OnePlus One Review (Sandstone Black 64 GB)

We all know how expensive a new smartphone can be. If, like me, you’re a sucker for the latest hardware you know that buying the latest offerings from Samsung, Sony or LG can easily set you back over £400 off-contract. It’s money most people just don’t have – which is why many of us get lured into deceptively expensive two-year contracts for the promise of a ‘free’ phone.

New smartphone manufacturer Oneplus (an offshoot of Chinese brand OPPO) believes it has the answer in the form of the One – a phone with 2014 flagship specs for less than £300.

If you’re thinking it’s too good to be true, you’d be wrong. The Oneplus One is not only one of the best smartphones of the year but offers perhaps the best Android experience currently available.

First Appearances

Smartphones have been edging into phablet territory for a while now, so it’s no surprise that the first thing you will notice about the One is its size. Make no mistake this is not a small phone. At 153mm x 76mm x 9mm, the One is somewhat larger than most than other phones in its class – being both taller and a touch wider than the Galaxy S5, Xperia Z2, LG G3 and the HTC One M8. In fact, the One’s form factor puts it closer to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 - it’s a phone you will definitely feel when it’s in your pocket.

The design of the One is understated but overall fairly plain, a monolith of black plastic and glass - it’s more of a functional design than an artistic statement. That’s not to say the One is an ugly phone, but it’s probably not going to be a conversation starter either.

A chrome effect plastic runs around the edge of the phone behind the glass LCD display which is raised above it. While we would have preferred the accent to have been metal, the plastic doesn’t look cheap and it certainly lends the phone a distinctive look.

Unfortunately, we’re not a fan of the raised glass on the LCD display, which looks to be a magnet for dust and also raises some worrying questions about how well the One will survive drops or falls. While the glass used in the display is Gorilla Glass 3, it’s not something you’ll want to rely on, so we’d recommend getting a cover of some sort to protect it. But then again, that’s common sense for any smartphone.

As you’d expect, the One has the usual 3.5mm headphone jack (on the top-right edge of the phone), with the power and volume rocker buttons on the right and left sides of the phone respectively. The buttons are a thin plastic, but they are satisfyingly clicky and don’t feel at all flimsy.

The back cover of the phone, which is removable, can be replaced with a number of premium cover options which Oneplus is currently teasing on their site. At the time of writing – none of these are available to buy but we think it’s a nice idea to be able to personalise your device with a choice of premium materials, although you can expect to pay a premium price for the privilege.

Our review unit, the 64 GB model, came with the Sandstone Black cover. We’re not sure what sort of material Oneplus used here but it feels like a very fine sandpaper. Unlike a lot of plastics used in phones it doesn’t seem to attract fingerprints and it gives the phone some added grip.

All in all, Oneplus have clearly put a lot of attention to detail in the build quality of the One and it shows. While some concessions have been made for the phone’s price-point, it still has the feel of a premium device.

Unfortunately, there are two areas where the One’s build quality falls a little short.

The first is the SIM tray. Unlike other premium smartphones where the tray is a machined piece of metal, what we have on the One is a very flimsy piece of plastic. While we were able to able to insert the SIM card into the device, getting the card seated correctly was a real pig. The problem is that the tray doesn’t hold the card securely and it can easily get dislodged when trying to put it in, which raises the ugly possibility of it getting stuck in the phone.

Secondly, we can’t say we’re a huge fan of the One’s charger. For some reason, Oneplus have made the bizarre decision of shipping the phone to UK customers with a European two pin charger and a Euro/UK adapter. That’s right, there is no dedicated UK 3-Pin adapter for this phone. Quite likely this decision was made to keep the cost down, but it means UK customers are left with a charging ‘apparatus’ that looks like something from an Anne Summers catalogue. The supplied Oneplus branded microUSB charging cable could also have been a little longer – 26” will stretch to a low side table, but not much further.



These issues aside, we don’t have any complaints about the charger’s performance – our review unit charged to full from 10% power in about 90 minutes.

We should stress that neither of these things are deal-breakers for anyone looking to buy the One and are likely just teething problems for a new manufacturer, but it’s a little disappointing.

Tech Specs and Performance

The Oneplus One is powered by a Quad Core Snapdragon 801 2.5 GHz processor – backed up by 3GB of RAM. This is the same spec that features in other 2014 flagship phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G3.

With hardware like this under the hood it’s no surprise that the One is blisteringly fast. In fact, the AnTuTu benchmark test returned a score of 37,650. This is one of the highest benchmark scores we’ve ever seen, and puts it above BOTH HTC One M8 AND the Samsung Galaxy S5.



Of course benchmark scores should be taken with a pinch of salt, but there’s no doubt that the One is a very fast phone. Web browsing and App switching are almost lag-free and there is no appreciable slow-down when installing or updating Apps. Gaming performance is similarly slick – especially on 3D intensive games such as RipTide GP and Real Racing 3.

The 5.5” IPS LCD display on the One is colourful and bright and at 401ppi, pixels are all but invisible. However, it falls behind the OLED display on the Galaxy S5 or the frankly ridiculous 2560 x 1440 screen on the LG G3. Some users on the Oneplus forums have complained about a yellow tint on the One’s display, ranging from patchy yellow areas on the screen to a noticeable yellow band across the bottom of the display. Our review unit didn’t have this tint and while we did notice that the colour balance is certainly on the warm end of the scale we didn’t see any noticeable screen discolouration.

Data storage on the One is handled by 64 GB of internal memory – there’s no MicroSD expansion slot but with this much storage it’s probably a moot point.

We weren’t able to test the One on a 4G network, but we should point out that the One’s 4G LTE support is limited to Bands 3 and 7. This is fine if you’re on EE or Three but for anyone on O2, Vodafone or anyone else that uses Band 20 you’re going to be out of luck. For many, this is likely to be a deal breaker, especially if you aren’t considering changing your network. At first, this may seem like a strange oversight, but it’s consistent with Oneplus’ start-up origins. Major manufacturers like Samsung will usually produce different versions of their phones for different geographical regions. Oneplus on the other hand, has just a single model for the entire international market. It’s something that we’d expect to see the company tackle in future models, but for many it will make the One a less compelling offering.

Call quality on the phone was fine, if a little on the quiet side. On the other hand music playback was excellent, with deep-rich audio that gave good results on even an average set of headphones.

Battery life proved to be pleasant surprise, with the phone averaging about a day and half before needing to be recharged. Despite the removable back panel, the One’s 3100aMh battery isn’t removable, which is a shame but isn’t untypical. Even with fairly heavy use – browsing the internet, listening to music and watching a few YouTube videos, we still had about 40% power by the end of the day.



Photography on the One is handled by a rear-facing 13-megapixel with a dual-LED flash and a front 5-megapixel shooter. This is perfectly decent, and beats the Nexus 5 hands-down but it’s notably behind other flagship phones – including the Galaxy S5 and the Xperia Z2, which offer bigger megapixel counts and larger image sensors. That being said, images are bright, with good colour reproduction as you can see from our test shots:









One thing to notice is that when taking pictures at full 13-megapixel resolution, the aspect ratio of the image is 4:3, rather than 16:9. This means that at full resolution it can be difficult to see what is in the frame. To take images at 16:9, you need to scale the resolution back to 9.7-megapixels. You can see the difference below:





The phone’s macro setting is adequate if the subject you are shooting is of a reasonable size, but we did have some problems getting the autofocus to recognise a smaller subject, like this spider:





In terms of video recording, the One can capture video in everything from QCIF (176 x 144 pixels) all the way up to 4K. Quality was pretty crisp at the higher resolutions, even if sound quality left a little to be desired, although much of this was probably to do with wind noise during our test.

The camera interface on the One is handled by a custom app that comes as part of the Cyanogenmod OS (more on that later) and is substantially different to the stock Android camera app. The interface is quite minimalist – at the bottom of the screen you have the shooting mode buttons for video, stills and panoramic shots; while on the side you have additional controls that activate the front camera, control the flash, and access manual settings via a branching menu. There’s also a dedicated settings menu, digging into this allows you to change everything from the focus mode, the ISO settings and even the exposure and shutter speed.

Software and User Experience

One of the most interesting things about the Oneplus One is that it runs Cyanogenmod 11S. Cyanogenmod, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a customised version of Android (version 4.4.4 at the time of writing) that offers all the advantages of the stock OS but with a very deep level of user customisation.

I said at the start that the One is perhaps the best Android experience you can buy – Cyanogenmod has a lot to do with that. You can literally change anything on this phone – from the system fonts, gesture shortcuts, the lock screen, you can even turn off the phone’s capacitative menu buttons. If you’re new to Android this level of customisation may be quite intimidating, but for anyone who has used Android for a while – it’s a revelation.

Many of the improvements are very subtle – for instance, you can wake up the phone by double tapping on the screen while another double-tap turns it off. This feature alone is almost worth the price of admission. Similarly, drawing a circle on the screen opens up the camera, while drawing a left and right arrow while playing music will skip tracks. And of course, if you don’t like these features you can turn them all off.

As good as Cyanogenmod is, it’s not perfect. Many of the issues on stock android (random freezes, are present here, We noticed a few glitches on common apps, including an irritating issue with Spotify where music occasionally wouldn’t play when the earphones were connected or would play through the main speaker instead.

That being said, we noticed fewer of the issues that we have experienced with stock Android phones –such as browser freezes and random reboots. In fact, the Android experience is remarkably stable overall. What’s more, Oneplus have stated that the One will receive software updates through its partnership with Cyanogen Inc. so anyone concerned about the level of software support for the One can lay those fears to rest.

If all of this has you thinking that you might want to get the One, you’ll quickly discover that the biggest obstacle is actually buying it. Since it launched back in May, the only way to buy the One is by getting an official invite through the Oneplus Forums – either from someone who has already purchased the phone or by winning a contest on Oneplus’ Facebook page. This has been a big bone of contention for many customers who took to both the forums and social media to vent their anger about the apparent lack of progress. Fortunately, things seem to have improved in the last couple of months and there is talk of an official preorder system being brought in in October.

Summary

If you’re not put off by the limited 4G support, the Oneplus One is easily one of the most compelling smartphones of the year. With premium build quality and high-end specs that are broadly equivalent to flagship phones by established brands, the One represents amazing value for money. It may still be a niche product, and the obscure invite system continues to frustrate, but if you’re prepared to persevere the One is perhaps the best Android smartphone you can buy.

What we liked

  • Premium build quality.
  • Superfast performance.
  • Great battery life.
  • Ridiculously low price.
  • Huge range of customisation options.


What we didn't like

  • Limited 4G support.
  • Shoddy SIM tray.
  • Invite system continues to frustrate.
  • Weird charger.
  • Some glitches on common apps on Cyanogenmod.
  • Call volume could be louder.

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