A Review of the Elusive OnePlus One

I was able to do it! I was able to get my hands on one of the most elusive smartphones that exist today. It’s a phone that is boasted to make you “Never Settle” for what a smartphone could be, or should be. It’s a phone that has been popular amongst the Android tech fans for 3 months before it was even released, which was in May 2014. It’s a phone that wants to raise the bar on smartphone expectations. This phone is by far, today, the highest spec’d mobile device for its price, which is half of that of the competition. Half way around the globe from China, from a brand new company who calls themselves OnePlus, ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you the OnePlus One.
I know, that was a big build up for such a simplistic (and repetitive) name. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much how the experience with this company has gone, though. Before the release of their device they are talking about never settling, and this phone will break records. Then right before the release they state that due to manufacturing dilemmas and high demand, you can’t buy this phone from them unless you’re invited to do so. And then they start holding contests to give away a few thousand phones invitations at a time. In June, they held a contest called “The Storm of Invites“. With over 500 thousand entries, they gave away 2,500 invitations. That right there should tell you how lucky I was to win one of those 2,500 invitations. And when I did, I only had 3 days to decide whether or not I would spend my money on this phone. When I started writing, I promised myself, and my wife, I wouldn’t spend hundreds of dollars on devices. The price, however, is the only reason why I felt I could afford to do so. Despite its elusive presence, the choice of hardware, their choice of software, the build quality, and the price have made a perfect recipe for a brand new top of the line smartphone.

This phone is a looker. It comes in two different color options: Silk White and Sandstone Grey. The memory capacity is restricted to the color though, Silk White is only available in 16GB and Sandstone Grey is only available in 64GB. Not going to be much of a choice if 16GB isn’t enough space for your music and apps. The difference in price is only $50. No matter which color you choose, the front is black and all glass. An infinity pool of beauty. Taking a look around the edges of the screen you will notice that it is raised ever so slightly higher from the body of the phone itself. This edge is accentuated by a metal frame. The power button is on the right edge sitting just above the vertical center. The volume buttons are on the left side of the phone at about the same height. Across the top you will find the first of 3 microphones, this one used to help cancel background noise, and the headphone jack on the right side. Moving along to the bottom of the phone, you will find a dual set of stereo speakers, another microphone, this one for voice input, and a micro USB charging port. The stereo speakers are an art of audio magnificence. Many phones have an issue with this. Aside from the front facing speakers on the HTC One, many people find that they have to cup their hand around the edge of the speaker to project the sound to the front of the device. Not with the OnePlus One. The sound from any song or movie, including YouTube, is perfectly clear. If anything, you may actually have to turn it down a bit as to not blow out your eardrums at full volume. 
Metal? Plastic? Which do you prefer on your phones? OnePlus design team said let’s use both. The One’s frame is a metal of sorts that is definitely not shiny chrome but also not dull. Somewhere in the middle. So I choose “satin” to describe the finish. As said before, the front is all glass, but the back, oh that back, it’s something else. While I’m sure it’s relatively some kind of plastic underneath, the One’s back has a textured finish and is soft to the touch. It feels like a tightly woven material, like a 100% cotton dress shirt. It is very nice. Because it’s not metal, it doesn’t get hot when over worked. And because it’s not plastic or metal, it doesn’t slip in your grip. Big A+ from me on the design choice of the back.

Although the OnePlus One may not have the most original name in the world, it still most definitely is a one of a kind phone. To be the very first phone manufactured by this new company, it had to be a big hit in order to make an impression, and it literally is by boasting a screen size of 5.5 inches. While I feel 5.5 inches of screen is too big for this guy, most all other phone manufactures these days are moving in that direction. Samsung Galaxy Note 3, 5.7 inches; LG G3, 5.5 inches, Huawei Ascend Mate2, 6.1 inches. The great news is that it is a full HD 1080p IPS screen. It has beautiful colors and detail. The colors are very natural and not to warm or cool. But if you wanted to move the colors in either direction, there are custom options that help. More on the software later.

OnePlus went with the most popular, top of the line processor it could get its hands on at the time; the SnapDragon 801 Quad Core and an Adreno 330 GPU processor. It also includes a massive 3GB of RAM, something very few competitors can compete against. Together this adds up to super-fast with great graphics. To push all this power the One includes a non-removable 3100 mAh battery. But the non-removable part should not bother you. I don’t think you will have any problem making it through a busy day on this phone on a full charge. My tests proved that I could not drain all of its power in a single day, and I pushed it pretty hard. It handled full brightness while watching movies on Netflix and YouTube and graphic intensive games for several hours. After all that torture, the phone still had 40-45% life left.

Scooping into a few additional features that are very important before purchasing, I’d like to let you know that the OnePlus One does not support Verizon or Sprint. While it does support up to the high speeds of 4G LTE, it will only support the frequencies found on AT&T or T-Mobile. This also opens up your options for pre-paid (no contract) plans like what you can get with StraightTalk. This brings up the discussion of price. Typically, you would not be wrong to think that if you were going to buy a brand new top of the line device such as the OnePlus One it would cost you upwards of $600-$650 dollars. But this is where the OnePlus One truly shines. Unlike its high end competitors, the OnePlus One starts at $299 for a 16GB version. Most competitors would charge you an extra $50 for 32GB of storage or $100 more for 64GB of storage. OnePlus is only going to charge you an extra $50 for the 64GB version. And it’s still only $350. Big win!

Both of the cameras on the OnePlus One are packed with megapixels. The rear camera has 13MP and the front camera has 5MP. I can recommend this camera for all the important moments. The specialized camera software is very easy to learn and use.

Here it’s this easy: swipe up and down on the screen to change built in presets. Aim, shoot, picture is done.

There are dials to mess with, but they built in just enough presets to choose from that it’s a great list of choice photography enhancements, but not so many that it is overwhelming. The pic below with the two deer is zoomed all the way in at 4X’s the focal length and it’s still beautiful and full of detail.

I’ve talked about the screen. I’ve talked about the camera, the battery, the speakers, so what is left? Ah yes, the software. A little back story to begin.

In the beginning days of Android there was a simple group of developers who would build custom versions of the Android OS and bake in more options and crush more security bugs. This group is popular amongst the tech enthusiasts and we all know them collectively as Cyanogen. Fast forward about 5 years and in late 2013 this group turned themselves into a corporation. So now you have a software company with no hardware, and OnePlus, who is a new hardware company, in need of some great software. Sounds like a perfect match made in heaven, doesn’t it? As a past, present, and future user of CyanogenMod on several devices, I will tell you that it is a perfect match.

The corporation is called Cyanogen and their custom version of the Android OS is called CyanogenMod. There have been several iterations, and on the One they landed with version 11S. All the basic features of Android that you know and love are still there. I warn you, though. Once you get a taste of CyanogenMod (or any custom ROM) you may never go back to pure basic stock Android. (Much less TouchWiz on Samsung).

With this custom version of Android you will be able to, but certainly not limited to:

  • A custom theme engine: change the colors, icons, fonts, and more to one of many options they have easily organized for you in their app call “Theme Engine”. 
  • The OnePlus One has capacitive soft keys along the bottom of the screen. However, in the phone settings you can turn those off and turn on on-screen touch keys. It’s just great to have the choice on one phone.
  • You’ll have the ability to choose up to 5 different shortcuts on your lockscreen.
  • With the on-screen keys activated, you can swipe up to go to Google Now. With Cyanogen you can add 2 more shortcuts and quickly jump into an app or specific system settings.
  • Custom quick action buttons: On the top notification panel, pull down with 2 fingers to access quick settings. Stock Android is limited and set in stone. CyanogenMod allows you to choose which quick settings to show, how many, what order, and more to choose from.
  • While the screen if off, there are a few gestures you can swipe or tap on the screen. Such as double tapping will unlock your phone as opposed to reaching for the power button.
Those are only of a few of the cooler options you will find in the custom CyanogenMod 11S only available on the OnePlus One.

Final thoughts: I find that this phone is a big winner in my book. There are several “ifs” but I can safely recommend this phone to any of my friends if:

  • You can get an invite.
  • You are using a carrier other than Verizon or Sprint.
  • You want white and are OK with only 16GB of storage, but…
  • You want grey and you are OK with spending an extra $50 even if you don’t need the full 64GB storage.
The motto of OnePlus is “Never Settle”. And although you do in fact have to make a few settling decisions, you will not go wrong with the OnePlus One. Hardware and internals that are top of the line and fast. Plenty of power and speed. A beautiful screen for any reason: games, movies, pictures. A camera with superior megapixels and clarity. Speakers that will blow you away. You will never feel as if you made a single settling decision after you experience this device.
What do you think? Do you already own or ever used the OnePlus One. How did your experience differ from mine? Please let me know in the comments below.