite system - a trickle of invites released through contests on their official forums and social media for the most part - went out to folks and only those people with invites could hope to purchase the device. You heard that right, an invitation was needed to secure your right to throw money at this business for their product. Add to that a small number of OnePlus One phones being shipped having an issue with slightly yellow screen tints at the base. It's in the midst of this sorry state of affairs that I found myself with an invite to buy the 64GB version of the device at the mind-boggling (in a good way) price of $350 to replace my aging Nexus 4.

So it was, that on a fun Friday morning I found myself distracted from work with a package at my desk, a red drawstring on the edge of the cardboard shipping box serving as an easy entry into OnePlus land. While I was impressed by the majority of overwhelmingly positive reviews of the phone on the internet, here are my impressions on the mythical OnePlus One.

The very first thing I did was to unlock the bootloader and root the phone right out of the box. I got mine with the OnePlus flip cover in white and the Oneplus clear case. The latter is alright, the former is decent but the flip cover doesn't close as securely as I thought it should. Here, I'm not comparing the OnePlus One to other similarly priced phones (well, maybe the Nexus 4/ Nexus 5) but to flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S5, the LG G3 (which I handled briefly) and the HTC One M8. Perhaps a high bar to set for a $300-350 phone, but perhaps one it can achieve.

Packaging and included accessories

Something has to be said for the unboxing experience - the word premium, as overused as it is, is apt here. Everything feels and looks so damn good - the charger, covers and phone are in their individual boxes. The general theme is red and white, this carries over to not just the box materials but all the accessories as well. The phone box comes inside a cardboard case with a red lining around which is actually a drawstring for you to use to open the package. The boxes' constituents - both the cardboard and plastic bits - all feel like they've been coated with some rubbery material. Truly one of the best packages I've opened. This attention to detail even carried over to the packages for the flip cover and cases.

Similarly, the charger seems well built, feels really good and non-generic, though I'm sure the internals are just a standard 2A, 5V charger. The USB cable feels really premium, though again you can get similar ones with slightly lower exterior coating quality for anywhere from $3-$10. The microSIM ejection tool with a key-ring that they give you is a nice addition, it helps me a lot since I change between phones sometimes when I travel for work.

One con with the USB cable though is that it's not very long. Despite all the hype about the amazing cable quality, adding some length would have helped significantly. I had similar cables already bought and ready though, so I just used those instead when necessary.

Build quality / Design

Mine's a Sandstone Black 64GB. It actually does feel like Sandstone on the back., somewhere between the touch of velvet and very fine sandpaper. I just love the the back- way better than any plastic backs, also better than the fake metal backs like the G3 - for me, on par with the iPhone 5S and HTC One M8's backs, though some might like those materials more. I think it's down to personal preference at that point. The con here though, is that it does look like any spills/sticky stuff on the back may end up being difficult to clean for anything other than water.

The power button is slightly lower on the side, which helps a great deal with the handling for a large phone like this. I have fairly large hands, so the device isn't a big problem for me, but I can imagine it needing two-handed use for smaller hands. Even for me, it needs a bit of shuffling to get to the far corner of the screen. Coming from a Nexus 4 though, I love having a large device like this that still fits in my pocket. The bezels aren't too large, but the LG G3 beats it on that account and crams in the large screen into a smaller body than the OnePlus One. The front has no markings on it, no branding anywhere.

I sense absolutely no creaking in the body or any feeling that it might come apart. The device seems very solid. If you constantly feel the need to open the back cover for some reason though (no reason here since the battery's non replaceable), you'll have to pop the SIM card slot out each time before you open the back. It's a bit difficult to open - or atleast it feels like it since you're always thinking "Oh my, something is going to break if I do this" though nothing will break as long as you pop the SIM out first. OnePlus intends to eventually release what they call StyleSwap covers - back covers for the One that feature not just textures but real materials like Denim, Kevlar and Wood. The whole build feels amazing and it's a nice phone to hold in your hands as well as to look at. It has the right amount of heft for me personally without being too heavy.

The physical buttons (an oddity on Nexus devices) are nice though brightness on them could have been slightly higher in sunlight. I prefer the physical buttons since these give me a slight bit more screen real estate. However, coming from a Nexus 4, it took me a bit more time to get used to the back button being in a different location and the menu button doing double duty with the app switcher.

It's not a waterproof-certified device, a small downside compared to some recent phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 if you like taking a shower with your phone or something.


It's hardly the highest PPI screen on the market, but the large 5.5 inch 1080p display performs very well. I got fortunate in that I didn't get one of the screens with a yellow tint or any other defects. The screen is sharp, colors are vivid and natural but not over-saturated like the S5 (I guess some people like over-saturation better). Cyanogenmod lets you calibrate the screen, so have at it if you wish. The display itself is slightly raised above the phone's body - what OnePlus touts as 'Touch on Lens' technology to enhance touch sensitivity - and I don't believe all that much in the protective qualities of Gorilla Glass 3 (that the Oneplus does have) so I have a generic plastic protector on it already. I'll replace it with a tempered glass one as soon as it arrives from China. The viewing angles are great, that's the IPS at work.

Sunlight visibility is very good too, and it doesn't limit the brightness if it heats up. Frankly, I haven't felt the phone heat up despite gaming on it a decent amount. Overall, the display is a treat to look at.

Software and Performance

The OnePlus One comes with Cyanogenmod 11S on it - a highly customized, open source version of Android. You can also get the monthly Cyanogenmod M releases if you like, it's officially supported. It took an update right out of the box. The sheer amount of customization options (from performance tweaks to the theme engine) here is exciting. It might overwhelm some, but to me it's a godsend. I also added the Xposed framework to this and installed some modules and I think I'm now all set even if Android L from Cyanogenmod is delayed. I'm much happier than with stock android, yet with none of the over-the-top garish modification that some manufacturers do (Touchwiz I'm looking at you). The V gesture to switch the flashlight on is a bit finicky so I think I'll be turning it off since it doesn't always work.

I've already replaced Cyanogenmod's default Trebuchet launcher with Nova Launcher Prime, it serves me better.

I have been using the OnePlus One with the 'balanced' performance profile for the most part. There's also a performance option and another one that is meant to conserve battery. In the default profile, it's very snappy, with absolutely no lag in opening apps or the keyboard coming up or moving to the homescreen. Gaming was good with no stuttering or framerate drops on games ranging from Dead Trigger to Stick Cricket. The battery does drop a bit faster with frequent gaming though. I've not tried tweaking the advanced settings for the CPU and GPU under Cyanogenmod 11 yet, so maybe there's more performance to be gained, even if it isn't necessary. As you know, the internals are right up there with the best flagships. Having 64GB of storage space is a boon despite after suffering with 16GB for eternity on the Nexus 4. Multitasking is a breeze, tons of apps, 15 chrome tabs open at once, 75 apps queued up to install from the Play Store... and it still was smooth.

I've not had any issues with GPS, 4G/LTE, NFC etc. Everything works as expected. The GPS seems to lock pretty quickly and the same can be said about the NFC capability.

Calls / Reception 

Call quality is decent, much better than the Nexus 4 I was using so far and on par with other flagships. The earpiece speaker delivers good sound at a good volume. No crackling or clicking noises (my N4 was one of the first batch which had a slight issue with the latter). People I've spoken to have had no problem hearing me. Reception has been much better (T-Mobile 4G LTE here) than with my Nexus 4, on par with my 5S and better than my Lumia 521.

Battery Life and charging

With moderate use, it lasted me a day and a half. This is a new experience for me coming from an N4 :P When I checked the phone at 15% battery, it was around 6h 50min of screen on time. I have a bunch of email accounts, Facebook, Twitter etc. running on the phone, frequent FB status updates, Youtube videos, a couple Spotify tracks streamed, lots of Bing searches and I play a bit of Stick Cricket now and then. A few pictures clicked as well. I left it at 85% one night and came back (with all the apps running in the background) next morning, perhaps 10 hours later, to find it still at 85%, which was frankly amazing.

The included charger charges pretty fast, 1-1.5 hours for a full charge. If you use a different one, it will obviously be slower (unless said one also puts out ~2A). As an experiment, I stuck a microUSB compatible wireless charging film on the back of the phone and tried it with my Tylt Vu wireless charger. Much much slower than over the cable - I think my wireless chargers will be seeing much less action now.


To me, the camera with a Sony 13MP sensor was above average, on par with or better than the 5S for most things except video. During video recording, the sound was worse than the 5S and I think a bit worse than the Nexus 5. It doesn't currently do audio recording on slow motion videos. All the modes on the CM camera app help with picture taking, but I also have the Google Camera app installed as a backup. I'm not much of a phone-photo connoisseur, I use my DSLR when I want really good pictures, so you might like the camera on this device more than me or less than me. The colors seem more natural than some other flagships, but still a bit more saturated (especially with HDR) than the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. I'm sure it's not the best phone camera out there though, and the LG G3 will probably best it with OIS and laser autofocus. The camera here isn't going to blow your mind, but it'll do just fine.

I'm still split between using the default app and the CM app at this point. I'll make up my mind later.


Nothing to write home about as far as the external speakers go. They're loud, but at the highest volume, the audio quality is not exactly great for anything other than voice calls. There are dual speakers at the bottom, but not quite stereo. The HTC One M8's speakers are definitely much better for people who use their speakers all the time. The OnePlus' speakers definitely suffice for calls and they're adequate for me for the occasional song played over the speakers.

Some things to be noted:

  • The lack of wireless charging irks me. It's one of those little convenient things I love on new phones. Not a deal breaker.
  • This might be a con to you, there's no SD card slot. With 64GB of storage though, I don't see the need for one personally.
  • If you really wish to nitpick, the screen isn't a 2K resolution - the LG G3 is the only phone that has that - not really much of a con considering you can't tell the difference from a 1080p screen at this size.
  • You tend to forget the price and compare it to $700 flaghships once you've seen and used it.
  • The invite system is just plain messed up, no other way to put it. The amount of BS you have to suffer to get this phone is substantial unless you get lucky like I did. Availability is certainly the #1 issue here.

They are a brand new/start-up company, so there are some issues with customer support reported (they're not going to be as awesome as Google), some people have gotten a yellow-tint on the bottom of the screen etc. If you do have those problems and customer service doesn't respond quickly, take it to Paypal and they'll screw 1+ over for you as a last resort.

To conclude briefly, I'd say this is bloody amazing phone, even more so at this price. A few things like non-stereo external speakers (the HTC One M8) and wireless charging (Nexus 5) may be lacking. Otherwise, the OnePlus One redefines smartphone value in a very well designed package!